A Poetic Variety Show: Talking with Steven Cramer, Author of Listen

Steven Cramer taught one of the first seminars I took at the Lesley low-residency MFA program, and I later learned that he founded the program itself back in 2003. Like most of the Lesley faculty, his bio is studded with accolades: six books of poetry, a page on the Poetry Foundation website, prizes from the New England Poetry Club and the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and bylines in major publications like Poetry, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. But perhaps more importantly, he’s a sensitive soul with a deep and comprehensive knowledge of literature. When I was writing a craft essay on Dickinson, I went searching for interpretations of a particularly obscure line, and an interview with him was the only relevant result.

His newest book Listen (Mad Hat Press) came out in 2020 amidst all the chaos and isolation of the pandemic. Fortunately, Zoom readings have in many ways made poetry even more accessible than before. And writers often prefer to communicate using the written word. Steven and I corresponded via email for a few weeks, with prodigious results. We discussed the ways that poetry collections come together, the pros and cons of printed page versus screens, and white space as a craft element. And, as I do with every poet I interview, I asked about his individual writing practice, the ways he manages the writing life, and what he might tell poets at the beginning of their careers.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection.

Photograph of poet Steven Cramer
Poet Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer: Listen was a peculiar collection to assemble.  My previous book, Clangings, arrived in a kind of white, interruptive heat between 2010 and its publication in 2012.  By the time I’d written enough poetry for Listen, some candidates for inclusion in the book dated as far back as 2004, and others came of age as recently as two years ago.  How did these poems talk to each other, if they did?

I was never much good at organizing my own books. I always asked my friends for help.  I had poems that wrestled—sometimes rather covertly—with three years of depression; those had to go together.  I had poems that cast imaginative attention on my different clans—children (tweenish in 2004; by 2019 in no way children); a thirty-plus year marriage; the absences and presences of my diminishing family of origin; and reading, a subject I embrace without apology. With crucial assistance I came up with a first section that starts very dark, goes darker, and then begins to lift its gaze before the second section turns to the erotic life and two of its inevitable outcomes—offspring and death!  A number of poems that grapple with the social world’s impingements on the personal had accumulated for a third section. Finally, there’s a group that, by and large, honors writers I love, through adaptation or homage. I think that last suite completes the upward arc from Listen’s first section. 

Some poetry collections are very consistent, poem by poem, in form and tone.  Except for my one “project book,” Clangings, I have strived for stylistic diversity.  Philip Larkin tells an interviewer somewhere that he thinks of his collections as poetic variety shows: start with the opera singer, then bring out the yodeling dogs, then the plate-spinner, then the comedian, and so on.  I love that, and aspire to it. My own Cavalcade of Stars would have to include the Beatles’ American debut on Ed Sullivan, February 9, 1964.

Frances Donovan: Tell me more about your writing practice today.

Steven Cramer: “Practice” is a good word, no?  In writing, practice never quite makes perfect.  I teach part-time now, so I have more moments to write, or at least more time to fret about writing.  In a sense, I “write” all the time, if taking random notes—on my phone as often as on paper these days—and persistently wishing on a poem in my head counts as writing.  But I almost never generate a first draft in one sitting.  I used to, and would like to more often.  Instead, a first draft of something worth working on tends to assemble itself when I abduct some fragments, often spawned at different times, and put them together and ask them to dance.  When they dance, I try to join in; when they don’t, I go make a very big sandwich.  After a Microsoft Word folder labeled “Drafts and Fragments” grew too big to search files fruitfully anymore, I started a new one, labeled “New Drafts and Fragments.”

Frances Donovan: Has your writing practice changed over time? If so, how so?

Steven Cramer: Yes; I used to write long-hand as an aging teen; then I moved to a Selectric in college and graduate school; then, if I remember correctly, I skipped the short-lived advent of the word processor and went right to a desktop computer, and then to a laptop.  Somewhere along that continuum, my living room couch began to sub for my desk.

A less glib response involves a change in attitude.  I continue to hate not writing, and never enjoy my silences; but I think I don’t hate my non-writing self quite so much anymore.  With maybe twenty years left if I’m lucky, the portions of those years I’ll devote to writing and reading poems feel like meals yet to be enjoyed.   In all things remaining to me—poetry among the most central, but not exclusively so—I hope to amble, not sprint, through those years.

