Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Kayo Chingonyi

April 18, 2017

KayoBrief Biography:

Kayo Chingonyi is a Fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British poetry. He is the author of two pamphlets, Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown’s Scream (APBF/Akashic, 2016). Kayo has been invited to read from his work around the world and his poems have been translated into Spanish, German and Swedish. He was awarded the 2012 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and served as Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016. His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, is forthcoming from Chatto & Windus.

Geosi Gyasi: How did it all start for you as a poet?

Kayo Chingonyi: In primary school when I was 9 or 10 my teacher asked us to write poems about winter. I wrote a terrible poem that survives to this day reminding me of how far I’ve come.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling me more about this “terrible” poem?

Kayo Chingonyi: I don’t think there is any value in sharing poems I know to be bad with other people.

Geosi Gyasi: On winning the 2012 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, judge Jane Draycott said that your imagery is a “…series of small doors opening onto a whole house echoing with harmonic play and set with delicate rhythmic trip wires.” Do you agree with her?

Kayo Chingonyi: I take those remarks as a compliment and feel grateful to have been read so closely. I try to live up to writing in the manner that Jane Draycott describes. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it worry you when you’re not able to live up to the “nice” things critics say about your poetry?

Kayo Chingonyi: It only really troubles me when I don’t meet my own expectations, which is quite often. I think writing is an endless cycle of self- confidence and self doubt.

Geosi Gyasi: You were shortlisted for the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. What specifically encouraged you to submit again to this year’s prize?

Kayo Chingonyi: It’s the final year in which I’m eligible.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come about the ten poems entered into this year’s prize?

Kayo Chingonyi: I don’t know except to say that my poems are made incrementally; sometimes over weeks, sometimes months, occasionally years. They often start with a single word or phrase that has insinuated itself into my mind and my work is to find out why.

Geosi Gyasi: So what actually influenced your choices for the ten poems submitted?

Kayo Chingonyi: I chose poems that I was happy with that I haven’t entered to the competition before. That’s about it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care to say something about Stephen McCarthy and Todd Bracey whom you wrote your poem, “The Colour of James Browns’s Scream” for? 

Kayo Chingonyi: When I told my friend Karen that I was writing about Larry Levan she told me to speak to her brother and his friend about the times they spent in the nightclub where Levan was resident DJ. I duly asked them some questions about the Paradise Garage and their answers inform the atmosphere of the poem.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it worry you when you’re not able to live up to the “nice” things critics say about your poetry?

Kayo Chingonyi: It only really troubles me when I don’t meet my own expectations, which is quite often. I think writing is an endless cycle of self- confidence and self doubt.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you expecting to win the Brunel International African Poetry Prize this time around?

Kayo Chingonyi: No, I’m not. If the judges see fit to award me the prize I will be glad but I don’t expect that.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any favorite/s among the shortlisted poets?

Kayo Chingonyi: I think Nick Makoha has something special and will contribute a lot to world literature. Kechi Nomu, Leila Chatti, and Romeo Oriogun struck me on first reading but I’m very much looking forward to knowing the work of all my fellow shortlisted poets better (Nick Makoha is the only poet among them whose work I know well enough to comment on in a meaningful way).

Geosi Gyasi: What were you really referring to in the lines: 

“blue shameless blackness that is

consigned now to another life”

   (Quoted from Broomhall)

Kayo Chingonyi: The poem says it better than I could.

Geosi Gyasi: Sure, but you would do me a great favor were you to comment on “shameless blackness” as against “another life”?

Kayo Chingonyi: I don’t think any further comment is necessary. When I said it is in the poem I meant that.

Geosi Gyasi: All right! Briefly describe what readers are to expect from your forthcoming first full-length collection, Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)?

Kayo Chingonyi: The heart of the book is an exploration of how we perform our identities, how self-identification is a kind of dance. There is love in the book, and joy, and sorrow, and music.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your relationship with Zambia?

Kayo Chingonyi: Zambia is a place I think of as home though it has not been my home for most of my life. It is a place that I will keep coming back to one way or another.

Geosi Gyasi: So how often do you really visit Zambia?

Kayo Chingonyi: I was there in January for the first time in a long time. I hope to visit more in future.


Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Leila Chatti

April 17, 2017

LeilaChattiBrief Biography:

Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and Dickinson House and prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, the 8th Annual Poetry Contest, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, West Branch, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in 1990 in Oakland, California but you’re also connected with Africa. Tell me something about your relationship with Tunisia?

Leila Chatti: I am a dual citizen—my father is Tunisian and my mother is American. My parents met when my father came to the States for school, and I was born while he was completing his PhD. My father is one of seven children and was the only one to leave Tunisia. Perhaps understandably, then, we spent every summer overseas; it was important to my father that we maintained a close relationship with both our family and our country. All my life, I’ve spent the winter months in the United States, and the summer in Tunisia; it’s a rhythm that feels not only natural but essential now. Anything else would leave me feeling off-balanced. I don’t think of myself as being from one place or another—I’m from both. Both countries are fundamental to the person I am and the life I lead.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you Muslim? Tell me something about your religion and whether you write predominantly on religious issues?

Leila Chatti: I am Muslim, and was raised Muslim, and religion has always been very important to me. It shows up frequently in my work, whether I will it or not; I have a fixation with God, and am interested in the push/pull I feel towards Him. I am interested, too, in religious stories, rituals, and rules. My favorite ritual, or the one I most frequently return to in my work, is fasting. I began fasting for Ramadan when I was seven years old, and the experiences associated with that act—hunger, restraint, obedience, resilience, lack—are ones I return to, experiences that have had a significant role in molding me into the person I am.

I should also note, my mother is Catholic, and so aspects of Catholicism also appear in my work. My full-length manuscript, for example, utilizes both Catholic and Muslim scripture and practices, and examines in particular both faiths’ depictions of Mary, mother of Jesus. I am interested in the ways these two faiths overlap and interact in my life.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get into poetry?

Leila Chatti: I’ve always been interested in language; as a baby, I was drawn to books instead of toys and learned to read very early. I first started writing poems when I was five years old. I was raised religious as well, and I was particularly drawn to the musicality of the Qur’an—those rhymes and rhythms tuned my ear for poetry. I wrote and read all the time, as soon as I was able, and progressed from poetry for children (Shel Silverstein and the like) to the poets I love now (Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood) in adolescence. I was lucky to have teachers who noticed my constant scribbling in notebooks and encouraged me, by introducing me to more poets and organizing independent studies for me to further pursue my interest in poetry. I’ve been very blessed along this path with teachers and mentors who have seen what I was doing and told me to keep it up—I wouldn’t have had the knowledge (or courage!) to get where I am now without those gentle nudges by many teachers over many years.

“I was horrified by the seemingly unending stories I was encountering of refugees risking their lives to escape their homes, and the stories that struck closest to home were those of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Geosi Gyasi: Did it come to you as a surprise when you first heard that you’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Leila Chatti: Yes! I had been too shy to submit last year, but I was determined to try this time. It’s an honor and a dream to be on the list, and I feel particularly touched to be the first North African—it means a lot to me to (I hope!) do right by my country. I am very proud to be Tunisian, and so it is important to me that I am recognized as being an African poet as well as an American one.

