Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Yalie Kamara

April 20, 2017

Yalie-KamaraBrief Biography:

Yalie Kamara is a first generation Sierra Leonean-American woman and native of Oakland, California. Prior to becoming an MFA candidate at Indiana University, she worked in the field of social justice specializing in educational access and arts facilitation. She holds Bachelors of Arts degrees in Languages and Creative Writing from University of California, Riverside and a Masters of Arts degree in French from Middlebury College. Yalie’s writing has appeared in Vinyl Poetry and ProseEntropy Mag, and Amazon: Day One. She is a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow. Her forthcoming chapbook, When The Living Sing, will be published by LedgeMule Press in Spring, 2017.

Geosi Gyasi: I am often confused when writers are associated with two or more nationalities, like in your case, Sierra Leonean-American. My question is, where do you actually belong?

Yalie Kamara: That’s a really, good question, and I hope my response isn’t even more confusing. I think that sometimes when you’re born in one country and your parents use the values of another (their homeland) to govern their home life and shape their social and political ideologies, etc., you turn out one of three ways: either you completely reject your parents’ culture and viewpoints, you completely absorb your parents’ culture and viewpoints, or you’re just kind of stunned by all of the contradictory cultural messages between home life and school, that you grasp a handful of each culture. I am from the latter category. I think the children of immigrants fall into whatever category fits their disposition at the time and I think it can be a fluid identity, as well.

I don’t think that I am American enough in America, and in Sierra Leone, I would not be considered Sierra Leonean enough. I think that’s even clear in speech—there are idiomatic expressions and words that I don’t know in either English or Krio. There are gaps in both my American and Sierra Leonean cultural knowledge. I don’t see it as a deficit; I find it more charming than embarrassing. I love what I know and I love that I have familiarity with more than one place. But if I could cite the hyphen as a nationality, I honestly would. Being a first-generation American means that I inhabit the most citizenship in liminality. I find comfort and home in that space, and for that reason, I resist privileging one nationality over another.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first consider yourself as a writer/poet?

Yalie Kamara: I remember thinking that I was a poet near the end of high school when I was participating in writing workshops on a pretty regular basis and competing in national poetry slams. For about a decade after that, I did a lot of writing but didn’t really embrace the possibility of becoming a writer. While I enjoyed writing, I (kind of) tried to fulfill my family’s dreams of either becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I didn’t really do anything with as much joy as I did writing, but I had a real reticence and hesitation around identifying as a poet/writer.

I started really calling myself a writer about maybe two years ago? I think it was at the point where I could fully articulate with words the tingling/ecstatic/painful sensations that I experience when I encounter art that moves or troubles me. But I guess I never had a choice in the matter when I really think about it. My name Yalie is derived from Jelimuso, a term for the caste of West African female storytellers. Jele is also a Mende word for “blood,” which evokes notions of lineage and keeping stories and culture alive.

Geosi Gyasi: It’s quite interesting knowing the meaning of your name, Yalie. Have you ever asked your parents about why they gave you that name?

Yalie Kamara: I have inquired many times about why they named me the way in which they did, and from what I gather, it wasn’t intentional. I think they were more concerned with the music of my first, middle, and last names than with their meanings. I think it’s still a really generous way to name a child and I’m pretty pleased with the end result!

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to write so proficiently in English that I so much admire. But you speak both English and French. Do you write in French as well? 

Yalie Kamara: Thank you! English is the language that I have “lived” the most “life” in, in terms of my upbringing, educational background, and artistic practice. Though I would like to one day produce poetry and prose in French, at this point, my relationship with French exists in the context of conversation, reading, and literary translation as a result of studying the language since I was 13 and spending some years living in France.

Geosi Gyasi: I am often confused when writers are associated with two or more nationalities, like in your case, Sierra Leonean-American. My question is, where do you actually belong?

Yalie Kamara: …But if I could cite the hyphen as a nationality, I honestly would. Being a first-generation American means that I inhabit the most citizenship in liminality. I find comfort and home in that space, and for that reason, I resist privileging one nationality over another.

