Interview with Lebanese Poet, Zeina Hashem Beck

March 30, 2015
Photo: Zeina Hashem Beck

Photo: Zeina Hashem Beck

Brief Biography:

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet with a BA and an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut. Her first poetry collection, titled To Live in Autumn (The Backwaters Press, 2014) won the 2013 Backwaters Prize, judged by esteemed poet Lola Haskins, was a runner up for the Julie Suk Award, and has been included on Split This Rock’s list of recommended poetry books for 2014. She’s been nominated for two Pushcart prizes, and her poems have been published in various literary magazines, among which are Ploughshares, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, The Common, Mizna, The Midwest Quarterly, Mslexia, Sukoon, and Magma. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Dubai, where she regularly performs her poetry and hosts the open mic show PUNCH. Her website is http://www.zeinahashembeck.com, and you can follow her on twitter (@zeinabeck) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/zeinahashembeck).

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from your first poetry collection, “To Live in Autumn”. Where and how did you get the idea from?

Zeina Hashem Beck: “To Live in Autumn” is a collection of poems inspired by Beirut and Lebanon. I left Beirut in 2006 and felt nostalgic for it, so I started writing poems about the city, as a way of summoning it back to me in writing. I didn’t realize, at the beginning, that this would turn into a whole book about Beirut, but it eventually did. The poems went beyond mere nostalgia of course, and into a portrayal of my Beirut—its streets, clubs, buildings, taxis, people, and the love/hate relationship one could have with it.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you struggle coming up with the title?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I didn’t worry much about the title at first. My working title was, for years, “Re-Membering Beirut,” because the book deals with memories of a city that I had moved away from, a city that was probably changing in my absence. Years after working on the manuscript, some of my Lebanese friends said they were tired of seeing the word “Beirut” in book titles, that it was becoming a bit clichéd, and I felt they were right. So I came up with another title, “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn,” which is also the title of one of the poems in the book. This particular poem portrays the city as some sort of a limbo space between war and peace, tolerance and intolerance, secularism and sectarianism, etc. The manuscript I had submitted to the Backwaters Prize was in fact titled “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn,” and poet Lola Haskins, who judged the contest, advised me to shorten it to “To Live in Autumn.”

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “To Live in Autumn”?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Around seven years.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the most difficult part of writing, “To Live in Autumn”?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Writing “To Live in Autumn” was an enjoyable process. I loved working on the book so much that after I launched it, I felt as if I had the baby blues. One challenging aspect of the writing was probably figuring out the manuscript’s organization. The order of the poems and the different sections in a book matter a great deal to me; I had to have some kind of structure early on, and I kept changing it as I went. Other challenges were finding variation in content, perspective, and tone (since the book is heavily focused on one city), and making sure that I was writing about a city that I loved and missed without being too sentimental.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you ever anticipate that “To Live in Autumn” would win the 2013 Backwaters Prize?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Not at all. I think the best thing a writer could do is actually do the work and keep submitting, and try NOT to anticipate anything (although I’m preaching a little here, because I often get restless, and I keep checking my submissions). I found out that, as long as you are doing the work, good things tend to happen when you least expect them. I received an email from Greg Kosmicki, my publisher, around midnight, telling me I had won. I remember I was sitting on the balcony, and I had to make my husband re-read the email for me to make sure it was real. Then I started screaming and literally jumping up and down. I’m never “cool” about these things. J

Geosi Gyasi: Are you comfortable with the label, “Lebanese Poet”?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I don’t see it as a label. It is part of who I am.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything we ought to know about Lebanon?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I don’t like telling; I like showing. That’s why I wrote a whole book about Beirut. Read the book! J

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Sure! But at least, tell us something to make a reader want to pick your book?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Alright, some shameless self-advertising then: the book has won the Backwaters Prize and was runner-up for the Julie Suk Award. It was included on Split This Rock’s list of recommended poetry books for 2014. The poems are carefully crafted, yet also authentic, accessible, and unpretentious; you don’t have to be a poetry expert in order to understand and enjoy them. You also don’t have to have visited Lebanon in order to identify.

In terms of subject matter, “To Live in Autumn” is inspired by the streets, bars, friendships, neighbors, strangers, taxi drivers, cafés, dances, explosions, languages, meetings, and separations that I’ve known. It’s inspired by a city (and a country) that has, and continues to attract/repel/soothe/scare me. If you know Beirut, I hope you will find part of your Beirut in there. If you don’t know Beirut, I hope this book will take you to mine, and that you will carry it with you for some time because

We carry cities, instead of angels,

on our shoulders, we trail them

behind us like old hurts.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever thought about why you write?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes, I’ve thought about it because I’ve been asked this question many times. And my answer is always that writing is stronger than me. I simply can’t not write. It’s an obsession, a calling, and I think it has to do with a strong urge to tell stories, a love for language, and a fascination with the power of words.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of published work?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes. It was the poem “To Hamra,” which is the second poem in the book. It was also the poem that made me begin to realize that I wanted to write a book about Beirut.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you perform your poems?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes, every time I get the chance. Poetry should be read out loud, and I’ve always enjoyed performance; I believe it breathes more life into the poem, both for the audience and the writer.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founder of PUNCH, a Dubai-based poetry and open mic collective. Could you spend sometime talking about what you do at PUNCH?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Because performing poetry is important for me, I started PUNCH almost two years ago in order to create a platform where people could simply sign up and read their work. I try to host it every six weeks to two months (depending on how busy and energetic I’m feeling), and it’s usually a mixture of regular poets and newcomers, of experienced and new performers. I believe it’s important for writers at all stages of their careers to share their work with others.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?

Zeina Hashem Beck: To answer the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” To keep believing in your writing, to keep writing, to keep submitting and having faith that you will eventually get published.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you please break down your poem, “After the Explosions”?