Geosi Gyasi: Looking at this year’s shortlist of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, do you feel you’re the best poet to win?

Leila Chatti: I feel honored to be among such talented writers. There are many powerful poems here, and I know any one of us would be deserving.

Geosi Gyasi: Is/Are there any special reason/s why you wrote your poem, “upon realizing there are ghosts in the water”?

Leila Chatti: I was horrified by the seemingly unending stories I was encountering of refugees risking their lives to escape their homes, and the stories that struck closest to home were those of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea. I had a sudden aversion to the water I had grown up adoring; I began to see the sea as a weapon. The shock led me to examine my privilege—I was able to enjoy the same beaches that served as a dangerous threshold for people very much like me, and the primary difference was the absurd luck of where I had been born. This haunted me.

Geosi Gyasi: What often excites you about writing poetry?

Leila Chatti: I love that poetry has a great deal of freedom. You can make a poem look however you like, you can take giant leaps or toy with language, or squeeze a swell of story or emotion into a very small box. I enjoy how poems are distilled; brevity and potency appeal to me. A person can memorize a poem, whereas it is very difficult to memorize a novel or a film in its entirety. A poem can be kept in a pocket and carried always. A poem can change a life in less than a minute. That’s power.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you make a living as a poet?

Leila Chatti: Frugally! I’ve had to be very creative; between 2015 and 2016, I was living out of a suitcase, moving around frequently between opportunities (and couches) and piecing together earnings from prizes and journal publications. This year, I had it a bit easier, as I was supported by a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, for which I am very grateful.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your biggest dream as a poet?

Leila Chatti: I hope it is not only a dream but an achievable goal, but I hope to one day publish a book! I have been working on my first book manuscript and it is almost done, so the end is in sight. Soon, I’ll have to take the plunge and begin sending it out. Beyond that, one day I’d love to make a living teaching poetry—I was a high school teacher before I began pursuing poetry, and teaching is one of my great loves. It would be great to have a hand in inspiring a new generation of young poets.


Interview with American Poet & Painter, George Mckim

November 19, 2016

                   George McKim

Brief Biography:

George McKim has an MFA in Painting. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Diagram, elimae, The Found Poetry Review, Ilanot Review, Scissors and Spackle, Dear Sirs, Shampoo, Ditch, Glittermob, Cricket Online Review, Otoliths, Blaze Vox, The Tupelo Press 30/30 Project and others. His chapbook of Found Poetry and Visual Poetry “Found & Lost” was published by Silver Birch Press in 2015. A poem from the chapbook was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Silver Birch Press in 2015.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a visual artist living and working in Raleigh, NC. Could you tell us a little bit about the place where you live and work?

George McKim: Raleigh, NC is a smallish city that is probably more known for technology and business than for the Arts. It is a fairly conservative city in a conservative state in a conservative region of the country. I moved there because of the job opportunities and wound up staying there. My art studio is in my house and I make it work. In a couple of months I’ll be renting an art studio in an artists collective studio space called ArtSpace in downtown Raleigh.

Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to become a visual artist, if I may ask?

George McKim: If you don’t make a living from making art or writing poetry, which I don’t, you have to have a passion for it or else you will not have the will to persevere. I have had a “regular” job as a graphic artist at a printing press for twenty-five years and I have continued to paint and write in my “spare time”. I have always heard people say, or imply, that “artistic talent” is an ability that you are born with and not necessarily something you can learn. That may have been the case when visual art was more about technical skill and being able to accurately reproduce the illusion of objects and people in a three dimensional space on the flat surface of a canvas. Visual art has changed in the past one hundred years so that technical skill is not valued as much as it used to be. Having said that, I displayed considerable artistic technical skill, or talent, when I was young and I was encouraged to study art, which I did, I went to college and got a BFA in fine art painting and an MFA in fine art painting.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you combine your work as a visual artist and poet?

George McKim: That is a great question and a difficult question to answer. I have been a visual artist most of my life, but I have only been writing poetry for six years, I began writing poetry at the age of 56. I would like to think that my visual artwork is “poetic” but I don’t really know what it is that makes a painting or visual art piece “poetic”. There does not seem to be a formula for making “poetic” paintings that I know of. I have tried a couple of times to literally combine painting and poetry by pasting a printed poem onto a painting, but didn’t like the way it worked out (or didn’t work out). In my chapbook “Found & Lost” I placed the written poems and visual art next to each other on facing pages and I feel like that is a more interesting and successful way to combine written poetry and visual poetry for me at this point in time. I would like to think that my excursion into poetry writing has influenced my visual artwork in some way.

Geosi Gyasi: I learned from online that you make paintings on canvas, paper and collages. Could you briefly tell us about what these media are?

George McKim: Painting on canvas is (or was) considered to be the most serious and highest form of visual art. It is (or was) the most practical and permanent way to make a large visual art statement. Painting on paper lends itself more to improvisation and experimentation because the materials are less expensive and more disposable if things don’t work out as planned. Collage, generally speaking, involves incorporating photographs and/or illustrations and/or found materials and/or images into the drawing/painting process. Collage was invented by the Dada poets in the early twentieth century and is often considered to be visual poetry depending on how images are combined.

Geosi Gyasi: Between writing and painting, which one is your first love?

George McKim: Painting is my first love, possibly because I have been doing it for so long and I feel confident in my abilities as a visual artist, I feel like that if I have some paint and canvas I can make something interesting happen. Writing poetry is more challenging for me. Poetry and Art can both be about total intellectual and creative freedom and they both are born in the same universe of the mind. I like the way that poetry and art can be dissociated from reality and can create a different way of imagining the world.

Geosi Gyasi: What motivated your studies in painting and why not poetry or writing?

George McKim: Possibly because my father was an architect and not a writer. I showed some talent as a young person in painting and drawing and was encouraged to persue that avenue. I was going to study Commercial Art in college, but I changed my major to Fine Art Painting because I was so inspired by the artwork I saw in the painting studios at the university I attended.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about your publication, ”New American Paintings”?

George McKim: New American Paintings is not my publication, but rather a somewhat prestigious magazine type publication that has a national and international distribution and is comprised of artwork submitted by artists from all across America. I had some of my paintings in the publication about ten years ago.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you make a living out of painting and drawing? What about writing?

George McKim: No. If you look at my Art bio on my website you will see that my art has been exhibited in various group exhibitions in galleries and museums in the Southeast, which means that various art gallery and museum curators think my artwork is good, but for some reason I have not sold that much of my artwork over the years. I think that has a positive side in that I have the freedom to paint whatever I want without having to worry about whether or not it will sell. I don’t think success in art is measured by financial success. Poetry is more difficult to sell than painting, in my opinion, because it has a smaller audience than art.

Geosi Gyasi: Your recent book of Found and Visual Poetry, “Found and Lost” was recently published by Silver Birch Press. Could you tell me about the synopsis of the book?

