Interview with Laura Treacy Bentley, Author of “The Silver Tattoo”

September 18, 2016
Photo: Laura Treacy Bentley

Photo: Laura Treacy Bentley

Biography:

LAURA TREACY BENTLEY is the author of THE SILVER TATTOO (2013) —a psychological thriller with a magic realist’s edge set in Ireland—and a short story prequel NIGHT TERRORS (2015). In addition, she has written a poetry collection LAKE EFFECT (2006). Laura’s work has been widely published in the United States and Ireland in literary journals such as The New York Quarterly, Art Times, Poetry Ireland Review, Connotation Press, Rosebud, Nightsun, Blink, The Stinging Fly, Kestrel, ABZ, Crannog, Now & Then, 3×10 plus, Grey Sparrow Journal, and numerous anthologies, including The Southern Poetry Anthology. She received a Fellowship Award for Literature from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and her poetry was featured on the websites of A Prairie Home Companion, Poetry Daily, and O Magazine. In 2003 Laura read her poetry with Ray Bradbury. She will be a featured author at the Ohio River Book Festival in Huntington, West Virginia, and the Dublin Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio. www.lauratreacybentley.com

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve stated on your website that poetry is your first love. Do you know why?

Laura Bentley:  I’m not sure why I was drawn to poetry, but it’s very freeing.  It’s like composing secret music that eventually might be played.  It’s all very exciting. I wrote a little in high school, but I became more serious in college. My first published poem appeared in the student literary journal Et Cetera at Marshall University. It was entitled “The Leafman.” I remember how thrilling it was to see my work in print and knowing that others might be reading it.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you distinguish between poetry and prose?

Laura Bentley: For me since I write both, I’ve pondered that question. I am captivated by prose and a great story, but poetry is deeply personal to me. I discovered that after the death of my mother, Ray Bradbury, and my sister-in-law in one month’s time that I couldn’t write poetry for a couple of years. I polished a novel instead and started taking photographs every day that I post on my Poetography Facebook page. The photos became my substitute for saving a moment like a poem. I’m just now getting back to writing poetry again. I think I have finally healed enough to go deeper and begin again.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is easy to write poems?

Laura Bentley: I think anyone can write a poem, but I never think of poems as easy or hard. I just write them, and some are written quickly, and some I revise for years. I worry that people who think poetry is easy to write are trying to demean it somehow and think that anyone can do it.  It takes time to become a good poet. A classical guitarist practices for years to master his craft. It’s the same with a poet or a dancer or an artist.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you indulge in prose poetry?

Laura Bentley: I don’t. I am too addicted to the crafted line and the shaping of a poem to make it more powerful. I appreciate a beautifully written paragraph, but I’m not a fan of prose poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read growing up as a child?

Laura Bentley: Fairy tales, books about horses, the Boxcar Children, and comic books. I loved and still love the picture book Little Black Sambo. I realize that it is totally politically incorrect now, but I adored the brave little boy. The entire story was dangerous, exciting, magical, and had a happy ending when all the tigers melted into butter that the family later ate on pancakes! I so identified with the little boy! It was such a well-made story with magical realism thrown in to boot.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you come from a family of writers?

Laura Bentley: My mother wrote a little poetry and my paternal great grandmother did as well. When I read my great grandmother’s work, I feel her feelings even though she died long before I was born. History provides us with the facts; poetry tells you how someone felt.

Geosi Gyasi: What makes a good poet, if I may ask?

Laura Bentley: That’s such a hard question. For me a good poet always makes me feel something when I read their work. I love Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, and when I get cold chills after reading or hearing a poem read, I know that it is a work of art.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “The Silver Tattoo”?

Laura Bentley: Because I’m a poet first, I’m intoxicated and driven by image. I took a photograph of a busker on Grafton Street in Dublin, Ireland, back in 2000, and it served as the magical inspiration for a short story that later became my novel The Silver Tattoo.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your decision to set “The Silver Tattoo” in Ireland?

Laura Bentley: I have been lucky to travel to Ireland four times now. Each time I kept a journal and took many photographs, not knowing that I would ever write a novel. The landscape and the legends stayed with me, especially in Dublin and the Cliffs of Moher. I walked to the Cliffs almost every day when I was writer in residence for a month in Co. Clare. The stunning, dramatic, and dangerous cliffs were indelible.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it matter so much to you where you set a story?

Laura Bentley: It does. I have to have a particular setting in mind, so I can walk around it in my mind.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you distinguish between “The Silver Tattoo” and “Night Terrors”?

Laura Bentley: The Silver Tattoo is a literary psychological thriller about a young woman who deserts her psychic husband. She leaves the US to study at Trinity College in Dublin  where she begins to be stalked and shadowed by the legend of the warrior hero Cuchulainn.  Night Terrors is a short story prequel about Conor as a small boy when his psychic abilities first were revealed.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about “Lake Effect”?

Laura Bentley: It’s my first poetry collection. The title reflects the poetry within that creates its own weather: beautiful, dramatic, frightening, light, and dark.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you tell me about your experience at the Dublin Writing Workshop?

Laura Bentley: It was my very first trip to Ireland, and I got to study with noted Irish writers like Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, and Theo Dorgan. It changed my life.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any childhood memories about your birthplace, Hagerstown, Maryland?

