Many thanks to Christal Cooper for featuring my poem “Astral” in her blog series “Backstory of the Poem.” I really appreciate all the work she puts into this series. She dug up and included lots of fun photos of me that I didn’t even know I had, like the one below, as well as images of and by Leonora Carrington, who is the subject of the poem. I talked about how I wrote “Astral,” resisting unhealthy conformity, and how I used to jump on a trampoline in my dress when I got home from work. Also included are notes that didn’t make it into the final draft of the poem.
I love the questions Charles Clifford Brooks III asked me for our Blue Mountain Review interview. I got to talk about how my grandmother took a 20 year Proust class, my mother instilled a love of storytelling in me, and my kid, Rosalind Williamson, is basically the literary love child of Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez (not because of any credit to me, though I wish! ).
I’m thrilled to announce the release of the second video of a two-part interview featuring poet and editor Don Share. Recorded in late 2015, in this episode of VIDA Voices and Views I interview Share, who reads his poems “Food for Thought,” “Eclipse,” “die Welt is so verkehrt,” “Another Long Poem,” “Hwæt!” and “Looking over My Shoulder,” as well as offering a generous, in-depth discussion of the poems. Other topics discussed are comedy and seriousness in poetry, the good faith of editors, Poetry’s diverse readership, and more.
About Don Share:
Beloved poet and Poetry magazine editor, Don Share, was a 2015 recipient of VIDA’s “VIDO” Award for his contributions to American literature and literary community. In addition to being the author and editor of over a dozen books, including Wishbone, Union,Bunting’s Persia, Seneca in English,Squandermania and The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of POETRY Magazine, which he co-edited with Christian Wiman, Share is an accomplished translator, whose renditions of Miguel Hernández were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán. As well, Share’s work at Poetry has been recognized with three National Magazine Awards for editorial excellence from the American Society of Magazine Editors, and a CLMP “Firecracker” Award for Best Poetry Magazine. Share is celebrated in the literary community for his generosity, innovativeness, and warm wit.
Don Share Quotes from This Episode of VIDA Voices & Views:
“If you look all over the world, at the images in the most troubled places, you see women having to pay the price for the violence that occurs. Whether it’s domestic violence or warfare or poverty, it’s women who have to convert all kinds of emotion and disadvantages into a world that makes it possible for somebody else to survive.”
“The images we see, which are real, of the world and the bloody violence and horrors of it, start with a cut. We’re done to death by many cuts.”
“Every time somebody holds a child or another person in their arms . . . that’s the level on which our work in the world needs to be imagined and reimagined continually.”
“In my experience, editors are always reading work with good will and good faith and good intentions. And those good intentions don’t just pave the road to hell. People are reading the work when they could be doing something else, perhaps to benefit their own careers. And they do so willingly. It’s not a sacrifice. We all do it because we choose to do it. And we’re lucky to do so. What I hope is that the good faith is communicable.”
“If I like a poet’s work, I buy their books because it means so much, not just to the poets but to the presses that try so hard to put the work out there. I buy books because I believe in that. If we aren’t buying each other’s books then the whole system falls apart.”
“I try to pay attention to all kinds of language, as we all do—not just literature, but the language that engages us 90% of the rest of our time. It’s there. It’s ours.”
“If a poem has five good words in it, that’s a considerable achievement.”
“Poetry did some surveys to understand our own audience better, and more than half of our readers have no advanced degree past high school. They are general readers, sophisticated people who want to read challenging contemporary poetry every month . . . and they are there for us, and we should never neglect our understanding that our audience is what we would wish it to be and we just need to say something to them in the best way we can.”
About VIDA Voices & Views:
VIDA Voices & Views is a video interview program designed to call attention to a plurality of voices by interviewing writers, editors, publishers, series curators, anthologists, awards committee members, and other dedicated members of the literary community about their own work, vision, and concerns, as well as topics at the forefront of literary activism. The program seeks to contribute to a better understanding of the literary landscape and the issues facing artists of all genders, as well as to foster nuanced conversation about gender parity, race, disability, LGBTQ, economic, and other crucial issues impacting writers today. The host and executive producer of VIDA Voices & Views is Melissa Studdard. Other members of the team are Lauren Rachel Berman, producer; Samuel Caterisano, editor; and Eamon Stewart, graphics designer. To learn more about VIDA Voices & Views and to listen to our other interviews please visit: http://www.vidaweb.org/about-vida-voices-views/
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
I’m thrilled to announce that I’m hosting a new video interview series for VIDA– VIDA Voices & Views. The programis an interview podcast designed to call attention to a plurality of voices by interviewing writers, editors, publishers, series curators, anthologists, awards committee members, and other dedicated members of the literary community about their own work, vision, and concerns, as well as topics at the forefront of literary activism. The program seeks to foster a better understanding of the literary landscape and the issues facing artists of both genders, as well as to provide nuanced conversation about gender parity, race, disability, LGBTQ, economic, and other crucial issues impacting writers today.
The executive producer of digital media for the program is the very talented RJ Jeffreys, who created a beautiful look for the series. You can read more about Jeffreys and the program here: http://www.vidaweb.org/about-vida-voices-views/.
My first conversation is with the wonderful human and poet Rita Dove. She gives a marvelous reading of her poems “Parsley” and “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work” and discusses topics ranging from literary bias masquerading as objectivity to sharing poetry with preschoolers. You can read more about Rita Dove and the episode here: http://www.vidaweb.org/rita-dove-vida-voices-views/.
As well, these are some of my favorite Rita Dove quotes from the episode:
“My most radical pronouncement, if I were queen or something, would be that anywhere where there is more than one child together—any kind of group, if they have a schedule for the day—to end the day with a poem… sort of like pledging allegiance to the flag.”
“There is not going to be any change unless we can begin to talk about any little fear, any little hatred, any little bias that we might have and to admit that all human beings have them.”
“I wasn’t looking to lard [The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry] with rainbow colors. This is just the way it happened. These were the poems that were being published, and it made me feel hopeful. I said, ‘Look, look! Things are changing here.’”
“I remember what it was like as a child when I was reading poetry and couldn’t find anyone who had my life, who looked like me, who had the same kind of experiences, and how lonely that was …”
“Pulling someone into the spotlight, out of the shadows … I don’t feel that it casts aspersions on those who are already in the sunlight. It’s more like there can never be enough poetry, and there can never be enough heroes.”
“As a writer I couldn’t exist not being honest, totally honest, with the world, and with myself.”