George McKim: First of all, let me just say that I am very grateful to Melanie at Silver Birch Press for publishing this chapbook. I think they sort of went out on a limb to publish this book because it is somewhat out of the ordinary as far as the poetry and the artwork are concerned. This is my first chapbook and it’s a tribute to some of the great poets of the twentieth century. I started by choosing some poems by various well-known poets and I used a variation of the William Burroughs “cut-up” technique, which is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text, to create the “Found Poems” in my book. Some of the poems in the book are a “mash-up” (combined and rearranged) and a repurposing of several different poems by other poets to make one new “Found Poem”. All of the text in these poems came from poems by other poets. The process was one in which I did not start the poems with a pre-conceived theme or a pre-conceived notion of what the poems would be about. I would select a word or words and arrange them on a page and wait for word associations to spark my imagination and then I just used my imagination to create an amalgamation of words and lines that were interesting to me.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly distinguish between Found and Visual Poetry?

George McKim: Found Poetry is appropriating and re-purposing and re-mixing existing text from just about any source. Visual Poetry is more about is appropriating and re-purposing and re-mixing existing text and visual images and also adding visual images and passages using painting and drawing and collage methods. Visual Poetry is more difficult to define because it can include many different images and text.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get into writing?

George McKim: At some point in my life, I think it was in my late twenties, I became very intrigued by poetry but I did not consider the idea of writing poetry until about twenty five years later. I remember at some point during that time I had this paperback book titled “A Controversy of Poets” that was published back in the sixties or seventies I guess, but I was amazed and fascinated by how deep and absolutely freed from rational thinking and creative the poems in that book were, it blew my mind. When I was fifty six, I think I was somewhat disillusioned about making art and I was reading some poetry and I thought to myself, you know I think I’ll try writing some poetry and I made some feeble attempts and I kinda got hooked on reading and writing poetry after that.

Geosi Gyasi: Which artist is your greatest influence on your drawings and paintings?

George McKim: Van Gogh is my greatest influence but I look at all kinds of new, exciting, inspirational contemporary art which can easily be found on various social media sites on the internet.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers who have influenced your work?

George McKim: James Wright is one of the first writers that I remember being really taken by, his poetry is amazing. The Dada poets, in particular Tristan Tzara really interest me. Jackson MacLow is an incredible poet. I like new experimental writing of all sorts.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more books?

George McKim: Yes, I have written three chapbooks of poetry in the past 6 months and all three have been submitted to various alternative presses and hopefully will be accepted for publication. One of the chapbooks is titled “Grand Theft Poetry” because the poetry is basically lines of poetry stolen from poems by other poets. The book is comprised of Cento poems which are a type of Found Poetry. The title is a variation on the title of a popular video game titled “Grand Theft Auto”. The other 2 chapbooks are short prose poems, one is titled “Ghost Apparatus” and the other is titled “Dear StAbby”.

Geosi Gyasi: On your site at, you’re described as a painter, poet, revolutionary, vagabond, seeker, sea monster, torrential rain storm, amateur brain surgeon, wilted lettuce, prophet, priest and so forth. I’m eager to know who a vagabond or seeker is?

George McKim: Well…. that little faux bio is totally “tongue in cheek”. The whole thing goes like this – “George McKim is a painter, poet, revolutionary, vagabond, seeker, sea monster, torrential rain storm, amateur brain surgeon, wilted lettuce, prophet, priest, nascar driver, broken mirror, inventor of the wheel, a million blinking eyes, mime, leper, television evangelist, axe grinder, ice sculptor, snake charmer, gondola operator, mushroom cloud, shaman, sham, sheik, busboy, ballet dancer, lumberjack, a burning ghost, a burning bush, a burning cloud, the rain was born with dark eyes, inventor of the milky way and devout follower of Zoroaster.”

I’m not a vagabond, but I do feel like I’m a seeker in that I am always seeking new avenues of expression in poetry and visual art.


Interview with American Writer, Liz Kay

November 3, 2016
Photo: Liz Kay

Photo: Liz Kay

Brief Biography:

Liz Kay is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Willow Springs, and Sugar House Review. She is the author of the chapbook Something to Help Me Sleep published by {dancing girl press}, and her debut novel, Monsters: A Love Story, about the toxic love affair between a widowed poet and the A-list actor who options her novel in verse, is out this summer from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Vogue calls it “entertainingly dyspeptic.”

Geosi Gyasi: How would you distinguish between life as a poet and novelist?

Liz Kay: I’m really interested in the way you phrased this question. I’ve been asked before about the differences between writing poetry and fiction, but living as a poet versus as a novelist is just as distinct. I’m more confident as a poet for one thing, probably because I’ve done it longer, but also because being a novelist is simply more public. And readers’ reactions to poetry and fiction are wildly different as well. In either genre, you’re going to come across readers who simply don’t connect with your work, and in poetry, that tends to be the way it’s expressed. I probably only really enjoy about 5% of the poems I read, but I never think of that as being the fault of the poem. Even when I really admire a poet’s body of work, they’ll have many many poems that just don’t hit the mark for me. Each poem is entirely its own thing, and it either resonates with me, or it doesn’t. But readers of fiction come to the work with very clear expectations and they are happy to tell you all the ways your book would be better if it were just a different kind of book.

Geosi Gyasi: Were you a poet before you became a novelist?

Liz Kay: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been seriously writing and publishing poetry for more than 10 years. Prior to Monsters: A Love Story, the last time I’d written fiction was in undergraduate when I was told that I’d taken Creative Writing Poetry as many times as they were going to let me, so I took a short story class instead.

Geosi Gyasi: Is your novel, ‘Monsters: A Love Story’ really a love story?

Liz Kay: It is, and it isn’t. I’m interested in critiquing sexual power dynamics and gender expectations, but I’m also interested in the process of enculturation, the way we use these kinds of stories to shore up our ideas about love and gender and which kinds of behaviors are acceptable/excusable and which aren’t. So Tommy and Stacey have a pretty typical love story in some ways. There’s the unexpected meeting, the miscommunications, the outsized glamour that comes with the possibility of choosing Tommy. The novel has been described as a romantic fairy tale, and in many ways it is. But the novel also invites serious criticism of the characters, their behaviors and also their failures to live up to their own ideals. Stacey is a feminist, but she has to live in the world as a woman, which means that if she wants to be successful and personally satisfied, she has to meet the expectations set for her. Intellectually, we might agree that women should be able to ask for the things they want from their romantic partners, but realistically, we know that women who do are seen as needy and demanding and so the only way forward for a woman like Stacey is to insist that actually, she just doesn’t want any of it anyway. Monsters is a love story, but it’s a love story that attempts to proceed according to the rules of both the fairy tale romance and the rules of the culture we live in today, and by doing so, hopefully reveal some of the toxicity of both. But in a much funnier way than I’m making it sound.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe your writing process?

Liz Kay: My writing process is different with every project. I’m not a very disciplined writer, so I can’t say that I write every day for three hours or that I plan and research and outline. What I am is an obsessive writer, and that obsession manifests a little differently each time. When I was working on my last poetry manuscript, a retelling of Hansel & Gretel from the perspective of the witch, the obsession involved a lot of reading. It might sound better to call it research, but essentially I read everything I could about witches. I read novels. I read different retellings of the cannibalistic witch fairy tale like Baba Yaga. I read anthropological studies about folk beliefs and magic. I just read a lot, and every so often, something I read would give me the spark of a poem and that poem would find its place in the manuscript. With Monsters, the obsession manifested itself in the act of writing, taking me back to the page every spare minute of every day. I wrote the novel very quickly in about six weeks. I just never really stepped away from it completely. Even while I was making dinner for my family at night, I’d have the manuscript open. I’d put a pot of water on to boil and then go back and write until it did.

Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you consider yourself as a poet?

Liz Kay: I remember telling people I was going to be a poet when I was still in grade school. I started seriously reading and writing poetry in high school, though I don’t know that I thought of it as a career until I was in my 30s. To be fair, when I say, “career” I mean something you do with the work ethic and dedication of a profession but for which you never actually get paid. Fiction offers a slightly better income, but I’m not going to quit teaching anytime soon.

Geosi Gyasi: Has the purpose for why you started burntdistrict been achieved?

Liz Kay: I think so! Jen Lambert and I started the journal as a way to invest in the broader poetry community. We wanted to foster relationships with other poets and editors and we wanted to promote the sort of poetry that we found ourselves drawn to. It has absolutely been a labor of love, emphasis on labor, but it’s been very very rewarding.

Geosi Gyasi: Does one require any special skill to become an editor?

Liz Kay: There are many skills to be learned along the way–practical budgeting skills, layout and design, web development. Most importantly, though, editing requires a willingness to read, almost endlessly, and a willingness to read work you love as well as work you don’t. Editing also requires a great deal of confidence to be able to say, This thing in front of me that is a little unlike anything I’ve read before, is good. It’s good, and I’ll stake my reputation on it.

Geosi Gyasi: As an editor, how do you deal with sending rejection letters to writers?

Liz Kay: Initially it’s painful to send declines, but over time, you get used to it. It’s harder to decline poets you know and poets you’ve published before, but ultimately any single decline just means that this specific batch of poems didn’t hit the mark for our next issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything beyond that, and I think most poets, at least those with some experience submitting work, know that.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for any of your work?

Liz Kay: So much! My work has been rejected by many, many top journals and then published in others. I am pretty inured to rejection at this point. Like all new writers, when I was first sending out work, I read each rejection as a comment on the poems I’d sent in. Now, particularly after working as an editor, rejections don’t really faze me.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your published poems are you most proud of?

Liz Kay: “A Warning,” published in Beloit Poetry Journal.

Geosi Gyasi: In Omaha, NE, where you live, can you give me an account of the literary culture there?

Liz Kay: Omaha has a really vibrant literary community, really a vibrant arts community in general, from the visual to the culinary arts. One of the reasons I think we’re seeing such strong work coming out of Omaha is that the arts community is really supportive. It’s collaborative, encouraging, and joyful. The cost of living is also quite low, and since most artists are paying the bills with other, non-creative work, it’s important to live in a place where you can commit more time to your art and less time to paying the rent.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you put your family life into your writing?

Liz Kay: Yes and no. My writing is absolutely informed by my experience living in a family and I have written pretty autobiographical poetry about my experiences as a mother, particularly my experiences with prenatal and post-partum depression. That said, my work has in recent years moved away from personal experience, though I am more than happy to steal liberally from my own surroundings for the sake of grounding details. In writing Monsters, I didn’t base the characters of Stacey’s children on my own, but the experience of mothering sons absolutely informed some of her interactions with her children. That said, my own sons are significantly funnier and sharper than Stacey’s kids.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the mission of Spark Wheel Press?

Liz Kay: The mission of Spark Wheel Press is to publish and promote exceptional collections of contemporary poetry. It grew out of our experience reading for burntdistict. Often Jen and I would read submissions that were clearly part of a larger whole, a full collection, and we wanted to read those books.

Geosi Gyasi: Do ideas for poems come easily to you?

Liz Kay: Definitely not. I started working in series, either thematic series or narrative sequences, just to give myself a starting place.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have particular poets or writers you often read?

Liz Kay: I really love Sharon Olds and Louise Glück, and they are probably the poets I return to most to reread the poems I already know. I still feel like I’m playing catch-up in the world of contemporary fiction as I’d spent a few years reading poetry almost exclusively, so I’m trying to read pretty broadly and not indulge in rereading favorites, though authors with books I’ve already loved get shuffled to the top of the to-read list. Next up is Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours, whose novel The Virgins stands out as one of the best I’ve read in recent years.

Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your main interests as a writer?

Liz Kay: I am almost always writing about the experience of living in the world as a woman and how being a woman impacts our most intimate relationships, both romantic and maternal.

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

Liz Kay: Definitely. There are many, many times I don’t feel like writing and I’ve found that for me, it’s better if I just don’t. I never force myself to write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes feel nervous about your next publication?

Liz Kay: Often. I feel nervous about how my work is going to be received, whether people will bother to read it. I feel nervous about whether there will be a next publication at all. What if I’ve written my last word? Or worse, what if the thing I write next turns out to not be very good?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any work-in-progress? 

Liz Kay: I do, though it is not making much progress at the moment. I’m working on a second novel, but the nature of publishing a novel means that Monsters keeps periodically reinserting itself into my field of vision. Last year this took the form of revisions and copy-edits. This year, it’s taking the form of touring and doing interviews and talking about the book. In general, my writing can take a lot of interruption when that interruption doesn’t pull me into other creative work, but I’m spending so much time thinking about Monsters these days, that Tommy and Stacey are getting in the way of my other characters, so I’m having to sit on my hands for a bit. I’m eager to get back to the novel soon I hope.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you meet the co-founder of both burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press, Jennifer Lambert? What do you make of her literary work?

Jen and I met in graduate school but we also live close to one another and have children of similar ages, so our friendship grew out of a lot of similarities beyond our love of poetry. Jen is a really, really talented poet and she approaches her work with a level of attention and care that I find intimidating. Her poems are fearless and beautiful and she writes them with the same sharp eye that she brings to editing. When it comes to poetry, Jen is completely focused on the words on the page and she is a merciless editor, with her own work as much as with anyone else’s. She’s always pushing the poem a step farther, making it a little tighter, a little sharper. I love her work in and of itself, but more significantly I’m really struck by how far she’s able to take it.


Interview with Former Poet Laureate of Missouri, David Clewell

October 16, 2016
Photo: David Clewell

Photo: David Clewell

Brief Biography:

David Clewell is the author of ten collections of poems—most recently, Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016)—and two book-length poems. His work has appeared regularly in a wide variety of national magazines and journals—including Harper’s, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and New Letters—and is represented in more than fifty anthologies. Among his honors are several book awards: two Four Lakes Poetry Prizes (for Taken Somehow By Surprise and Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of), the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize (for Now We’re Getting Somewhere), and a National Poetry Series selection (Blessings in Disguise). He served as Poet Laureate of Missouri from 2010-2012.

Clewell teaches writing and literature at Webster University in St. Louis, where he also directs the English Department’s creative writing program and the attendant Visiting Writers Series. His collection of Charlie the Tuna iconography is currently the largest in private curatorship. And don’t even get him started on the subject of flying saucers.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the story of the 14 year old boy who got on a bus in New Brunswick, N.J, to see where poet William Carlos Williams lived with his wife and kids?

