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 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.
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.
Kolleen Carney is a Boston-born, Burbank based poet with an undergraduate degree in English from Salem State University and an MFA in Poetry from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has published two chapbooks — Me and the Twelve Step Program (Salem State Center for Creative and Performing Arts) and Your Hand Has Fixed the Firmament(Grey Books Press, 2017). Kolleen is currently the social media coordinator and managing editor for Zoetic Press, as well as an assistant poetry editor. She is also the editor-in-chief and social media coordinator for Drunk Monkeys.
Your new collection of poetry, Your Hand Has Fixed the Firmament, has recently been published by Grey Books Press. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.
I fell in love! As silly as that sounds. To be honest, some of the poems I had started years before, like “Bestia” and “A Very Distant Rooster”. This collection is obviously an unfolding relationship, the start of a romance, of a true love — something I am not sure I had really experienced in the past, at least not with this intensity. When Fritz and I finally got together, I wrote more and more about our experiences before and after the fact. They came easily. He’s easy to write about. Everything he does is a poem in the making, and I am constantly memorizing it all.
The poems in your collection explore intimacy and sex with a mixture of fire and decay, creation and wonder. They seem to speak to the way love can be both comforting and frightening all at once. Does this reflect your personal belief or understanding of how love is? How do you bring this intimacy to your poetry and how do you bring poetry to intimacy with others?
I absolutely believe love is a terrifying thing. To love someone is to become vulnerable, and I hate being vulnerable. But in the same way, I love the comfort of a life with someone, a routine. A warm shoulder, another body next to you at night.
I used to think I didn’t really know how to love anyone beyond my son; like, I loved people, but not that sort of real love where people die holding hands or whatever. Now I do. Now I know.
I love the idea that decay leads to new life, by the way. That fire that decimated the hill? Because of that, pinecones opened up, seeds fell, and someday that hill will be filled with new trees. It’s amazing.
Love poems are sort of a new thing for me. I have never written anything so positive. I guess yes, that intimacy comes through in the poetry, because I am just trying to frame how I feel in a way that sounds nice. As for bringing poetry to intimacy, I just try to keep this feeling going, to make everything a little magical. Sometimes even going to the store can be an adventure.
Stacey Balkun’s poetry has been described as nuanced, insatiably curious, and fearless. She is the author of two chapbooks, Lost City Museum (ELJ Publications 2016) and Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl press 2016), which has recently been nominated for an Elgin Award. She is also co-editor along with Catherine Moore of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Women Poets, a teaching artist at The Poetry Barn, and Chapbook Series editor for Sundress Publications.
Your most recent collection of poetry is Lost City Museum. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.
Oddly enough, the phrase “Lost City Museum” came to me after a poetry reading by New Orleans poets Elizabeth Gross and Geoff Munsterman. Both read fascinating poems about loss, water, and preservation: all of the themes linking my most recent poems. The idea of a lost city and a museum commemorating it made me realize exactly how this project would come together.
I’m interested in how these poems incorporate imagery of both the concept of museums as buildings for artifacts and objects kept static and preserved behind glass cases, untouched, and imagery of water in the form of sea, rivers, and rain as a constantly moving force. Can you talk about what draws you to this kind of imagery? Did the imagery provide a focus for forming the collection or did you discover the theme after having written a number of individual poems?
I’m fascinated by weird, under-known history as well as mythology, both of which seem elusive to a degree and ever changing, ever moving. I wanted to somehow capture that tenuous energy to reflect an emotional landscape. Some of these poems were written during my MFA, and some came later. I lost my father about a month before my wedding. For months I wondered, how can a person feel the most lonely at a gathering of friends and family meant to celebrate her love? I struggled to write about this tension, and I think images of ocean and rain or desert and drought helped me explore and understand that odd momentum of gain and loss. This type of tension has always been there in my work, yes, but as these poems came, I sort of re-discovered it and saw a thematic thread that helped order the poems, though not necessarily narratively.
Jessie Carty is the author of eight poetry collections, including the full length collection Practicing Disaster (Aldrich Press, 2014) and the the chapbook An Amateur Marriage (Finishing Line, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2011 Robert Watson Prize. Her work has placed third in the St. Louis Poetry Center’s 2008 contest and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Award, and she has been a finalist in a number of poetry and chapbook contests. Her latest collection of poetry, Shopping After the Apocalypse, is now available from dancing girl press and was nominated for an Elgin Award.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?
I always think of myself first as a reader. I feel very strongly that you can’t be a writer without being a reader. I have very clear memories of wanting to read before I could actually do it. As an avid reader, I found myself, from a very early age, wanting to play with words.
I’m actually in a little bit of a lull as a writer right now, but whenever that happens I return to reading. And not just poems. I read across genres. You just never know what you’ll read that will spark you to write even if it is just for yourself. Never discount the power of just writing for yourself! I also find, when I’m not feeling “the muse,” that it helps to mix things up. I’ll try out a different way of composing: using a pencil instead of a keyboard or a different size notebook.
So what keeps me going? I think at the heart of us all is the storyteller. The troubadour. The record keeper. Because, as I wrote as a teenager, I write to free myself from myself. Or maybe now I’d say, with a little less angst, I write to be and know who I am.
Your most recent chapbook of poetry is Shopping After the Apocalypse. Tell us a bit about this project and how it came about.
This was an unusual project for me in many respects. I had not been writing that much when the title came to me just out of the blue. (I love how the mind works!) I don’t normally write from titles. In fact, I usually don’t title a poem till well after it is done. Heck, when I read poems I don’t always read the title before I read the poem in case it “gives something away.” Instead of immediately writing I just started musing about this idea of what it would be like to shop after the apocalypse. It occurred to me that the first place I’d probably shop would be at my home so that’s where I started. Then I made “myself” into a character and wondering what I would do next? Where would I go? And thus the poems became a journey from location to location with the idea of “shopping” to keep me writing until I got to a final destination.