Resources for Writers
SLP: What was your deciding factor to self-publish instead of going the traditional route (chapbook contests, sending your work to publishers, etc.)?
Sapunarich: To be perfectly honest, the idea of submitting to publishers was off-putting to me. Submitting to publishers, getting rejections, and trying again… all the waiting sounds like torture to me. I also don't like the idea of needing a publisher to like my work in order to get published. My work isn't about if somebody else likes it. The goal was always to take my poetry and do something with it. It was never about making money or getting famous. Now if you want to make a bunch of money and get a bunch of exposure, maybe getting a publisher is a better route.
SLP: How did you feel about the process of self-publishing in general? Did you find it particularly stressful to not only edit your own work (multiple times) but design the cover/book, and of course promote your work?
Sapunarich: Self-publishing was a relatively smooth experience. I did have two other people edit the book, in addition to me constantly editing. I could have spent a lot of money on professional editors, but I didn't (I should've). And of course, after a while, you're blind to your own errors. So as much as I obsessively edited for months, the book has a few typos in it. I got really upset about that but look, I have to let it go. I wrote a book. Nothing's perfect. As for designing the cover, that was grueling. I had no idea what I wanted for a cover and you can't rely on a designer - even a good one - to figure it out for you. The original cover design was just awful… looked like Danielle Steele made a funeral pamphlet. It was a lot easier once I knew exactly what I wanted. Promoting the book, I still haven't done much of that. The cover artist promoted the book on her page (which was super kind of her), I've posted on my social media, and I did leave books around while I was traveling across the country recently. It's only been a couple weeks since release, so we'll see what other promotional stuff I come up with.
SLP: What has choosing to independently publish your book done for your self-esteem? Do you feel that more people should self-publish, or do you believe one must have a certain mentality and drive to embark on this path?
Sapunarich: I mean it feels good to publish, and I imagine it feels good regardless of how you do it. I had a professor back in college that I loved. He always said, "Sometimes you gotta stick it to the man." Self-publishing kind of feels like I did that. I didn't need a publisher, I just needed myself to get up the courage and put the work in. With self-publishing, you're in the driver's seat from start to finish. It's 100% on you to make it happen. I would think with a publisher, you'd have more guidance and a lot of the work would be out of your hands. So I guess the decision to self-publish vs. use a publisher depends on your needs.
SLP: Your book is strikingly beautiful and we are so excited to see what else you achieve in your literary career. Would you mind telling us about any other upcoming creative projects you might have?
Sapunarich: Thank you. Right now, I'm just working on new poems. I've had ideas of trying to collaborate with some artists I know, but nothing more than ideas. I'd also love to work on my nerves and be able to do some readings, even at like an open mic or something.
Audrey Sapunarich is a regulatory sciences writer who recently published her first poetry book, Not For Your Convenience. Sapunarich, 24, is a Binghamton University graduate residing in upstate NY. She began writing short stories as a child and found her niche writing poetry in college. Her other interests include reading, bad crafting projects, and hunting for restaurants that serve chicken and waffles.
Follow Audrey on instagram @honestlyaudrey
SLP: I’m thinking about all the strong imagery tied to emotion in your work, like the lines from Prism, the poem which inspired the cover art; “I crush prisms in my jaw/and spit them into your hand, /tell you to hold my pain/up to the sun.” How do you typically begin a poem? Is it with an image, an emotional response to an event, or something else entirely?
Sapunarich: I would say an emotional response to an event, and sometimes that response is delayed. Sometimes years go by before I can write about something that happened, and sometimes I'm writing instantly as it happens. But every poem starts the same way: I'm thinking about something, I'm feeling something, and I start writing regardless of where I am. I'll pull the car over, get out of the shower, whatever. The imagery comes to me pretty quickly, and I think that's just a matter of what I'm associating with my feelings. I have this one poem coming to mind. This poem isn't in the book, but I'm using images of a house to talk about a relationship. The only thing in this house is a coffee table covered in water rings; I am the coffee table. And that whole image goes back to so many things for me - it's my childhood, it's my history, it's this thing that held everything together. And I love that a reader can appreciate images like this and feel the emotions in the poem without necessarily understanding the origin or why I'm using that image.
SLP: I know that you write nearly every day, if not every day. What does poetry do for you, emotionally, physically, spiritually?