David Clewell: 9 Ridge Road was long a famous street address, even before Dr. Williams’ death in 1963. Some five years later, I somehow got it into my head that I just wanted to see the house. This piece discloses a bit of how it all went down (especially the second paragraph, for our purposes here):

                                      This Could Happen Only in My New Jersey

Shortly after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Bob Stephens read every word of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience out loud to his 8 a.m. Freshman English class at Highland Park High because he honestly believed that words, used well, had the power to change lives. Small wonder, then, that he was the person to show me the first poems I actually cared about in mine. I’d always been a voracious reader—cereal boxes, newspapers, flying saucer books, Ray Bradbury, even some John Steinbeck—but my brushes with what passed for poetry, grade by inexorable grade, never failed to send me running at top speed in the opposite direction: delicate flowers cracking up through the ground, winged horses in the sky. I wasn’t much of a horses-and-flowers kind of guy in those days. I also got tired of charging into the Valley of Death with that celebrated six hundred every year, too (although that was hardly the good Lord Tennyson’s fault). And so it was that, at age fourteen (and at 8 in the morning, remember), I first made the company of Papa Whitman, Mama Emily D. and, maybe most meaningfully, Uncle William Carlos Williams—fellow citizen of New Jersey who’d died only five years earlier. Not just his red wheelbarrow and beloved plums, either; we read Pictures from Brueghel and the good doctor’s Autobiography. We even took our nutty stab at Paterson, Book I. And somewhere along that WCW way, I fell crazy-in-love with his pitch-perfect portrait in solitude, “Danse Russe.” This poet was speaking my kind of American language, and I wanted to be “the happy genius” of my household, too.

I don’t exactly know why I told my mother I was going to Mark Rosenberg’s house on that particular Saturday afternoon when, instead, I hopped a bus in New Brunswick and made for Williams’ Rutherford, then somehow found my way to that already legendary 9 Ridge Road address. I knew only that I wanted to see where he’d lived. After a few minutes of just standing there on the sidewalk, I was turning to head back to the bus station when the front door opened, and Flossie Williams—perhaps gleaning that I wasn’t a graduate student working up a dissertation, looking for an interview—invited me inside. She talked about her husband for the next two hours, showing me his workroom, his typewriter, a few of his favorite books. I knew I should be getting home; I was taking this good woman’s time. And I was supposedly a mere few blocks away at Rosenberg’s. I actually said this, out loud, to Flossie Williams and, instead of being perturbed (she was fifty-something years a mother herself, after all), she offered to call Josephine Clewell and explain why I’d be running late. And although “This is Flossie Williams” meant nothing to my mother, that fall afternoon both she and her husband meant everything to me.

When I got home, my mother was less than happy. I read “Danse Russe” to her three times that night; I guess she finally had to smile. She loved me more than poetry, and she promised she’d keep on trying to understand us both.

Geosi Gyasi: How did your study with Finkel at Washington University shape you as a writer?

David Clewell: I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to go to graduate school; I’d been fortunate to find some reliable personal work habits (let’s call it discipline) and some success in placing poems in good magazines and journals. But I knew that if I wanted to teach someday, I’d need the graduate Fine Arts degree. When I considered possible schools to apply to, I discovered that Donald Finkel–a terrific and still-underappreciated American poet whose work I loved, and who could never be accused of writing any academically-fashionable-only poems (something I surely wanted to avoid at all costs)–was teaching in the program at Washington University in St. Louis. I applied, was accepted, attended…and wound up working closely with the person who would become my best friend–as well as my best critical reader–for many years (until his death eight years ago).

Finkel taught me how never to settle for the merely-skillful…the pretty thing well-made. I wasn’t much doing that anyway, but by his own examples he showed me the wide, wild territories of poetry and encouraged me in the longer, breathing lines I was discovering.

Geosi Gyasi: Poet David Lee once referred to your book, “Blessings in Disguise” as a “breakthrough book”. Could you comment on this?

David Clewell: In calling Blessings in Disguise a “breakthrough book,” I think Lee was  speaking in terms of my own work–certainly not, say, in terms of all American poetry! In the most pragmatic sense of the phrase, this was the first of my books to reach a larger, national audience–no doubt helped along by its being chosen as a winner in the National Poetry Series. It’s also the collection that featured poems longer than I’d written up to that point, and the “enlarging of the canvas,” as it were, would be something that stayed with me and allowed for all kinds of new possibilities.

Geosi Gyasi: What triggered the idea to write, “Now We’re Getting Somewhere”?

David Clewell: Now We’re Getting Somewhere–the book that followed Blessings in Disguise–came together as a whole and found its shape when I was working on a poem called “A Long Way from the Starlight.” This is what happens with almost all my books. I don’t sit down with the intent of “writing a book”…rather, I’m thinking of and working inside of one poem at a time. Sooner or later, what will actually emerge as a book more or less declares itself to me: thematic concerns…linguistic concerns…certain subject matters…  Poems that connect up with each other. And often it’s while working on a particular poem that something kicks in almost out of nowhere, suggesting what the next manuscript might include… what shape it might take. And just as often it’s a line, or part of a line, from that poem that ends up operating as the title for the book–an umbrella under which I’d like to think the poems find comfortable mingling.

Having said that, I’ve also published three book-length poems: Lost in the Fire (an imagined history of Spontaneous Human Combustion); The Conspiracy Quartet (four linked poems trafficking in American conspiracy theories); and Jack Ruby’s America ( a narrative poem taking up the life of the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of JF Kennedy). Each of those books were largely written with the idea and shape already in my mind–if not the particular specifics– as I went into the project. But those are significant exceptions to the way my books usually come together.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you good at memorizing poems?

David Clewell: Most of the poems I’ve memorized is the work of other poets. Those are the things I love having that kind of immediate access to. And mostly I never set out “to memorize” poems (although there are a few exceptions to that). Instead, it ends up happening because I’ve returned to read them so often, for their various reasons I love. And even though some of my students find the phrase “by heart” to be hopelessly old-fashioned, it’s how I like to think of memorization–emphasis on heart. In that sense, I’m about as old-fashioned as they come! I don’t have quite the entirety of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” by heart…but I’m getting frighteningly closer.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific ritual you embark on before you write?

David Clewell: I have no specific ritual that I practice before getting ready to write–other than reminding myself that I’ll willingly write down anything–no matter how seemingly silly, tangential, or precariously unlikely. I always have two legal pads at the ready: one with yellow paper and one with grey paper. I work in long-hand, always, until close to the very end (or what I think might be near the end) of what’s usually a large number of drafts. At that point I’ll move to my typewriter, typing late drafts and then scribbling all over those in ink again…then back to the typer…back to the crossing out…till finally something comes (with any luck, usually after at least several days or weeks)) to some kind of place of rest.