Frances Donovan: Do you find that you’re doing everything on the computer these days?

Steven Cramer: Just about.  I don’t even print out drafts much anymore.  I do save versions of poems-in-progress with numbered suffixes added to their filenames, to help me distinguish earlier incarnations from later ones.  And as I said, my phone’s becoming more and more my sketch pad.  Last Christmas I received—as I always do—a handsome little notebook in my stocking.  For the first time I thought: what will I do with this? 

When I teach, I comment electronically on all student manuscripts, but I still print them out for workshop discussion—in larger and larger fonts, I’ve found, dispiritingly.  Track changes and comment boxes have lifted a heavy weight, since I’ve always detested my handwriting.  Inscribing or even just signing a book for someone provokes the same anxiety I feel when asked to calculate a tip.  What’s your writing drill?

Frances Donovan: I compose prose on the computer, but I find that I need to do my poetry free-writes in longhand. Likewise, I prefer to print out a piece I’m working on, so I can edit and write marginalia. Has the computer changed the format of the poetry you write? For instance, I know some people make extensive use of white space in their poems.

Steven Cramer: I’m pretty much a flush-left, ragged-right kind of poet—when the poem’s in verse—although some months ago I did create (can’t say I “wrote”) a number of “self-erasures”—texts made by electronically whiting out passages from incomplete drafts of my own.  Performing the erasure operation on myself had a kind of bracingly masochistic feel to it.  They hide out in a folder I haven’t opened in months.

White space denotes a visual experience, so I find it a problematic term to apply to poetry, which is fundamentally a verbal and auditory art form.  Of course, a poem first presents its look on the page to readers—if they’re reading it, not listening to it—but that look doesn’t change whether or not the poem is read.   I don’t get the point of simply looking at a poem (except perhaps to estimate the time it may take to read).

A very moving deployment of indentation and dropped lines (my preferred terminology) happens in Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.”

Has an ashtray ever performed a more poignant walk-on? 

Frances Donovan: That’s a lovely poem by Frank O’Hara. I’ve also done a self-erasure poem! It appeared in Fire Poetry Journal. I got the idea from a poem of Lesley Wheeler’s in Cold Mountain ReviewUse of white space isn’t to every reader’s taste, but I find it can be very effective.

Steven Cramer: Oh, me too, but as I said I think it’s misguided—or at least limiting—to treat white space in poems as simply a visual effect.  In O’Hara’s poem, the lines indent and break eccentrically to convey the speaker’s shifting emotional states, and thereby they also orchestrate readers’ responses to those states.  I could spend the next seven hundred and thirty-three words praising the poem’s expert syncopations of tone. I’ll stick with our ashtray, which is among the last things one expects, on first reading, to follow the gentle imperative “put out your hand,” so the dropped, indented line to position the word not only reinforces our surprise, it also suggests that our blazing, loving, afire, tender, writhing, screaming speaker does his own double-take: “I said that?”  And we say, “of course you said that; where else did you think all your ‘blazing’ and ‘afire love’ would end up?”  O’Hara was a master of spontaneous craftsmanship.

Frances Donovan: You mentioned commenting on student manuscripts. How does your teaching life relate to your writing life? Some poets seem to find teaching draining, while others find it inspiring.

Steven Cramer: I came to teaching comparatively late, having spent the second half of my twenties, after graduating from Iowa, as your basic publishing workhorse.  After a stint earning cracker crumbs at David R. Godine, I got divorced and made a living wage of crackers as Managing Editor at a long-kaput social science subsidiary of Harper & Row, Ballinger Publishing Company.  Lord, their books were deadening—most memorable title:  Industrial Solid Waste—but after my stint there, I damn well know my serial commas; why we have long-term goals while our goals are long term; and where to stick a semicolon.

For roughly thirteen of the thirty-eight years I’ve been teaching, I’ve wandered from classroom to classroom as a Nomadic Adjunct.  May I use arrows to signify my careening career as a teacher?  If I may, it goes like this:  M.I.T. → Boston University → Tufts University → Bennington College → Boston University → M.I.T. → Queens University → Lesley University, where I’ve worked since 2003.  From those years of teaching the art of reading and writing—founding and directing the Lesley MFA program required a hybrid administrator/teacher—I have two firm beliefs about teaching:  it’s a job like any other, and it’s a job like no other. 