Zeina Hashem Beck: “After the Explosions” is a tribute to my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and to my cousin. In August 2013, my cousin was shot dead on the street, in Tripoli. Two days later, there were two massive explosions that targeted two mosques in the same city. I was on vacation in Lebanon at the time, and the poem deals with both of these tragedies.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Ya’aburnee”?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I wrote the poem in July 2014, after the shelling of Shujaiya in Gaza. The images from that bombing kept haunting me all day, even when I was playing with my little girls. The poem also refers to ISIS forcing Christian families out of Mosul. I remember holding all this terrible knowledge with me all day, and then my daughter telling me “ya’aburnee,” which is an endearing term that Arab parents use. It literally translates as “may you bury me,” and implies the parents’ wish of dying before their kids. When my daughter repeated that term that she often hears from me, I felt terrified. I wrote on Rattle, which is where this poem was published, that this was a poem written for the parents who had to bury their children, and for those fighting against the burial of identity.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new projects?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I’m in the process of working on my second collection.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?

Zeina Hashem Beck: “We Who Have Decided To Live in Autumn” (from the book) took years of revision. “After the Explosions” was difficult to write, because it deals with both a communal and a personal loss. I’ve recently written poems about my youngest daughter’s pre-term birth and my oldest daughter’s severe pneumonia when she was two, and these were tough to write as well. But I think I have yet to write my most difficult poems, and they will probably go places that I have been avoiding so far.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Zeina Hashem Beck: For me, it’s usually in the morning, when my kids are at school and my energy levels are highest.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any secret ritual you do before you write?

Zeina Hashem Beck: It’s not a secret, really, and I think many writers do this. I read. I read to get as much beautiful writing as possible under my skin before I begin writing. Coffee is also essential for me (I’m trying, and so far failing, to quit smoking). And more recently, I’ve been listening to Arabic music. And sometimes, I dance.

END.


Interview with Christopher McCurry, Author of “Splayed”

March 29, 2015
Photo credit: Jonathan Goodin

Photo credit: Jonathan Goodin

Brief Biography:

Christopher McCurry teaches high school English, is a Junior Editor at Accents Publishing, and a Field Office Advocate for poets. His poems have appeared in Limestone, the Los Angeles Review and Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Rattle and others. He is a Kentucky Teacher Fellow at the Bread Loaf School of English and the author of Splayed, a book of love poems.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Cooking Dinner, Naming a Child”?

Christopher McCurry: My girlfriend and I found out that we would be having a child a few weeks before I left to study abroad in Ecuador. We’d only been together for about a year at that time, and after deciding together that we were ready to raise a child, we cooked dinner, spaghetti, and discussed names. We started throwing stuff out there to see if anything sounded good. Names from our childhood, movies, favorite books. Girls’ names. Boys’ names. At the same time, as the noodles cooked, we threw angel hair pasta against the walls to gage whether or not it was finished cooking.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your poem, “Lady Luck” all about?

Christopher McCurry: Perception, I think. What’s lucky for me may not be lucky for you. It’s a short poem with a kind of shock value. I think I had just lost in poker when I wrote it.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer/poet?

Christopher McCurry: Probably about 5, going on 6, years ago now. A part of me wants to say that I’m still in the becoming, but that might sound disingenuous to someone reading this or something I’ve published. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunities I’ve had, like this one, and I honestly do feel like I constantly have to prove to myself that I’m a writer. Not necessarily by writing anything good or worthwhile, but by writing or trying to write. On that front I fail daily.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you want to be addressed: Writer or Poet?

Christopher McCurry: I’ll respond happily to either! I like to write all sorts of stuff, even though I’ve been most successful with poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a writer/poet?

Christopher McCurry: Finding time and protecting the space. With a toddler and a full time job teaching high school, there are weeks and weeks when no writing happens. In those moments, it’s about keeping the space in my head and heart open enough to still observe and feel the world around me.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you look up to as a writer/poet?

Christopher McCurry: Steinbeck, Márquez, McCarthy, and Morrison were my first literary loves, and I’ll spend a life time learning lessons from rereading their books, but the more I participate in the community of writers in Kentucky, the more I learn about writing as a trade, about literary citizenship, about cultivating a positive and healthy life through words. Poets and writers who love what they are doing and love the people around them, whether it be writing and publishing a Zine, blogging, editing journals, are my current inspiration.

The poet who has had the most influence on my life and writing is the Bulgarian-American poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. I first met her when she read some poems from her first book, The Air Around the Butterfly, at the University of Kentucky campus while I was in undergrad studying to become a teacher. I loved her poems. She’s been my mentor since I started writing poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?

Christopher McCurry: At night, after tucking my daughter in, I usually try to get some writing done. Mostly I write prose though, it seems to be more forgiving to a tired mind. Poems come when they come. I’ve written some ideas down in the car, on my hand while giving a lecture. I’ll just ask my students to wait one moment and they usually do. I write best when surrounded by other creative people, listening and reading and thinking.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best poem you’ve ever written?

Christopher McCurry: The ones I am most proud of are the ones that will probably never see publication. They are poems that say exactly what I want to say to someone, in the best way I know how to say it. I’m thinking of poems I share with my loved ones, written specifically for them.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

Christopher McCurry: I remember the first time I was praised for writing. In the sixth grade Mrs. Sherrow had us keep a simile/metaphor journal. We needed 25 similes or metaphors in our notebooks for each semester. The day they were due I was scrambling to finish and outside of the classroom window I saw a line of teachers’ cars that were all parked nose first in the spaces except for one. I wrote a simile about the cars sleeping in the bed like children. I can’t remember how it went, exactly, but she liked it so much she shared it with the class and took it to share with other teachers. In the seventh grade my English teachers had an award ceremony for writing, and I won the poetry contest with a short poem about dew on the grass. They gave the winning writers a medal. I’ve got mine tucked away in a shoebox in my closet still.

Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?

Christopher McCurry: Love, sex, masculinity, failure, growing older, my daughter, marriage. I like to engage with humor, but humor is hard.

Geosi Gyasi: You teach high school English and intern at Accents Publishing. Could you tell us anything about the publishing industry?

Christopher McCurry: I’ve been with Accents for a couple of years now. We are a small outfit, seven of us working on chapbooks and full-length books of poetry. I can tell you that independent publishers love what they do and love the books they publish. It’s a very intimate process, often leading to future collaborations between editor and writer.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first piece of work published?

Christopher McCurry: I like this story because it is also the first interaction I had with the woman who would become the mother of my daughter and eventually my wife.

