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All writers can benefit from studying poetry

Allison Joseph directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She is the author of many books and chapbooks of poetry, including Lexicon (Red Hen Press), Professional Happiness (Backbone Press), The Last Human Heart (Diode Editions), and Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press). Her latest full-length book of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, was published by Red Hen Press in 2018. It was chosen as the Gold/First Place Winner in the poetry category of the 2019 Feathered Quill Book Awards. She is the widow of the late poet and editor Jon Tribble, to whom Professional Happiness is dedicated.

Born in London, England to parents of Caribbean heritage, Allison Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada, and the Bronx, New York. A graduate of Kenyon College and Indiana University, she serves as poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, the publisher of No Chair Press, and the director of Writers In Common, a writing conference for writers of all ages and experience levels. In 2014, she was awarded a Doctor of Letters honorary degree from her undergraduate alma mater, Kenyon College.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet post Allison Joseph who discusses her writing and what she will present at our virtual summer conference.

Allison’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Beginnings and Endings: How Poets Can Sing At Both/Poetry as Meditative Practice”
  • Panel: “To Agent or Not to Agent” — Angela Jackson-Brown, Pam Mandel, Dirk Manning, Allison Joseph

MWW: What are your favorite literary journals?

AJCrab Orchard Review, of course—the magazine I helped to found with Jon Tribble, my beloved late husband. It’s been hard coming back from his death, but we are reading submissions again and looking forward to publishing new issues. Other than Crab Orchard, I have always been a fan of Ploughshares, the Southern Indiana Review, New Letters, and the Kenyon Review (Kenyon is my undergraduate alma mater).

MWW: What do you love most about poetry, and what do you find that it does a better job of doing than other modes of writing? Conversely, what things frustrate you about poetry?

AJ: I love that poetry can be handed down through the centuries—that it is supposed to survive the poet. I can pick up, as I did today, a book by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and find truths in his work that apply to my life now. What’s frustrating about poetry isn’t poetry itself but rather people’s attitudes toward it—indifference, or, sometimes, outright hatred. I can only guess that for some people poetry was something they dreaded in school. For me, it was something I adored whenever I had a chance to study it as a child.

MWW: In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg tells us “Forget yourself. Disappear into everything you look at—a street, a glass of water, a cornfield. Everything you feel, become totally that feeling, burn all of yourself with it.” Can you talk about a time you found yourself losing yourself in what you’re writing about? Is that a recommendable path, or do you prefer a certain sense of objectivity?

AJ: That has happened to me fairly recently, because I’ve been writing a lot of poems about loss and grief. The experience of turning grief into poetry, line by line and image by image, is an absorbing one. It’s a path that unfortunately happened to me. I’d much rather not be writing elegies. But elegies do take all your energy and do demand a lot of the poet, even as they provide catharsis.

MWW: What are your favorite takeaways from the sessions you’ll be teaching?

AJ: I’m of the mind that all writing has a bit of poetry in it. What can writers learn from poetry even if they don’t consider themselves poets?

The elements of poetry are the elements of good writing—rhythm, pacing, image, simile, metaphor, epiphanies. Good poetry does what all good writing does—just in a more condensed way. All writers can benefit from studying poetry—if not writing it as well.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

AJ: My late husband’s nickname for me was ocelot, so let’s go with that.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Allison!

Q&A with poet Liz Whiteacre

Liz Whiteacre currently teaches writing at the University of Indianapolis. She is the author of Hit the Ground and co-editor of the anthology Monday Coffee & Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs with Darolyn Jones. Her poems have appeared in Wordgathering, Disability Studies Quarterly, The Healing Muse, Breath and Shadow, and other magazines. She is a recipient of many writing honors, including the 2015 Excellence in Teaching Award from Ball State University and an Inglis House Poetry Award in 2010. In 2011, she was nominated for a Pushcart.

Elizabeth Whiteacre - EnglishLiz is teaching the Part I intensive session, “Leaping into Poetry.” Its content was inspired by poet Robert Bly’s book, “Leaping Poetry,” which fanned the conversation about taking leaps in poems or moving readers between conscious and unconscious thought. During the daylong session, Liz will concentrate on associate leaps, allusions, and leaps prompted by figurative language, like metaphor. Attendees will learn strategies for leaping in poems both as they compose and as they revise. Written exercises and opportunities to share work will be part of the session. Participants are encouraged to bring a few of their own poems that they are interested in revising.