Laura Bentley: I do. Feeding the swans in the park, playing hide n’ seek, playing with my baby brother, selling fudge at a county fair, being hospitalized with asthma for a couple of weeks, marching in a Halloween parade, and being locked in a cedar chest. I lived in Hagerstown until I was seven.

END.


Interview with American Writer, Kij Johnson

September 16, 2016
Photo: Kij Johnson

Photo: Kij Johnson

Brief Biography:

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards and author of several novels and a short-story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she is also the associate director for Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you become a full time writer?

Kij Johnson: I am still not a full-time writer! Over the years I have been in situations where I did not have a day job for months or even years, and I could concentrate on writing and other things; but I found I didn’t write more (or better) when I was “full-time” than when I had a day job.

Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to be a full time writer?

Kij Johnson: It’s very difficult to make a living as a writer of fiction. There are people who grow rich at it, but their situation is a perfect synchronization of concept, craft, discipline, timing, and circumstance. As a writer you can control some of these but not all of them, and you will be bitterly unhappy if you can’t see this. A lot of writers of fiction make some money (even quite decent amounts of money) with their books, and then support their fiction careers in other ways: with day jobs as teachers or professors, as novel doctors or editors, as writers in other forms, such as technical writing or ghost writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn enough as a full time writer?

Kij Johnson: I do not. Just to spell out the numbers, the most I ever made in a year was something like $22,000, and the years before and after I didn’t make it over $10,000. I did the math a few years ago, and then again two years ago (to reflect the changes in the field), and realized that it was impossible for me to write fast enough to support myself that way. I write carefully and slowly; it sometimes takes me a full day to write a few hundred words. I have no interest in writing shoddy fiction.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific genre of writing you write best in?

Kij Johnson: I love writing fiction that explores the nature of words and sentences, form, and narrative. It’s really interesting to me that the mind can take abstract symbols on a flat surface and convert them to immersive mental environments. How does that happen? How little does a reader need to understand a narrative? How do we understand an unfamiliar (or made-up) word in context? Science fiction and fantasy are really just the same thing: how does a writer make me see a dragon or a black hole, when there’s no way I can fall back on familiarity?

Geosi Gyasi: Were you an avid reader as a child?

Kij Johnson: Always. My mom says that I became an avid reader because she did NOT read to me as a child. She was a librarian and brought armloads of books home every week, but she didn’t help us with them.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?

Kij Johnson: Usually an image or a voice I want to explore.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me a brief summary of your novelette, “Fox Magic”?

Kij Johnson: A young vixen in ancient Japan has been living with her family under the storehouse of a nobleman who has been recently sent away from the capital in disgrace. She falls in love with him, and uses all her resources to trick him into seeing her as a human ans win him for herself.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won a number of prizes for your writing including Nebula and Hugo prizes. Which of the prizes do you feel most proud of?

Kij Johnson: I was very proud of the Nebula for “Spar,” which was a very disturbing short story I was leery about publishing in the first place. I’m also thrilled about the awards for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which was a long, ambitious story for me.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your time as managing editor at Tor Books?

Kij Johnson: Managing editor was a production position at Tor, so I didn’t edit books (though I sometimes copy edited and proofread them): I was responsible for the stages between a manuscript being accepted by an actual editor and seeing the printed book out the door. The job was never boring, and was the start of a fascinating career in comic books and games.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it always possible for a writer to double up as an editor?

Kij Johnson: For some people it is; I wouldn’t want to do it!

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your books do you feel most proud of?

Kij Johnson: I always love the book I’ve written most recently, which means at the moment that I love THE RIVER BANK most, the short novel that’s coming out next year from Small Beer Press. If you had asked me six months ago or two years ago, I would have given you another answer. I can still go back and reread THE FOX WOMAN with real pleasure.

Geosi Gyasi: How long, roughly, does it take you to complete a book?

Kij Johnson: It varies a lot: seven years, fourteen months, twelve years, two months, one year, six months….

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a special place you write?

Kij Johnson: I write in coffee shops, but for the last three years, I have also hosted a morning Write Group: people come to my house and write for something between forty-five minutes and three hours, depending on our schedule. I go through a lot of coffee this way!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you still with the University of Kansas English Department?

Kij Johnson: I am currently assistant professor in the English Department, and Associate Director for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new stories?

Kij Johnson: I’m trying to finish something right now! A very dark novelette called “Wastoures.”

END.


PART TWO: Interview with Jamaican-Canadian Poet, Speaker, & Entrepreneur, Dwayne Morgan

September 12, 2016
Photo: Dwayne Morgan

Photo: Dwayne Morgan

About the Interview:

I interviewed Dwayne Morgan in July 31st, 2016. It was our first interview. He visited Ghana a few weeks after, attending the Chale Wote Festival. I had the privilege to host him in our library. In this second part of our interview, I sought to ask him about his experience(s) while in Ghana, about his new book, and the key topics he often tackles in his poetry. You can find all about our first interview here:  https://geosireads.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/interview-with-jamaican-canadian-poet-speaker-entrepreneur-dwayne-morgan/

Geosi Gyasi: I will begin from where we left off from our first interview. In just a paragraph, could you describe your experience while in Ghana?

Dwayne Morgan: I had a great time in Ghana. It felt a lot more comfortable than I had expected. Everything looked and felt like Jamaica to me. The people that I met were great, and I can’t wait to return to learn and experience more.

