Interview by Jonathan Taylor at Everybody’s Reviewing

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JT: Melissa, I hugely enjoyed your poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, which seemed to me original, strange and often sublime. At the same time, your neo-Romanticism is also accompanied by an eye for the beauty of the everyday – so that the sublime mixes with the mundane (“Washing clothes … is an act of prayer,” you say in one poem, and another is entitled “Starry Night, with Socks”). For me, I would say this was one of the hallmarks of your style – but do tell me if I’m wrong. How would you describe your style?

MS: I love that assessment, Jonathan – especially that you called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast “strange.” In pointing out the commingling of the mundane and sublime, you nailed not only my style, but also how I experience the world. I grew up in a secular home. My father is agnostic, and my mother is spiritual with a deep curiosity about supernatural mysteries. We didn’t go to church, but I would sit at the top of the jungle gym in my back yard and talk to god. I believed and still believe that god is in my backyard. That’s part of it. Also, there’s something a monk said to me years ago when I was learning Buddhist meditation. He said, “When you learn to relax inside your mind, you can be on permanent vacation, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” You don’t need to go anywhere or seek anything. The beach, the flower, the mountain – they are all inside you. So, yes, I carry them with me when I vacuum and put on socks. Then I realize that vacuum cleaners and socks are sublime too. So, I think I would describe my style as you have, except to also possibly add that I think figuratively. I’m sure I have driven people crazy with my constant metaphors and analogies in everyday conversation, but if I want to understand or explain something, my mind almost always reaches for a comparison.

JT: Clearly, there’s a lot of cosmic and creation imagery in the collection.  What themes and ideas were you exploring in this respect?

MS: I was exploring a feminine, cyclical conception of god, time, and the universe. Rather than fashioning my poetic god in man’s image, I fashioned her in woman’s image. It was important to me that she be god and not the diminutive or adjunct “goddess.” I wanted to convey her as the origin and the all powerful, but I also wanted her to be present in the whole of everything. So, in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, most everything is pretty much a microcosm of the divine and the all. That’s why a pancake is creation flattened out. It’s all interconnected, all divine. As well, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast plays with ideas of reincarnation, god birthing the universe, and god attempting to parent the world.

To read the rest of the interview, please visit Everybody’s Reviewing.

 

Gregory Pardlo Interview– VIDA Voices & Views

About This Episode:

In this episode of VIDA Voices and Views, Melissa Studdard interviews poet and memoirist, Gregory Pardlo, who reads from his Pulitzer-winning poetry collection, Digest, and discusses topics ranging from adapting the slave narrative form for his celebrated poem “Written by Himself” to his family fining him for missed meals.

About Gregory Pardlo:

Known for his intellectual rigor, gorgeous musicality, and socially and politically engaged writing, Gregory Pardlo is the author of the poetry collection, Digest, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Digest was also shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. As poet Campbell McGrath says, “These are poems that delight the ear, encourage the heart, and nourish the brain.” Pardlo’s other honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. As well, his first poetry collection, Totem, was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. Pardlo is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf, and he is a faculty member of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.

To learn more about Gregory Pardlo, please visit: http://pardlo.com

 Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Gregory Pardlo Quotes from This Episode of VIDA Voices & Views:

“When the Pulitzer came along, I thought, well this is a clear mandate if ever there was one—this is a call to open doors for women and people of color and to campaign for a broader sense of aesthetics.”

“I do hear lines, but they aren’t necessarily the lines I open with. I use those musical inspirations as stakes—ways to stake down the poem—so I can have a sense of where it is spatially and how it’s operating. By the end of the drafting process, those lines are very rarely still present in the poem.”

“It’s only since I got sober that I even was able to write this book, Digest, and the whole idea of service then became something that I saw not as an obligation or onerous responsibility, but I saw it as something that is thrilling and an honor and a privilege.”

“So many problems in the world and in history can be boiled down to the simple—no, not simple at all—to the singular—idea of paternalism, of patriarchy, and how deeply that is rooted throughout so many isms and ills.”

“In the back of MAD Magazine, they had these fold over images. There’s an image that looks like one thing; you fold it over and it becomes something completely different. At some point in the last year, I was talking about my work, and I realized that is precisely the way I imagine the poems.”

“So, I get this text message saying, ‘Congratulations on your Pulitzer,’ and it’s from a former student, so I say, ‘this person is terribly confused.’”

“I don’t expect other writers to be activists or to approach their work in an activist way, but I do advocate for a kind of self-awareness . . . be aware of what you’re putting on the page. Be aware of the narratives that you’re playing into, and if those are the narratives you genuinely want to explore, do it responsibly.”

“I was thinking about sex work as the struggle over who owns labor and the kinds of labor that men profess to own and how that influences my understanding of myself as a father—and trying to struggle against that in a culture where that is the central kind of operating system.”

