Poetry in a Polarized Era
Interview by Jo Ely, Contributing Editor
Since the election of Donald Trump, not only the political landscape has changed, but also the way in which that landscape is perceived and addressed by writers, in particular, poets. What follows is a group interview, with poets from diverse backgrounds who contribute often very different perspectives to the conversation.
Tess Barry was shortlisted for the 2015 Manchester Poetry Prize. Her poems have been widely published. She teaches at Robert Morris University. Read her poetry in WTP Vol. IV #7
Celeste Gainey was the first female gaffer to be admitted to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (her first book, The Gaffer, was selected by O, the Oprah magazine, as one of eight New Books of Poetry to Savor
Sheila L. Carter-Jones is the author of Three Birds Deep (selected by Elizabeth Alexander as the 2012 winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Book Award) and the chapbook Blackberry Cobbler Song. She is a fellow of Cave Canem and lives in Pittsburgh.
Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh.
Emily Mohn-Slate’s recent poems can be found in New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Chatham University.
Ely: In this era of political upheaval, we’re seeing a proliferation of poetry events, poets collaborating with musicians, filmmakers, and other artists. And as poetry is very social-media friendly, poets are finding new audiences. Do you feel that there’s been a real renaissance in poetry?
Barry: I do think there has been a renaissance in poetry, in part because of technology and social media, but also because of the recent upheaval in the world—dark times have contributed to a greater need for poetry; for what speaks to the human condition.
Poetry is borderless, a momentary stay against confusion (to quote Frost) and uncertainty. Technology and the age of information has made poetry more accessible certainly, has brought it to much larger audiences and brought more people to the poetry table. But the last few years have also made poetry more essential in terms of its power to connect us to greater truth and to our common humanity. After the election in November I took solace from poets and poetry online, some of it (a poem by Danez Smith for example) posted immediately. When I was at the AWP conference in Washington, DC, this past February there was a sense of momentum in terms of connection and community. Poets are connecting virtually and physically. At AWP, there were a number of marches and candlelight vigils to protest the travel ban and Trump’s policies generally, and those events were organized in large part via social media. I felt strengthened and assured by so many diverse voices rising up and pushing back against fear and intolerance.
Hyper-connectivity has perhaps created a poetry renaissance, but it is also a contradiction—intense intimacy coupled with fracturedness and even isolation. Poetry is all about compression, distilling emotion and experience to its essence, and that certainly lends itself to this age of social media. It has become very easy to share poems, to access poems for free, to watch spoken-word poets in person or online—but poetry’s role remains what it has always been, to return us to our most human selves.
Carter-Jones: I don’t think there has been a real renaissance in poetry as far as has been goes or as far as real goes. In other words, I don’t think poetry ever stopped rebirthing itself. I feel that poetry, as totally connected to the trend of the times, is expressive of the moral and spiritual essence of the human condition. And, because all conditions are varied due to social conventions, economic situations, historical consequences and individual belief systems, poetry has always been in a state of renaissance in the sense that it is based in the reality of people’s lives. Poetry has always been a movement of words, rhythms, and vocables reflecting the times and conditions of humanity.
Gainey: I feel that poetry is always in a state of renaissance. That is its inherent nature. If we feel otherwise it is only because of our culture’s inability to recognize that. Though we always seem to obsess over labels—schools of this and that, judging our poetry into hierarchical tiers—poetry, itself, continues to embrace, reflect, and evolve with the times. We, the readers and so-called arbiters of poetry, are the ones caught standing still—then must run to catch up.
Technology and social media are certainly creating many ways for previously disenfranchised voices to be heard. The hierarchy still exists, but there are now multiple avenues of entrée. To paraphrase the artist Kerry James Marshall—and he is speaking about the making of paintings by those whose race, class, or gender is usual cause for marginalization, but I think what he says can be extended to embrace all art forms, including poetry—you can orient your actions to gain access to the established institutions and places of power or you can establish a new place or movement that runs alongside it. Both are necessary for an art form to continue to thrive.
Thankfully, at the moment, both approaches seem to be actively present in our micro-world of poetry. I’m thinking of groups like Split This Rock that advocates for and provides a very visible platform for the marginalized voices of poetry; or BEOTIS, “a boutique agency and tour management company representing a roster of poets, writers, speakers, and multidisciplinary creatives of color”; or Cave Canem, founded by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady “to remedy the under representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape”; or Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity agency, founded by poet and publicist Kima Jones, “that privileges the narratives of black women and women of color”; or Pittsburgh’s own Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, directed by poet and Carlow University professor Jan Beatty, that provides small, rigorous, intergenerational workshops for the recurringly marginalized writing of women.