Geosi Gyasi: With your poem, “Mother’s Rules”, is it really a true image about your real mother’s rules? I was interested in this line: “IV. Your Krio is offensive. When you speak, you sound like Shabba Ranks. Your accent is funny, but keep practicing. It is the only way we will be able to gossip in peace while at the supermarket.” My question is, as someone who identifies with Sierra Leone, did you speak Krio growing up and/or do you speak the Krio language?

Yalie Kamara: I read my mother this question and she got a kick out of the first part! Whenever I share this poem, I usually preface it by saying that even though my mother is usually “right,” about many things, I never tell her. This poem is the moment that I get to show her that I’ve been listening very closely to the things that she’s been saying around me for the last few decades. “Mother’s Rules” is based on 100% of the things that I’ve heard her say—this isn’t the least bit speculative! She’s got a really interesting outlook on life that is as hopeful as it is heartbreaking and as humorous as it is biting.

Krio was my first language; I only learned to speak English when I started going to school. My spoken Krio is proficient, however my listening and reading skills are fluent. Writing is tricky, because as far as I understand it, the language is rooted in orality. My mother only ever speaks to me in Krio and these days, and though I don’t speak it day to day, I have daily exposure to it. These days though, I’m feeling a bit more confident about responding back to my mother in Krio. It could be that I don’t feel as bad about making grammatical mistakes.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me what readers should expect from your forthcoming chapbook, “When The Living Sing” (Ledge Mule Press in Spring, 2017)?

Yalie Kamara: Thanks for asking! Some of the chapbook’s contents will include some of my poems that are featured on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize website. The chapbook is an exploration of themes of first generation-American identity, Blackness, womanhood, spirituality and how those subjects interact with loss, the imagination, and freedom. I imagine every poem translating into a song as well, which is part of what the title is referencing —you’d have to read the book to get the other half of the reference!

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer/poet inspires you most?

Yalie Kamara: My mother is my favorite poet because of her command of Krio; it’s pitch perfect. It is a goal of mine, if even an asymptotic endeavor, to be able to ply and manipulate English in the ways that she can in Krio. I think of each piece of writing as an attempt. In addition to her, there are many writers that really make me feel. Here are some: Chris Abani, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tiana Clark, Lucille Clifton, Mos Def, Eduardo Galeano, Aracelis Girmay, Kiese Laymon, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Morton Marcus, ZZ Packer, Ishle Yi Park, Morgan Parker, and Evie Shockley, just to name a few. I think each of these writers strikes a really stunning balance between imagery, lyricism, honesty, and narrative pacing that makes their writing so striking.

Geosi Gyasi: Just be so honest with me; who do you think should win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Yalie Kamara: Tricky question, Mr. Gyasi! But here’s what I do know: I am really excited to be on a shortlist with these particular poets because of the sheer talent and brilliance represented. There are so many rich, beautiful, and unique narratives that are shared with such elegance, grace, and breathtaking honesty. Though I think there are many individual winners in this group, I am also enjoying this moment. It’s clear that we all possess remarkable variation in the art that we create, however there is also such magnificence in watching us collectively right now. We shine really well together.

Geosi Gyasi: Indeed, I’m also impressed about the sheer talent with this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist however, there would be only one winner. Who should that winner be? Would it be you?

 Yalie Kamara: First and foremost, I am extremely honored to be on a short list with such luminaries whose careers I am looking forward to following. With that said, I’m confident in my art and the ways in which my writing renders my cultural experiences as a Sierra Leonean-American woman, who inhabits a plethora of identities. I honor God and my humility and I leave it in the judges’ hands to make the decision that best fits the spirit of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. There are a lot of strong writers to choose from—judging this competition seems both a lovely and laborious task!



Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Saddiq Dzukogi

April 19, 2017

SaddiqBrief Biography:

Saddiq Dzukogi studied at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. He has poems featured or forthcoming in literary publications such as: New Orleans Review, African American Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Juked, The Poetry Mail, Chiron Review, Vinyl Poetry, ELSEWHERE LIT’s anthology of contemporary African poetry, The Volta, Construction, Welter, among numerous others. He was a guest at the 2015 Writivism Festival in Uganda as well as at the Nigeria-Korea Poetry Feast in the same year. Saddiq is the Poetry Editor of the online journal, Expound and a three times a finalist in The Association of Nigerian Author’s Poetry Prize. Saddiq lives in Minna, Nigeria. He can be found @saddiqdzukogi.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you, in the first place, venture into poetry?

