Poet Spotlight: Sarah Blake on leaving earth and finding home in poetry

Sarah Blake - poet

Sarah Blake is the author of three poetry collections, including Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West from Wesleyan University Press; Named After Death, a chapbook from Banango Editions; and most recently, Let’s Not Live on Earth, a full length collection, also from Wesleyan.

She lives outside of Philadelphia and travels to participate in readings throughout the year. She is also the author of a forthcoming novel, Naamah (Riverhead Books), a reimagining of the story of the wife of Noah.

Let's Not Live on Earth by Sarah BlakeLet’s Not Live on Earth is your most recent collection of poetry. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

About a year after my son was born I started writing a lot again, but I didn’t have any ideas about what the poems could be doing together. During that time, I wrote “The Starship,” a book-length poem told in second person narration, all about leaving Earth. When it came time to put a book together, I knew I wanted “The Starship” in it. I looked through years of poems to find the ones that were in conversation with “The Starship” and that’s how the book found its shape.

Your collection includes the epic poem, “The Starship,” in which a woman shifts her perception of existence when a spaceship suddenly casts her home in shadow. What is your process for writing longer form poetry? How do you balance the narrative arc of the poem with a sense of poetic immediacy?

The process is very similar to writing a shorter poem for me. The poem is all encompassing and it’s hard for me to do much else. I found myself writing pieces of “The Starship” on my phone at the Y and in bed. With a shorter poem, it’s ok to have one strange day like this, but with a longer poem, I have trouble sleeping and find myself constantly thinking about the poem for weeks. I’ve resisted writing longer poems since “The Starship” because of how it wrecks me.

I balance the narrative arc with poetic immediacy by building the poem out of small sections, which each get the attention of a poem. I love experimenting with the gestures language can make that feel satisfying, in just a few lines and across a book-length work.

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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.


Three Mini Reviews for Three Mini Chapbooks of Poetry

I picked up each of these little books after being present at a reading by the authors, each of whom is a great performer with a unique and powerful voice. If you have the chance to catch them at any one of the many poetry events around the San Francisco bay area, I highly recommend you go have a listen.

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House and Home

by Jaz Sufi

Hand made with a string binding, House and Home is a gift of words, expressing raw wounds of body and heart, mind and soul. The poems explore love and its failures. They address the lives of women, revealing how they are damaged, while revealing a strength that allows them to reclaim their own power. What a gorgeous little collection.

Poetry is not the ship.
Poetry is not the captain.
Life is a constant storm, and poetry
is what we make of the wreckage,
what we cling to alone in the ocean.

— from “Better a Blacksmith Than a Writer, a Carpenter Than a Poet”

Jaz Sufi is a poet, a Bay Area native, and the slammaster of the Berkeley Slam, the longest running poetry slam in California.

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Reflections

by Jocelyn Deona De Leon
2005

Although only about the size of my hand, I don’t know if I can quite call Reflections mini at 62 pages.This collection is introspective and soulful, alternating between diary entries exploring and reflecting the author’s emotional space to individual poems sending messages to the world. These poems call upon the reader to ground themselves in the present moment, to look inside themselves, and to feel the world deeply.

moments flutter by like
butterfly wings slowly
floating you away from me.

i cannot catch you
because your freedom is exquisite.
it is the most explicit reminder that
the only way to love free is
to free love.

— from “Complicated Simplicity”

Jocelyn Deona de Leon writes poetry inspired by her Pilipino ancestral heritage and reflecting on experience through the eyes of love (see bio). She has toured nationally, sharing her words and energy with youth at various elementary, high school, and college campuses.

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Highku: 4 & 20 Poems About Marijuana

by Brennan ‘B Deep’ DeFrisco
Lucky Bastard Press, 2015

I don’t smoke, so normally I wouldn’t be interested in a book of poetry about pot. But when I saw this tiny, adorable little book, I couldn’t help but pick it up. The poems inside follow the traditional haiku 5-7-5 syllable format. Each tiny poem contains a single thought, some witty, some perceptive. A fun little read.

Nixon’s solution
for Vietnam protesters:
Arrest them for pot

Brennan ‘B Deep’ DeFrisco likes words and the way they move. He is an organizer and performer at the Berkeley Poetry Slam and will represent them for the second time in the upcoming 2015 National Poetry Slam. He is a co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press.

Joys, travels, poetry, and other doings

A lot has been going on over the past couple of weeks since I last posted, so I’m going to sum things up in list format (in order of importance, rather than chronology) to make things easier on myself. I still have to do my book and movie round up for May, but that’ll come tomorrow probably.

– The biggest announcement by far is the birth of my nephew. The Monster (my niece) is being adorable around him, very gentle and loving so far. I can’t even express what a joy it is to welcome this tiny little person into the family.

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– I also turned 34 years old in the past two weeks (on May 26 to be exact), and a Happy New Year to me. A gentleman recently told my friend that she should count her birthday as the true new year, since it announces another new year of her life. I love that, and it seems like a perfect time to reassess life, the universe, and everything. With all that’s been happening, I haven’t had a chance to do that yet, but I’m planning to think about taking a serious look at my goals this week. It so happened that my birthday was marked by…

– getting rather sick. Oh the joys of coughs and runny noses, just as I’m launching into…

– a two week work trip, involving two conferences and an industrial plant visit. Travels took me to Detroit, West Michigan, and Montreal. There was a lot of work and a lot of trying to rest in order to recover from being sick, so I didn’t do much touring, except for two beautiful days in Montreal. I let my feet carry me around the city to here and there, exploring Old Town and other areas of the city center. It was beautiful out and I’d like to have more time to explore Montreal properly in the future.

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Montreal with the Parc du Mont-Royal in the background.
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Inside the Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal.

– Being in Montreal, I had to go see Cirque du Soleil. It was a bigger expense than I had planned, but Kurios is a steampunk inspired show, so I couldn’t resist. They did a marvelous job with the aesthetic and it fit really well into the acrobat sequences. The first half, in particular, was astounding in beauty and stunts. The second half had a few weird bits that I didn’t get, but it didn’t lessen my overall enjoyment. Kurios is my favorite of all the Soleil shows I’ve seen.

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Inside the Cirque du Soleil: Kurios tent. The show had an awesome steampunk aesthetic.

– I came home to two poetry pretties in my mailbox — the lovely TEN chapbook by Val Dering Rojas (which I received from the author) and Live From The Homesick Jamboree by Adrian Blevins (which I received as part of a poetry giveaway). I’m looking forward to reading both!!

 – Two contributor’s copies of the Strange Frenzies anthology also arrives. The anthology includes my poem, “Comfort At Last.” A wonderful surprise.