I first met Wendy Drexler at Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s table in the early 2010s. At the time, she had just come out with her first full-length book, Western Motel. Since then she’s gone on to publish two more full-length books: Before There Was Before and Notes from the Column of Memory. Wendy’s career is living proof that it’s never too late to become a poet. After years working as an editor, she started writing poetry in her 40s. Since then, she’s gone on to collect a plethora of publication credits, including RHINO, The Threepenny Review, and Mom Egg Review. Her poems have been featured on Verse Daily and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. A four-time Pushcart nominee and a Mass Cultural Council Fellow, her poetry has also appeared in unusual venues such as on the sidewalk in Mass Poetry’s Raining Poetry project and a sculpture installation in Southborough, Mass. I got to know Wendy better during poet educator training, a joint venture with Lesley University and Mass Poetry. I’m proud to call her a friend.
Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection, Notes from the Column of Memory.
Wendy Drexler:Notes from the Column of Memory explores the hinge of memory–what we remember and how our memories change, dive, and surface as we reinvestigate the past at different stages in our lives. The past, it seems, is always informing the present. My title poem, which won the 2021 Juror’s Prize at Art on the Trails at the Beals Preserve, Southborough, is written in the shape of a column; it begins, “See how time breaks us / and still we stand.” I’ve placed a crown of sonnets at the center of the book, interrogating rituals of burial and grief (“I hear your silence working its way through the ground”) by interweaving the shamanistic burial of a woman who lived 10,000 years ago in the Levant with the death of my mother when she was 56. I also recall and extend concern for other living beings in a world in which many species are being diminished–from the pet red-eared slider I lost in the grass when I was a child, to the giant Galapagos turtle, and from a rose-breasted grosbeak “called in” by a birder replaying the bird’s own song on a speaker to the groundhog I ran over in my car. Much of this book was written during the pandemic and in my poem “And I Say Yes to the Grass,” I affirm “Yes to the time we live with / because we’ve got to live with it, / yes to loving better, to coming in / from anywhere.”
Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?
Drexler: I’ve always loved words, and while I worked professionally as an editor for many years, I didn’t discover until decades later that I might have something of my own to say and a way to say it. In high school I wrote a poem or two, and read a little poetry: I remember John Lennon’s In His Own Write, and in college, Kahlil Gibran, which everyone was reading then. I came to writing poetry when a friend gave me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I began to keep “morning pages,” three notebook pages written with a fountain pen first thing in the morning. The idea was not to look at what you’d written for six weeks so you wouldn’t judge yourself. After that I would feel the urge to write when I was inspired by the natural world, for example, watching a blue heron trying to swallow a huge frog or finding dozens of sand dollars washed up on a beach. After these forays, I began to take poetry workshops with Susan Donnelly and then with Barbara Helfgott Hyett, who became my longtime friend and poetry mentor.
Drexler: My primary mentor has been Barbara Helfgott Hyett, who also became a dear friend. I joined her PoemWorks workshop in 2001 and continued until she stopped teaching a few years ago. From Barbara I learned free writing, which I still practice many Monday mornings with a cohort of former PoemWorks poets. I’m also part of a weekly poetry discussion group and a weekly leaderless poetry workshop with former PoemWorks friends and other poet friends. All of these groups are on Zoom. Other mentors include Susan Donnelly and all the wonderful teachers I’ve studied with at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA: Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Martha Collins, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Carl Phillips.
John Sibley Williams has clearly been writing for some time. The author of 15 books and editor of three, he’s been nominated for a Pushcart 32 times. He’s collected a bevy of prizes as well, including the Cider Press Review Award, the Orison Poetry Prize, and the Elixir Press Poetry Award. And he’s got a volume of his selected poems translated into Portuguese coming out soon. He is the founder and head teacher of Caesura Poetry Workshop, a virtual workshop series, and serves as co-founder and editor of The Inflectionist Review.
John sent me a copy of his book The Drowning House some time ago and has patiently worked with me to produce the following interview.
Frances Donovan: Tell me about your collection The Drowning House.
John Sibley Williams: I never write toward a particular goal, preferring both poems and collections stem organically from whatever is haunting me at the time. I just write and write, often circling a handful of themes that I cannot shake: history, culture, parenthood, my privilege, self-perception, absence, human contradictions, hurt and healing.
So, in that regard, many of my poems in The Drowning House explore the same larger human concerns, be they personal or cultural. The themes are interconnected, are threads that together form a single tapestry. Be it national prejudice or fears of how I’m raising my children, our bloody history or the search for self when the self just keeps vanishing into the communal. Certain poems may push one or another theme more to the forefront, often based on our current political climate or internal changes that have reprioritized my daily life, but in the end, I recognize pretty clear thematic threads running through all my work. Currently, I’ve been particularly exploring one of my daughters’ gender identity (she came out as transgender last year) and how their family history and lineage (my wife is Japanese and her grandmother was “raised” in multiple internment camps) reaches into the present, how it molds them in our current political climate.
