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.
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.
What 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.