There is no doubt that the twenty-first century requires greater diversity in the actual making of poems as well as in changing the idea of what a poem actually is—what it looks and sounds like; how it functions in our culture. The American poet, I think, is consciously engaged in this making and changing. We can only hope that what has begun continues with radical abandon!
Mohn-Slate: I don’t think it’s a renaissance per se—it’s a change in the ways poems are reaching people. Poetry has always been important to people, has always had its roots in an oral, community-based tradition. But it has also been up against a persistent narrative that it is an elite art. This tension is still present in our culture. I think it’s exciting that new forms of technology are helping poems reach more people than in the past. Button Poetry is doing important work to share performance/slam poetry, and many literary journals are sharing work with a broader audience online. A poem can go viral and touch many people who are not typically readers of poetry, as Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” did after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016.
Then again, I think poetry is on some level always going to be fueled and supported in smaller numbers than fiction and nonfiction. There is something in poetry that is opposed to being marketed. It does not seek to give the masses what they want. Good poetry is written when the poet is following the call of something deep within. I believe poetry gives people something life-giving, necessary. I find it hopeful that this changing tide is further democratizing the writing and reading of poetry, to break open some of the old enclaves and let some air in, to encourage new voices to take up the questions and power of poetry.
Ely: Collectively, poets seem to be thriving, and supportive of one another as a community. It’s easy to see how that kind of community feeling might spill over into activism. How do you feel the United States election may have influenced poetry?
Barry: The election of Donald Trump seems to have re-awakened the sleeping giant (to quote Churchill) of art as a tool of resistance. It is important for poets and artists to give witness to human suffering and dignity, to clarify the boundaries between good and evil—on the morning of November 9, I turned to poets and poetry to make sense of a world gone mad. In the months since the election I think poets and other writers and artists have become more vocal and more united in their efforts to resist ignorance, hatred, and fear. So much is at stake. Donald Trump does not appear to have a bit of poetry in him and that disturbs me greatly. This is reflected in his speech and strangely limited vocabulary. Poetry is in part an exploration of language’s ability to reflect truths about human experience. In times of great sadness and tragedy, we seek comfort in language and in poetry. Trump’s language, unlike poetry, always falls short. It foregrounds itself in smallness and in ignorance. We need poets and poetry more than ever, to foreground language in expansive ways, ways that reflect our common humanity, demonstrate our interconnectedness, and engage with the complexities of the current age.
Carter-Jones: What I would like to say is that the real question for me is, How and in what ways is the moral renaissance reflected in the poetry of the poetic community? I’m of the feeling that this idea of morality is the essence of the poetic continuum. In the transgression of words, rhythms, and vocables that poetry is transformed into voice—neutral until taken up for or against, active or passive based on the social, economic, historical and belief systems.
What I see happening is the rise of expression from the voice of the heart—not intellect, not gender, not sexual orientation, not race, not age, not class—but all of these merging in a way that we say ourselves and hear who we are as individuals. At the same time it is a rise in the ability to hear what’s in others’ hearts and to connect as a collective of beings.
For me the activism of poets lies in the interior voice that dares to employ the utility of poetics to cut away darkness from the bones of the US society in its present condition. Poetry is the time and place of putting forth a proposal for new flesh, to feel again. To come screaming as a child being born into a new moral world—to come free of -isms. In this sense, I feel that recent poetry and methods of presentation are reflecting a courage to be born human, again. How mighty the word! How joyful to resist in sound and rhythm!
Mohn-Slate: Poetry has long been connected to activism, and it is one of many tools we can use to build community, and to resist. After the first Muslim ban was introduced, Kaveh Akbar shared poems on Twitter by poets from the seven countries affected by the ban, and it was picked up by many news sources, including PBS Newshour. Major Jackson curated the collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review online, bringing together poets to meditate on Obama and his era. Many poets are using their voices to energize, organize, and resist.