Cover image for Steven Cramer's book of poetry LISTEN

Teaching can drain quite differently than a more conventionally stupefying job (like Ballinger’s) can drain; it uses an imaginative muscle that at least resembles the muscle one puts into writing.  Thinking hard and helpfully about other people’s poems can leave little energy to think about one’s own.  And since pondering someone else’s poems gives pleasure (usually), teaching can seduce as well as interrupt or derail.  On the other hand, isn’t teaching one of the noble professions, right up there with curing diseases, combatting poverty and injustice, or listening and talking to people in healing ways? I’m very fortunate now to teach only those graduate students who are “preselected” to want to learn something by working with me. I hope never to have to grade a poem again, but even when my teaching involved, in part, a kind of implicit “pitch” to persuade some students that writing and literature matter, the glories outnumbered the downers.

As for inspiration, I’ll risk candor and admit that teaching graduate creative writing workshops doesn’t often result in student work—good as it can become—that motivates growth in my own writing.  With some dazzling exceptions, even my most experienced and devoted students—devoted, I hope, to poetry, not to me—tend to explore territories of vision and style that I’ve already encountered, although hardly surveyed completely.  This doesn’t mean I don’t learn and benefit in other ways—the enthusiasm of shared discovery; the tonic reminder that my aesthetic viewpoints are as subjective, even myopic, as anyone else’s; and perhaps most important, the constantly self-renewing appreciation that every work of art in progress, no matter how inchoate or halting, has a human being behind it; and in front of it, a potential future.

However (and it’s a big one) teaching the creative reading of great poetry—in English from Henry VIII’s reign to the real thing copyrighted 2021; in translation even further back and farther afield—has excited my own poetry in ways I can describe and in ways I can’t.  I taught the English Renaissance sonnet for at least two semesters before the fourteen sonnets in Goodbye to the Orchard happened to me. I will reread Emily Dickinson at any time, with any takers; and while I still haven’t finished my homage to Dickinson that I started in 2019, every word I commit to my laptop screen strives to at least approximate the spirit of the standards she held herself to: “a Word made Flesh is seldom/And tremblingly partook.”

Frances Donovan: So you find reading the classics really inspires your own poetry. Interesting. Do you get similar inspiration from reading contemporary poetry? I’ve found books like Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec both inspiring and sort of… “look upon my works and despair.”

Steven Cramer: If I understand the import of your quoting Shelley, I’ll take that bait first.  The human penchant to admire others at one’s own expense—the imposter syndrome, the zero-sum game of homage—hobbles and misshapes so ubiquitously, you’d think “they” (whoever they are) would have found a cure—just the way “they” didn’t for male-pattern baldness.  People who make things for aesthetic purposes—maybe all people—hear at least one of two voices: 1) you’ll never know whether your stuff is any good; 2) your stuff is no good.  The first voice is tolerable, maybe even benign, since its truth has a kind of healthy disinterest about long-term value.  The second voice comes hissing hot from hell.  It’s useful to recall that Ozymandias’s taunt—inarguably on Voice #2’s team—issues from a heap of ruins in a desert.

Modern and contemporary poetry inspires me all the time.  I hope to never stop learning from poets younger than myself, although I can’t claim—can anyone?—to be well-read in my art.  During my six years as Staff Editor for The Atlantic Monthly, I knew the poems of many books before they were books.  When I taught nearly everything at Bennington for five years, I earned my private PhD in literature.  Best not to name specific living poets I admire, or don’t; better not to name those currently reigning monarchs I feel are less dressed than some believe. 

I’m not great at taking aerial views, but I do sense a prevalence of affectation in a good deal of new poetry.  I don’t mean (just) an absence of humor, or (just) unrewarding obscurity—I quite love many poems I don’t really get—but rather an allergy in a lot of poems I read to self-examination, and a fetish for received ideas recycled as illumination.  Louise Glück calls it “ersatz thought”—in her essay titled Ersatz Thought!—and I think I know whom she has in mind, but I ain’t telling.  I’d like to write an essay titled “Against Pretension,” but such an essay would have to name names.  When I wrote reviews for Poetry, I named names.  I’m not fully proud that I did so.

