Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Lynn Melnick

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What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

This is hard because there are always so many, but last fall I read and fell in love with Yesenia Montilla’s The Pink Box and I think everyone should read it!

Also I highly recommend Sheila McMullin’s book, daughterrarium, forthcoming in spring of 2017.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I would say: I understand that. I write a lot about violence and that can be too intense or upsetting. As much as I write about it, I cannot handle watching violent television or movies, so I understand what it feels like to have to avoid certain things because they might be triggering or upsetting. When I write, I’m in control of it (more or less) but when I’m consuming someone else’s stories, I don’t know what will come next and I feel out of control.

That said, if someone is avoiding subjects like violence against women just because they don’t care or don’t find it relevant to their lives or experiences or because it makes them a bit uncomfortable, well that’s no good. We can’t leave it to victims alone to tell and consume our stories, or nothing will change.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

Oh absolutely, if the q’s I get at q&a’s are any indication, or the notes I get from readers.

I have complex feelings about the assumption that my work is autobiographical because my work is autobiographical–but I’m not writing memoir when I’m writing poetry. I’m making something wholly new out of sound and rhythm and image and etc and I get to bring in to the story whatever I want. To discount the art that goes into my work–that hurts, actually. And I’ve been accused of exploiting my own life history for the sake of my poems, which is like, what the fuck does that even mean?

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

This is a large question which requires a big answer but I’m going to narrow this down a bit to what students can do. Students can ask for an inclusive reading list. I work with VIDA and we have teamed up with Girls Write Now for the past couple of years to have the girls “count” the syllabi in their New York City public high school English classes. I often joke that their assigned reading lists are all white men and Toni Morrison–but this is not too far from the truth! Many of the girls hadn’t thought to question what they were being taught and why–but once made aware were really very engaged with the problem. So I guess, to wrap up what could be a long and rambling answer–Hi, students! Question your assigned reading lists! Speak up if it feels safe enough to do that!

(And I think it should go without saying that educators need to provide an inclusive reading list to their students. But maybe it doesn’t go without saying so I’m saying it.)

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LYNN MELNICK is author of Landscape with Sex and Violence (forthcoming, YesYesBooks, 2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation(Viking, 2015). She teaches poetry at 92Y in NYC and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

I’m rereading June Jordan’s essays. I just finished revisiting Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha. Trying not to binge on Luke Cageright now! Enjoying Solange’s brilliance and style. I want to check out the Diane Arbusshow but what I really can’t wait for is Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition, MastryRita Dove and Robin Coste Lewis read at the 92nd Street Y next week and I didn’t want to miss that. Too, I want to read Ari Banias and celebrate him, have been looking forward to his first collection, Anybody, for years. Aziza BarnesJayson P. SmithJeremy ClarkAngel NafisRio Cortez, and Ricardo Hernandez are poets whose works and vibes excite me. I’m not sure I’d call any one of them ‘emerging’ because when you’re so fierce and devastating it’s right there. These poets are full-throated worlds. There’s no waiting or recognition needed from anything or anyone else. They already know.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

For me, being vigilant about self-care on a daily basis is critical. I think I add even more rituals and spaces to my life when something feels very difficult in the creative realm. I check in with myself frequently and keep things around me as low-key as I possibly can. So, more meditation, more laughter with friends, more sleep, more painting. I don’t just wait to practice self-care when difficult things arise in my work. A sustained practice allows me to get even deeper with hard material because I know I have tools and strategies to get myself out once the work is doing what I need it to do.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

This is an interesting question. The thing is that I’m not reactive like that. I don’t need to say anything to anyone. I have too much work to do. And honestly, my writing is not nearly as intense or as upsetting as what’s happening in this country right now. My writing and art is, currently, in tandem with an ugly, complex American narrative. If people can speak and listen, the work is there for them. But I also write about imagination, art, grief, desire, and joy. I would like to think I work across a number of mediums in an effort to exist in a three-dimensional space. Not flat or isolated. I’d never write or create anything if I had to worry about someone thinking whatever about me. They’ll do that anyway. That kind of control, or the need to police someone’s opinion of me, does me no good. So much of the time I’m thankful for the support and friendships I have with various communities where our commitment to the arts is mutual and shared.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