The University of Kentucky had an undergraduate literary journal publishing poetry and fiction. I was in a fiction workshop, and so I sent in a story that I had written for the class. A couple of weeks later my submission was returned with an acceptance contingent on a couple of “light”edits. This email came from the short story editor (my future wife), and the light edits removed over a thousand words and a large scene in the middle of the story. After some discussion back and forth about it through email, I ended up seeing it her way, and the journal accepted the edited piece. Several months later I ended up working on the journal and meeting my future wife who was still there editing short stories mercilessly. I’ve since learned she is rarely wrong about good writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you often get rejections from publishers?

Christopher McCurry: I think my acceptance/rejection ration is somewhere around 1/75, maybe higher. If a poem isn’t sticking out to the editors at several places, I’ll either work on it and send it again or retire it. I don’t linger too much on the submission process, it can bog me down. The main goal is to get back to the writing as quickly as possible.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any ritual you do before you sit down to write?

Christopher McCurry: I buy the same kind of notebook. It fits in my pocket, but has enough bulk that I won’t misplace it too often. I try to have a clean desk and a clean house, but that’s not possible. I find that rituals slow me down, and become an excuse not to write, if I let them.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write love poems?

Christopher McCurry: My first chapbook of poems, Splayed, is a book of love poems. They aren’t always romantic but there’s love in every poem. But really, is there any other type of poem!

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best response you’ve ever received from a fan of your work?

Christopher McCurry: People are so amazing. A friend of mine who writes prose wrote a long email to me about how much he enjoyed Splayed and that meant a great deal to me. The other day at an open-mic a local poet approached me with my book, and inside of it he had written a bunch of his own poems alongside mine. He said when he got stuck he would steal a line or look at the poem for inspiration. Just knowing that someone read my poems and enjoyed them is enough to make my day.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the relevance of poetry?

Christopher McCurry: Oh shoot. I don’t know. Some days it seems unwieldy and unnatural to push a thought through a narrow funnel of sound and rhythm, then organize it on a page. But then, inevitably, I read a line that strikes a chord so deep inside of me that I know the relevance of poetry is in the emotional coalescing of living and sharing this life of consciousness.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your hopes as a writer for the future?

Christopher McCurry: To inspire others to read and write their own poetry and stories. To not have my daughter be embarrassed by me. A lofty and futile goal, I know.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?

Christopher McCurry: Yeah, but they make me nervous. When I’m finished reading my back is always cramped up and it takes me a while to catch my breath. I envy the poets who are also exceptional performers.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?

Christopher McCurry: The revising. I have a hard time getting into revision of an older work. The longer I spend away from it, the harder it is to get back to it. Generating new material is just so much more fun and refreshing.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?

Christopher McCurry: I look for the clearest and most interesting path into the emotion or idea I want to convey with the poem. I think a good poem is easy to fall in to and satisfying to climb out of.

END.


Interview with Joel F. Johnson, Author of “A Map of What Matters”

March 28, 2015
Photo Credit: Pierre Chiha

Photo Credit: Pierre Chiha

Brief Biography:

Joel F. Johnson grew up in Georgia and lives in Concord, Massachusetts, where he is a self-employed businessman.  His poems have been published in Rattle, Blackbird, Salamander, Grey Sparrow Journal and other journals.  Tupelo Press included one of his poems in its anthology, Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke.  His first book of poems, A Map of What Matters, was published by Antrim House.  Kirkus Reviews selected A Map of What Matters as one of the best books of 2014 in the Indie category.  Video versions of his poems are available on his website, joelfjohnson.com.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?

Joel F. Johnson: I feel like I was born wanting to write, but it took me 50 years to get up the courage to do it on a regular basis. In 2004, I began writing poetry by writing sonnets. I figured even if it was bad, I could still tell myself I was writing poetry as long as I followed the rules: 14 lines with an alternating rhyme.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “Jesus and the Snowman”?

Joel F. Johnson: I was walking home one night around Christmas-time when I saw a plastic snowman. It occurred to me to write about an illuminated snowman in the middle of nowhere. I chose west Texas, and that choice led me to the dramatic events which form the second half of the poem: the story of the man who finds the snowman, what brings him there and what happens to him. For me, this poem illustrates the benefit of online journals. It was published in 2010, but it is still available on the Blackbird website. A friend of mine has had one of her poems carved in granite. The rest of us will have to rely on the Internet to keep our verse eternal.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any reason why you chose the title “The Hurricane of ‘38”?

Joel F. Johnson: Forget what I just said about being eternal. “The Hurricane of ‘38” was published on the Internet, but now it seems to have disappeared. I wanted to write a poem about “pillows and cradles,” which is a term a naturalist may use for the mounds and holes left by fallen trees. In 1938, a very destructive hurricane moved through New England, blowing down trees and, I’m told, blowing the chimney off the house where I live. In the poem, the storm is remembered by the ghosts of those it drowned.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?

Joel F. Johnson: I enjoy writing about adultery, murder, cutting the heads off snakes, dying at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, burying Shakespeare with his plays and deciding to bite the apple when Eve offers it to me. My poetic life is much more exciting than my real one. It’s impossible to write without revealing something of yourself, but I avoid autobiographical poems. For me, it’s easier and more fun to write about what I imagine than to write about my own experiences.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a writer/poet?

Joel F. Johnson: Deciding what to write about next. When you think about all the experiences life offers, it seems absurd that anyone would ever run out of ideas, but I do. I look at a blank page, and I can’t think of a thing to say.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

Joel F. Johnson: My book, Where Inches Seem Miles, received a generous review from Kirkus Reviews, which made me very proud. The reviewer said that my greatest influence is James Dickey. I confess to being from the American south, as Dickey was, but I haven’t read a lot of his poetry. When I started writing, I was hoping to sound like a combination of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. In retrospect, that feels a bit ambitious.

Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?

Joel F. Johnson: I start the day by pouring a cup of coffee and writing at the kitchen table. I’m sure it must irritate my dog, because she has to wait for me to finish before she can have her breakfast.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best poem you’ve ever written?

Joel F. Johnson: My best work consists of dramatic monologues. It liberates me to be able to speak in the voice of someone other than myself. When you’re speaking through the voice of a character, you can take it to extremes. For nearly every truth I know, I can think of an opposing argument. An imagined speaker doesn’t have those inhibitions. He or she can rant, and a full-throated rant can be a lot of fun to write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

Joel F. Johnson: My first sonnet includes phrases like “something vast but lost” and “the heart’s last home.” As writing goes, it is completely awful, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?