Geosi Gyasi: Moving on, what motivated you to write, “No Apologies”?

Dwayne Morgan: My book, No Apologies, is a collection of poems, primarily, but not exclusively about race, and the realities faced by people of colour living in North America. With everything that is happening in the world, I felt it timely to create a collection that gave some insight in to what life is really like for those of us in the diaspora.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on the following lines from your poem, “I Cried”?
“The place where higher education/Doesn’t guarantee you a job/And sports and entertainment/Seem like you’re only options/If your skin is of a darker hue.”

Dwayne Morgan: There is a false belief that is perpetuated in North America, and that is that all people are created equally. Intellectually, we know this, however, in reality, for people of colour, graduating from university doesn’t guarantee you a job, because you still have to overcome social barriers like racism, geography, and socio-economic status. For many in North America, who are of colour, the feeling is that the only way to get out of your living situation is through music or hip hop, so we see mass amounts of Black people in these areas. We also see this in Jamaica, where music or sports seem to be the only way out, and this scenario repeats itself all over the globe for people of colour who are seeking upward mobility.

Geosi Gyasi: In another poem, “Get In the Game”, the speaker asks an important question from the beginning lines. I put the same question to you: “Why are the black poets so aggressive/And always talking about race?”

Dwayne Morgan: I can only speak about the poets in North America who experience race on a daily basis. When you live your life with your voice being silenced, there is a passion that floods out of you, when you have the opportunity to speak. When your life sees injustice on a daily basis, simply because of the colour of your skin, race becomes a
necessary topic of discussion. If it is not spoken about, then the likelihood of things changing is nil.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any distinguishing feature between a spoken word artist and a musician?

Dwayne Morgan: Well, a musician plays an instrument that is external to themselves, while a spoken word artist uses their voice as their instrument. Both understand rhythm, pacing, and the relationship between melody and silence.

Geosi Gyasi: In April 2016 at a Ted event in Oshawa, Ontario, you talked about how proud you are to be black. How does it feel like to be black in Canada?

Dwayne Morgan: It’s very hard to describe what it feels like to be Black in Canada, because I don’t have anything else to compare it to. My parents, growing up in Jamaica, didn’t really pay attention to the colour of their skin, until they arrived in Canada, and it was pointed out to them, so their orientation to race is very different from mine, as one born in Canada, which is still plagued with inequalities simply based on attributes that one had no control over. I have learned to be proud of who I am, which is a feat, when it is reinforced that people who look like me have contributed little to this, and world societies. I choose to look at the history of Black people, see all of the things that we have done, and understand myself to be part of that legacy, as such, I have work to do to ensure that I help to move things forward.

Geosi Gyasi: Having published a number of books, do you think “Long Overdue” is your most popular book by far?

Dwayne Morgan: Based on sales, Long Overdue and Everyday Excellence are at the top of the list. Long Overdue was my first full collection of poetry. I think that it’s still popular today, because people like to go to the beginning to see where things started. From there, they can explore other collections, and see how the work has changed over the years.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers/artists have had profound influence on your career as a spoken-word artist?

Dwayne Morgan: My work has been inspired by the likes of Miss Lou and Mutabaruka out of Jamaica. People like Bob Marley, R. Kelly, and Prince, have also been very influential in terms of my work, and the way that I approach my career.

Geosi Gyasi: Quite a number of your work touches on social issues like family violence, racism and drug use. Why is that so?

Dwayne Morgan: Being able to write and have people read your work is a privilege, so I have a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that aren’t often spoken about. It is very easy to pretend as though these things don’t exist. When I write about them, I give them life, and allow people to see and experience them through my lens.

Geosi Gyasi: In 2008, you hosted the photography exhibit, “The Sum of Her Parts”. Tell me more about this?

Dwayne Morgan: For some time, The Sum of Her Parts has been a crowd favourite. The poem looks at women and body image through the male lens, acknowledging the roles we play in helping to shape how women see themselves. I am always looking for new ways to express my art, so I decided to take pictures that went with the poem. These pictures later became an exhibit, which now lives online: https://youtu.be/vsXrJeLmIdE

Geosi Gyasi: You recently organized the 1st Annual Heart of a Woman Showcase. I am interested to know what it was all about?

Dwayne Morgan: The heArt of A Woman is a showcase that I conceptualized and produced to create more opportunity for female artists. The performing arts tend to be very male dominated, and I know the value in creating spaces where women can share openly, without feeling as though they have to be competing with men. The show featured spoken word, reggae, hip hop, folk, soul, and was a beautiful night to behold.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care to end the interview?

Dwayne Morgan: I suppose the interview ends when the last question is answered. If there are more questions, then there’ll be a part three. For now, thank you for your interest in me and my work.

END.


Interview with Writer & Fly-fishing Guide, Chris Dombrowski

September 8, 2016
Photo: Chris Dombrowski

Photo: Chris Dombrowski

Brief Biography:

Chris Dombrowski is the author of Body of Water, forthcoming nonfiction from Milkweed Editions, and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently Earth Again, published in 2013 by Wayne State University Press and named runner-up for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year in Poetry, in addition to two chapbooks. His first book, By Cold Water, was a Poetry Foundation Bestseller in 2009. Dombrowski’s poems have appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including PoetryNew Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse, and his prose has been published in Orion, OutsideThe Sun, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and many others. Other awards include the Associated Writing Programs Intro Award, two Best American Notable Essay citations, a National Magazine Award Nomination, and a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. He has taught at the University of Montana, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and currently serves as the Founding Director of the Beargrass Writing Retreat based in Missoula, where he lives with his family and has worked for nearly two decades as a fishing guide.