In addition, during MWW’s Part II, on Friday at 10:30 a.m., Liz will teach “Prompting Poems,” a session covering different types of writing prompts and resources for jump-starting a new poem; and at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, she will conduct the “Line Break Clinic” to offer strategies and exercises for determining line breaks, and help with forms that best suit the writer’s goals and the poem’s intention.

MWW committee member Janis Thornton recently interviewed Liz about Liz’s love for poetry and teaching, her new book (Hit the Ground) in which she uses poetry to explore dealing with a life-altering injury, what her MWW session attendees can expect, and so much more.

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MWW: When and why did you begin to write, and when did you first identify as a writer – and specifically, as a poet?

LW: I started writing in college. I signed up for a poetry workshop at Indiana University, not quite realizing what it was. In the workshop, we focused on reading contemporary poetry, which I’d not read much of, and writing poems in response to what we learned from them. It was a wonderful experience, and I just kept going, eventually getting my MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University. I was fortunate to work with poets who were encouraging and very generous with their time. I think I finally started to identify as a poet when I continued writing and publishing poetry after I left school. I was compelled to write at that point and made time for it in the midst of all my other responsibilities. It was then, I started thinking of myself as a poet, and not just as a student or teacher.

MWW: How long have you been teaching poetry, and what is it about the genre that speaks to you?

LW: I’ve been teaching poetry for over a decade. I love puzzling over how to take a fuzzy emotion and turn it into a concrete image or narrative, playing with language and form to help support the poem’s message. As a teacher, I present students with, to borrow Kooser’s metaphor, all the tools they can use to craft a poem and create an environment in which students test the tools and see what they can build. Some poems fall apart. Some poems are unexpectedly strong and beautiful. As students work, they begin to see what tools are most useful for what they like to build. And, we can turn to other poets/readers for advice with the construction process. It’s the process of the genre that gets me excited about workshops, whether I’m a teacher or student.

MWW: Who is the author who most influenced your development and/or style as a writer? In what ways did that author help shape your art?

LW: Many poets have influenced my work, and it’s hard to pick just one. Richard Cecil, Allison Joseph, Rodney Jones, and Lucia Perillo were wonderful, supportive professors as I started writing in college – I’ve learned from their work and from their charismatic teachings. Lately, I’ve been reading poets who write about disability, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with Laurie Clements Lambeth. Her poems and graphics have shaped how I explore metaphor in my poems about pain.

MWW: Your poetry chapbook, Hit the Ground, explores the effects of your devastating, life-altering spinal injury. Why did you choose to tell that experience in poetry? How did writing about this difficult time in your life challenge and/or advance your creative writing skills? How do you feel about the final result?

LW: I think I started telling my story through poems because I was writing poems at the time, and I continued to work with the medium because poems allowed me the opportunity to zero in on particular aspects of my accident/recovery and explore them in a focused way. The poems helped me take abstract feelings like pain and frustration and make them concrete through figurative language. While all the poems in Hit the Ground are based on personal experience, I did feel more freedom to excerpt, condense, or combine things than I would if I were writing a creative nonfiction essay. I think my experiences with spinal injury definitely gave me endless content for poems, and the challenge to write a poem that invites a reader to understand an abstraction has kept me going. It is satisfying to share a poem with someone and have that person better understand not only what is happening to the speaker, but what life is like for someone they know dealing with chronic pain.

MWW: What are you working on now?

LW: I am working on a persona poem project, writing poems from the transcripts of wheelchair users who participated in the study “Pre-Enrollment Considerations of Undergraduate Wheelchair Users and their Post-Enrollment Transitions” authored by Roger D. Wessel, Darolyn Jones, Christina L. Blanch, and Larry Markle.

MWW: What is the best advice you give your students?

LW: Engage with a writing community. Students who read other people’s work, talk with other writers about writing, attend events, get conversations going on social media, etc. will benefit in many ways. Not only will they find themselves part of an incredible support network, but their own writing will mature and grow in unexpected ways.

MWW: With regard to your intensive session – “Leaping into Poetry” – what do you teach that’s beneficial to both poets and writers of prose? What do you want your attendees to know before the session, and how can they best prepare for the day?

LW: Years ago, when a friend shared Robert Bly’s idea of leaping in poems with me, how I write poems changed. The MWW intensive session will focus on how writers can move readers between conscious and unconscious thoughts using associative leaps, allusions, and other types of figurative language. We will be using poems as examples at the workshop, but writers of any genre would benefit from careful thinking about how they create associative leaps in their work, which can add layers of meaning for their readers.