After the election, I struggled to feel that anything mattered beyond calling and writing my elected officials, or marching in the streets. But after some time, I realized that my writing and my teaching are two tangible ways I can resist. They are some of the most powerful tools I have to help empower people’s voices to be heard. I’ve also reached out to find ways of teaching writing in the community via Girls Write Pittsburgh, and to stay engaged in the Madwomen in the Attic, a community of women writers in Pittsburgh, as I believe local action that builds community is what is going to carry us forward in a positive direction.
Our president and those in power are not interested in listening to the voices of those without money or power. That’s where poets have a role in naming our experiences, in naming what we see that is wrong in the world, and envisioning new ways forward. But I find that what’s happened in my new writing is that, while it’s not always explicitly political, it is charged in a new way. Also, I’ve been led to take on some new subjects more directly that I haven’t addressed as much before, such as reproductive rights. Now that these rights are under threat in new ways, I want to find new ways to engage those questions, to speak up about them.
Gainey: I feel it is unnecessary for writing to “spill over” into activism. For me, writing is a primary activist tool. Having said that, since the election, the application of this tool has been wide and varied: more politically themed poetry being written; more politically themed anthologies organized and published; many fundraising poetry readings for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other advocacy groups under siege. None of this took long to happen. Because we are practiced observers of the world around us, poets, I feel, like journalists, are always at the ready. If you need us, we’ll be there. And we’ve suited up and shown up in terrific fashion since the Electoral College count put Donald Trump in the White House.
It’s too soon to tell how this event has influenced poetry in the long run. So far, it has certainly served as a reminder that there is no subject or area of human discourse off-limits to poetry. It is my guess that we will continue to see a great flourishing of poetry hybridization—multi-form approaches—to match the technological times of cultural mash up in which we find ourselves. Oddly, in this age of brevity and Twitter, the book-length poetry project is gaining in fashion. This is probably due to its ability to accommodate complexity and contradiction in ways that very few conventional-length poems can. And, political reductionism aside, we Americans do find ourselves living in highly complex and contradictory times.
Ely: Do you worry that poetry lovers are a tribe, and that poetry reading/listening is still seen as an elite activity? Can poetry come out of that box, or has it already done so?
Barry: Tribe has many connotative as well as denotative meanings, some of them arguably offensive in their suggestion of race. I like the idea of commonality and community suggested by the word. We are all members of the human tribe and it’s good to be reminded of that. There are five women participating in this interview and I’d say I consider myself a part of the female tribe first and foremost. Women connect in some primal way that’s essential to my sense of identity. I came to know these women through Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, an amazing community of poets and writers of all backgrounds.
To some, poetry will always be seen as an elite activity (the opposite of tribal maybe) but …I think poetry was always pushing to get out of the box, from Dante writing in the vernacular to the contemporary poets coming out of the Rap tradition, there is an ever-present tension in language to go beyond itself. That tension is poetry. The pushing forward seems what is most important. And language’s remarkable ability to reflect the reach beyond.
Carter-Jones: I don’t worry that poetry lovers are a tribe. It doesn’t matter. I love that people gather to read or listen to poetry and if they want to be together as kindred spirits for however long the activity lasts, let them enjoy what there is to enjoy for that time together. I’m afraid that trying to define poetry is similar to defining life. Every life is a different expression of the whole. I come to this by way of hip-hop. I remember how excited I was with the rhythms of Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang. The steady background dips into the deep structures that allowed for a story to be told in its simplest form. The rap broke into actual counting 1,2,3, the spelling out of words, made-up words, assonance, consonance, and internal and end rhymes relayed in a recursive scheme that created a context of repetitions that spoke to the familiar routine of mundane day to day living. There in the steady sounds is where meaning is created—say the voice of the poem. This is exactly what I attempt to do in writing a poem. I try to write a poem to mean something using sounds that glide into each other, fall over each other, bump against and mirroring each other, or show up when least expected to make an image happen or come to voice in real time so to speak.
JO ELY: On a related note, my teenager claimed not to like poetry, mostly I believe because of the dry way she was exposed to poetry through her school’s traditional curriculum. Then I introduced her to poetry via YouTube, and now she adores writers like Salena Godden, Sophia Blackwell, and many other modern poets. But I wonder why the current thriving poetry scene seems to have been so slow to arrive in schools and colleges, where it could perhaps do the most good. Could you speak to your own teaching experiences here, where relevant?