Saddiq Dzukogi: This of course wasn’t the plan, in fact I had said to my Dad as a young teenager that I would never write poetry. At that time, I was betrothed to short story writing. Until one day there was a power cut that stretched for more than a week or so. I re-counted it in the dairy mother gifted me. Wait, I hope it is ok to put it here:

”Nepa took light on Thursday

Brother Salisu left for Abuja on Thursday

Brother Salisu came back on Friday

Nepa didn’t come back on Friday”

 NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) is the defunct name of the Nigerian power company. Somehow my dad saw this lamentation. He called me to his room that night and teased me that I have either way fallen into the trap of the muse, and that I have produced my very first poem. I didn’t become a poet by accident, but the trigger transpired by accident. After years of bad power supply, I am here still writing the poems not because of that anymore but because only a corpse does not have a voice and I don’t want to be a corpse. Poetry affords me the right voice I need. I want to keep speaking to the world long after I cease to exist in this corporeal demesne, poetry promises that, it gives me the countenance of the universe, and I am constantly learning to master these meanings it allows me to stomach. Basically, it isn’t more than this. I have gained the senses that will not get missing in the complexity of silence, once I am no more.

Geosi Gyasi: Help me understand this: do you make a living from the poems you write?

Saddiq Dzukogi: Geosi this is amazingly mischievous. We all know that the poetry industry isn’t all that financially profitable, but it still pays in another currency, happiness and enlightenment, that is a sort of currency I get paid in. Poetry has opened up my body in such manner that I understand the world better, because the world is sitting inside my mind and it gives me the meaning of all things, the metaphor for all things, for which I am now a poet who understands the rhymes and lines of this world. But let me be more direct to this question. All the good things that have come to me is because of poetry, my partner Mirah fell in love with me, because of the poems, so, by extension, poetry gave me my two lovely children, Bahra and Rayhan. The largest some of fund that has ever sat in my bank account is because of poetry. My first job, was because of poetry. So yes, Geosi, I make a living from the poems, whether they pay me by cash or by kindness both of which are currencies that carry me on, through life. There has been abundance of kindness that have arrived at my doorsteps in the name of the poems. Poetry doesn’t pay, but it has found a way to be paying me… hahaha!

Geosi Gyasi: How did you become part of the Expound family, serving as their poetry editor?

Saddiq Dzukogi: Expound is now my child, our child. The Founder and Managing Editor, Wale Owoade called me one night over a long telephone conversation. He wanted me to serve as poetry editor, I accepted. It’s been a wonderful experience and a sort of learning curve. Today, Expound is part of the Nigerian literary conversation, it is part of African literary conversation that have published and collaborated with so many wonderful writers and folks. We are proud of the child we are nurturing.

All the good things that have come to me is because of poetry, my partner Mirah fell in love with me, because of the poems, so, by extension, poetry gave me my two lovely children, Bahra and Rayhan. The largest some of fund that has ever sat in my bank account is because of poetry. My first job, was because of poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Does one need any qualification to become a poetry editor of any literary magazine?

Saddiq Dzukogi: Basically I think the only thing is that you must be a lover of poetry with the eyes for poems. I just trust what appeals to me and hope our audience will also recognize the beauty that I have identify so that when a work is finally published, the editors, contributors and readers would all be happy. You do not need a certificate for that, you do not even need to go to a school for that and certainly, you must not even need to be a good poet yourself. What you need is eyes for the poems, the ones that rips apart the skin of readers reaching beyond their bones to touch souls, feeding them new understanding.

Geosi Gyasi: Having written and published a number of poems, what sort of technique did you use to select the ten poems for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

 Saddiq Dzukogi: I am a very spontaneous person, what I did was open my manuscript and trusting ten poems that frightened me. I did not pay special attention to the selection because the poems where already trying to form as a book, so it was easy to assume they could work together.