Sapunarich: I have to write frequently. If some time goes by where I haven't written anything, I start to worry about myself. Writing is my outlet and it's something I need to do. I have worked through everything in my life by writing about it. Sometimes I think to myself, what if I was born with a knack for Math instead? What if I couldn't express my feelings in words? I can't imagine another way. I am so grateful for this ability to write. It keeps me going, in every way.
SLP: You tackle subject matter that is extremely personal, relatable, and difficult. When you are writing, who is your intended audience? What advice would you offer someone who might worry about publishing poems where the narrative "you" are people who might recognize themselves in the poems?
Sapunarich: Oh, audience has never even been a thought. I know that sounds horrible since I just put out a book, but honestly, I don't think about the readers when I am writing. I am writing to get those things out of me, to drain myself of all that emotion. I've just been lucky enough that other people enjoy the work and relate to it. That's an incredible feeling, to know my writing can evoke emotions in another person. So while I don't write for the audience, I have a lot of gratitude for the audience.
Advice for people publishing poems where the subject could identify themselves… I'll tell you what, it's terrifying. I stopped work on this book for a year because I was so scared. I thought, maybe I'll wait to publish until my mother is dead. Maybe I'll never publish. Maybe this is too much to put out in the world. Maybe I'll have to deal with a lot of backlash. I knew that my first readers would be the people who knew me. Will they think I'm nuts? Will they be upset I wrote about them in a negative light? Will they be freaked out reading the things I never said to them? I'm still terrified. I go back and forth about promoting the book because I simultaneously want and fear the exposure. But it comes down to this: you own your stories. You should not censor yourself for other people. Your work is about you, it's about doing something that is going to free you. And let's be real - everyone has their own shit, and you are doing others a favor by publishing yours. A lot of people don't talk about their battles. I think the people that share their traumas can be a saving grace for those who don't. It's like hey, you're not alone. So long story short, my advice is do it. Let your heart be greater than your fears.
SLP: Your straightforward narrative style leaves little to the imagination and goes straight to your readers' emotions. When writing your poems, how important is accessibility to you?
Sapunarich: I used to be vague in my poetry. I was always trying to say something but never quite getting there because I was too scared to write it. I have to thank Maria Gillan for helping me change that. When you ask about accessibility, I think you're asking how important it is to me that my readers can relate to the poems, like how important is it to me that the emotions resonate with them. As I said earlier, the audience isn't a thought when I'm writing. I write what I need to write. But I do believe that good poetry makes others feel something. If you read a poem and feel nothing, that's not good poetry. So it means everything to me when someone reaches out to tell me my work makes them cry or laugh or feel something.
SLP: You have a quote from Pablo Neruda's poem Tonight I Can Write (the saddest lines) in the beginning of your book. What other poets do you continually go back to and how have they influenced your poetry?
Sapunarich: I love Neruda. I am always going back to him, Charles Bukowski, and Sharon Olds. I also love Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed. Waheed self-published and her book is incredible. I think reading other poets definitely inspires me to write more often. I mean, reading poetry is what made me begin writing poetry in the first place.
SLP: I recently took a workshop with the poet Kim Addonizio who said that her writing is influenced by whomever she is currently reading. Do you find the same to be true for you or does your style remain consistent? And who are you reading now?
Sapunarich: I don't think my writing is influenced much by what I read, but maybe I'm just not aware of it. I feel like my style is pretty consistent. I typically write longer poems, but did experiment with writing shorter pieces in the last year. This could have been influenced by reading Kaur and Waheed, who both write shorter poetry. I just finished Neil Hilborn's latest book, and am about to start Helium by Rudy Francisco and Autopsy by Donte Collins. All three are poets from Button Poetry, which I adore. I have a stack of books I want to read next to my bed that just keeps growing.
SLP: You've divided your book into four very distinct sections by both subject matter and time periods in your life. Is this what felt natural to you in deciding on a structure for the book? Or was this an intentional design to walk your readers through the linear progression of your own journey of self-discovery?