Barry: One aspect of this age I find troubling is that, though there are more avenues to poetry than ever and more outlets, the humanities as a whole have been slowly taking a back seat to more skill-based practical courses of study. I tell my students that to be educated is to understand the nuance of language and I sincerely believe that. We learn nuance by speaking, but also through literature, by reading and writing. What was once a liberal arts education seems to be slowly disappearing and has given way to a narrowed focus on engineering, science, IT, at the expense of the humanities (and maybe the expense of humanity). What I see as a thriving poetry scene is not necessarily reflected in most schools or on college campuses. And I think this reflects the age of technology and automation we are living in. People don’t read as they once did, and the arts don’t play the role they once did in homes, in entertainment, in culture.
Contrastingly, my experience with my college creative writing and literature classes seems to defy this. My undergraduate students are eager to express themselves, to engage with what they have read, to use language to convey their experiences and make sense of the world. It would be wonderful if creative writing were a requirement for undergraduates. Poetry especially. There is tremendous value in reading and writing poetry. The compression required for good poetry is clarifying. It makes you a better writer and thinker, brings you closer to language so in effect to yourself and to others. Seamus Heaney called poetry, “the self’s revelation to the self.”
Carter-Jones: Having taught middle school, high school, and at the college level, I must say that progress is slow when there is too much bureaucracy. Now this goes back to my response to the first question and has much to do with who has the power (opportunity (ha-ha)) to not only decide the destination but also to set the course. It is troubling that many educators do not consider the reading and writing of poetry as a means for developing the whole child. Nor do they consider poetry as a force for transgressing forward into an uncharted future which only the young, here and now, can and will propel us, whether we like it or not.
However, we can have a hand in shaping it. I have seen children come to themselves in the sense that they touch something inside and allow it to emerge. They become more confident in their voice and its value. It’s as if they see more light shed on their lives and understand another way of seeing. They make deeper meaning—not me the teacher telling them what something means to their lives. We as educators must be aware of and act in accordance with the trend of the times in order to be an integral part of students’ poetic learning experiences—the development of their spiritual and moral aesthetic.
Mohn-Slate: I’ve taught secondary school and college students, and met many incredible teachers who are bringing students to poetry in exciting ways. But many schools and teachers still teach the same dry poems in the same dry manner. We need to ask, is poetry modeled as an art form and activity as accessible as drawing, or soccer, or The Hunger Games? Is it seen as something connected to young people’s real lives and questions? Many schools and teachers simply don’t spend much time thinking about which poems and poets might engage students, or they don’t spend much time on poetry in the curriculum at all, which speaks volumes.
We need to keep fighting for our culture and our schools to value poetry and the humanities writ large, even while knowing this fight is an extremely challenging one, and one that has been going on for a long time. Teachers can have a huge influence despite a bureaucratic disinterest in creative writing, but we can’t put it all on them. Poetry (and fiction and nonfiction) can be life rafts for people of all ages. We need to give young people ways of staying afloat amid the many challenges and questions they face.
Ely: Has the spoken-word scene, and the rise of the online poet via Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc., changed how poetry is written, who can successfully write poetry, and even how poetry is published? How do you see this playing out over time?
Barry: I am not sure social media has changed how poetry is written, but certainly how it is distributed and disseminated. The rise of technology and social media has pushed language to new frontiers—compressed and changed it in some essential way. It is interesting that teenagers text rather than talk and texting is a form of writing (though once removed from speech so perhaps less immediate and interactive). In some sense poetry’s been brought closer to us, but I am not sure it has become more itself. The accessibility with which we communicate can only be good for poetry. However, the pace of our world makes the stillness and quiet necessary for thought less likely.
In my experience it is necessary to step away from technology and return to the self to actually get to that deep space for writing, to have the mind space and quiet to create. There are more and more journals publishing online so there are more and more opportunities for poets to publish and for people to read poetry. I am not sure how it will play out over time. I am encouraged by the diversity and range of voices in contemporary poetry and that seems to reflect progress towards a greater broadening and inclusivity vital to poetry and humanity at large.
Carter-Jones: I think more people are writing poetry. They’re feeling it—the voice whispering at first, then growing to full fledged vocables. I don’t see poetry as a question of who can successfully write poetry, but rather as the question, Who can write the movement? Anybody and everybody is writing poetry about everything, publishing it however they can, and wherever they can. I think we who are writing poetry are challenging to develop our own spiritual and moral aesthetic. I’m hopeful that we are adding to the creation of a zeitgeist that will in time turn the way human beings behave on a grand scale.