My recent writing has been much more transparent and autobiographical. My mother died in 2014 and most of my poems have lived and emerged from that grief and love. In the past I don’t think it has always necessarily been clear that I may or may not have been writing about my own life. In our time, people are very fixated on a breed of truth that sometimes doesn’t hold as much breadth or depth than how either ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ are defined. Because I sometimes write about something that may not be inherently autobiographical doesn’t mean it isn’t true or that it doesn’t hold some significance or meaning to an event or relationship in my life. I don’t need to convince anyone whether something really happened to me or not. I’m not writing non-fiction and I don’t think I’ll ever write a memoir. All of the believing and disbelief occurs in the truth of writing. The narrative or stanza bleeds in and through me. Certain types of assumptions can limit imagination and be charged with politics and fears that are narrow. I’m not a narrow artist. My workwriting, photography, painting, proseis all about expansiveness without sacrificing nuance, intelligence, or body.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently? 

I’m not sure yet. It feels as though we’re in the middle of that impact. In immediate ways it’s evident that poets are connected, engaged, and able to communicate quite a bit of information. It’s been wonderful to receive links about articles, essays, and poems that would have traveled out into the world at a slower speed. Poets who may feel isolated are able to access a frequency or ‘hive’ in a number of ways whether it’s direct discussions on threads or simply posting drafts or thoughts about readings, current events, or interviews. For me, the frequency often tilts. Where social media happens, I often go and return. I need breaks. It can get noisy for me and like any room of creative and gifted individuals, there can be a range of opinions and tastes, some which I respect and others not as much. But that’s the point. For me, it’s more about social media being a space to connect to another person or group. I find out about cultures and people I don’t know if I would have ever discovered otherwise. But, too, I never forget that there is a human being behind that screen, not just a name, no matter how I feel. Even if I may not connect in opinion, I consider my agency and engagement with the space. I think social media allows groups, especially groups who have fought to have a collective voice, a way to urgently verbalize and recognize their needs. This may be a celebration or confrontation within the group or reactive to some event.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

We’ve always lived in some incarnation of a police/surveillance state. In this country, black bodies have never lived without being policed. If anything, the policing that happens now includes the people, who are now equipped with technology, at least, to participate in how the gaze and the narrative happens. But this relationship can also be broken down in so many ways, defended or accepted, for better and for worse. I’m certain that this current state has affected me. Sometimes I will need to ask friends, or even family, to refrain from photographing or sharing personal details when I want to be private, which is much of the time. I don’t think anyone cares where I’m having dinner or what I’m eating but I really need to have a private place. I don’t want to accommodate an internalized gaze…sometimes cameras can feel that way. And I’m a photographer so I think I’m a bit more sensitive to how and when and why a camera is needed and what the purpose is. I’m aware that when I’m in a public space I can’t have that kind of privacy on my terms. If I’m presenting my work, at a reading, or am working with others, I know that I am opening myself to community, but also to strangers. Risk has always been important to me and the work I create. Which makes a certain kind of visibility part of the experience. Though it makes me nervous, I don’t try to avoid it when I’m the role of artist, at least the part of it that arrives after the work is finished. It’s the work and the intention of the work that asks and insists for a response, a single reader, or a wider conversation.    

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RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. A Kimbilio and Cave Canemfellow, Griffiths’ poetry and visual works have appeared widely. This month Griffiths’ photography and mixed media exhibit, American Stanzas: 2006 – 2016, will open at Poets House. She teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Sarah Lawrence College.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Lauren Yates

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Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

The vast majority of my writing is autobiographical. I actually find myself getting annoyed by people assuming my writing isn’t autobiographical. I’ll read a poem about injustice or trauma I’ve experienced and have people ask me, “Did that really happen?”