Three New Poems at Cultural Weekly

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Here is a screenshot of one of three poems just up at Cultural Weekly. Many thanks to the immensely talented Alexis Rhone Fancher for asking for these. “The Sudden Violence of Light” is about a lot of things, but especially my powerful grandmothers, who somehow got fused into one person here, as sometimes happens in poems. 

Here’s the full page: http://www.culturalweekly.com/melissa-studdard-three-poems/

Patricia Smith Interview for VIDA Voices & Views

About This Episode:

In this episode of VIDA Voices and Views, Melissa Studdard interviews poet and fiction writer, Patricia Smith, who reads from her award-winning poetry collection Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and discusses topics ranging from the poetic inspiration of children’s books to learning how to use technique to resonate your voice in the reader’s head.

About Patricia Smith:

A renaissance artist of unmistakable signature, Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She has authored and edited six critically-acknowledged volumes of poetry, a children’s book, a crime fiction anthology, and a companion volume to the groundbreaking PBS history series, Africans in America. Her numerous accolades include the Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Phillis Wheatley Award in Poetry. As well, she is recognized as one of the world’s most formidable performers and is a four-time national individual champion of the Poetry Slam. She was featured in the film “Slamnation,” and appeared on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” Additionally, her works have been transformed into award-winning films and plays, and her vocals have been featured on jazz CDs and radio commercials. An accomplished and sought-after instructor of poetry, performance, and creative writing, Patricia often appears at creative conferences and residencies and is a Cave Canem faculty member, a professor of English at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and a faculty member of the Sierra Nevada MFA program.

To learn more about Patricia Smith, please visit: http://www.wordwoman.ws/

 

Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Patricia Smith Quotes from This Episode of VIDA Voices & Views:

“When something comes back to your head more than three times, it’s begging to be written about.”

“If you learn how to look at the world the way a poet looks at the world, you will lose your mind—because inspiration smacks you in the face wherever you are.”

“[Poetry] is one of the only things you can do where your voice is always legitimate.”

“I want to be able to put a poem I’ve written on a table and have someone pick it up and say ‘Patricia, you must have dropped this poem’ and my name’s not on it … We should all be in pursuit of signature.”

“If you don’t tell your own story or even find a way to tell snippets of your own story, you give permission for someone else to do it.”

“I kind of think of poetry as a second throat.”

“When you’re afraid of parts of your story, you’re afraid to even write them down.”

“The key is to still have all that feeling and all that spontaneity in the poem but be able to bring it under a structure so that there’s a tension developed.”

“If you say you are impassioned about writing, you should want to write in as many ways as possible.”

Voices of Bettering American Poetry Interview

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you? 

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Telling my truth as a woman and a writer has not only been difficult; it’s one of the greatest, most ongoing battles of my life. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that almost every day I write is a day I struggle to say what I really think and feel. As well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that what I really think and feel is at times so repressed by and so buried beneath everything I am supposed to be that I can hardly find it to write about it.

Realizing that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you is not the same as feeling empowered to do so. For me, it’s a process, and the biggest awakening has been reading Audre Lorde. I’m not all the way brave or all the way awake yet, but reading Lorde shook me up and startled me out of a sort of debilitating politeness. She made me realize that it’s not only my right—it’s my responsibility—to speak my truth. I came to her late, through my girlfriend, Amy King, and I wish I’d discovered her decades ago. My whole life would have been different. I keep Sister Outsider on my desk, and I keep quotes from “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” on my hard drive. Lorde says:

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

What liberates me is not overcoming fear but taking fear for that wild ride from my gut out to the page.

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

 

 

 

Houston Is All Dressed Up In Poetry

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To celebrate hosting the Super Bowl this year, among other lovely happenings, Houston is getting all dressed up in POETRY. I’m thrilled that some of my lines were selected and are now on banners across the city. What a great project. What a great city. Below are a couple of articles about The Houston Banner Project and Figurative Poetics. One of them is by Miah Mary Arnold, curator of the project, and the other is by Clifford Pugh, Editor-in-Chief at CultureMap.

Here are a couple of paragraphs (from Miah’s article in the Houston Chronicle) that tell about the beautiful intent of the project:

“The project is the brainwork of Alan Krathaus and Fiona McGettigan of Core Design Studio. The Houston Downtown Management District wanted to create something bold and inspiring with the new banners they were going to hang, and asked Core for ideas. Their answer — ‘Figurative Poetics’ — was adventurous from the get-go: Whereas most downtowns have banners with simple promotional slogans, McGettigan and Krathaus wondered, what it would be like if Houston’s banners could reveal the city like the complex and unlikely character that it is?

What if walking down the street could be like having a conversation? What if each new path through the city created a new narrative, and each story was as dynamic as the city itself? What if Houston could sing its innumerable voices?”

I’ll share pictures of the banners with my lines when I find them.

CultureMap

Houston Chronicle