In your poem “As the Story Goes” you present an remarkably detailed picture of home (maybe). To a poet, home is...
It’s funny that you ask about that particular poem. It was one of my first publications, and I was ecstatic about it. When the online issue came out, I got an email from my brother. He asked who the poem was about.
One of the things I love about poetry is that, even though there are conventions and forms depending on what the poet is trying to do, there really are no rules. The poet is not required to tell “the truth.” She is not required to make everything up, either.
“As the Story Goes” is indeed about where I was born and the city in which I grew up. But it is a poem of perception. I was not born in a ’61 Impala, although I spent quite a lot of time in one. Neither was I born on Compton Boulevard, although that street took me to the grocery store, to my school bus stop at the 7-11 on the corner, to piano lessons, to the municipal pool where I was on the city swim team...that street took me just about everywhere I needed to go.
When I think about my childhood in Southern California in the 70’s, I often think about asphalt boulevards, big, heavy cars, and gas shortages. That is home. But home is also an apartment in San Diego in the early 90’s. It is a wooden deck overlooking a slow creek in present-day Eastern North Carolina. It is a couple of rocking chairs on a porch twice a year at Converse College in South Carolina. Home is everywhere I find the inspiration to write.
You write, “…My mother curls/my hair behind my ear, whispers me a world". As time goes by, mother's whispers are...
That line is really about how a parent can make a child’s world magical, no matter the reality. My mother has always been driven by her own creativity, and she passed that on to both of her children. My own children are ages ten and six right now. I hope that I am helping them develop the ability to create their own magic.
A poet’s wish list includes:
Time to write! Inspiration, a bottomless well of ideas and words, a continued sense of awe and wonder about the world; all of these things are on my wish list. People sharing all of those things with who love for the written word as much as I do are also to be cherished.
The poet’s to do list is all about:
Hoarding. Seriously, most poets and writers I know hoard ideas on post-its or napkins or receipts covered with barely legible bits of ideas that come to us as we’re driving, as we’re waiting in lines, really as we’re doing anything else besides focusing on writing. And then, the poet’s to do list is figuring out what those ideas, those snippets of conversation or images or misread signs, what they mean and how to fit them into words. A few years ago, I misread a church sign. It said “Don’t gamble with your soul”, but I read it as “Don’t gargle with your soul”. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that.
Concept of Time: Life of a House
There is a window. I open it, and the mud flows in and covers the motley concentric circles of the rag rug my great-great grandmother is making. She sits in an ebony rocker by the potbelly stove, braiding bits of great-grandaddy’s old shirt together with leftover fabric from her last church dress. Her knuckles are the largest part of her hands; they fly like runes as the mud climbs her blue-veined shins. The front door bows, and in slogs Joe fresh from the Italian market on the corner. He hums to himself as the mud sucks at his flip-flops, claims them for its own. He stacks prosciutto and provolone on rosemary bread, asks if I want a sandwich. My mother kneads dough on the faux-wood linoleum counter scattered with flour. I stand on a chair making knots, brushing them with butter, my hair braided down my back. Grandaddy walks in, a rifle over his shoulder, Apollo at his feet. Apollo flops down in the mud, rolls over. He gets up, shakes. Joe hands me my sandwich speckled with grayish-brown lumps of river silt. I take a bite and say mmm, heavenly. The baby slides its elbow across the dome of my belly. Mom lets me put pretzels, polka-dotted with dirt, in the electric oven; my face flushes with heat. Grandaddy shoves the butt-end of his Winchester into the muck by the door. He arches his back, pops his knuckles, settles onto the brown-plaid couch. Apollo sidles up, rests his big muddy head on Grandaddy’s knee; flowing earth like lava eddies around his broad red chest. There is shaking. The house is jacked up and loaded onto a trailer. It is moved, and the mud moves with it. There is a window. I open it. The mud flows in and covers. The lines that are left can only be seen in space.
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Concept of Time: Life of a Church
Arched windows in their painted frames grace the poured concrete floor, stained glass stacked neat among cans of nails and footprints puffed in construction dust by men in leather steel-toes. These men lift panes into place, shift and shim, nail and seal against weather. Sweat runs rivulets down sawdust coated cheeks hard. Teeth grip cigarettes. Early summer beams through scenes of a life, paints their corded necks in casks of gold, scattered pieces of silver. The mouse skitters around a pile of scrap wood, sniffs at a rich carpet roll.