Mennies: I see only upsides here—in particular, I am entirely here for the increased circulation of poetry online. Slam’s nothing new, as it’s been around since I was born in the mid-eighties, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, but the ease of circulating a poetry performance means exposing young poets from all over the world to the genre (hat tip to sites like Button Poetry and its contributors). The increased visibility of online poetry has forced, in important ways, discussions about how we as poets define “success,” especially as poetry’s older success markers uproot themselves from primarily academic centers and print publications.
When I was in graduate school, my ideas about a successful poet took a fairly linear track, one imparted largely by my undergraduate professors and high school teachers: a successful poet has an MFA; a book (then two, then three); publication in print journals; a tenure-track job as a poetry professor. Many of us poets certainly still strive for these markers today, but we no longer must rely on them to define ourselves, or to find an audience for our work. In light of all sorts of changes here in the United States—including those happening at American universities, where we see continually declining funding for public education and the arts, making the old model less and less possible for all those who seek it—the centers of “successful” poetry are shifting and changing, not disappearing. We’re also seeing, thanks to the ease of publishing poetry online, more accessibility to and conversations between international writers, for which as a reader I’m tremendously grateful.
Mohn-Slate: I teach creative writing at a small university and many of my students are in love with the Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. Her work found a large audience on Instagram and Twitter, and she self-published her first book, which was then picked up for a second printing by Andrews McMeel Publishing.
This is not the route most poets take to publication, nor the kinds of numbers of readers/followers most poets have either (130k on Twitter). But her example tells us something about the way publishing may change over time. Kaur’s story is evidence that a strong social media presence can directly lead to the creation of a big audience of readers, and even a book contract.
Still, I think social media has mostly affected the reception of poetry, as opposed to the writing and publication of it. But the way poetry is proliferating online is changing the way some people write it. And, we can’t discount the ways in which our imaginations and creative processes are affected by the way we spend our time, how much we look at the world, or don’t look at the world.
A novelist friend of mine, Joanne Proulx, regularly tells her students, “Lift your chin. You have to look at the world to be able to write.” There are dangers to the level of saturation we’re experiencing with social media and online communication, and especially as writers, we need to be fierce about shutting our phones off, and reading, looking, talking with each other face-to-face.
Ely: Obviously you are all American writers working in historically unique times, the era of Trump, and a more polarized society. How do you begin to grapple with that challenge?
Barry: It’s been terrifying to witness the rise of Trump as well as the polarization of the country. I think there are many people who voted for Trump because they felt they’d been left behind by a changing world. It’s an unsettling and unsettled time. It seems to me we are grappling with a seismic shift in terms of culture, brought on in part by technology. Similar perhaps to the industrialization age which also brought conflict and upheaval. This shift has given rise to all kinds of ugliness and fear, as progress always does. Poetry can work as a bulwark against this ugliness and can remind us of our common human experience and bring people closer to their human selves.
The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) will be gutted if Trump has his way. One particularly disturbing aspect of him as a person is his lack of respect or interest in the arts (at least in art that does not reflect him). Writers and artists must do what they have always done, rise up to resist that which dehumanizes us. I am thinking of Picasso’s Guernica and the power of art to reflect truth, about war and suffering, but also about beauty and human capacity for good. The challenge is to keep doing that. Poetry is a tonic in difficult times, and that’s always been true and feels true now.
I am thinking of the poems written in the first World War and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as examples of poetry that spoke to the times, but also bolstered the reader in some spiritual way to remain human no matter the cost. We saw this in the sixties as well. Ginsberg’s “Howl,” for example, was a poem that spoke to the times and the cultural shift. The challenge is to explore the complexities present in this time and age, to reflect truth, to resist hatred and fear, to remain human.
Carter-Jones: As an American writer, I challenge this historically unique time as I did the one before with President Obama. Then, I enjoyed writing as an act of solidarity and I enjoy writing now as an act of resistance. This is how I’m understanding and utilizing the nature and function of poetry as a catalyst for change.