Geosi Gyasi: How young were you when you started writing?

Chris Dombrowski: I was probably 6 when I started writing songs, mostly about scary characters at the apartment complex bus-stop, but occasionally about the moon. When I reached high school, a seminal teacher named Jim Colando ignited my interest in poetry, often via songwriters.

Geosi Gyasi: Which specific genre of writing did you start out as a writer?

Chris Dombrowski: In high school, there were a lot of early “poetic efforts,” but I’m not sure there were many poems–they were shaped like poems, at least!  Perhaps if I dug deep enough, I could find a single redeeming line. I also recall an early essay in college, a narrative about watching a huge cottonwood snap and fall across the river on a windy day. Among other comments, Professor Mezeske wrote the following, which I cherished: “A very nice, moody piece. ++”

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what’s the difference between a writer and poet?

Chris Dombrowski: Here are a few lines by a poet I adore, Alicia Ostriker, from the close of a recent poem, “The Liberal Arts”:
“In the novel they say omit nothing, harvest the entire goddamn world
In memoir they say the self is silently weeping, give it a tissue
In poetry they say the arrow may be blown off course by storm and returned
by miracle”

Perhaps a poet is anyone who writes, in any genre, and allows “the arrow” to be “blown off course” and awaits its return.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you tell me something about your non-fiction book, ‘Body of Water’?

Chris Dombrowski: Yes! BODY OF WATER is forthcoming in October from Milkweed Editions. It’s a work of long-form nonfiction that centers around the elemental life of David Pinder Sr., the first Bahamian bonefish guide, who knew the ways of the largely inedible sportfish-to be decades before it became the industry upon which the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism bases its faith (to the tune of $150 million per year!).  Several years ago, I had the rare fortune of meeting “Senior,” as the folks near the East End of Grand Bahama call him, and our friendship inspired the composition of the book, which also focalizes my own life as a guide, and water’s very lasting ambit and impression.

Here’s a link to the publisher’s description: http://milkweed.org/shop/product/416/body-of-water/

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers of the past do you most admire?

Chris Dombrowski: Keats, Basho, Issa, Dickinson, Teresa of Avila. Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Levis. I refuse to call Jim Harrison a writer of the past because he just left us, but I’ve found great sustenance there.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it all about your life as a fly-fishing guide?

Chris Dombrowski: For nearly two decades I’ve earned at least a portion of my income rowing the rivers of western Montana.  The occupation, which has occasionally flirted with being a “vocation,” has afforded me the opportunity to work seasonally, setting aside large chunks of time for writing; kept me in wild places for much of each year; allowed me to spend much of my work-time with good, feral friends, some of which are rivers.

Geosi Gyasi: What time of the day do you write?

Chris Dombrowski: I prefer the morning, starting early before house bustles with its often pleasant distractions; I like working after lunch, after a walk with the dog and an espresso or a cup of strong green tea; I even like mornings after late-night dinner parties, where perhaps I had too much to drink, for editing with an unforgiving eye.
More and more I find value in practicing like a fish in a stream, trying to identify peak-activity periods, the way a trout would during a hatch of mayflies, and attempting to block out all else during said time.

Geosi Gyasi: By what medium do you write?

Chris Dombrowski: For a long time I preferred a roller-ball ink pen on legal pad, but the further I delve long-form non-fiction, the more I find myself typing straight into the computer. When editing, I like a clean printed draft under a good light, and a blue pen with which to attack!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think about prizes and awards when you write?

Chris Dombrowski: No, but I’ll admit to thinking about money when I’m at work on freelance pieces.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you read as much as you write?

Chris Dombrowski: When I’m reading, I binge; when I’m writing I read only to fuel what I’m working on, and usually just in bits because I’m very easily influenced by prose styles and aspects of mind.  I find I can read poetry, though, most anytime.

Geosi Gyasi: How do ideas for poems come to you?

Chris Dombrowski: “Poems are made not of ideas,” the French poet told the inquiring French painter, “but of words.”  Most often poems arrive as sound or image. If the latter, the challenge for me comes in giving audible life to the image; if the former, the task lies in finding an imagistic residence for this sound. Sometimes, too, to complicate things, the sound is an inner one–Robert Lowell talks about this in the Paris Review interview–that arrives wanting a shape or form. The groan, the cry, the exultant yelp. Ad infinitum.

END. 


Interview with Cat Dixon, Author of ”Eva”

September 2, 2016
Photo: Cat Dixon

Photo: Cat Dixon

Brief Biography:

Cat Dixon is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014, 2016) and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She is the managing editor of The Backwaters Press, a nonprofit press in Omaha. She teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Coe Review, Eclectica, and Mid-American Review

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get to work with the Backwaters Press?

Cat Dixon: I met Greg Kosmicki, the founder and now editor emeritus of Backwaters Press, in 2005.  I had just started a low-residency MFA program and was looking for an opportunity in Omaha to volunteer with a press. I was lucky that Greg took me on as an intern–I’m very grateful to Greg for mentoring me and allowing me to help with the press.