English classes always taught me to separate the speaker of a poem from the poet. I was taught not to assume. Now, I find myself seeking out poets’ biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs to try and map out which personal experiences appear in which poems.

I have had cries for help in my writing be ignored in favor of conversations about craft. I have written about feeling suicidal and have had people say, “That’s a beautiful poem,” instead of them acknowledging my threat to harm myself. I’m now training to be a therapist, and clinicians have to take every remark seriously. If a client is mad at their partner and says, “I could kill him,” we have to assess for homicidality. If we assume it’s a joke or an exaggeration and something goes down, that’s on us. So many poetry admirers forget that poets are people. This mindset is definitely one of the things that encouraged me to get a Master’s in Counseling Psychology rather than an MFA in Poetry.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

I see myself as a black poet that used to write about flowers. When I was younger, I was apolitical. I grew up in mostly white spaces, and my family always taught me to keep my head down and avoid making waves. Most of my poems were about unrequited love. Then I started writing about mental illness. Then my experiences with misogyny. And finally I started talking about race. I understand now that my family had discouraged me from talking about these things because they wanted to keep me safe. They tried to protect me, but it got to a point where the urgency with which I needed to speak on these topics outweighed my need to make my family feel comfortable. I think the short answer is that everything is political. Even if I name myself as a queer black woman then try to write about flowers, people will read into whether the flowers look like vaginas or what color the petals are. If I try to write about flowers to avoid being political, people are going to politicize it anyway. If that’s the case, I may as well write about whatever I damn well please.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

I am absolutely in support of self-identification in author bios. I used to say that I wish I had the luxury of being seen as just a “poet,” instead of being seen as a “black poet,” but that just isn’t possible. I wanted to be seen as a “poet” when I was writing about flowers, but that isn’t where I am anymore. I will say though that I think it’s unfair for white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets to get to be “poets” while everyone else ends up othered. I like to think my desire to be seen as just a poet was less about colorblindness and internalized “-isms” and more about wanting a shot at the privilege that white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets have. But I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As a therapist-in-training, I specialize in bibliotherapy and poetry therapy with the LGBTQ+ community. Part of my research is coming up with a way to categorize poetry by the identity of the poet as well as the content of the poetry. If a black woman comes to me for therapy and says she is a lesbian who is married to a man, I would want to be able to point her in the direction of Audre Lorde. It’s not to say this woman couldn’t find comfort in the work of writers that don’t share her identity and experiences. But representation is so important.

Sometimes, you just need to know that you aren’t the only one out there. I once had a white woman come up to me after a reading and say my work really captures what it means to be a woman. It didn’t sit well with me. I appreciate the fact that my work spoke to her, but it felt like she was erasing my blackness. The two of us will never be alike. She has privilege that I don’t have. I don’t expect her to feel guilty about that, but at least be aware of it when addressing me.

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LAUREN YATES is a Pushcart-nominated poet who is currently based in Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared in NerveXOJaneCrab Orchard ReviewVinylSoftblow, and more. Lauren is a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly and a member of The Mission Statement poetry collective. In Winter 2015, she served as Poet in Residence at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University. When she is not writing poems, Lauren is working toward her M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology at Temple University.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — B.B.P. Hosmillo

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

It was in 2012 when I was based in Singapore. I was deeply in love with a Vietnamese person; and that love was widely known as illegible/impossible/evil/monstrous/dirty/another word for “you simply can’t have it.” It’s been very, very difficult, quite severe to move on from that experience and maybe I’ve not totally moved on ever since. I could no longer believe that a feeling, no matter how sincere, wouldn’t destroy me. Whenever I ask myself just why was it able to change me and how I view life (and I do ask myself why most of the time), my answer has always been “because in that moment you imagined a future in which you are free.”  