One last comment on this subject.  After nearly fifty years of writing poems, I’d like to believe that if I write a good one, its style sounds like my style.  Not me; my style.  Many—too many—have heard me say that a finished poem no longer belongs to its poet.

Frances Donovan: Are there other ways besides reading poetry that help you refill your creative well?

Steven Cramer: Yes, but those ways seem to me quite haphazard, even covert.  I’ve had no sustaining hobbies.  My wife tells me I made omelets avidly for about a  year, which I don’t remember.  I do little other than write, read, teach, and try to live as peacefully and honestly as I can.  (Which reminds me of a great sentence I read recently:  “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.”  I find that to be a patently true statement, although I imagine some other feel otherwise.) Often, I’ve written well on vacation, back when we had vacations—not fueled by anything specific in the location; just something about sitting somewhere different.  I go through phases when I devour nonfiction on a particular subject—consciousness, evolution, the Third Reich, the death of the universe, the Beatles.  Those subjects have found their way into my poetry.  Paradoxically, perhaps, silence—not writing—seems to restore some of my creative reservoir.  I don’t like that form of revivification—nor am I likeable during those periods—but I may have turned a corner recently—from tolerating silence to embracing it.  Okay, not embracing—maybe an elbow bump.

Frances Donovan: How do you think popular perceptions of poetry as an art form have changed over the course of your career?

Steven Cramer: Seems to me the rub here is the word “popular.”  A poet whose name I forget—that’s telling in itself—remarked years ago that only one poet since Tennyson has achieved true fame:  Allen Ginsberg.  I might have added Sylvia Plath to make a duet, but in the last undergraduate creative writing course I’m likely to teach in my lifetime, blank stares met the invocation of her name.  I’m not sure that twenty undergraduates constitute a representative sample to assess a public figure’s popularity—and I didn’t try out Ginsberg—but certainly college students have better antennae for popularity than I do. 

Restricting the control group to people who read poetry for pleasure, I’d start with that notion of pleasure. I’m on the thin ice of hunches here, but I sense a decline in the perception of poetry as a site where reading seriously rewards pleasure.  I hear many say that they read for self-affirmation, inspiration for their own writing, out of curiosity about a freshly “popular” poet, and even out of a sense of duty.  None of those strike me as bad reasons for reading poetry, if any bad reasons for reading exist.  But my favorite off-rhyme—as many who know me have heard too often—is labor/pleasure.  Poetry needn’t always please by virtue of a reader’s hard labor, but paying attention—at least for distractible me—always involves sitting still, and I know of no poetry that rewards distraction.

I submit for consideration these two perceptions of poetry as an art form:  1) a poet I respect recently asked (rhetorically) a group of other poets: what’s the use of literature?  I assumed the question presupposed that such a use existed, and could be identified.  2) In her essay on reading, “Disinterestedness,” Louise Glück (hey, she was my teacher, after all) posits this ideal of the reading self at its most receptive: it suspends opinion and response. . .attempting, instead, neutrality, attentiveness.  I vote for Viewpoint #2, knowing fully that such an ideal—like all ideals—proves impossible almost all the time.

Frances Donovan: In my experience, the life of a publishing poet involves three different kinds of effort: generative work, which requires the spirit of play, intuition, and the unconscious; revision, which requires analytical thinking (and a touch of intuition); and the po-biz, the business of poetry, which requires organizational skills and emotional intelligence. How do you balance (or juggle) these three kinds of work?

Steven Cramer: You’ve categorized these three efforts crisply and persuasively, and they pretty much hold true for me.  More and more, however, I’ve found that the border between generative work and revision is at best a sometimes useful fabrication.  For me, rewriting a poem-in-process involves just as much intuition as the first draft.  I’ve traded in the word “revision” for “completion,”since that feels closer to what I do—which, as I described earlier, feels like assembling a Lego model without instructions.   In some ways, I guess this process resembles the opposite of erasure.  I’m a helpless quoter, and so can’t suppress two.  Heather McHugh said, “compose for clarity; revise for strangeness.” With some exceptions, I do precisely the reverse. And this is the first sentence in Edward A. Snow’s sublime book, A Study of Vermeer

According to Klee [Snow’s a quoter too!] there is a crucial moment in the creative process when the free inspiration of the artist must cede to the obligation to be true to the thing being created. He described it as the moment when the painting acquired a face. “Now it looks at me,” he would declare.