Sapunarich: Originally, I didn't have the book divided into parts. The idea was suggested to me by Jes, one the people who edited the book. I was on the fence at first. I wanted to mix the order of the poems up. I wanted to make it harder for readers who knew me to determine who certain poems were about. This was part of me being terrified about publishing, as if I could publish and still somehow hide parts of it from the reader. But then I'm reading through and realizing the lack of organization lessens the emotional impact and creates confusion. So I did it, I split the book into four parts. Part 4 is kind of a jumble though - I call that the part about myself. Part 1 is about my parents; Part 2 is about a specific person; Part 3 another specific person; and Part 4 is me and some poems that have double meanings that could not be assigned to Parts 1 - 3.
SLP: Not for Your Convenience ends with the poet just beginning to discover her own strength, leaving the reader wanting to know what happens next in this journey. Is there another book forthcoming?
Sapunarich: There sure is…
SLP: Heather, I am so thrilled to have one of our own for our April issue of Resources for Writers. I was hoping you could start by telling the readers a little bit more about yourself and the many hats you wear (Student, Editor-at-Large for Street Light Press, fiction editor for Harpur Palate & Ragazine, Director of the Binghamton Poetry Project and the Literati Reading Series).
Humphrey: First, thanks so much for asking me to talk about my projects. I hope my insanity doesn’t scare our readers away! About me, I’m married and have two grown children and I’ve lived in Binghamton nearly my whole life. I don’t have the flexibility to relocate, so I took an unfunded acceptance into Binghamton Universities PhD program last fall. I decided to complete my course work in a year to keep my costs down, which has been a crazy ride. But I’m wrapping that up now and have emerged in one piece. Since we last spoke, I took over as the Editor-in-Chief at Harpur Palate, BU’s literary journal, which you certainly know as the EIC of Street Light, has its own challenges! HP receives an average of 1200 submissions per semester spread out among all three genres. My responsibilities to the journal include coordinating a staff of four genre editors and one intern as well as handling the finances and getting the journal to print. Since taking that on I have handed over the reins to the Literati Reading Series. I love reading submissions for Ragazine and Street Light. The contributors to each journal I’m involved with are all wildly talented and unique.
SLP: Can you expand on your role at Binghamton Poetry Project and the mission of BPP?
Humphrey: The Binghamton Poetry Project is a literacy outreach program in which Binghamton University graduate students teach free poetry workshops to the community in locations throughout Broome County. These take place over a five-week period each semester and during the summer. One of the features of the project is that participants who want to may submit up to three poems to an anthology which we publish twice a year, one in the Spring and one in the Fall which we release at a reading event in which all participants are invited to come and read. Not only is this great for bringing free access to the arts to the underserved populations in our community, it also bridges the division between the University and the surrounding area. It gives the students in our program real world experience in teaching a variety of demographics. It is a great way for grad students to give back to the community, and to learn collaboratively through experiential interactions with folks they wouldn’t otherwise get to meet. Some instructors even discover an unexpected passion for service and outreach, which is what I love, so I dig that!
SLP: What resources does Binghamton Poetry Project offer writers (emerging and established) and what does a typical workshop look like?
Humphrey: Each workshop typically begins with the instructor sharing poems they’ve brought in to discuss, followed by discussion, then writing prompts are given as suggested topics for the participants to write about, everyone is given time to write, and then everyone shares what they’ve written. We also share if there are any events happening locally which may be of interest to our participants, like open mics, or free readings.
Our instructors are so fully immersed in the poetry world that they are veritable fountains of information and resources. When the poet participants read their work, instructors are able to suggest the works of published poets whose style and tone is similar and who the participant might want to read to get inspiration from. They can also suggest revision techniques and places where poets might want to try submitting their work for publication.
SLP: You’re not only the current director of BPP but you’ve also been an instructor; how do the job roles vary? What advice have you given to writers that attend your workshops?
Humphrey: Administrative duties are so different from instructing that it’s difficult to compare. I love instructing because the difference you are making in someone’s life is right in front of your face. You get to hear their work as it evolves, see their pleasure when they understand a technique that eluded them before, they literally thank you for being there for them. When administrating, I know that I am still making all that stuff happen but the payoff isn’t as palpable.
As far as advice, the one thing I try to communicate to all participants at the end of each five-week series is how important revising is. I think revision is something that new writers have a lot of trouble seeing the value in because they are so in love with the act of creation. Most experienced writers will tell new writers that getting that initial idea down is the hardest part. The fun part is playing with it later and turning it into art.