Joel F. Johnson: Anyone who claims to live a life of no regrets will never make it as a poet. The month of April tortures Eliot and Maud Gonne torments Yeats because, as poets, Eliot and Yeats are awash with regret. I don’t think regret and guilt are the same thing. Guilty or not, it’s difficult to watch all that happens in life without experiencing some form of regret. That feeling of loss and longing for what might have been is pretty fertile ground for a poet. There is also a lot of irony in my poems, which just reflects the way I see the world.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first piece of work published?

Joel F. Johnson: One journal accepted a poem then decided to hold it for a year before publishing it. Another sent an acceptance by email which was lost in my spam filter. Another accepted a poem then forgot to include it in the published journal. Getting work published is not a glamorous process. I got published by sending out poems. I don’t waste my time sending them to The New Yorker, but I do look for journals that will make me proud if they accept a poem. The most supportive editor I’ve found is Timothy Green at Rattle. He invites the poets he publishes to give readings, and he features the poems online as well as in the printed journal.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you often get rejections from publishers?

Joel F. Johnson: What I hear from poets much better than myself is that everyone gets lots of rejections. I don’t mind getting rejections as much as I mind how long it takes to get them. You send a poem out and by the time you get an answer, you’ve forgotten about it. Being ignored for months and then rejected is not a great formula for a happy relationship.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any ritual you do before you sit down to write?

Joel F. Johnson: I prefer to begin by writing long-hand then editing on a computer. It has to be a pencil, never a pen. A quiet room is essential. It’s good to have a dog nearby as long as she’s sleeping and not hungry.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write love poems?

Joel F. Johnson: I’ve written love poems and lust poems, but they tend to be 20% personal and 80% imagined. I’ve written one 100% personal love poem. That was for my wife, and it has never been published.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best response you’ve ever received from a fan of your work?

Joel F. Johnson: Being asked for an interview is not so shabby. Kirkus Reviews selected my book as one of the best of 2014. Susan Glassmeyer included one of my poems in her “little pocket poetry” selection as one of her poems of the day. I’m proud of these accomplishments, but the best response is when a reader mentions something to me about a line or an image from a poem. It’s intoxicating to hear that someone has actually responded something you’ve written.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the relevance of poetry?

Joel F. Johnson: Last summer, I was asked to write one poem for a wedding and another for a funeral. A lot of people don’t read poetry, but when there is a milestone event, such as a wedding or a funeral, they feel a need for elevated language. Poets are like secular ministers. Whether successful or not, poets are trying to find a little meaning in our daily lives.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?

Joel F. Johnson: I enjoy doing poetry readings, and I also enjoy hearing others read my poems. A fearless friend joined me at a poetry reading and read one of my poems. I will always be grateful to her for that.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?

Joel F. Johnson: Without a doubt, the most boring part is sending poems out to journals. It’s pure secretarial work, and it’s not challenging secretarial work at that.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?

Joel F. Johnson: A poem begins for me with an image (an illuminated snowman in a desolate place) or with a phrase (“pillows and cradles”). Some of the best poems are the ones you begin with no idea of where they will take you. Sometimes, you end up with a poem that doesn’t even include the original image. Speaking of beginnings, I’m a believer in poems with strong opening lines. I’m not a John Donne scholar, but I think of him as a master of first lines. When he begins a poem by calling the sun “a busy old fool” or by inviting the reader to “mark but this flea,” he’s using that first line to grab our attention.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you end a poem?

Joel F. Johnson: Ending the poem is often the hardest part. I’ll be chugging along writing it and then start feeling anxiety about where it’s taking me. The question of “so what?” starts looming larger and larger. I tend to want to end with a crash of lightning, but sometimes a quieter ending is better, a little light rain instead of a major storm. Some of the old poems with drum-pounding finishes sound pretty dated. I don’t think a modern poet could conclude a poem the way Kipling finished “Gunga Din.”

END.


Interview with Writer & Photographer, James Proffitt

March 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Madelyn Mesnard

Photo Credit: Madelyn Mesnard

Brief Biography:

James Proffitt is a 45-year-old freelance writer living in Marblehead, Ohio.  After working as a reporter for a group of Gannett newspapers for six years, he now writes freelance fishing, hunting, conservation and Lake Erie-related pieces. He is also a photographer and is currently working on a book about the Marblehead Lighthouse for The History Press.  In the distant past, he was editor of the small press rag, Great Midwestern Quarterly.  His poems, fiction and photos have appeared in North American Review, Red Rock Review, Blueline, Notre Dame Review, Chautauqua, Tampa Review, New Letters and elsewhere.

Geosi Gyasi: “For the past seven years I have reported news and created a photo collection while living in a little trailer…” Could you explain this statement?

James Proffitt: As a reporter for a group of a dozen or so small Gannett newspapers in Ohio, I have been active in the news and photo front, mostly on stories and places along the shores of Lake Erie.  While reporting news, I have also been constantly on the prowl for interesting and unusual photos.  Most of my subjects are inanimate, and involve either the natural or the decaying man-made.  I have been fortunate enough to sell some images at the retail level here and there, and also to have a local school district order some larger canvases for new constructed buildings.  I have placed two small groups in New Letters and Chariton Review.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “On Being a Carpet Installer”?

James Proffitt: Well, now that caused a row with my wife, whose family were in the business, and of course, I was also.  Mostly, just the experience of literally having people look down at you.  It gets old, and it plays out as you could imagine it might.  There’s nothing wrong with carpet installers, mind you, though sometimes the company can leave a little bit to be desired.  Especially with the early morning joints en route to job sites.  I will have to say, one of my favorite sayings though, which I did not use in the poem, was: “A man on a galloping horse would never notice.” This was often uttered when carpet was cut a little short and either you placed furniture on top of it or you sprayed glue onto the floor, then took a razor knife and shredded some carpet “fuzz” onto the glue.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?

James Proffitt: I began writing in my early teens, probably in seventh grade.  And while the output has surged and ebbed, depending on jobs and other factors, it has never stopped.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a writer?