In the course of working on my newest book, Almost Nothing toTo Be Scared Of, an odd habit of sorts–if not exactly a ritual–did enter my writing life. Because of a rib injury, I’d taken to sleeping in a recliner (the only place I could get into an almost-comfortable position). Most nights as I managed to fall asleep, my semi-conscious mind would do its nutty dance through all kinds of language: phrases, mostly…not visual images. I’d do my best to scrawl those down on the pad I kept at the ready. But since I had no lamp near this recliner, I was literally scribbling in the dark…and I couldn’t always read what was there when I woke up in the morning. But sometimes I could, and I noticed I was tapping into different kinds of verbal constructions than I more usually did. Some poems actually sprang out of those oddball proceedings, and a good friend began referring to this recliner as “the dream chair.” The new book has its own section, fittingly called “A Dozen from the Dream Chair”–poems that are a bit on the short side for the likes of me, and maybe (just maybe) a little bit quirkier, too.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

David Clewell: I never write on a computer. It’s too easy to make things disappear. It’s too easy to add things. And if there’s going to be any machinery involved, I prefer the sound of typewriter keys.

Geosi Gyasi: So far, how has been the response to your new book, “Almost Nothing to Be Scared of”?

 David Clewell: So far, the response to the new book, Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of (the key word here is “almost”!), has been very gratifying. Stefene Russell, Culture Editor for St, Louis Magazine, writes: “No one is more of a perfectionist than Clewell. His lines crack wise and breathe easy, but break out your mechanical pencil and map the scansion, and it’s clear they’ve gone through draft after draft. As with any master, his hand is invisible unless you look hard.”

I like that “crack wise and breathe easy” part…

And even though the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” is often good advice, I don’t mind at all if folks judge this book by its cover…what a great (and mixed-message) photo from 1961, in the heart of the Cold War years!

(Here’s a short thing about the very cover:

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me how you started the Webster University Visiting Writers Series and how far it has come?

David Clewell: I started the Visiting Writers Series at Webster University thirty years ago (1986). We’ve present a variety of writers (not just poets, but also novelists, short-story writers, nonfiction writers, and playwrights) at different stages of their writing lives–from first-book authors to seasoned, multi-book veterans. Our 100-or-so visitors have included Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Lynda Barry, C.K. Williams, Billy Collins, Lucia Perillo, Jamie Quatro, George Saunders, Li-Young Lee, Naomi Nye, and Ron Carlson.

The sole criterion that determines who we (myself and my writer colleagues) invite is: that we are enthusiastic about their work–the style and finesse, regardless of subject matter. While many reading series feature writers who are buddies of the organizers, I would say that at least 90 per cent of our writers were invited without our knowing them personally at all.

We’ve been extremely fortunate; over the years Webster has a reputation (among writers) as a great place to read from their work.

Geosi Gyasi: You tell me, how does it feel to have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry seven times?

David Clewell: To be nominated for a prize is always an honor. In that the Pushcart Prize nominations were put forward by editors who’d already once selected Clewell poems for their magazines and journals–and then felt as if they wanted to push things to another level, choosing from so many things they’d published in a given year to make the few nominations they’re allotted…well, that’s very gratifying. But still, although it’s nice to be nominated on those multiple occasions, I’d point out that it’s also seven times I came up short of getting an actual prize!

Four of my books have won book prizes, including my new book (which received the Four Lakes Poetry Prize, making me the first two-time Four Lakes winner). (Gee…does “two-time Four Lakes” mean Eight Lakes?!)

Geosi Gyasi: Does the company a writer keeps have any major influence on the writer’s life?

David Clewell: I think the company that a writer keeps can certainly have an influence on that writer’s work–sometimes directly, and other times more indirectly. In recent times, the Beat writers had important friendships (think especially of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac). So did the so-called “New York School” of poets (think especially of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery).

“The company I keep” is not made up exclusively of other writers, either–far from it. Keeping the company of good and curious human beings has always been a wonderful influence in my life. And when I do spend time with writer friends, we tend not to engage in too much “shop talk,” if we can help it.

Final thought on this: I try always to keep the company of some of the best minds and hearts that have gone before me, too–reading and rereading the likes of Whitman, Dickinson, W.C. Williams, Keats, and Yeats (among so many others) provides me with some of the best company I can possibly imagine.

Geosi Gyasi: How does a poem start for you?

David Clewell: I almost never begin a poem with any distinct or cogent “idea.” Instead, it usually begins somewhere in the realm of language itself: a turn of phrase or an overheard comment–but always specific language in  a non-literay context, to be sure. From there the poem proceeds to lead me to some sense of concrete images or situations. And even when I finally stumble upon even a sort-of-idea, I try not to get overly attached to it too soon. One of my favorite American poets, Richard Hugo, suggested that the problem with insisting on something too much (and too early) is that by doing so, you’re giving up the chance of finding something even better. I seem to have to learn and re-learn this–and often the hard way– with almost every poem I write.

In Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of, there appears a specific. phrase I’d carried with me for years.  I followed it up a lot of blind alleys and walked it into a lot of dead ends before it finally worked its nutty magic and declared to me where it belonged: “We want you to believe in us–but not too much.” Those words were supposedly spoken to a young Nebraska patrolman by space aliens  whose roadside lights he was investigating.

It took almost ten years for me to realize the poem, if there was ever actually to be one, could not or would not be merely a zany account of flying saucers in America. But it ultimately ended up being a poem very much concerned about a particular America! It took that long for me to settle in with a range of literal and figurative implications inherent in that alien’s remark.

And of course the question of whether or not the incident itself actually, factually happened winds up being completely irrelevant.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever put your personal life experiences into you writing?

David Clewell: To the extent that all of my poems wind up being about things I’ve thought about, I could say that my “personal experiences” are never far from any poem’s heart. But as to whether or not the poems are made up of events, situations, and the like that have personally (autobiographically) occurred in my real life…? Well, that’s sometimes a different story. When I give talks about my work, I’m fond of saying: “When I say I, it isn’t always me.” I want the same freedom that a fiction writer has when it comes to creating narrators who might effectively convey the goings-on they’re describing. I’m writing about things that, in the larger sense, are not unique to me alone. I want the poem to “be about” the reader’s life, finally–not mine.

I’m here attaching the text of a short talk I gave recently. It speaks more clearly, I think, to these matters. Feel free to excerpt from it if there’s anything useful there:

                                 When I Say I, It Isn’t Always Me ————-Clewell

For me, poems don’t usually begin with a thought-out idea—let alone any idea about David Clewell’s anecdotal life. They start from concrete instances: an image…some language (for its sound or its “sense”)…

and then, with any luck, it’s a matter of finding out why I might have seized on those particulars in the first place. I’ve just used the pronoun “I,” and in this context I am indeed referring to the factual, actual me—who’s more interested in writing as an act of discovery than as a process of confirming or affirming what I think I already know.

In the broadest sense, poetry is made up of two types of impulses: the lyric and the narrative. The lyric mode is an expression of feeling or thought, unhinged from any particular “story line.” As the name suggests, the narrative mode tells a kind of story—implies some sense of “this, then this, then this.” Contemporary poetry is most often a hybrid, a combination of these two impulses, as opposed to being “purely” one or the other.

Traditionally, the lyric had been considered a type of autobiographical, first-person expression—a “burst” of thought or feeling that expresses the poet’s state of mind-or-heart. The narrative was traditionally a “story”—which might or might not involve the pronoun “I” (ostensibly, then, the poet)—told to entertain or instruct. Some of this might have to do with a conception of the poem as some kind of intimate truth-telling. People might assume that a poem is inherently more strictly autobiographical than other genres of writing.