SLP: Many of our readers, and our poets at SLP are college students as you know; what would you tell them about nonprofit work? Would you encourage them to join or even start their own nonprofit organizations to encourage local growth of poetry in their cities?
Humphrey: As I said above, my heart has always been in community outreach. I love when I talk to a group of incoming graduate students while trying to recruit instructors and volunteers and I see one person make the face that says “that. sounds. awesome!” I would recommend that if you think you might want to try nonprofit work, get involved with an established organization to start, because it isn’t for everyone. Spearheading a project in collaboration with a university like was done with BPP is a good way to begin something. Or offering a single free workshop at a YWCA, Veteran’s, or Senior’s Center would be a good way to experience working with the community without the administrative red tape and commitment of setting up a fully formed nonprofit organization. That’s a good way to see if enough interest exists in the community as well.
SLP: As we have already listed your many accomplishments and jobs within the literary community, I wanted to ask if there are times when fatigue (be it of a mental, emotional, and/or physical kind) starts to set in. Have there been moments where you’ve felt that you want to give more but honestly just can’t because you’re tired? When this happens (as I’m very cavalierly assuming it does) what do you do to practice self-care and prevent burnout?
Humphrey: Burnout? Fatigue? Never! But seriously, normally I’m pretty mild mannered (I’m hoping you agree) but this semester I threatened to tie someone to a concrete block and dump them in the deep end of the river, and I told a total stranger by email that if I lost all my hair due to the stress he was causing me, I was sending him the bill for both my wigs and psychotherapy. I get angry before I get tired, which actually helps me focus and works in my favor to help me keep the pace I’ve set for myself. But sometimes I’m a lot like a toddler, when I’m overstimulated my body just shuts down and I go to sleep. I just hope it never happens while I’m driving! As far as self-care, I exercise and crochet to shut my brain down when it needs a rest. It’s hard to think about anything else when my hands are occupied and I’m counting stitches.
SLP: What do you think is the most rewarding part of being involved in the local and larger literary community?
Humphrey: The friendships and mutual support. One of the things I often hear my peers who have been in the PhD program longer than me complain about is the lack of community and support, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. I think it’s different for me because I’ve been willing to create a community for myself through my involvement, and I put in the time to make and maintain connections. I have made many wonderful friends because of my involvement in so many organizations.
SLP: Could you guide us through your personal journey in literature? What drew you to it and what role has it since taken in your life?
Humphrey: My first love is fiction, but I also love the challenge of creating a powerful narrative in the short space of a poem. I began writing stories when I was little. My best friend and I would make picture books for each other using crayons and notebook paper and bind them together by tying yarn through the three holes. We tried to keep them as true to the real thing as possible with a front and back cover and copyright statements. Then I won an essay contest when I was in fifth grade and that was it for me. From that moment on, doing something that allowed me to be recognized for my writing was what I wanted to be when I grew up. Life took me in many different directions for many years but now I’m in a position where I’m able to dedicate myself to living a writing life, and I have rich experiences to draw from and use in both my fiction and poetry.
SLP: On top of being an amazing and dedicated facilitator of literature, you are also a skilled writer. How does being involved in the literary scene influence your own creative work?
Humphrey: This is going to sound horrible, but being around creative people is much like being around people with the flu. You can’t help but catch it! I’m constantly inspired by the work of my peers, the writers I’m reading, and artists in the community. One of the events I had to attend recently in my position with the BPP was a press conference where all the organizations receiving grant money from the United Cultural Fund gathered to accept their grants and be recognized. When the director of the arts council responsible for awarding these funds read descriptions of the work folks are doing, I was in awe of the creative projects actively being pursued in our small community. I feel extremely fortunate to live in a place where there is creative inspiration everywhere I look.
SLP: As I know you, dear Heather, you are the epitome of a “mover and shaker.” What are your plans for the BPP, the Literati Reading series, and your other creative projects as they continue to thrive under your guidance?
Humphrey: I’m hoping to expand the reach of the Binghamton Poetry Project to include more of the outlying communities, senior citizens, and middle grade kids. Previous directors have talked about offering an afterschool program at one of the local middle schools but that hasn’t gotten off the ground yet, so I’d like to revisit that this fall. We have a small number of seniors who attend our workshop in Whitney Point, but I would like to begin offering a series inside one of the Senior Centers in Broome County. I’ve also initiated the beginnings of a partnership with the Four County Library System where they agreed to distribute free copies of our anthologies to the outlying communities via their “Bookmobile” which is a customized truck that provides full library services to those who live in rural areas without close access to a library or for those who find it difficult or impossible to travel to a library building. We stuck flyers inside each anthology with the BPP’s contact info so folks can get in touch with us if they would like us to bring a workshop or series of workshops to their town.