James Proffitt: Probably reconciling my work with those around me.  The problem with writing, with respect to non-writers, is that for some reason, they often feel the writing is a commentary on my life or theirs, or that it is somehow relevant to them.  In my experience, when non-writers read your work or your notes, they invariably become irritated, defensive, jealous or suspicious.  It has always been difficult to convey to others that just because it’s written, doesn’t mean it’s true, or real, or relevant to them.  In the past, prying eyes have always been met with turmoil.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

James Proffitt: In poetry, it began with a copy of “31 New American Poets,” (Hill & Wang, 1969) and went from there. The names Plath, Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove and Andrew Hudgins, among others, have gotten my reading attention.  Of course, the old-school classics, Eliot, Whitman, For more than two decades I have been perusing the poems of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Science Monitor and other publications, both large and small alike.  During any given year, I subscribe to about ten journals.

Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?

James Proffitt: There is no single place that I necessarily consider my writing place.  Revision, of course, most often happens at a small desk at my home.  But the initial writing for poems or short stories almost always takes place out somewhere.  Places where I have often written things include while fishing or hunting or hiking, at bars, while driving or after waking up in the middle of the night.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best poem you’ve ever written?

James Proffitt: I have had my favorites over the years, though they they tend to fade with the advent of a next  favorite.  Currently, “June Pastoral” is my favorite.  The 17-line poem features berries, rain other quaint shit.  Perhaps the reason it remains my top pick is that Briar Cliff Review paired it with artwork and created a handsome poster for promotional purposes.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

James Proffitt: My very first piece was a story I wrote in first grade, for no particular reason.  I illustrated it and gave it to my teacher and I think I must have been pretty proud of it.  My mother even saved it for years, and in fact, she may still have it in a box somewhere.  My first serious attempt at verse I remember well, but would definitely rather not talk about it.  It was a start, though.

Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?

James Proffitt: I have found that stark reality works best for me, whether of a natural nature or delving into human relationships and activities. In my experience, I rarely do too well with success, happiness and the like.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first piece of work published?

James Proffitt: My first piece poem published outside of school (high school) came when Mary Groneman, an instructor at the Cincinnati Art Academy, accepted a poem titled “Market Research.”  I was working for a market research firm at the time, and when my manager got wind of it, was excited and wanted to print it in the company newsletter.  Of course, after reading the poem, which did not rhyme and was not exactly a cheerful piece, tempered the manager’s desire to share it with others company-wide.  I guess that means it was a good poem.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any ritual you do before you sit down to write?

James Proffitt: No.  It just happens wherever, whenever.  For me, a ritual would mean that I have the ability to sit down and know what’s coming, or that I necessarily have the power to conjure words from thin air at a certain time or a certain place.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write love poems?

James Proffitt: Yes, though they are never the sweet dotings or the intense ramblings that often come to mind when thinking of love poems. And by the time I write them, the objects of my affection have long since parted.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best response you’ve ever received from a fan of your work?

James Proffitt:  Over the years, I’ve received many responses, in many forms.  While emails and notes are nice, and appreciated, probably the most memorable interactions with an audience have come in personal words, that is, after a reading.  A firm, lingering two-handed shake, a brief conversation amid the din of a crowded room and the knowledge that one person, at least, was deeply moved and made it known.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the relevance of poetry?

James Proffitt: Today, it is as relevant to the same group of people as it always has been, over the centuries. Unfortunately, the group is a small one and I fear it will always be a small one.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?

James Proffitt: It has been, over the years, a rare treat.  I have participated in a few informal slams, and won two, including one with a small cash prize.  I traveled to NYC twice for launch readings and recordings for Rattappallax, and will be traveling to Los Angeles this February for a Rattle reading.  I have never been one to take advantage of open mics, though I have attended my fair share.  In high school, I gave my first “reading,” having won a small scholarship for a poem I wrote.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?

James Proffitt:  For me, the most boring part is revision.  With poems, it’s not so bad because the sheer volume of words you’re working with is so much lower.  It simply seems to drone on for months, or years, lingering

Geosi Gyasi:  Do you want readers to like what you do?

James Proffitt: Of course, though personal satisfaction is probably the most important goal.  But by the same token, the more others appreciate a work, the more satisfying it becomes.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you an avid reader?

James Proffitt: Yes.  Although my life is hectic, and making a living eats up so much of my time, one of the most productive uses of time for me, as a writer, is reading.  Whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry, magazine articles or news, reading always leads to writing.

END.


Interview with Multiple-Award-Winning Michigan Poet, Jack Ridl

March 26, 2015
Photo Credit: Mark Hillringhouse

Photo Credit: Mark Hillringhouse

Biography:

Jack Ridl’s latest collection is Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013). It was named one of the year’s two best poetry collections by Foreword Reviews/The American Library Association. His collection Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press) was co-recipient of The Society of Midland Authors best book of poetry award for 2006. His collection Losing Season (CavanKerry Press) follows a small town through a long winter and a long season with its losing high school basketball team. The collection was named the best sports book of the year for 2009 by The Institute for International Sport and The Boston Globe named it one of the five best books about sports. Jack has been featured on public radio (“It’s Only a Game with Bill Littlefield,” “The Story with Dick Gordon,” and Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”) Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins selected his Against Elegies for The Center for Book Arts Chapbook Award. He and Peter Schakel are co-authors of Approaching Poetry and Approaching Literature, and editors of 250 Poems, all from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. With Bill Olsen, he edited Poetry in Michigan in Poetry (New Issues Press). Jack’s poetry has been nominated for 18 Pushcart Prizes. He has yet to win. He has done readings in many venues including being invited to read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. He was one of twelve people in the arts from around the U.S. invited to the Fetzer Institute for their first conference on compassion and forgiveness. In retirement he conducts a range of poetry writing workshops. For information about them and other information about Jack, go to his website at http://www.ridl.com. Jack taught at Hope College for 37 years. The students named him their Outstanding Professor, and in 1996 The Carnegie (CASE) Foundation named him Michigan Professor of the Year. Nine of his students are included in the recent anthology Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25. More than 85 of Jack’s students are now published authors.

Geosi Gyasi: Can we begin this way: the cover design of your book, “In Practicing to Walk Like a Heron” features artwork by your daughter, Meridith Ridl. My question is, is there any major difference between an artist and a writer?