I’ll be providing examples of leaps in poems when we begin our discussion, and attendees will have the opportunity to practice leaping while they compose a poem. It would be great if attendees could bring 1-3 poems or flash fiction/nonfiction pieces they’ve already written (and are open to revising) with them to the workshop, which we can use during an exercise that will help us practice leaping during the revision process.

MWW: Thank you, Liz. We are all looking forward to welcoming you to the 42nd annual Midwest Writers Workshop.

Interview with poet Allison Joseph

Joseph, AllisonAllison Joseph is the author of What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon, 1997), In Every Seam (Pittsburgh, 1997),Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003) and Worldly Pleasures (Word Press, 2004). Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. She is editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual summer residential creative writing workshop for high school writers. She holds the Judge Williams Holmes Cook Endowed Professorship. She is Director of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Allison was interviewed by MWW committee member, Cathy Shouse.

MWWPlease let us know what types of poetry you write and give a short description of your career path, including how you got published and when, as well as your latest release.

AJI write all sorts of poems. I have published six books of poems and two chapbooks. My latest book is Trace Particles, a chapbook from Backbone Press.

MWW: How will your intensive session at MWW work? Will participants be doing any writing, for example?

AJ: Lots of reading and writing will take place. Lots of discussion about poetry.

MWW: What is the best tip you were ever given with regard to your writing career and why?

AJ: Read as much as possible.

MWW: Have writing conferences influenced your writing? If so, how?

AJ: Conferences provide community.

MWW: What are some ways all writers might benefit from your session, even if they don’t write poetry?

AJ: They will learn about lyricism, diction, rhythm and pacing–those skills are beneficial to all writers.

MWW: What are your thoughts on traditional publishing versus self publishing with regards to writing?

AJ: Poets have so many venues nowadays that self-publishing is not necessary. There are many ways to get published that involve cooperation and community. Self-publishing is actually an isolating move for a poet.

Allison will be teaching in Part I of the workshop on the topic, Reflections on the Contemporary OdeThis session will explore what an ode is, why contemporary poets have rediscovered this form, and why reading and writing odes should be a part of every writer’s practice. We’ll look at examples of this enchanting form, write new ones dedicated to our own personal inspirations, and get feedback on what makes an ode endure for both readers and writers.

During  Part II, Allison will be teaching on Revising Poems for Fun and Profit. This session will discuss how writing poems is fun. Revising poems is work. Learn how to revise poems so that they have a life beyond your own notebooks. Publication and performance to be discussed in this session.

Read some of Allison’s poems in Valparaiso Poetry Review.

Interview with poet Debra Marquart

 

 Marquart
Q. Give us the scoop on some of your many achievements, since we don’t have space for them all!A.  Most recently, I received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (2008), and my latest book, a memoir titled The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, was awarded the PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award (2007).  It also received the “Elle Lettres” award from Elle Magazine (2006), and an Editors’ Choice commendation (2006) from the New York Times Book Review. In 2005, I received a Pushcart Prize, and I’ve also been the recipient of the Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay (2003), the John Guyon Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review (2003), and the Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award (2003).

Q. For your 2010 MWW intensive, you ask writers to bring photographs. What can we expect in that workshop?

A. The static quality of photographs provide writers with an opportunity to stop time, to look around, to note the details in a way that is never afforded us in real life.  For this reason, the photograph becomes a kind of warehouse of memory.  In this session, we’ll begin to take an inventory of that warehouse of memory and detail by asking participants to bring two photographs-old or new, formal or informal.  We will be doing some freewriting and sharing within the intensive workshop.  The hope is that participants will leave the session with good starting drafts of writing that can be explored further after the conference ends.

Q. You’re a professor of English and a teacher in two MFA programs. Explain how your writing evolved and how your MWW intensive could help writers in any genre.

A. Because my initial approach to a life in art was as a musician, my first interest in writing poetry really began with my interest in song lyrics.  Then I migrated to a love of and practice of writing poetry.  Song writing and poetry writing are very different, however.  At the very least, they do share a common interest in the music of language (attention to sound), as well as a compaction and precision of language in the form of description, detail, metaphor, image.  For any writer-whether one writes fiction, nonfiction, mystery, romance-the study of poetry can be an immersion in language-intensive writing.  Each word in a poem weighs a great deal and does a great deal of work for the larger poem.  This is certainly true with prose as well, but the poem is a kind of crucible where all these considerations become more acute, immediate, and apparent.  For that reason, the study of poetry (reading as well as writing) can be an enormous help to all writers-a kind of joyful boot camp of language/image/metaphor/symbolism.