In our time, when so many poems use both lyrical and narrative elements, it’s important to understand that the “I” is a particular creation of the poet; it comes with a lot of flexible possibility. The “I” need not be the poet’s factual actual, autobiographical self—although sometimes it might be something very close to that. Think of the “I” as a created speaker who gives voice to whatever-the-goings-on of the poem. In these days of public readings and presentations by poets-in-the-actual-flesh, it might be hard not to think of the “I” as actual, factual…autobiographical. After all, here’s someone facing you, not far away at all, and often insisting on “I…I…I.”

In this important sense, it’s similar to the way that “I” works in novels and short stories. When Herman Melville wrote one of the most famous first sentences in American fiction—“Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)—it wasn’t because he’d got tired of people calling him “Herman” in his real life. Ishmael is someone Melville decides is better able to relate the concerns that Melville himself is interested in, even beyond the hunting of an elusive whale: passion…power…greed…obsession…etc… .

Poets are more interested in what I like to think of as “the emotional truth” than in any strictly-accounted-for

‘actual factuals” from their own lives, from what they’ve actually experienced. Poet William Stafford was often asked, “Did that really happen to you that way?” His favorite answer: “Does it seem as if it could have?” And, ultimately, that’s the important consideration. The poet cares more about showing us some aspect of the human heart—human life—in a way that perhaps we’ve never thought about it before. The poet wants to evoke in the reader or listener a particular combination of the unexpected and the inevitable. “I’ve never thought about it [whatever “it” might be in the poem’s moment] quite this way before” is what I mean by the unexpected. “…But now that I do, it seems so right” is the sense of the inevitable.

There’s a significant difference between what’s richly personal and what’s merely autobiographically anecdotal. Because poetry is bigger than any one poet, the material of a poem is bigger than any poet’s autobiographical experiences. A poem’s given situation and circumstances—its concrete particulars—allow the reader to participate, no matter how briefly, in the specific, human world the poem is trafficking in. It’s the poet’s job not merely to tell the reader about an experience, but to allow the reader, vicariously, to have that experience—whether or not the reader’s ever had such an experience in her factual life. Therefore, the reader, too, needs to move beyond the bounds of mere autobiography (beyond “I can’t relate to this because it’s never actually happened to me…”). For this to occur, the poem most often needs grounding in a real-world, space/time continuum—a place for the reader to be.

Poetry is more than journal entries broken into lines. It’s more than personal credos, no matter how passionate or sincere. Poetry is a way of giving some specific shape—no matter how small or only momentary—to some of the many things that swirl through a more collective human experience. The poet’s job is to show us human life by showing us human lives in the context of the world we actually live in. I’ve been working on that for what’s been, by now, a considerable while, and still it’s an art I’m constantly relearning in so many ways from scratch. I’m always trying to find new strategies for keeping the possibilities open, even while I try to keep the words moving.

Geosi Gyasi: With this business of writing, have you gained anything you would consider worthwhile?

David Clewell: Writing (along with reading) is the single most pleasurable thing that I do in my life.  It has also helped me learn how to pay better attention to the world we really live in every day. That seems a worthwhile thing for human beings on the planet, whether or not they are writers. It’s more than worthwhile, actually. It’s increasingly necessary.

Geosi Gyasi: What was your main role as a Missouri poet laureate?

David Clewell: As Missouri’s Poet Laureate, it was my distinct pleasure to travel all around the state, talking with many different kinds of groups about poetry. I’m always delighted to talk with students and teachers (anywhere from kindergarten through university), but I was especially glad to have opportunities to talk with other folks who were not already what I like to call “poetry-inclined”: farmers…factory workers…military veterans…hospital staff, etc. I found myself in many “non-literary” situations, and I was exceedingly happy for those.

One of the criteria for being Poet Laureate (in addition to a solid, good body of work) is the ability to communicate at many different levels with a variety of people. Because I’m a pretty down-to-Earth kind of guy, my audiences were genuinely curious–and always fairly enthusiastically receptive. For many, these events provided their first genuine exposure to poetry–or at least their first since however-many-years-ago they had to “put up with it” in their early schooling. If I had a dollar for each time someone said to me, “I didn’t know a poem could do that” or “I didn’t know poetry could be about this,” I’d be a richer man than I am.

I think I was able to help open a lot of minds and hearts.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you observed some of your students gone on to be better and successful poets/writers?

David Clewell: In thirty years of teaching, I indeed have seen many students become better and successful writers. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see the definite beginnings of that process while they are still in classes, but more often it occurs after they’ve graduated. Those who want poetry to be a continuing part of their lives need to find the sense of discipline that will keep them working, keep the poems, somehow, in the heart of their daily lives. The world at large couldn’t care less if they keep writing poems. And the same is true about the world and me. It’s the writer who’s got to care.

The world cares about me paying the rent…buying groceries…showing up to meetings. And that means I’ll always be juggling other pragmatic concerns and fighting for the time to write on a regular basis. Time is the coin of the realm for the poet.

This is the discipline a good number of my students have managed to learn for themselves. While they’re in my classes, I can coax, wheedle, admonish, cajole, and applaud–but they teach themselves how to write better by learning how to make–and save–the time in which to do it. And if they find satisfaction and pleasure in continuing to practice the art (as I find my versions of those things, always), that is the measure of their true success; that’s above and beyond any publications, prizes, and awards.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any young American poets whose work you would consider important?

David Clewell: As I advance further and farther into old-codger-dom, it’s harder for me to get a handle on the sense of “young”–anyone who’s not quite as old as I am? Trying to do a wee bit better than that, and purposely avoiding naming former students of mine, lest the charge of nepotism rear its head, I’ll say: Patricia Lockwood. Brian Turner. And now creeping up much closer to my age, where there are so many I consider “important: Lucia Perillo. Daisy Fried. Amy Gerstler. H.L. Hix . Campbell McGrath. Lynn Emanuel. Amy Newman…  And, though he’s a wee bit older than I, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Albert Goldbarth–America’s one-man-genius-poetry-band. And Frank Stanford, forever young (1948-1978)–a primal force of poetry nature whose What About This: Collected Poems, was just last year loosed upon the world.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you changed as a writer since your first publication?

David Clewell: Have I changed as a writer since my first publication? Indisputably. I just hope it’s been mostly for the better! I’ve learned a lot about both the art itself (that’s lower-case “a”…nothing hifalutin going on here!) and the world I’ve always tried to take on in that wonderfully maddening enterprise. Ultimately, I guess that’s for others to say.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe in precise detail, how you start off your day and how you end it?

David Clewell: I’m not sure that precise details about how I start off my day and how I end it would be particularly interesting–or even factually possible. Aside from drinking a decent amount of strong black coffee at the outset (always) and a tumbler of ginger ale at the stroke of midnight (not always, but always Canada Dry when I do), most everything else– from the sublime to the ridiculous–varies wildly. I try to read for an hour or two before falling off into sleep but, given my aforementioned old-codger-dom, sometimes that turns out to be more like fifteen minutes. But if I’m in the throes of a new poem or new revisions, I somehow seem to have the energy to lose myself in those pages until, out of nowhere, the sun is actually coming up. And then it’s clearly Coffee Time all over again.