Jack Ridl: The only major difference that I’m aware of is that my daughter and I use different media and different created results. Our vision, the sensibility we bring to what we do are pretty much shared, as is what we believe to be the importance of creating for everyone.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you become a writer?

Jack Ridl:  I like your saying “become” because I didn’t set out to be a writer and I sure couldn’t simply go to school, learn about poetry, and declare myself a poet.

It’s been a process. In fact, after college, I apprenticed myself to the poet Paul Zimmer. He said that he would read my drafts, critique them, and added that he would tell me when I had written a poem. 2 1/2 years later he said, “That’s a poem.” Even then I, of course, could not call myself a poet. It’s always a becoming. One must become able each time to be able to serve the next appearance of a possible poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of diction do you often use in your poetry?

Jack Ridl: I have a very small vocabulary. My diction is pretty much confined to particulars, good ole Anglo-Saxon diction and images. If I use conceptual language, it is usually withing the context of a particular or an event or a person or a place.

Geosi Gyasi: Does the place where your poems are set matter to you?

Jack Ridl: Yes. I always hope that the reader feels at home within the context of the poem. I usually signal something about place and/or context in the title or early in the poem. I try to keep the poem on the ground and/or in the affect of the speaker.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve been named as one of the 100 most influential sports educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. What kind of sport do you love most?

Jack Ridl: My father was the basketball coach at Westminster College and then at the University of Pittsburgh. I grew up loving the game and still do. I have only a couple teams, college teams, that I pull for. I simply love watching most any game. I also love baseball. I was a shortstop from Little League. During the season, I watch most any game although I do follow the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m learning about hockey, am dazzled by the skaters, and I actually like to watch golf. I know a lot about it, and watching it is also kind of meditative.

Geosi Gyasi: Did your love for sports influence your book, “Losing Season”?

Jack Ridl:  Not so much a love of sports, but a knowledge and understanding of the world of sports, especially basketball. In the book, there is no poem about a game. The book explores the life around the game and those involved with the game as well as asking why the U.S. is a sports-centered culture, why so many people’s emotions are tied to sports at any level.

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised when your book, “Broken Symmetry” was selected by the Society of Midland Authors as the best book of poetry for 2006?

Jack Ridl: Yes, very surprised. And of course, thrilled, delighted. It helped me believe that I was okay at doing this art.

Geosi Gyasi: Your books, “Broken Symmetry” and “In Practicing to Walk Like a Heron” were both published by Wayne State University Press. What sort of relationship do you have with Wayne State University Press?

Jack Ridl: A deep, lasting, wonderful relationship. My editor, Annie Martin, “parents” my poems. She cares and her insights are penetrating in their intelligence. Also everyone there is both professional and personal, a rare combination, a rare ability. I love those people.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: In 1996, The Carnegie Foundation named you as “Michigan Professor of the Year”. Why do you think you were named for this award?

Jack Ridl: I don’t know how to answer that. I suppose the judges were taken with the letters written in my behalf.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it about your style of teaching that would make your students select you as the “Favorite Professor” in 2003?

Jack Ridl: My guess is that they appreciate that I don’t teach a class as a whole, don’t teach “how to write poetry” as a given thing that applies in the same way to everyone. I always try to guide each student to her/his own vision and make sure each student has learned the art itself so that each student can bring his/her vision to fruition in a poem. I learned from my father the coach that each player plays differently even though the rudiments of the game are the same for everyone. Maybe that’s why the selected me. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t/don’t believe in grades. Or maybe I’m just so damn nice.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you sit down to write?

Jack Ridl: Nothing

Geosi Gyasi: Did you write “Hands” out of a personal experience?

Jack Ridl: Yes. I wanted to celebrate my grandfather. However, one can’t just sit down and write about the “whole person.” So I decided to concentrate on one physical part of him that would, I hoped, bring out the “essence” of who he was.

Geosi Gyasi: Permit me to put you to test: which of your books is your favorite?

Jack Ridl: Our daughter when she was seven ask us if we “could have a rule for the whole family.” When we asked what that would be, she answered, “Never use the word ‘favorite.'” We have kept that promise ever since.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me the inspiration behind your poem, “After Spending the Morning Baking Bread”?

Jack Ridl: Like a lot, most?, of my poems, it was elicited by noticing our cat and realizing that there are reasons to wish one were a cat. I wanted to celebrate Hattie not the way Christopher Smart did his cat Jeoffry, but nonetheless a quiet celebration with a twitch of longing.

Geosi Gyasi: Can we describe “Scrub Dreams of Taking the Last Shot” as a prose poem? In your view, what is a prose poem?

Jack Ridl:  Yes, it seems to land in that category, although poetry is what a poem offers so all poems are, to me, formal. That poem is for me simply a poem without lines because when I wrote it in lines, the energy needed was not there.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be remembered as a writer?

Jack Ridl:  As a father, husband, teacher.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any question for me?

Jack Ridl:  Nope. Just enormous gratitude for what you are doing and for your intelligence which shines in your questions. And a wish for all that can be good to arrive again and again.

END.


Interview with Nina Sankovitch, Author of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

March 25, 2015
Photo: Nina Sankovitch

Photo: Nina Sankovitch

Biography:

After receiving her law degree from Harvard Law School, Nina Sankovitch worked as an environmental lawyer, working on ocean pollution issues. In October 2008, following the death of her oldest sister from cancer, Nina began a year of reading a book a day, and writing about it on her website, Readallday.org. Her book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, about the joys and therapeutic benefits of reading, was published in 2011, when it was hailed as “an outstanding debut” by Kirkus Reviews and designated a “book to read now” by Oprah. In 1999, Sankovitch discovered the one hundred year-old letters of James Seligman in the backyard of a decrepit brownstone she had just purchased with her husband. This discovery, coupled with a lifelong love of letters and the departure of her oldest son for college, prompted her to write Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing which was published in 2014. Once again Oprah hailed the book, calling it a book “every joy-seeking woman needs to read.” It also received laudatory reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, Library Journal, and Booklist. Sankovitch is married with five children. She lives with her family and two cats in suburban Connecticut.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m so sorry to bring back memories but I feel I ought to begin the interview this way – is it true that your sister’s death inspired you to embark on a year long reading project?