Snow drifts through empty arches lined in shards, parti-colored teeth in a nightmare gape. Drifts like shafts of light made solid, morning white angled to meet the peeling floor, wetting edges of carpet curled. The tip of a yawning dog’s tongue. Parishioners slog through the snow, modest hems brush powder as women skirt curved pews’ corners, usher children through to their customary places. Shoes are sucked into the growing muck. Snow dirties and clumps. The low heel, the expensive full-grain loafer. The child’s patent leather, little scuffs of black on shiny white. The buckle breaks, snaps, but the child goes on, mother’s manicured hand at her back, toddling through blackening slush, stiff lace folded neatly over the sopping sock. Carpenters’ smoke flurries around hair curled and pinned, hair braided and bowed, hair brushed and slicked back. Smoke lingers on collars, wreaths lips reciting ritual. The mouse rips through a decay of hymnals, red cloth covers frayed and bloating.
Prayers, lathing are lifted. Hands grip a hammer, a chalice. White discs are placed on tongues as plaster cracks. Worlds seep.
Concept of Time: Life of a Town
The condos where the hotel once stood where a famous author wrote bad stories and tried to wean himself from whiskey with beer. The hotel where the house once stood where a woman watched men and mules hack their way up the mountain, laying down track and lives. The house where the fort once stood where a boy who left England at age five fought the Cherokee at age seventeen. The fort where the tribe once gathered around a fire and listened to the sound of feet on the earth and the brief song of sparks rising to constant night.
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Your poetry is selected for a number of well respected publications. You have won awards such as the Randall Jarrellcompetition and more. What is impact of the recognition you receive for your poetry and what else is just as important if not more so to keep you writing?
Winning the Randall Jarrell competition was a wonderful surprise. Every time I get an email that says we loved your poem and want to publish it, I am so pleased. Someone connected with the idea I wanted to convey and the words I used to convey it. That sense of connection is a powerful thing and it definitely motivates me to keep writing, but acceptance is an infrequent pleasure. Setting writing goals, deadlines, and challenges for myself so that I will do the day-to-day work of writing are especially important to me to keep me motivated.
I enjoy interesting calls for submission like the one for my most recent acceptance in Barrelhouse's “Stupid Idea Junk Drawer” category. I enjoy month-long writing challenges like The Found Poetry Review’s NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) challenge last April. I got to participate online with a lot of talented poets who are excited about trying new things in their writing. I got to meet up with many of them at the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) annual conference in Minneapolis which was a blast.
Reading your “Failure to Obliterate” all the senses come alive. What inspired you to write that poem? Was it completed in one seating or was it a few takes?
“Failure to Obliterate” came out of a memory that I’ve tried to write about, unsuccessfully, for years. About eighteen or so years ago, I was walking on the Manhattan Beach Pier in Southern California at night with a friend when we noticed a crowd gathering around a young fisherman. He had hooked something huge, and the hook was so imbedded that he was hauling the thing down the pier. We looked over the edge, and it was a giant manta ray. The ray was thrashing the water’s surface with its wings, and it was just magnificent.
I felt so many emotions rush through me watching that creature fighting for its life, and I have never forgotten it. The poem is the result of many pages of notes and failed drafts over about six months’ time, but its final shape came out of two days’ revision.
Who are the poets you read and reread with great pleasure?
Oh, so many! I love the humor and sense of play of Suzanne Cleary and Denise Duhamel. Many people seem to have the idea that poetry is always very serious, but it can really be great fun. I also love Charles Wright, Richard Hugo, Terrance Hayes, Agha Shahid Ali, Robert Penn Warren, and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few.
Any readings, publications, and other plans featuring your poetry?
Yes! Thanks for asking. I actually have a fairly full next few months. I will read in Winston-Salem, NC at the August Poetry in Plain Sight event on August 29th. This wonderful program brings poetry into the community by printing the accepted poems on posters and putting them up in local participating businesses.
In September, I will read “Failure to Obliterate” at the North Carolina Poetry Society meeting. Also in September, I will read at the Chowan Arts Council in Edenton, NC to open a show featuring my art and poetry as well as my mother’s handmade dolls. We are very excited about the show!
As far as publications go, I have a poem titled “Back Seat Event” coming out in the Rappahannock Review at the end of August. I have a poem and process coming out in Barrelhouse very soon. This one is titled “All the Things We Have in Common”, and it is a result of their call for submissions I mentioned earlier called “Stupid Idea Junk Drawer”, a concept that I absolutely love.