Geosi Gyasi: What led you to become a poet?

Cat Dixon: I began writing short stories very young–I do not remember the exact age. My fifth grade teacher encouraged me and through the years I kept writing. Eventually I ended up at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where I met Art Homer, a poetry professor who is now retired.   Because of his support and belief in me, I ended up studying poetry in Nebraska’s MFA program.  I was drawn to poetry because I like playing with language–syntax, sounds and repetition. My favorite poets are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D Snodgrass, Alvin Greenberg and John Berryman.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your writing schedule like?

Cat Dixon: I keep a notebook with me at all times and I write whenever I have a spare moment or when an image captures my attention. Before I had children, I thought I had to write late at night after drinking a few glasses of wine. Now I find that early morning works best or sitting at the car repair shop with a yellow legal pad in my lap.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage your time as a teacher and writer?

Cat Dixon:  Most of my free time is spent with my children. Writing time happens in the in-between moments and when they’re asleep. I find that I write more now than I ever did before I was a mother. I cherish my time with my children and the quiet times I actually have to write. I find that teaching creative writing actually generates ideas and images I would never have found without student interactions.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?

Cat Dixon:  I tend to write about unlikable and unsympathetic characters/personas. Exploring the shadow, the part of ourselves we hide from the public, interests me, and I know that these type of voices also intrigue others. Depending on the collection, I feel that my work would reach mothers, divorcees, and survivors of past trauma. I’m submitting a manuscript right now called The Book of Levinson, which is about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in US history. When I was working on these poems, I was writing for Bob, his family, his friends and to any reader to raise awareness of Bob’s situation. He has not received the attention and support that he should have. This new collection is very different from other poems I have written.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about Eva?

Cat Dixon: Eva, my newest collection, explores in persona poems the life and death of Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time companion and eventual wife. As I mentioned, I am fascinated with the unlikable, the detestable and most people would count her up there if they were making a list. Because of her relationship with one of the most hated men in history, she has been labeled and hated. Looking at her background (two-parent home, Catholic school, normal childhood), it is hard to comprehend why she would stay with Hitler. She was depressed and attempted suicide twice. The reader has to decide if he or she will have empathy for Eva, but I wanted to give her a voice because very few of her letters or diary entries survived the war. W.D. Snodgrass wrote two collections in the voices of those in Hitler’s inner circle. Inspired by his work, I wanted to explore the female in that group who had no decision-making power when it came to government and was tucked away and hidden from public view.

Geosi Gyasi: How was the writing process for Eva?

Cat Dixon: I have spent years researching the Third Reich, and Eva, her family and World War II. I had a few poems written in her voice when I left my Masters program, but was uncertain what to do with them. I was reluctant to share them at first–I did not even tell others that these particular poems were in her voice. Eventually, after I published a few and had feedback from friends and readers, the stream of poems flowed and for a few months I wrote every day–very early in the morning and late into the night. I did not face any kind of writer’s block.  All of the poems were read by my close friend Clif Mason who gave me priceless feedback. My writing group also read many of the pieces. The chapbook Our End Has Brought the Spring came first. I sent the manuscript to one place–Finishing Line Press–and it was accepted. Yet even when the chapbook on its way to the printer, I had more poems coming–all the time–so I kept writing.  The finished result is the collection, Eva. 

Geosi Gyasi: What has been the reception of Eva?

Cat Dixon: Positive for the most part. I was nervous at first. I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting Nazism or anything that Hitler did. I do not. The atrocities and pain the entire world had inflicted on it cannot be overstated. Yet, like Snodgrass, I believe we need to acknowledge that people who committed these heinous acts and decreed the laws were in fact human. If we say that the Nazis of the 1940s were monsters, (thus picturing scary-looking folks easy to spot) we will not be able to identify them in our own societies of today. The men who worked at the concentration camps often had wives and children. “Monsters” have lovers. “Monsters” walk among us. It isn’t until a “monster” comes to power that we uncover what is really hiding beneath. Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil is a book I return to again and again.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about poetry readings?

Cat Dixon: I like organizing readings. I like attending them. As for reading at them, I do often, but I much more prefer to be the promoter rather than the promoted.

Geosi Gyasi: What is too heavy to carry in “Too Heavy to Carry”?

Cat Dixon: Regret. After going through a divorce with two small children, I felt lost and depressed. I had been cheated on and lied to and was holding onto anger and sadness–sadness that my home was broken. The book explores the journey through dark times and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Cat Dixon: I write with pen and paper. Then, usually once or twice a month, I type up my scribbles. The challenge is that my handwriting is horrible.

Geosi Gyasi: As an editor, do you edit your own work?

Cat Dixon: I do, but I always want a second pair of eyes on a poem before I send it out. I have an excellent writing group that meets once a month and from time to time we will workshop via email. I would be lost without them!

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

Cat Dixon:  Yes, in the past, but now I keep many projects going at one time and that seems to help. Right now I have a completed manuscript that I am sending out while working on a collection of poems about working in a restaurant, a collection of prayer poems, a collection of poems about working as a church secretary, and a collection that explores relationships of all different kinds. If I am stuck on one poem, I bounce to another poem or an entirely different group of poems.

Geosi Gyasi: What books are currently on your reading table?

Cat Dixon: Stephen King’s Lisey Story. I have been reading King since junior high.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes.  Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.  