Nina Sankovitch: Yes, she died in 2005. For three years I tried to deal with my sorrow over her death by immersing myself in work, volunteer projects, family – but I never allowed myself to face up to my grief.  I realized I needed help and as books had always helped me – great good comes from reading great books – I turned to books for solace, for answers, for guidance.

Geosi Gyasi: So you wrote your first book, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” afterwards. Did your sister’s death inspire you to write this book? If not, what inspired the book?  

Nina Sankovitch: I wanted to share with everybody the story of my amazing sister, the secrets I discovered about my family during my year of reading a book a day, and the wisdom I mined from all the wonderful books that I read.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you learnt anything from cancer that you could share with us?

Nina Sankovitch: We carry the people we love with us in our hearts and in our memories.  We can move forward, living a full and engaged life, while also looking backward and remembering the beauty and wonder of those we have loved.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the greatest challenge of the long year reading project?

Nina Sankovitch:  Writing every single day about the book I read the day before was a challenge but it really allowed me to both remember and distill what each book meant to me, and also to develop my own voice.  Through reading great books and writing about them, I learned how to express myself, and my feelings of loss and guilt, and about my desire to live fully and well.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the most important book you read for the reading project?

Nina Sankovitch: There were 365 books and I cannot begin to pick just one! I began with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery which was perfect to start with, as it is about loss, resilience, beauty, memory – when I finished that book on my first day of reading, I knew my year would be healing, restorative, wonderful.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you know at the time of beginning the reading project that it would garner a huge public interest?

Nina Sankovitch:  I wanted to share my year with people so that it was a year of connection, not isolation. From the beginning, I heard from people also coping with death or job loss or uncertainty, and they were inspired by books, just as I was. I found myself talking about books and about life with so many different people – it was rejuvenating on every level.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”?

Nina Sankovitch:  I found a trunk of 100-year old letters in my back yard and fell in love with the man who had written most of them, all to his mother. I wondered if my own sons would write to me when they went off to college – and I wanted to define why letters are such a unique and powerful form of communication.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”?

Nina Sankovitch: Almost two years.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you share with us how you make time to read?

Nina Sankovitch:  I always have a book with me so that wherever, whenever, a little time opens up, I can read.  Even fifteen minutes of reading calms me down, centers me, empowers me. I can get back to life with energy and optimism. And I’m always looking forward to that next great book and the time I carve out to read it.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there books you sometimes feel like not reading?

Nina Sankovitch: I only read books I want to read. Life is short, read what you love. I start all different types of books but if it does not grab me in the first twenty or forty page, I move on.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important book you’ve ever read?

Nina Sankovitch: There is no way to answer that! Every stage of my life has had a definitive book. But I can say that Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer has guided me through so many stages of my life. I love that book.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you struggle coming up with the name of your website — readallday?

Nina Sankovitch: No, it was obvious!  The website existed before my year of reading began. It started out as a project to get adults reading for pleasure. We are told to encourage our children in reading for pleasure and fun, but adults need to take time out to read too! Not just for work or for advancement or self-improvement. Purely for escape and pleasure.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any specific plans for the future?

Nina Sankovitch: I am working on a book about a New England family, telling their stories of 300 years. The trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Fascinating research and hopefully I will write a fascinating book.

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often read and write?

Nina Sankovitch: At home, with my cats beside me. Looking out over a garden that is currently covered in snow but will later have flowers – I am looking forward to spring! But I can read anywhere.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when not reading or writing?

Nina Sankovitch:  I play tennis, I go for long walks and bike rides.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about your readers when you write?

Nina Sankovitch: Yes, I treasure the connections I have made through my writings.

Geosi Gyasi: You second book, ““Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is non-fiction. Would you continue to explore this genre of literature in the future?

Nina Sankovitch:  I seem to have found my voice. But a novel would be great fun to write.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important mail you’ve ever received from a fan of your books?

Nina Sankovitch:  Letters that tell me I have helped a person really move me. Again, it is about connection.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not reading?

Nina Sankovitch: No. Never. I stay up way too late reading – I cannot fall asleep with a book in my hands!

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer has had the greatest impact on you as a writer?

Nina Sankovitch:  Too many to count. I find inspiration in so many books.

Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?

Nina Sankovitch: Ghettoside by Jill Levy.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any question to ask me?

Nina Sankovitch: How do you find the time to read and write? I love your blog and am so impressed by the breadth of writers you introduce me to! Thank you for your wonderful blog!

Geosi Gyasi: Thank you, Nina, but the honest truth is that no one loves your site more than I do. I am so amazed about how you managed to read 365 books in a single year. Back to your question, the simple answer is that when you have love for something, you definitely would find time to do it. But my greatest secret is that, I carry a book with me wherever I go.

END.


Interview with June Sylvester Saraceno, Author of “of Dirt and Tar”

March 24, 2015
Photo: June Sylvester Saraceno

Photo: June Sylvester Saraceno

Brief Biography:

June Sylvester Saraceno is author of the poetry collection “of Dirt and Tar” released in 2014 from Cherry Grove Collections, as well as Altars of Ordinary Light and Mean Girl Trips, a chapbook of prose poems.  Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including Southwestern American Literature, Tar River Poetry, Steel Toe Review, Smartish Pace and many more. She is a professor and English Program Chair at Sierra Nevada College (SNC), director of the Writers in the Woods literary speaker series, founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, and founder of the annual Tahoe Poetry Slam.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with your poetry collection, “of Dirt and Tar”?

June Saraceno: The title is a phrase from one of the poems, and also a nod to my rural North Carolina working class origins. Many of the poems are experiments with persona – an older Nancy Drew in an Alzheimer’s ward, Socrates’ wife complaining about his low earnings, Mrs. Robinson’s predatory musing – but their voices are not so different than ones I heard closer to home.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your relationship with Cherry Grove Collections?

June Saraceno: I have a good relationship with them and appreciate their publication of this collection.

Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult getting “of Dirt and Tar” published?

June Saraceno: Well, that’s sort of a funny story. I submitted my first collection to Cherry Grove, but there was some email snafu in their acceptance, and I never got it. So when another press accepted it, I wrote to withdraw it from consideration. Only then did I learn it had been accepted by Cherry Grove, too, but I already had an agreement with Plain View. Kevin Walzer at Cherry Grove was wonderfully understanding during this exchange and very kindly said if I had another book, he’d be willing to look at it. Seven years later I finally had another book and I contacted him. I actually kept his email all those years so I could *reply* as a way of reminding him of the offer, probably a good thing given the memory-eroding length of time it took me to put a second book together.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you actually start a poem?

