Dec 13 2017

Poet Spotlight: Athena Dixon on finding voice and taking action

Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, a phenomenal publication that she launched in 2012 with the aim of increasing “diversity in publishing by encouraging work from writers traditionally underrepresented in the industry.” Her own work has appeared both online and in print in various publications. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Best of the Net nominee, and a Callaloo fellow, and has been a presenter at both AWP and HippoCamp.

Athena’s first chapbook of poetry, No God In This Room, is now available from Argus House Press.

Athena Dixon

You recently published your first collection of poetry, No God in This Room. Tell us a bit about this project and how it came into being.

Back in 2016, I came across a contest announcement from Argus House Press. They were seeking intersectional manuscripts from poets in or from the Midwest. I thought I was a pretty good fit and pulled together a chapbook I thought best represented me as a woman, an African-American, and a Midwesterner. In recent years I’ve concentrated on essays about growing up in the Midwest, so it was nice to be able to find a home for my poetry on the same topic. This was actually the first contest I’ve entered and to my surprise I won! The collection was originally titled Way Station, but after Bianca Spriggs read the manuscript she suggested a new title. No God in This Room was the hands down winner.

The pieces in the collection are all very image driven. In my poetry and my prose, I tend to concentrate on a central image or thread and then spin the work out from that axis. Some of the poems take something as small as a bee on a window sill and weave a story. Others tackle images directly related to police brutality and shootings. Each of them gives a bit of sweetness and sourness.

No God in This Room - Athena DixonWhat lessons did you learn in the process of pulling together your debut collection of poetry? What was the biggest challenge in finishing the project?

Most of my lessons came after I entered the manuscript. I thought I was a good fit, but I’d never submitted more than a few poems at a time. After I was selected, I started worrying about what I’d included and whether or not the collection was cohesive. I toyed with the idea of withdrawing it altogether or entering into major edits because I wasn’t confident that people would like what I’d put together.

I’m a writer who reads everything aloud obsessively and I wasn’t sure the mouth feel and sound of the poems was right. Thankfully, most of my doubts were quieted when I read the blurbs, stepped aside, and listened to my colleagues.

In the future, I’d take quite a bit more time organizing the pieces and finding both the inner threads and outer structure of the manuscript in advance.

Do you have a favorite poem from No God in This Room? Why is it your favorite?

I’d say my favorite is the opening poem, “Boxes of Andromeda”. I wrote it for my mother. I was sitting on the floor at AWP back in 2015 and I scribbled it down in one sitting. I think it captures my mother perfectly. She was a factory worker, but was still very much a feminine figure. I wanted to honor her sacrifice of body in order to give me a different path.

How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?

I started writing short stories when I was young. I’d write what was pretty much fan fiction featuring R&B singers and groups. I still have a suitcase full of them at my parents’ house. They are pretty embarrassing!

I wrote my first poem in November 1990. When I was in the 8th grade, I had a student teacher who taught us poetry for a grading period. She was very encouraging of my writing. She told me I wrote like Emily Dickenson. I had no idea who that was. So, I started to reading poetry and writing more. From there I wrote for any venue I could. From middle school through college, I wrote for an endless number of newsletters, online magazines, poetry forums, student magazines on campus, and did freelance work.

I keep writing because of two main reasons. The first is because on those days I am feeling confident I know I am a damn good writer and I love what I produce. Those are the days I want to share what I craft with the world. The second is because I need writing to be my voice. I’m pretty quiet and sometimes I feel invisible. Writing lets me speak in ways that I sometimes can’t muster out loud.

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, as well as being a writer, what advice would you offer to writers just getting started?

First and foremost is to be yourself! Find your voice and find what you love to write about. Knowing that allows you to be confident and vested in what you are creating. That doesn’t mean it won’t, or can’t, change over the years, but if you have some real connection to what you are writing it will show in the final product.

It may seem that you have to follow trends or like certain writers or presses, but that’s not true. The writing world is vast and eventually you will find your niche and your community. When you do? Support it and it will support you!

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Community is important, but it is also important to know that every community isn’t for you. Sometimes, especially in the age of social media, we get the idea that a writing community has to be a group of witty and cool people who riff off of each other on Twitter and other apps. Sometimes community is that. Other times, and for me, community is a couple of people who keep me grounded via e-mail and in a private setting. This works for me because of my shyness. My community also consists of people of varying ages and backgrounds. This allows me to have fresh eyes and perspectives on my literary pursuits and questions.

Do you believe poetry can create change in the world?

I believe that it can, but it needs to be coupled with action as well. Bringing awareness to topics via our creative works is massively important, but it can’t stop there. As I said earlier, if you find your voice you are going to be vested in what you are writing. That passion and interest can manifest in many ways, but I think those actions should extend beyond writing into volunteer work, fundraising, protesting, campaigning, or any other manner of engagement.

Name one poet no one knows but should.

There are a quite a few, but those writers that I find really exciting usually come via the submissions at Linden Avenue. Two that come to mind are Daschielle Louis and Rosie DeSantis. We recently published both of them and I was very impressed with their work.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Hopefully, my collection of essays will find a home and be sent out into the world. I’ve been crafting and publishing these essays for about the last two years and it would be wonderful to finally share all of them with the world. I also have two poems in the forthcoming Black Girl Magic anthology from Haymarket Books. That will be available in March 2018. There are a few things in the works that I have to keep to myself for now.

And of course, I will continue to publish Linden Avenue along with my staff because it’s one of my priorities to offer a place for all writers get their work out to the world.