Mennies: I’d argue that we’re not more polarized than ever—at least, inasmuch as I can speak to this as a white Jewish woman. Anti-Semitism and misogyny didn’t appear in the United States with Trump; he’s a sanction (and a misogynist himself), not a harbinger. I’ve witnessed my rights as a woman historically legislatively challenged here, not just in the past months. I’ve been treated by numerous men the way Trump treats women long before his political rise to power. So I’d argue that these times, while they certainly feel like unchartered waters in some areas, are not historically unique for many Americans: we’re just seeing America for what it is more clearly than perhaps many white, or male, or straight, or citizen-born Americans understood before the era of Trump.
In grappling with this challenge, I see writing—my writing—as a way to bear witness to my own lived experience (in my own work, this centers around my gender, my religion, my sexuality) as a vector. To tell the story of my grandmother, refugee from Nazi Germany, becomes a political act in times “like these” as well as an artistic one: it works against the anti-Semite’s desire to erase both literal people like me, through violence, and our history, through denial and revisionism.
Mohn-Slate: I am still in the process of grappling with the challenges of being a citizen and a writer in our polarized country. One of the things that has most helped me over the last few months of Trump’s presidency is thinking back to things that were said at the Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Speech organized by Split this Rock at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, DC. Sarah Browning, the executive director of Split this Rock, said, “People are watching, from all over the world, to see how we respond to this hate. It is critical we not let them down.” I find hope in the work Split This Rock is doing. I find hope in the many people across the world working right now to act in ways that further love, inclusivity, democracy, connection.
I find hope in the words of other poets and writers. I will share a few here from the Split this Rock vigil: Melissa Febos invoked the definition of vigil, “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep.” She said, “I know the power of a person’s story. I know the power of mine. I know how to raise my voice, and, even more importantly, how to amplify and listen to those of others. I know that my own tender parts are also my strongest.”
Luis Rodriguez said: “The first thing that anti-democratic forces do, that fascists do, is change the idea of truth—that there is no truth and only their truth matters. Well truth now is revolutionary. Now to be about truth means you have to be about a subversive act. Isn’t that great? Let’s do it. Truth is our cause, we should have truth processions. We should have poetics of truth. We should have acts of truth and acts of beauty everywhere! That is freedom of expression to me!”
Ely: What is everyone working on right now?
Barry: I have been working on a long poem for some time based on Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet (its Latin title is “Spem in Alium”) inspired by Janet Cardiff’s re-working of it (an exhibit installed at the Met’s Cloisters in NYC). Recently, I’ve begun a series of poems about Roanoke Island, in North Carolina. This was the site of the sixteenth-century lost colony and where Virginia Dare was born. She was the first English child born in the new world. It’s a place shrouded in mystery and history. During the American Civil War Roanoke was captured by the Union Army. Slaves sought freedom there and eventually established a community of freed men. I am interested in how this place intersects the old world with the new, how our past always informs the future, and how the definition of American culture or identity is always in flux, an amalgamation of many shared cultures and histories.
Carter-Jones: Currently, I’m working on a long poem, which will be book length. It’s experimental, all over the place, contradictory, contains pictures and numbers and symbols, questions, no answers and big, long words. I’m throwing everything in—flushing my system. And to beat the band, I’m having such fun. I’m also working on a memoir, which actually started out as a twenty-nine-page poem. Of course, I hadn’t included the many details of love and hate, race, class and the silencing of a community of people already trying to come to voice during the Civil Rights Era in the sixties. Come to think of it, it’s still the Civil Rights Era. It hasn’t ended yet, this fight for civil rights. Do I dare say poetry, especially at this time, has a joyful burden to bear?
Gainey: Well, I never want to say too much about what I’m currently working on. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite questions! Having said that, it’s probably not that surprising, that given my comments here about longer projects being in vogue, that I currently find myself working on a longer project, part memoir, part cultural commentary––who knows where it will take me. As I like to say, the long poem is trending here in America, and never one to miss out on a trend, I find myself paddling furiously, attempting to catch that wave.
Mennies: I’ve been working on a new project for about nine months now: a series of epistolary poems all written to the same (imaginary) woman. The poem-letters are still emerging from their early draft stages and beginning to coalesce into something bigger—and this is my favorite stage in the book-writing process, when your words begin to show you a larger view than you knew you were building.
Mohn-Slate: Right now, I’m working on my second poetry collection and a few essays. One essay is on the British poet Charlotte Mew, who deserves a much bigger audience than she has, and a few others on writing as a mother, and teaching poetry to teen girls in the community.
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