That still makes my neck hairs tingle.

The business of finding an audience for one’s poetry does indeed demand organizational skills, which forsake me as often as not.  I’d need an explanation of emotional intelligence, at least in this context, to understand how it pertains to po-biz (surely one of the uglier coinages in English, no?).  Put as simply as I know how, given the opportunity—or uncovering an opportunity themselves—poets need to raise their hands and say, “I’m a poet too,” whether or not they get called on.

Frances Donovan: Is it necessary to have an MFA to succeed in the po-biz?

Steven Cramer: Gosh, I hope not.  Because I devoted twelve years to directing an MFA program, I could go on and on and on contemplating every major word in the question, but I might like myself less afterward.

Frances Donovan: What advice would you give to a poet just starting to send out work or find a publisher?

Steven Cramer: From a practical perspective, whatever advice I have probably shows my age.  I think “publication” still means that a gatekeeper is involved—that is, someone other than the poet, who might have said no, said yes.  Self-publication only applies to the most reductive meaning of the word: the work goes public.  If you assent to that distinction, then show your work to anyone who might find it interesting.  With so many resources online now, seeking publication, while unspeakably boring, takes time but little effort.  I may be wrong, but I haven’t found any evidence that the process is “rigged”—as it may have been a few decades ago.  It does seem to me that some elements of editorial decision making have become collectivized, as with Poetry.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, unless the impulse not to offend misshapes aesthetic judgment.  But I hope that individual editors—whose deep experience as readers substantiate their necessarily subjective choices, for or against—don’t go extinct.  I don’t know if they’ve become an endangered species.

I do have one two-pronged piece of advice concerning the psychology of seeking publication: just because a deeply experienced editor turns down your work, that doesn’t mean the work is bad; just because a deeply experienced editor accepts your work, that doesn’t mean the work is good.  Whether we’ve ultimately written good or bad work, we’re not invited to that debate, if indeed our work lasts long enough to be argued over; and anyway, by that time, we’ll be earth.

Steven Cramer’s latest book Listen is available from Mad Hat Press and Porter Square Books.

The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land

Carol Hobbs carries herself with a quiet competence that I associate with Canadians. The fisheries collapse of the Maritimes in the 1990s forced her and many other Newfoundlanders to emigrate, but she carries her homeland with her, in her mannerisms, and in her poetry. Newfoundland, her debut full-length collection, is a testament to perseverance and an continued commitment to honing her craft. This has been a difficult year for Carol–the COVID pandemic found her scrambling to adapt lesson plans to the new realities of online learning, and she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In spite of these difficulties, she found some time to talk to me via email about her craft, her book, and the writing life.

Continue reading “The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land”

Nostalgia as a Driving Force: A Conversation with Poet Amorak Huey

Reading Amorak Huey’s Boom Box brought me back to my adolescence in the late 1980s, listening to hair metal bands and hanging out in disreputable locations. His experience, which includes an early, traumatic house fire and growing up in rural Alabama, doesn’t mirror mine exactly (which includes an early, traumatic move across the country and growing up in urban Connecticut), but the poems made me feel in touch with a kindred spirit – not just the disaffection and nihilism of the teenage years, but the yearning for something greater.

Huey spent 15 years as a reporter and editor before making the switch to academia – he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan now. He’s written three books of poetry and two chapbooks, including one from Porkbelly Press, whose handmade books are works of art in their own right. He is co-author, with W. Todd Kaneko, of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. His poems have appeared in many prestigious journals, including The Southern Review, Poet Lore, and Crab Orchard Review. In 2017 he received an NEA fellowship in Creative Writing. He was kind enough to speak with me via email about his work and his writing life.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Amorak Huey: Reading. For sure, reading is what brought me to writing. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books. My parents gave me a love for storytelling and language. I have this vivid sense of the feeling that reading something amazing does in my body: that ache in the back of the throat, the quickening of the pulse. At some point, I decided: I want to be able to do that. To write something that makes someone else feel something. Emily Dickinson’s line about poetry making her feel the top of her head had been taken off — like that.

Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?

Huey: Formal training is such an official-sounding phrase, but very clearly it applies to me. I was an English major in college; after I graduated I went straight to graduate school in creative writing, but it didn’t take and I dropped out after three semesters. I ended up working as a journalist for many years before going back for an MFA, which I did at Western Michigan University, where I studied with Nancy Eimers, William Olsen, Daneen Wardrop, Bob Hicok, and Mary Ruefle. The MFA took me six years because I was working full-time in Grand Rapids and commuting to Kalamazoo for a class or two a semester. My current writing community consists of my colleagues in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University, an online poem-writing group of friends assembled by the poet and fiction writer Chris Haven, and the writers I’m connected to via social media, Twitter in particular.

Photograph of poet Amorak Huey
Amorak Huey, author of the poetry collection Boom Box

Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?

Huey: Traci Brimhall, Layli Long Soldier, Catie Rosemurgy, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natalie Diaz, Matthew Olzmann, David Kirby, Emily Dickinson. There are others. It’s a long list.

Donovan: What are you reading right now?

Huey: I recently read Sam Hawke’s City of Lies, and I’m finishing up the novel Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes; I’m saving John Sandford’s latest, Masked Prey, to be a reward for the end of the semester. Sandford is my favorite cop/thriller/mystery writer. I admire the impeccable cleanness of his prose, and the pacing of his storytelling. Poetry wise, I am savoring my way through Traci Brimhall’s newest, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod; it’s so, so incredibly good. Other recent/current reads include Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, KC Trommer’s We Call Them Beautiful, and Marianne Chan’s All Heathens. I just finished teaching Franny Choi’s Soft Science and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.  

Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. What’s your day job?

Huey: I teach writing at Grand Valley State University.

Donovan: Tell me about Boom Box.

Huey: Boom Box came into existence as a collection in 2015, when I realized that my current manuscript was really two projects. I took all the poems that were linked by high school, heavy metal, pop culture, and Alabama and created the first draft of the collection. After three-plus years, two significant revisions, an editorial consultation with Maggie Smith, and 20 rejections, Sundress Publications accepted the manuscript. Working with Sundress editor Erin Elizabeth Smith, I revised the collection one more time into the shape it now is, and it was published in March 2019.

Donovan: Your descriptions of adolescence in the age of heavy metal really resonated with me. How did you come to write about this part of your life? Is it something you’ve explored in your previous work, or is this a new topic for you?

Huey: Nostalgia has always been one of the driving forces of my writing, as I assume it probably is for many people. And I’ve definitely always been interested in using the language of pop culture — whether it’s movies, music, literature, television, sports, whatever — in my poetry. My first collection has a lot of that in it. At some point, I realized that I had been mining this territory (high school, hair metal) a lot, and that’s when I assembled this group of poems into Boom Box. I tend to work in poems, not in projects, which causes problems for me when it’s time to shape what I’ve written into a book, so the threads and links between these poems are something that I discovered after I written them.

Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?

Huey: Oh, man. I fear that anything I say here sounds like bragging. I have no idea if I’m a good literary citizen. I try to be. How about I talk instead about what I see others doing that makes me think of them as valuable members of the community? I appreciate people who celebrate other writers, sharing their poems and successes. I appreciate people who come to the community as readers first. When I give my students advice about navigating the community, I talk about the need to be sincere, to participate in the conversations out of generosity and support and a sincere interest in what others are doing — not because you think you’ll get something out of it. You can’t have this mercenary approach: I’ll follow these writers on Twitter, and post links to these poems and journals, and in return I will gain X amount of social capital, or Y editor will solicit my work. I don’t know. Be a real person. Be kind.

Donovan: What does your writing practice look like now? Has it changed?

Huey: The only thing stable about my writing practice is its inconsistency. I fit my writing around my family and my job, and that looks different every day, every season, every year. I go through long productive periods, but also lots of dry spells. Sometimes I write in front of the television. Sometimes I write after everyone else goes to bed. I think maybe I’ve gotten up early to write once or twice? That sounds so good, but mostly it’s not me. Sometimes I write between loads of laundry, or while dinner simmers on the stove. Often I just don’t write. I’m a mess.