Dec 9 2017

The Waste Lands – Returning to The Dark Tower, Part III

Here are Part I and Part II of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Part III is focused on my reread of book three, The Waste Lands.

Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.

The Waste Lands - Stephen KingThe Waste Lands begins with signs that Roland Deschain, the gunslinger is slowly going mad. At the end of the previous book, he stopped the Pusher from shoving Jake (the boy who appears in the first book) in front of a car, thus preventing events from the first book from ever happening. This creates an interesting temporal paradox, in which the gunslinger begins to experience split realities — one in which Jake dies and one in which he never met Jake. As time goes on, his mind becomes more and more divided between these two realities.

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Nov 27 2017

Book Love: Tender, stories by Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar’s collection of stories reveals human (or not-so-human) tenderness as the aching of a wound, or the gentle kindness from another, or the vulnerability of the young. It’s a stunning collection of powerful stories with beautiful writing and many with creative ways of expressing the tale (essay format, journal entries, letters) that provides a unique depth and texture.

I love “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” a story in which a young woman comes to terms with her anger at the loss of her mother, sharing the stories with the reader, she keeps hidden within herself. The phrases “I don’t tell” and “I won’t tell” are repeated throughout, highlighting the need for new stories free of the pain and mistakes of the past.

On the flip-side of the relationship between mother and daughter is “Honey Bear,” an affecting story of a woman and her husband driving to the ocean with their daughter. The story sings with love and compassion. The woman is ill, the husband frustrated and over protective. She holds to her daughter with such affection in a world that is slipping away, dying. The ending of this story — which I will not spoil — shattered me. Love is so powerful. So is hope, however small.

Another deeply moving story is “Walkdog,” which is presented as an class essay about knowing one’s environment. The author chooses to write about walkdogs, creatures said to steal people away, forcing them to walk behind them for years and years. The use of footnotes here are critical to the way the story unfolds, gaps of the personal slipping under the seemingly academic, building into a story about a bullied boy and the girl who loved him, but not enough to protect him — all culminating in a heartbreaking conclusion.

Power structures are often explored in these stories. “Ogres of East Africa” — which I’ve read three times now and the story grows with each readingfor — shares the story of Alibhai a servant to a white hunter looking to track and hunt an ogre. As he records stories of ogres for hig master, he records his own history in the margins, his story slowly moving to the forefront of the text.

In a similar fashion, “An Account of the Land of Witches”  presents the story of a slave finding freedom in a strange land in which boundaries are meaningless. Later a woman in our modern world goes looking for the history of this land, basing her dissertation on the slave’s letter and her master’s refutation, only to have her efforts stopped when the borders are closed by war.

There are so many more lovely stories in this collection — both “Dawn and the Maiden” and “Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold” stand out for me in terms of their beauty of language. Take for example, this passage”

My love is a river. My love is a brink. My love is the bring of an underground river. My love’s arms ripple like rivers in the moonlight when he unlocks the garden gate. — from “Dawn and the Maiden”

One could go one-by-one in an attempt to honor each story in its turn. But I’m afraid I don’t have time, so I’ll just say this is a gorgeous book, worth every penny in the cost of acquiring it.


Nov 10 2017

New Stuff up at Quail Bell and The Literary Whip

Quail Bell published six of my poems over the past couple of months, all from the Poeming project, in which over 50 poets were each assigned one of Stephen King’s books and charged with the challenge of crating 31 found poems in the month of October. The poems Quail Bell selected were:

In other awesome news, Zoetic Press has started a new podcast called, The Literary Whip. The podcast highlights poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that was rejected by Nonbinary Review and other publication. This is work that almost made it past the slush pile to publication, but was ultimately rejected.

As an associate editor for Nonbinary Review, I was invited to be a guest of the podcast for two episodes. It was great fun speaking with Lise Quintana, podcast host and editor in chief of Nonbinary, about “Dear Firebird” by Becky d’Ugo and “No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise” by Jane Wiseman, as well as about literature and the editing process in general. Go check them out.


Nov 7 2017

Culture Consumption: September & October 2017

Fell a whole month behind and still moving slow, but here we go — presenting my last two months in books, movies, and television.

Books

The Stone Sky is a powerful conclusion to N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Essun has grown into immense power and is determined to end the seasons (times in which the world tears itself apart), while her daughter, Nassun, with her own power and burdened by the memories of cruelty enacted on her and other orogenes, sets out to destroy the world for good. The character walk through an apocalyptic landscape of ash and cold, a world coming undone, each marching to their own destiny — and in the end a beautiful conclusion full of heartbreak, forgiveness, and ultimately love. The Broken Earth trilogy is brilliant from start to finish — one of my favorite reading experiences in recent years.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a well loved collection, especially the title story “The Bloody Chamber.” People have been telling me about it for years — and now that I’ve read it, I totally understand why so many people love it. The story follows the Bluebeard fairy tale closely: a girl marries a rich man, who gives her the keys to the house telling her that she can open all the doors but one — a test she fails to nearly disastrous results. Carter takes the myth and brings it into the modern world (1970s, when it was first published) and provides more depth to the main character, giving her a history and motivation for the choices she makes. It presents servants that have personalities and her mother, who has fought in revolutions and can advice her over the telephone. The resulting story is at the same time grittily real and subtly magical.

One of my pet peeves about fairy tale retellings is that they often loose the magic when they are modernized. But all of the stories in Carter’s collection present similarly gritty and unsettling takes on old fairy tales, while not loosing that original weirdness and magic. It’s a fantastic collection.

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