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind sharing with me your most recent poem, whether published or unpulished?

Cat Dixon: The manuscript I am sending out that I mentioned above is a collection of poems about Bob Levinson, the longest held hostage in American history. I spent a couple of years learning about Bob’s case and contacted his family and received feedback from his daughter, Stephanie, and emailed with other family members.  Some of the poems in the manuscript are written in his voice, some are written in mine. This poem “The Haunted House–October 2014” is one where I am writing in my voice reflecting on Bob’s plight.  The poem is up here: http://www.lindenavelit.com/

Here’s the poem:

Cat Dixon
The Haunted House – October 2014

I squeeze my husband’s hand as I follow his black coat around dark corners. Cobwebs stick to my hair, middle-schoolers push my back, hurry, hurry, the floor slants up and we stumble, catch ourselves against plastic axes, skeletons, giant wire spiders. Hallways lead to rooms—one, with a grown woman in pigtails cradling a decapitated baby doll, dozens of doll heads hang from the ceiling. Another room, a butcher in a blood-spattered apron cuts the air with a cleaver, rubber intestines ooze on the counter. Down the hall, carnival music squeals as a demented clown chases us to the stairs that lead to another scene. The man in an orange jump suit chained to the wall, his white hair and beard covered in dirt, moans. I thought of you. An actor dressed in black approaches the prisoner, screams in his face, wielding a chainsaw. The white beard hangs his head in mock despair. I had to look away. I thought of you and wanted out. We had paid to enter this place.

To learn more about Bob Levinson, please visit: http://www. helpboblevinson.com/

END.


Interview with Wendy Barker, Winner of John Ciardi Prize

August 28, 2016
Photo: Wendy Barker

Photo: Wendy Barker

Brief Biography:

Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, winner of the John Ciardi Prize, is One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, 2015). Her fourth chapbook of poems is From the Moon, Earth is Blue (Wings Press, 2015). An anthology of poems about the 1960s, Far Out: Poems of the ’60s, co-edited with Dave Parsons, was released by Wings Press in 2016. Among her other books are Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of co-translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your book, One Blackbird at a Time?

Wendy Barker: I’ve taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio since 1982. During the fall of 2007, I was assigned an unusually rigorous course load, with three heavy-prep literature classes, including two dealing with 19th Century British and American novels. One of these courses I’d never taught, and another I hadn’t taught in many years, so I didn’t have a spare moment for poems of my own—it was all I could do to keep up with the reading for these courses. Though I enjoyed reading the novels and preparing for class (and I always love meeting with the students), I was starving to get back to my own work. In December, as the semester finally came to an end, the poem that became “On Teaching Too Many Victorian Novels in Too Short a Space of Time During Which I Become” just burst out. And from then on, between 2008 and 2012, the poems came burbling forth. Of course, they all took enormous amounts of revision, even after the manuscript won the Ciardi Prize. It was as though my experiences of teaching for all those years insisted on being voiced. Sometimes a poem would come from a recent incident in the classroom (as with “Waking Over Call It Sleep“) and sometimes a poem would deal with an experience from earlier years (as with “Why I Dread Teaching The Sun Also Rises“).

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised when One Blackbird at a Time was chosen for The John Ciardi Prize?

Wendy Barker: Flabbergasted! I was in the Dallas airport with my husband Steve Kellman on our return from a week in Belize, during which I hadn’t once checked my messages. But at DFW, I finally checked my Blackberry (yes, in 2014 I hadn’t yet changed over to an iPhone) and couldn’t believe what I read. I showed the message from Ben Furnish, Managing Editor of BkMk Press, to Steve, to make sure it was real. Needless to say, I was elated. And honored. And thrilled!

Geosi Gyasi: At what time of the day do you write?

Wendy Barker: Whenever I can. When things are working, poems are always wandering around in my head, phrases, images, and I try, whenever I can, to write notes. Sometimes a word or line will come when I’m driving—so I’ll wait till I’m stopped at a red light to jot it down on the notepad I always keep handy. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie an idea will come, and even then, I’ll try to write down at least a word or two so I don’t lose the notion. So I guess I’d say that, unless what Emily Dickinson scathingly called “Real Life” is too demanding at the moment, I’m always writing. However, I do try to carve out good blocks of time when I can concentrate at the computer, try to save as much time during the week as I can to focus on developing and fine-tuning a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?

Wendy Barker: From the time I learned to write letters, I was always jotting things down. Kept diaries as a girl. Wrote what I thought I’d develop into short stories in my teens and twenties. Always writing. Kept little bits of notes in the drawer beside my bed. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, in my late twenties, early thirties, that I realized those little bits were germs of poems. And that I wasn’t wanting to write fiction, but poems.Took a couple of poems to the brilliant Sandra M. Gilbert at U.C. Davis (where I was working on my Ph.D.), and she was most encouraging. I began taking her workshops. She brought visiting writers to her classes: Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, and Alicia Ostriker. Later, both Ruth and Alicia became nourishing friends, and Sandra has continued to be an enormous help. Ruth, of course, is now gone, and I miss her. But Alicia is there, and I cherish her incredible example and generous, big-sisterly support.

Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was a lucky kid in that one of the few interests my parents shared was poetry. From the time I was a baby, they read A.A. Milne’s poems out loud to me (from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six). Also Babar, and others. By the time I was three, I was reading on my own. Loved Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and a series of novels my English granny sent by the British novelist Grace James, centering around a little boy and girl growing up on a farm in England. And later, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the books of those series.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about From the Moon, Earth is Blue?