I met Robert Carr at the Solidarity Salon, a performance series offering music, poetry, and theater where we were both featuring. A tall man with an arresting presence, Bob read a number of poems about Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer whose work capturing gay male desire and the BDSM subculture has become an important part of gay history. Bob is the author of Amaranth (Indolent Books), and The Unbuttoned Eye, (3: A Taos Press). His poetry appears in the American Journal of Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. Robert is a poetry editor with Indolent Books and recently retired from a career as Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Robert Carr: I wrote the book following a 34-year career in infectious disease response. These poems became my way, in hindsight, of grappling with issues of identity and sexuality through the AIDS pandemic. The editor at 3: A Taos Press, Andrea Watson, was instrumental in pushing me with these poems. Since the release of the book, in 2019, COVID19 has changed the collection for me. Today, I experience these poems as reminders for how to survive the realities of global pandemic. I’m not saying the issues across HIV and COVID19 are the same. But I do find the dynamics, the human response to health crisis, sometimes mirror each other.
Donovan: You have a whole cycle of poems in The Unbuttoned Eye about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For readers who may not be familiar with his work, he was a groundbreaking photographer whose images of gay male desire during the AIDS epidemic form an important part of queer history. Some of his work was also deeply controversial. Can you explain your own relationship with Mapplethorpe and the impetus for these poems?
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.
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.
Flourish, unwashed, unpeeled, bouncy boys; grow, citizen-workers, clothed in good dirt— dearest ones, I place my hope in you— your green is king, in my garden. Chopped, you are cukes, (my Wisconsin mamma loschen)—fluted, celebrated, bobbing in vinegar and dill; tastiest brine. Emperor Tiberius, whom Pliny the Elder called the gloomiest of men, enjoyed cucumbers every night with dinner—yes, an attempt to self-medicate depressions— but was his gloom depression or prophetic vision? Caligula succeeded Tiberius. Today, the sky is blue— so what. I cannot stop worrying about the republic. When a Roman woman wanted a child, she tied cucumbers about her waist; what, you ask, do I want? Regime change. I want a sister or three, subversive, fomenting coffee klatch, chatter, plots against fascists over our Gurkensalat, lopped, swished with sour cream—dearest cukes, delight, nourish, fortify me—I want insurrection.
by Lisa Bellamy. Originally published in Salamander No. 50, Spring/Summer 2020. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
By the man-made lake? A hole so shallow and muddy, all the men held hands, formed a human net and walked toward each other to the center to feel for some kid who might have gone under–there,
on its shore, in the Kodak, me, in my little terry cloth bikini, all round as the moon stomach. I’d worn a Batman mask attached
by a thin rubber band all summer, my hands fisted, the nails bit crescents in my palms.
The summer of my menarche? I stood
against the lazy Susan in the kitchen and watched the President resign on the small TV: I cried because of the cramps and blood, the garter belt biting me. My mother said we’d never see this again and she was wrong:
even married to my father, she couldn’t predict the depth of a man’s rage.
A year after my abortion?
The clinic three stops down from my dorm, three quick stops on the Green Line, and no one shot there yet but escorts needed, one pink set of rosaries flung at my face.
That year, the year of Ferraro, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote for anything
that menstruated, could get pregnant, could bear a child.
– Jennifer Martelli, from In the Year of Ferraro, published by Nixes Mate, 2020. Republished with permission of the poet.
This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.
Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my emails this month, as well as for the additional reading suggestions.
It’s funny—my first semester, I did the craft annotations ahead of the poetry revision and writing. This semester, I did my revisions and new writing first, all while stressing out about the craft essay thesis and outline. Either way, the critical work still stresses me out more than the writing and revising. I suppose this is why I’m getting an MFA instead of a PhD in literature.
I was surprised at how quickly I managed to work my way through the stack of poetry books. Some of the collections definitely spoke to me more than others. As you know, I was immediately taken with Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I went ahead and order her first book as well, but I just couldn’t connect to it the same way. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia was a quick read – the language is so beautiful, the narrative so clear and sequential, and the forms of the poems so similar that it reads almost like a novel in verse – in fact, it was an easier read than David Rakoff’s novel in verse.
Reading theory about poetic line was tougher going. I got through the Longenbach in about a day, mostly through extreme effort of will and because it’s a relatively small text. My main takeaway was the notion of the annotating versus the parsing line. He argues that enjambment “annotates,” or calls attention to a word outside of the usual phrasing of a sentence, whereas a parsing line merely ends where there would be a natural pause. I discovered A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, a treasure trove of many different poets’ theories and opinions about poetic line. I rented it as an ebook for a few months rather than paying three times as much to own it. As a result the reading has been slow going. When I read on screen rather than on paper, I find it harder to absorb the material. I’ve been keeping a Word window screen minimized next to the ebook so that I can take notes while I read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the thing now. The tone of the essays varies a great deal, some of the poets writing almost entirely from personal experience and others trying to make more general pronouncements about the line and what it means. In the introduction, Anton Vander Zee sums up the Levertov essay on the line better than I could: that the line tracks the stress of inner thought, and that the line is a script for performance. Three other takeaways:
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.
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.
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.