Interview with Award Winning Poet, Claire Zoghb

Photo: Claire Zoghb

Photo: Claire Zoghb

Brief Biography:

Claire Zoghb’s first collection, Small House Breathing, won the 2008 Quercus Review Poetry Series Annual Book Award. She has two chapbooks forthcoming in late 2016: Dispatches from Everest (Fomite Press) and Boundaries (Blue Lyra Press Delphi Chapbook Series). Her work has appeared in Connecticut Review, CALYX, Crab Creek Review, Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America (The Lebanon Issue), and Natural Bridge, among others, online at One, Sukoon and Mezzo Cammin: An Online Journal of Formalist Poetry by Women, and in the anthologies Through A Child’s Eyes: Poems and Stories About War and Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems. Claire was the winner of the 2008 Dogwood annual poetry competition and one of the ten finalists in the 6th Annual Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival. Her poem, “Terminal” published in One has been nominated for 2016 Best of the Net. A book designer and graphic artist, she lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with her husband Nicolas and works as Graphics Director at Long Wharf Theatre.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you start out as a writer?

Claire Zoghb: Starting at around age 5, I scribbled down thoughts and poem fragments in one of those little diaries with the lock on the cover. I now have over 50 years of journals! I began writing poetry seriously in the mid-1990’s, submitting work to literary magazines and competitions, applying for grants, giving readings and workshops, etc.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the stories you wrote as a child?

Claire Zoghb: I remember the time a pigeon flew in through the high windows in Mrs. Thompson’s fourth-grade classroom, causing total pandemonium. My classmates—and Mrs. Thompson!—screamed and ran around in fear. It inspired me to write a story, which I shared with the class. I don’t remember the story, but it was my first experience of sharing my writing with others. I still remember the excitement and joy of that!

Geosi Gyasi: Were you a reader as a child?

Claire Zoghb:  Voracious.  During my elementary school years, I looked forward to the periodic Scholastic book fairs when I would order books by the box! Once I won a reading competition—I think it was in that same fourth-grade class!—by reading 12 books in one week.

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

Claire Zoghb: There is a vague family tale of my Polish grandmother burning her journals in her backyard. I wish I knew the story behind that! I do come from a family of readers and educators. On summer camping trips, my family always visited the local library. Throughout his life, my late Dad would bring a stack of books home from the library every two weeks.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you earn the publishing deal for “Small House Breathing”?

Claire Zoghb: During the summer of 2007, I submitted my full-length manuscript to a bunch of the fall literary competitions. It did pretty well, even becoming a finalist for the 2007 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. The following summer, I entered the fall competitions again—this time with a slightly altered version of the manuscript—and the book won the 2008 Quercus Review Poetry Series Annual Book Award! Chosen from among 300 manuscripts, it was published the following year.

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often write?

Claire Zoghb:  I am constantly writing/revising in my head. But physically, I like to write in bed. I also enjoy writing in diners, for some reason!

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Claire Zoghb:  Upon waking. In the middle of the night. The best weather for writing is when it’s raining or preferably, snowing! I have always seen snow-days as gifts from the gods, perfect excuses to stay inside and go deeply into the writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about some of your favourite books?

Claire Zoghb:  The two books which probably have influenced me most are Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us and What We Carry by Dorianne Laux. Both poets continue to inspire me. Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler still blows me away—an unflinching and brilliant chronicle of Hurricane Katrina. Yehuda Amichai’s extraordinary Poems of Jersualem. I love the way Agha Shahid Ali (The Half-Inch Himalayas) and Marilyn Chin (Rhapsody in Plain Yellow) play with form. There are a few memoirs that I just love: Mary Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, and more recently, Rita Gabis’s A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet and Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any challenges you face as a writer?

Claire Zoghb:  The limits of my own imagination and courage. As well as the constraints of time.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you aim to achieve with your writing?

Claire Zoghb: I like it when people are surprised by something in my poetry. I don’t set out to “teach”, but am thrilled when readers/listeners feel they have learned something new and valuable, however small, from one of my poems.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about winning the 2008 Dogwood Poetry Award?

Claire Zoghb:  Pure elation! Not only was it a thrill having my poem, Apples, chosen by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, but it also put me in touch with then-editor of Dogwood, poet Kim Bridgford, who has offered me many opportunities since. 

Geosi Gyasi: Are you currently working on any new poems?

Claire Zoghb: I lost my beloved dad 8 months ago and new poems about that deep loss are beginning to stir and find their way onto the page. My ex-husband and first love took his life a month ago and I have been thinking about our fourteen years together, noting what arises.

Geosi Gyasi: Have some of your poems ever been rejected by publishers?

Claire Zoghb: Oh yes, and far more often than my work has been accepted! Thankfully, my poet-mentor Margaret Lloyd (a fabulous Welsh-American poet and watercolorist), taught me early on to appreciate “encouraging” rejections—a handwritten note from an editor on a form rejection or an invitation to “try us again”.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the other aspect of your life as a graphic artist and book designer?

Claire Zoghb: Currently, I am graphics director at the world-renowned Long Wharf Theatre here in New Haven, Connecticut. Designing the artwork for each play is much like writing a poem—there is so much information that must be distilled into a single image. And that image must also entice someone to buy a ticket! I love the challenge of working within the specific parameters of both a graphic design project and a poem.



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