Wendy Barker: Somewhere between 2003 and 2007 I was writing poems about colors—where they came from before we created them chemically, what we associate with them, what metaphoric significance they’ve had in various cultures. And I was also writing ekphrastic poems, poems meditating on a work of art. Most of these poems had seen publication in journals. Around 2014 I began thinking that they might work together as a chapbook, along with a few other miscellaneous short poems I’d published in little magazines. So—I organized them into a chapbook manuscript, and was delighted that Bryce Milligan, the indefatiguable, wonderful publisher of Wings Press, was happy to publish the collection. He did a gorgeous job, too—hand-stitching the chapbook with brilliant blue thread.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your work habits or routine?

Wendy Barker: I work on poems whenever I can. I’m unlike many other writers in that I don’t have a set time I sit down at the computer. I try to cross chores and miscellaneous professional demands off the list so I can clear the decks to work on poems. I might be in the middle of folding towels and a line will come—and I’ll leave the towels and go to my study and write. The towels can wait. But, as I mentioned earlier, I do try to make sure that I have several good long blocks of time during the week to concentrate on developing and revising poems. However, at times, ensuring those luxurious blocks of time can be tricky.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts on a single poem?

Wendy Barker: Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. And hundreds. I’m currently struggling with major revisions for a poem I started in 2011. I still can’t make it work. I keep drafts in file folders—sometimes there will be two or three folders one or two inches thick with drafts. The poems in One Blackbird at a Time went through numerous revisions even after the book was chosen. In an earlier book of mine, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), I talk about the revision process in detail, and even show drafts of poems with comments.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Wendy Barker: Of course. And although I shudder to realize how many trees have been cut down to provide me with paper, I print almost every draft so I can easily compare them. Sometimes I’ll realize that a change I’ve made doesn’t work, so I’ll go back to an earlier draft.

I also jot down notes on little pieces of paper, in my journal, anywhere there is paper handy when an idea or phrase or image pops up. I’ll place the notes in file folders as I begin to see that certain poems are “building”—and then, when I can, I can begin to arrange the notes from a particular folder into a draft for poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What makes a good poem?

Wendy Barker: How to answer this question! We all have different literary tastes, for one thing. A poem that moves me to tears may leave my close friend cold. And brilliant poems, of course, can be utterly different in their manner of brilliance. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are both among our country’s greatest of poets, but their writing seems to come from different worlds. Wang Wei, Pablo Neruda! Roethe, Plath, Rich—so different and yet each of these artists can change our lives.

As T.S. Eliot said, “If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps something important to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless.”

But I guess one thing all great poems share is some sort of play with language, with delicious sounds, some sort of music, a particular rhythm. And imagery.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is not going well?

Wendy Barker: I reread and reread, let a poem sit a while. Go back to it. Over and over. Send a poem out to one friend. Wait for her comments and suggestions. Then tinker. Send the revised poem out to another friend. Wait for his comments and suggestions. Tinker, revise again. And on and on. When several of my fiercest editor/ friends (including my writerly husband) “sign off” on a poem, I’ll let it go, consider it done. Only then will I send it out to journals, hoping an editor will like it. But then I may revise a poem again even after it’s appeared in a journal. The excellent copy editor at BkMk Press, Michelle Boisseau, had dozens of suggestions for the poems in One Blackbird at a Time; it took me two months to address those before sending a final, final manscript (gulp) back to the generous, efficient, patient Managing Editor of BkMk Press, Ben Furnish.

Geosi Gyasi: Does your family read your work?

Wendy Barker: Though none of my family members other than my husband reads my work before it’s published, both my son and my sisters are extremely supportive of my poetry. They understand that my writing is my life line and are often there for me when I need to talk through problems or stages in the development of a project. My husband Steve is an excellent reader for work in progress, though I don’t show him drafts until several of my great friends with whom I regularly exchange poems have weighed in.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me something about where you come from and how was it like growing up as a child?

Wendy Barker: I was born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1942, but my parents moved our family to Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1940’s. My mother was from England, and on the rare occasions when her parents and a cousin visited us, they seemed like exotic creatures from another planet. I was fascinated by the way they talked and the way my mother’s accent changed while they were with us—suddenly she was speaking with a British accent. (Actually, I think she never lost the British pattern of intonations, and I think, since I learned to talk from her, my speech is still somewhat characterized by that pattern.)

We moved frequently within Arizona—from Phoenix to Tucson and then later, back to Phoenix, living in a succession of cramped tract-houses in various working class neighborhoods. I attended thirteen different schools in twelve years, partly because my mother always felt there’d be a better house somewhere else, and partly because my father was moved around for his job, and partly because, though technically I don’t quality as a baby boomer, I was part of a huge population growth in Arizona in the late forties and fifties, so new schools were constantly being built—one year we’d have double sessions at an old school, then the next year we’d have to go to the newly built school, and so on and so forth.

Geosi Gyasi: Give me a brief synopsis of Between Frames.