I’m sure I’m not the only one who suddenly realized he was dispossessed from the very beginning just because of a feeling natural in him. I think what haunted me in that moment was that I had to contend with the future I was capable of imagining; and poetry was the medium that allowed me to express my anxieties, the landscape of violence and pain and many other things I will never ever be silent about. I never saw myself as a strong person, but writing, since it is a practice, a training, taught me to intervene with real social conditions to be able to regard not only my pain, but also of those who are disfigured in advance by normative regimes of power.

Writing poetry with hardened intention to be free is not easy. It will never be.

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The most recent advice I got, a statement from a French surrealist author actually, came from my publisher, Kaitlin Rees. She sent that to me via email in a time when I had little money, when I decided never to agree to do anything other than related to writing poetry. I pasted it on my wall to never forget:

My advice for writers of marginalized identities is this: CLAIM YOURSELF. YOUR DESIRE, YOUR LOVE, YOUR BEING—CLAIM IT. DO NOT TAKE REJECTION AS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOUR ART BUT JUST A COMPONENT OF YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS. WRITE EVERYDAY, READ EVERYDAY, SPEAK TO YOURSELF EVERYDAY, LEARN FROM YOURSELF, LEARN FROM BELOW, BELIEVE IN LIFE, WRITE AGAIN AND AGAIN, CRY, YOU NEED TO CRY, DO NOT FORGET AN AUTHOR OR TWO WHO INSPIRED YOU, YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN LIFE, LEARN FROM YOURSELF, LEARN FROM BELOW,REVISE, LISTEN TO YOUR VOICE, REVISE, AND BELIEVE IN LIFE.  WRITING IS A TIME TO SEE YOUR BODY DROWNING. BELIEVE IN LIFE AND CLAIM YOURSELF.

Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Are there any past or contemporary social movements that have affected your poetry? Can poetry be activism?

Poetry is most dangerous and accountable when it emerges through an activist spirit. Judith Butler was right when she said in a 2012 lecture that “every public demonstration requires its non-public support system,” and I think poetry can powerfully provide a ground to support dissent or expressions of indignation. This is why I absolutely agree that literature can influence social change, or can rightly help people perceive that certain social changes are necessary. This is mainly the reason why, in early 2016, I asked other writers of Southeast Asian descent to begin a literary journal that aims primarily to establish a platform for creative works engendered in differently reimagining Southeast Asia. The journal, Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art, will have its first issue released in September 2016. We are pleased that fourteen fierce and brave writers have allowed us to celebrate their works. But I think the journal needs more time to structure itself according to its aims. In projects like this, I believe diversity is indispensable. Queerness is an open-ended category; its meaning relies on a certain ethicality where the question “who is queer” must be given an unanswerable status.  Southeast Asia is not just a geographic boundary. And so at this point, I wouldn’t say our efforts are enough to build a network in order for us to speak together. But again: we are just beginning. I hope to see the day when a diverse mix of creative thinkers of marginalized background work hand in hand in understanding voices at Queer Southeast Asia.  We all have to see that day. We have to struggle for it. 

I think I would say the French Surrealist movement has had a strong impact on me. I was born in a country that worships God and by extension the powers that rule the land (as in Life is for god and country). My exposure to acts of surrender to a god has been in harmony with how I perform myself until integral contents of my-self were deemed anomalous by those very acts. The problem, because it is deeply personal, required me to be isolated, away from any dictum, even from the reach of my own family. It was then when I felt the French Surrealist movement had an emphatic vein, a thing that generates a rethinking of human condition and a reimagination of the body. Specific elements in the movement I carry in writing are: devotion to eliminating God and attraction to bisexuality. I once wrote a long poem, “Fragments of Impossibility,” in which a queer “I” whose lovers all named Jeremiah say this:

“Dear God, here is Jeremiah
stopping you. Dear God, here is Jeremiah getting his appetite back, separating
from taste, striving after you. Holy Father, the best of us are not yours anymore.” (Kritika Kultura, Issue 23)

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do? 