Geosi Gyasi: You have a unique way of beginning your poems. For instance, in “When the clock said”, you began with,” the day drops its golden statue between us…”. How important is the beginning of a poem to you?

Saddiq Dzukogi: I believe in first impressions. Though I do not make a conscious effort to instigate each poem with a sort of uniqueness. However, I take the beginning of a poem to be a doorway into the poem and not a shut door that stops your entrance at the very initial stage of interaction. Every part of a poem should work in such a way that it wishes to fulfil the objective of the whole. The beginning needs to be a good first step if not, you who have lost your first step may find it hard to recover. It is better for the poem to fail at the middle or at the end, than for it to do so, at the beginning.

Geosi Gyasi: You narrated a touching story on your Facebook wall about how fellow poet, David Ishaya Osu, greatly helped you in entering your poems in this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Could you recount the full story here?

Saddiq Dzukogi: Yes, I could. This is the post you are referencing: I really do not know what to make of this news. I do not understand the feeling; it is new to me. But you are right, it feels damn good. I feel so lucky to be in the midst of my heroes, friends and siblings.

I recollect that I called David an hour to the deadline and announced to him of my inability to enter for the Prize due to a horrible internet network, Glo picked the wrong day to mess me up. David asked what about my MTN line, he said I should subscribe an internet package and send in my entry. I walked the breadth of Mando, that night and there wasn’t any vendor available. I called David back, and he said “you must enter”. He went out into the Abuja night and got me a recharge card. I loaded it, subscribed to a Data Plan. I submitted my entry exactly five minutes to the deadline, exactly 11:55PM.

Why am I telling you this, because I want to say a special thank you to David, thank you, I love you!!!

Thanks for all the sweet emails and Facebook inbox notes and calls, I feel loved, and thank you to all of you, I really feel loved.

It was really a terrible feeling when I thought I was going to lose the opportunity to enter for the Prize as we have all agreed to. We normally make sure everyone enters for any great opportunity out there, the circle of the new generation of Nigerian poets, so when it became clear I might be unable to do so, enter for the Prize, first because of power cut and secondly because of poor internet. I notified Wale Owoade and David Ishaya; they were both trying to find solutions. Eventually, David came through.

Geosi Gyasi: Is the situation of electricity supply that bad in Nigeria?

Saddiq Dzukogi: The electricity situation is still terrible. We often write using candle light at night when there isn’t power to charge up our computers. This is not ok, but it is fine, because we still produce the poems, ‘’pain is a raw material for art’’, so I try to harness all the depravities to my advantage and work the poems with whatever the environment affords.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you expecting to win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Saddiq Dzukogi: *laughs profusely* I am a winner already, everyone on the shortlist is winner already. I am just trying to relish the moment, that’s all.

Geosi Gyasi: How useful is your study in Mass Communication to your literary career?

Saddiq Dzukogi: I think my literary career is useful to my study of Mass Communication, not the other way round. Each time I am going on air, I read poems to prepare my voice and relax my nerves.

We often write using candle light at night when there isn’t power to charge up our computers. This is not ok, but it is fine, because we still produce the poems, ‘’pain is a raw material for art’’, so I try to harness all the depravities to my advantage and work the poems with whatever the environment affords.

Geosi Gyasi: Which ONE writer/poet do you look up to? 

Saddiq Dzukogi: I look up to the various moods of nature. But yes, I also love the work Ladan Osman is doing.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you introduce to the world, all about Minna, the place you live and write from? 

Saddiq Dzukogi: Minna is a bed-nest of poets and writers. It is quiet and opens up a person’s third eye. Minna is a place that does not care whether you are Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo, we have somehow learnt to live peacefully as one Nigerian, this is a thing that have proven so difficult for other parts of Nigeria. There is a reach literary tradition there and a sort of Mentorship Scheme championed by a group of volunteers at the Hilltopart Foundation, mentoring secondary school students in various forms of creative expression. I came to be through that mentorship scheme as a mentee, and right now I am trying to give back as a mentor, from the little blessings I have gained thus far, in this creative struggle. Minna is a wonderful place to be for the creative. Geosi, you should visit, anytime you are in Nigeria.


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.


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