Cover image for Amorak Huey's poetry collection Boom Box
Boom Box: Poems, by Amorak Huey (Sundress Publications, 2019)

Donovan: How do you make sure that writing-adjacent work doesn’t take the place of actual writing?

Huey: You have to do both. I don’t have a magical answer to how you make room for them both — you just have to decide that they are both important enough to fit into your life. And that it’s okay to have periods where one takes precedence over the other.

Donovan: Artists often talk about the importance of refilling the creative well. What do you do to replenish yourself?

Huey: Reading. Listening to music. Taking care of my body. Actually that last one is a problem. Writing and running sort of occupy the same space in my life, and so I’m not very good at making time for both of them. I’ve been running regularly this spring (I’m ridiculously slow, but at least I’m out there moving), which means I’m writing less than I’d like to be. I remain a work in progress. Anyway, reading is the real answer to this question.

Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?

Huey: That it’s okay to be ambitious. That no one knows what they’re doing; we are all just doing the best we can to figure this stuff out. That impostor syndrome never goes away. That the “career” of a writer is a continual push and pull between nothing ever being enough and being entirely fulfilled when one reader is moved by one thing you have written.

Donovan: What’s next for you?

Huey: My next poetry collection, Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, comes out in 2021, again from Sundress. I’m working on my second, or second and a half, draft of a novel: historical fiction, set in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Donovan: How can people find you?

Huey: I’m on Twitter away more than anyone reasonable should be: @amorak. I’m on Instagram occasionally: @amorakhuey. And I have a website that’s mostly updated: http://amorakhuey.net.

Order Boom Book from Sundress Publications

Read a review of Boom Box at Glass: A Journal of Poetry

Read a review of Boom Box at Lammergeier

Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Photograph of poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has three poetry collections: The Human Contract, Notes from a Nomad (nominated for the Massachusetts Book Awards 2018), and With a Polaroid Camera (2019). Recently, poems have appeared in Artemis, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. She has been a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press and was accepted both times she applied to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA. Another was nominated for Best of Net 2017.

Sarah took some time to speak with me via email.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Sarah Dickenson Snyder: The first time I saw a poem in a book and its intentional line breaks, I was hooked—I just loved how it looked. I was probably in 1st grade. I wrote and wrote even more when I realized that poems didn’t have to rhyme and that I could pour out a seemingly endless fountain of thoughts and memories. I ended up sending a stack of twenty poems to Bowdoin College as my college essay. 

Donovan: Did you study poetry at Bowdoin?

Dickenson Snyder: I took a few classes—there were only just a few in the English Department, certainly no writing classes at that time; I was a Religion major.

Donovan: Was there a particular poet whose work was really meaningful to you in those early years?
Continue reading “Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder”

Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Close-up from the cover of Wendy Mnookin's Dinner with Emerson

Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin

Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

Continue reading “Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson”

Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch

Photograph of poet Annie Finch and her cat Merlin
Annie Finch, author of Spells, and her cat Merlin

Fearless in its lyricism and expansive in its range, Annie Finch’s work spans four decades and encompasses eight books of poetry, a translation, and numerous anthologies, plays, libretti, and books and essays on poetics. The more I researched her, the more I wondered how our paths had never crossed before. Neither the poetry world nor the pagan world is all that large, and the overlap between them—pagans writing poetry with the depth and seriousness she brings to it—is even smaller. “As a Wiccan,” Finch writes in the foreword to Spells: New and Selected Poems, “I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.” Her celebrations of the turning wheel of the year and her goddess invocations connect us with age-old traditions but root us in the present day with economic and unsentimental language. Consider these lines from “A Seed for Spring Equinox:” Continue reading “Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems”

Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland

Photograph of poet Lesley Wheeler

A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.

Cover image of Lesley Wheeler's third book of poetry, Radioland
Radioland, Lesley Wheeler’s third book of poetry

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?

It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.

Continue reading “Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland”

Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”

Interview with Andrew Himes, author of Sword of the Lord

Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out.  So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.

That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.

Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?

Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.

Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.

My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.

Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?

Andrew Himes:  Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.

Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?

Andrew Himes:  Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.

Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?

Andrew Himes:  My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.