Interview with American Poet, Nicole Rollender

October 5, 2016
Photo: Nicole Rollender

Photo: Nicole Rollender

Brief Biography:

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, Memorious, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, in which “How to Stop Drowning” appears, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.

Geosi Gyasi: How much effort did you put into the writing of “Rise Up”?

Nicole Rollender: “Rise Up” is actually a very special poem to me, so thanks for picking it out. I wrote it about a woman mentor of mine who passed away suddenly. I had called to tell her that I was pregnant with my son and was told that she had unexpectedly died from a massive heart attack. It was such a final moment. “Rise Up” was my attempt to recreate some last moment we might have had, where she tried to give me her thoughts on dying well. This poem won CALYX Journal’s Lois Cranston Memorial Prize for “Rise Up” in 2014, which was a huge honor.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a strategy by which you start a poem?

Nicole Rollender: It depends, but a common one for me is word, phrase and image gathering. I keep running lists (things people say, words in other poems, words on the news, well, words from anywhere really. My kids, even. The other day I wrote down a magical phrase from my son that will appear in a poem). Once I have enough of a list, and when I feel that something is unifying them, I’ll start writing a poem. I also will write a poem and then break it apart later into other poems, or scrap it entirely except for one phrase that will make the new poem.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you plan the endings of your poems?

Nicole Rollender: Pretty much never. They’re a surprise to me too, until they happen.

Geosi Gyasi: Does one require a special gift to be a poet?

Nicole Rollender: I think anyone can write a poem and they should. Everyone should write poems as a form of self-expression. Can everyone write a poem like Ocean Vuong? Of course not. Like any other art, people are born with varying levels of skill and talent, and of course you can continue to hone your craft and read masterful poets and improve your work. I’m always on working to get to my next level.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do much edits before you send your work out for publication?

Nicole Rollender: Usually, yes, I go through many, many poem drafts as do many of the poets I know. It’s rare that a poem comes fully formed. I have a habit of emailing myself my poem drafts over and over, as if they’re coming to me from an old friend faraway. I read them and if I hit on a word line that I change, I send myself a new draft. Sometimes in one sitting, I can send myself between 30 and 50 emails.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you feel when your poem, “Necessary Work” was chosen by Li-Young Lee for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize?

Nicole Rollender: I had been away from writing for a few years, with working and having my first child. I wrote “Necessary Work” about the experience of my daughter spending time in the NICU after her birth. I entered that particular poetry contest because of Li-Young Lee; I love his work. When he selected my poem, it was an astounding and humbling moment. It was a moment that galvanized me forward, back into the writing life – and it’s led me to publish three chapbooks and a full-length collection since 2012.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m so much interested in the title of your book, “Bone of My Bone.” Could you give me a brief synopsis?

Nicole Rollender: I imagine these poems occurring in a bombed-out cathedral, under cover of darkness, maybe some otherworldly light edging the sky. The narrator is many: women who talk to the dead, mothers who “plant skulls in soil and grow sunflowers,” women suicides, women who cradle premature babies, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between the “reliquaria of childbirth” and saints’ incorruptible bodies.  These women also live inside themselves, contending with the “wolves within,” asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens from within its bone fences?” The dead and what is the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, for remembrance, for some kind of communion. They recognize the living as embodied spirits, a type of mirroring. And the narrator, the “she” in many women, goes many places in these poems, even to an uncharted space where the divine’s “name becomes a hand leading me to a place/ where even your name I-am-all-that-is can’t be.” Where does she end up? Existing between this life and the next. She may not have found peace, but she has tried to catch God whole, and let the dead close enough “to smell her mouth’s chancel.”

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your time at Pennsylvania State University?

Nicole Rollender: I went to Penn State right after I completed my undergraduate degree in literature, to earn my MFA in creative writing (I concentrated on poetry and nonfiction). I was really young, 21 years old, and it was an exciting experience to pretty much be immersed in poetry all the time. I had the opportunity to work with poets Robin Becker and Cecil Giscombe, and see lots of visiting poets read. All of us were young, in our 20s and early 30s, and we were teaching, writing, staying up late, workshopping, staying up late. It was kind of a shock leaving a place where we were surrounded in poetry and by writers and then going out into the 9-to-5 job world. Luckily, with social media, you can be part of a writing community from anywhere.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me the work you do at Wearables magazine?

Nicole Rollender: Sure. This is a B2B trade magazine that goes out to people who commercially decorate apparel and those who sell it. It’s service journalism at its best, and we have a diversely cool gamut of topics: from the hottest apparel and embellishment trends at New York or Paris Fashion Week, to how to screen print or embroider a hoodie, to how best to promote your business on social media. We run decorating contests and work with local art colleges to promote their apparel and textile design students’ work. We bring in consultants to make over struggling businesses. Our readers are very passionate and involved in what they do, and we interact with them regularly on social media. I’m proud that my team has brought home more than 40 journalism awards, including several Jesse H. Neal awards, which I’ve anecdotally heard called the Pulitzer Prize of business reporting.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write?

Nicole Rollender: That’s the age-old question. It’s not easy, between work and family responsibilities. That’s really no different than any other writer though, so it really comes down to just having this intense desire to create and then taking whatever time you can to devote to it. I read a lot of poems on my phone, so that lets me immerse myself in others’ work throughout the day. I have a new manuscript that I’m working on, and I leave it open on my computer. When I have a few minutes to spare I hop into it and see what I can do. When I need longer stretches of time, I tend to do it after the household is in bed – when it really will stay quiet for a while.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax?

Nicole Rollender: I don’t have a lot of downtime, but weight lifting, walking in nature, listening to music, reading, writing, all these things relax me.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is/are your favourite poets?

Nicole Rollender: I have a lot, but here are some that immediately come to mind: Jennifer Givhan, Lucille Clifton, Stevie Edwards, Louise Glück, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Traci Brimhall, Jessica Goodfellow. And many more.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry readings?

Nicole Rollender: Yes. I actually did a number of them this past spring and summer after my first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions), was released. I’ve read in small cafes and bookstores and some larger venues as the featured poet. It’s always sort of nerve-wracking before you get up, as you shuffle through your poems reworking the list of poems I’m going to read. The experience of reading to an audience though is exhilarating, especially when people connect with your work. I’ve had the pleasure of reading alongside some great poets as well.

Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you have for budding writers?

Nicole Rollender: The most important thing I can say is to not give up, or stop. Writing is a solitary thing. You have to do it alone, and you have to motivate yourself to do it. Many good writers I’ve known have stopped writing for various reasons, like fear, not having enough time, etc. So if you don’t write, you won’t get better and you won’t get published. Don’t be afraid to write bad drafts; we all write them. It’s in reading others’ work (this is key) and cultivating your own regular writing practice that you will grow as an artist.


Interview with Award Winning Poet, Claire Zoghb

September 30, 2016
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.


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

September 18, 2016
Photo: Laura Treacy Bentley

Photo: Laura Treacy Bentley


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.

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.


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.”


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:

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:

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.


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