Wendy Barker: The poems in this chapbook were written between 1998 and around 2005. In 1998, I’d divorced my husband of thirty-six years, and joined my life with my long-time colleague, the critic and biographer Steven G. Kellman. So these poems include meditations on the pain of divorce and the joy of beginning a new, healthy, nourishing relationship. Since Steve during those years was active as a film critic (now he concentrates more on reviewing books and plays, as well on his own book-length projects), we frequently attended screenings of movies, and several of the poems in the collection focus on the experience of viewing films. The final poem in the chapbook, “Wedding Crashers,” combines a reaction to the movie of that name with my joy at our own wedding.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any specific goal as a writer?

Wendy Barker: At the risk of sounding obnoxiously pretentious, I want to write poems that touch people deeply. I’d like my poems to touch poets whose work I admire and to touch people who previously may not have been poetry aficionados. I’m always overjoyed when someone comes up to me after a poetry reading and says, “I loved your poems, and I never liked poetry before!” I want to write poems that move readers, listeners, so they feel them, to quote that genius of a poet W. B. Yeats, in “the deep heart’s core.”

END.


Interview with Bunkong Tuon, Author of “Gruel”

August 23, 2016
Photo: Bunkong Tuon

Photo Credit: Nicole Calandra

Brief Biography:

Bunkong Tuon is a writer, critic, and professor at Union College.  He has published scholarly articles in Comparative Literature Studies, MELUS, Mosaic, Children’s Literature Quarterly, among others.  His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly, Ray’s Road Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, The Más Tequila Review, Nerve Cowboy, Misfit, among others. His first full-length collection, Gruel, was published by NYQ Books in 2015.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me how you started out as a writer?

Bunkong Tuon:  In the early 90s I found myself one morning in a public library in Long Beach, California, and I picked up a book by Charles Bukowski. I was moved by what I read; then I picked up another book by the author.  Once I exhausted Bukowski, I turned to other authors.  Writing, for me, began with reading and, then, a desire to make sense of my experiences and tell my own stories.

Geosi Gyasi: Sorry to bring back memories. Tell me about the time you lived in refugee camps in Thailand?

Bunkong Tuon:  I was too young to understand anything.  All I remember was the freedom of roaming around the refugee camps, while my uncles and aunts were busy worrying about our next meal, finding work, and getting sponsorship to the U.S. or any place that would take us.  It was fun for me, but most likely hell for the adults.  One evening, I remember, I was returning from playing outside when I found my grandmother weeping while tending to the bruises on my uncle’s body.  He was caught by the guards for leaving camp to go fishing at night, so that he could supplement the meager food ration for our family.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write about your personal experiences?

Bunkong Tuon:  Yes, my writing is based on personal experiences.  But, I would argue that even the most fantastic, absurd, surreal work is, in one way or another, autobiographical.  For example, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is quite personal, psychologically honest, and very autobiographical.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you differentiate teaching from writing?  

Bunkong Tuon: Teaching is working through an idea with other people.  Writing is working through an idea by myself.

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you write best? 

Bunkong Tuon: I write best at home, usually early in the morning or late in evening (i.e. when my daughter sleeps), with a good cup of coffee and a silence so strong you can hear the grass breathing.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the main underlying purpose for why you wrote, “Bukowski Would Never Do This”?

Bunkong Tuon:  The message is to write from the heart.  No matter what happens, write about things that matter to you and that keep you awake at night.  Forget the critics, other writers, and readers.  Write what moves you and nothing else.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, ‘Gruel”?

Bunkong Tuon: I completed an autobiography called “Under the Tamarind Tree” one summer in graduate school.  It got rejected by a university press, but I did get a section of it called “Cambodia: Memory and Desire” published in the Massachusetts Review.  After that experience, I turned to writing a series of poems based on that autobiography.   “Gruel” is simply an autobiography in free verse.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the response of “Gruel” when it first came out?

Bunkong Tuon:  The reviews have been favorable so far, but nothing that will put me on the map of American poetic landscape.  What’s important to me is that I finally got to say what I had wanted to say for such a long time.  There was this big sigh of relief running through me after publishing that book.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete, “Gruel”?

Bunkong Tuon:  “Gruel” is about my life, so it took me a lifetime to have the materials for that book.  The writing took me about a decade.

Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the most challenging themes you’ve ever written?

Bunkong Tuon:  Any work that explores parent-child relationship is difficult for me to write, teach, and read in public.  For example, poems about my parents and grandmother, as well as poems about the suffering of the Khmer people, are very painful to me.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the term abroad studies in which you bring your US students to study in Viet Nam?

Bunkong Tuon:  In fall 2015, I led a group of students from Union College and Hobart and William Smith College to Viet Nam.  We went everywhere—from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hmong villages in the north.   It was such a wonderful learning experience for all of us.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “Gruel”?

“All my life I told myself I never knew

suffering under the regime, only love.

This is still true.”

Bunkong Tuon:  For me, it’s all about a specific love—the love of a grandmother who shielded her grandson from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge and how that love continues to shine through to the present and future.  I wouldn’t be here—alive and doing well with my life, being a father, husband, and professor—without that grandmotherly love.

Geosi Gyasi: What have you been up to in recent times? Are there any future projects in the pipeline?

Bunkong Tuon:  I’m working on a collection of poems based on my experiences leading a term abroad in Viet Nam.  It has three narrative strands: (1) visiting my father’s village for the first time; (2) taking care of my students and missing my daughter and transferring some of that paternal feelings to students; (3) exploring the relationship between the tourist and the local people.

END.


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