June Saraceno: Different ways – sometimes an image surfaces, sometimes a phrase – I follow with other words and sometimes a poem happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult putting together poems to form a collection?

June Saraceno: It is for me. I’m really hoping there’s not a seven year stretch before I’m able to construct my next collection. Really, I don’t think there will be. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some writing residencies where I’ve had the time to focus on a third collection and I can see the shadowy impression of its architecture. What’s hard is excising the poems that don’t have a place, especially if I like them. I have this weird feeling like I’m abandoning them, as if they’ll be orphaned now and it’s my fault. Crazy, huh? With “of Dirt and Tar,” I was lucky that my friend, the amazing poet Laura McCullough, pointed out some breakthrough insights on sequencing the poems. She looked at it with her sharp editor’s eye and helped me work out the blueprint.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you become a writer?

June Saraceno: Well, the ballerina thing wasn’t an option.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?

June Saraceno: Writing. That may sound glib, but I’m dead serious. I’ve never done that thing that writers need to do, that is – plant my bottom in a chair every day for a certain number of hours and write. I’m a binge writer. I’m hugely inconsistent. There have been times I “gave up” writing, because I just wasn’t doing it. I hate those times. But – I also very often hate writing, too. It’s a conundrum. The one thing that has helped has been going to writing residencies. Somehow that works for me – I get into a groove where the words spin out – it’s what I’m there to do and I do it. Now why can’t I do that at home in my regular life?

Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?

June Saraceno: I don’t think it would occur to any of them to approve or disapprove. It would be like disapproving of my nose. It just is what it is.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer?

June Saraceno: Interesting question. I’m trying to think of being happy as a writer, specifically, as distinct from being happy in general as a person. What would it mean for me to be happy as a writer? I’m not sure I know. Maybe that I write more consistently, even daily? Then I would approve of myself as a writer? I don’t think I am happy as a writer, because I’m not content with my writerly habits. I’d need to think about that more, but I think it’s safe to say I’m not particularly happy as a writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often sit to write?

June Saraceno: I most often write at the computer.

Geosi Gyasi: When do you often write?

June Saraceno: I prefer mornings, but not brutally early, cup of tea first. By evening my brain turns to mush.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

June Saraceno: Many of the writers who are most meaningful to me are story tellers – Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Dorothy Allison. Poets who have influenced me include Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Anne Sexton, and quite a few others. My biggest influence is my mentor Peter Makuck who taught me pretty much everything I know about poetry and provided me with rich reading lists that included James Dickey, Peter Everwine, Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic and more. Peter is a brilliant poet and story teller. I have everything he’s ever published. Aside from being extraordinarily good, his books are like maps for me. He has a precise and light touch, never too much or too little, a master craftsman. He makes you laugh while you’re crying. I’m aiming to be as good as he is one of these days, got a long way to go before I even get close to that ballpark, though.

Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?

June Saraceno: It depends. Some poems come out almost whole and I just have to prune them a bit. Others take years. There’s an elegy for my mother in my first collection that I worked on for years, trying to get it to feel right without it becoming too maudlin.

Geosi Gyasi: What are you plans for the future?

June Saraceno: I’m looking forward to this third collection taking shape. I really think it’s going to be far, far better than the two previous books.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there time you feel like not writing?

June Saraceno: Every day.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about “Altars of Ordinary Light”?

June Saraceno: “ Altars” has poems from distinctly different phases for me as a writer. Frankly, I’d say the collection is a bit uneven. Still, it meant a lot to me to get a book published. It was the type of validation I needed at the time. I worked with Susan Bright who founded Plain View Press and who has since passed away. She was a generous and encouraging editor. I couldn’t have had a better experience in terms of the process of publishing a first book. Of course, when I look at it now all I see are things I would have done differently, edits I would make, that type of thing.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally seek to write “Mean Girl Trips” in the style of prose poetry?

June Saraceno: I did. In fact, I’d say I was obsessed at the time. I write fiction and poetry and I had been focusing on flash fiction pieces. The question I kept coming to was “what is the difference between a prose poem and flash or micro fiction”? I wrote prose that I called flash fiction and prose that I called prose poems, but the distinction seemed somewhat arbitrary, even though I had no reservations about which category I’d put those works in, so I set out to explore their borders. Of course, as with any question worth considering, there’s no real answer. Still, it was an interesting line of inquiry. Around this time, I went to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry residency and Bob Hass was one of the workshop leaders there. Since he writes in verse and prose poetry forms, I asked him where he saw the line and he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said for him, it’s in the music of the language – that’s what separates a short piece of prose from a prose poem. That was a very satisfying perspective. I’m not sure all my prose poems in Mean Girls would live up to that definition, but I found it very helpful to consider that gauge.

Geosi Gyasi: Fiction and Poetry: Which of the two are you often engaged in?

June Saraceno: Love them both. Couldn’t make a Sophie’s Choice between them. I have a short story collection that I’ve been working on for decades and I’m very engaged with the character that links the stories, Willie. I’ve had more publishing success with poetry, but I love fiction equally. Fingers crossed that I one day I’ll find a publisher interested in the short story collection. Many, if not most, of the individual stories in the collection have found their way into print.

Geosi Gyasi: You received an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. What do you remember most about your days as a student?

June Saraceno: The most important thing to me about that time was the friendships I formed with fellow writers. Marisella Veiga, David Weaver and his buddy, this wild man Al Maginnes who was constantly getting kicked out of bars, even the divey ones we tended towards. Those are the memories that stay with me. Al assures me he doesn’t get kicked out of bars any more, but I’m not so sure I believe him. In any case, those enduring friendships have helped sustain me as a writer. They’re often the people I seek out for feedback on my work or to commiserate with in my blank page spells.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review.  Could you tell us about the work you do there?

June Saraceno: Ha! I was the founding editor and oversaw it for two decades, but there’s a new editor in town. Laura Wetherington agreed to take custody of it two years ago. I cannot overstate how happy this makes me.

END.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 333 other followers