In the Philippines, there’s almost no support toward writing. It is just so difficult to be a poet, to be a writer, to be an artist in the Philippines. Art doesn’t just happen because one is inspired to write or paint or take a photograph. One needs time and support to do research; to engage with people and communities. And so I usually apply for external funding from any international association that can provide the help I need. I’m sure I’m not the only one who constantly faces this pressure. But we persist because, again, we believe that art and literature can enact social transformation.

With regard to what particular areas in the academic world that has to change, I think first the conservative view of writing, i.e. the strict definition of what literature is. It is not necessarily bad to have model texts, but we have to be suspicious of what aims we want to inculcate in employing model texts. In the Philippines, our model texts are usually written by white, male, Eurocentric authors. In my opinion, this has led our students not to exercise their capability to be critical and to fully appreciate the kind of writing we produce. More importantly, in a time when desultory economic reforms, such as the ASEAN integration, attempt to homogenize the region, thus obscuring aesthetic practice critical of globalization, it is crucial that Filipinos are aware of Southeast Asian writing, or how such “grouped” writing is even possible. However, I don’t see any systemic effort in reinforcing a literature syllabus, for example, that has an exhaustive list of Southeast Asian writing. We barely discuss, if at all, the nature of English in the “Global South” or the role of translation in making the literatures of the region. It is problematic and will remain problematic if the academic world in the Philippines will continuously nurture our readers with authors who died not knowing what it means to be brown and colonized!

We can bring fundamental re-structuring in the academe if we dare to challenge the canon. I say we read the forbidden. Understand what it means to be vulnerable, why there is censorship, why some writers have to do it “underground,” how precarity is represented in literature. I suggest we transform classrooms into community-based incisive thinking hubs, a little detached from the Socratic model in which the teacher is the center of everything. And again, challenge the canon.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

I think as authors, it is our right to appear in our biographical statements according to how we want to identify. But that should not be used against us. In fact, it has to help editors or readers in understanding our creative work. An inclusive publication needs to admit its biases and correct its publishing decisions when it has to. Let me share this experience:

I don’t give that much attention when my work gets rejected, but I do know how it feels to be rejected. And so as an editor, I’m more meticulous, more apprehensive of my reading. At Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art, we use anonymous submissions, though we qualify our publishing decision according to what I should refer to as “the need to maintain a representational balance” and we are ready to disclose our readings or reasons why a specific work is rejected. I feel that because we want to be able to imagine a community of marginalized writers, we have to honor their presence and so we have to talk to them when we need to.

There’s this instance when I gave the reasons to an author why we decided to reject their poem. Although the author accepted the reasons, they pointed out a possible misreading. I immediately asked my co-editors to reread the poem in question and provide me with a final decision after considering the possibility that we may have embraced our biases rather than tried to appreciate the poem. We, then, concluded that the poem should be accepted WITH a sort-of corrective note from the author just to guide our readers. It really felt good that as editors we were so gracious in admitting an accidental mistake, certainly a biased reading, and correcting it immediately. It is not easy to talk individually to writers who submit their work. It is really not. But it helps a lot to know that we are doing our best to change the literary landscape in Southeast Asia. And we need that kind of change now beyond Southeast Asia.

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B.B.P. HOSMILLO is the author of two poetry collections, The Essential Ruin (forthcoming) & Breed Me: a sentence without a subject/ Phối giống tôi: một câu không chủ đề (AJAR Press, 2016) with Vietnamese translation by Hanoi-based poets Nhã Thuyên & Hải Yến. A previous recipient of research fellowships/scholarships from The Japan Foundation, Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, & the Republic of Indonesia, his writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in AssaracusPalaver JournalThe CollapsarSAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Transnational Literature (Australia), minor literature[s]The Nottingham Reviewamong others. He is a guest poetry editor at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal & co-edits Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art  with Cyril WongHendri Yulius, J. Pilapil Jacobo, & Pang Khee Teik.

Source: vidaweb.org