Heather Humphrey is currently working on a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing at Binghamton University. She is the Editor-in-Chief for Harpur Palate, director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, fiction editor at Ragazine, and Editor-at-Large for Street Light Press. Heather’s poetry can be found in Paterson Literary Review, Edison Literary Review, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She also has book reviews forthcoming in Paterson Literary Review and The Scattered Pelican. Follow on twitter and instagram: @bigred9094.
SLP: First off, I would like to start by thanking you for agreeing to this interview. We are elated to be featuring you in our resources for writers. Can you start by telling our readers a little about yourself and your journey as an Iraqi poet?
Hassan: My name is Faleeha Hassan. I am a poet, teacher, editor, writer, and playwright. I was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967. I now live in the United States. I was the first woman to write poetry in the city of Najaf and the first woman to wrote poetry for children in Iraq. I have a Master's degree in Arabic literature and have published 20 books. My poems have been translated into English, Turkmen, Bosnian, Indian, French, Italian, German, Kurdish, Spanish, Korean, Greek, Serbian, and Albanian. I have received awards from the Arab Linguists and Translators Association (WATA) and the Najafi Creative Festival for 2012, as well as the Prize of Naziq al-Malaika, the Prize of al-Mu’tamar for poetry, and the short story prize of the Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation. I am the editor of Baniqya, a quarterly magazine published in Najaf, as well as the newspaper, Sada al Nahrain (Echo of Mesopotamia). I am a member of the Iraqi Writers Association. I am also a member of the Iraqi Literary Women’s Association, The Sinonu (i.e. Swift) Association in Denmark, the Society of Poets Beyond Limits, and Poets of the World Community
SLP: In 1991 you became the first woman in your city of Najaf, Iraq to publish a book of poetry (Because I am a girl). What made you decide to write and distribute this book of poetry? What did your writing process consist of when working on your first collection of poetry?
Hassan: Well, I started writing poetry when I was a child. My habit every night was to write my thoughts in a simple notebook before going to sleep—not knowing it was real poetry. I would put the notebook under the pillow with the pencil just waiting to grab all my night thoughts together so I would have something to write down. I continued to write my thoughts night after night even as we suffered through the eight year war with Iran. Then in 1991, I decided to show my notebooks—there were too many to count at that point—to a friend of my father. And because he was a member of the Iraqi Union of Poets and Writers, he encouraged me to publish my first book. So I decided to publish my first book, but my goal was to be a member of the Union. I went through the notebooks and chose some poems and published my first book. I decided to title the book, "Because I Am a Girl", because the men controlled the cultural scene there in Najaf. You have to understand that Najaf is a holy city. Women can't show their hair and should cover their heads with a scarf when going outside the house. So when I had my artist in Baghdad design the cover, he showed only my eyes—not my whole face—but without a scarf. And when I had my first book signing for this book, one hundred men—only men—showed up. Not because they wanted to support me but rather out of curiosity about the contents of the book. I remember a famous poet holding my newly published book up in the air and yelling, "This book is a shame on Najaf's culture!!" But after two months, the published called me and set up an appointment. And he told me he had sold five thousand copies of my book and paid me.
SLP: In an interview you did with The Guardian, you discussed that you did not write poetry for or against the regime, yet you were still a target of the regime. Your work resulted in your name being placed on a death list by an Iraqi parliament group. What were your very first thoughts when hearing that your name was on this list? Did you ever consider abandoning writing all together or did this encourage you to keep writing?
Hassan: During Saddam's time in Iraq, we didn't have any internet. No social media. Nothing. But we did have the the old-fashioned telephones (not cell phones), newspapers, and local TV. Then when Saddam was killed, not everyone in Iraq had internet in his home. But some rich people were able to have it and internet cafes began to spring up. My friend did have internet and called me one night to tell me that she had seen my name on a death list. I decided to go to the internet café and see for myself. I saw my name and of course I got shocked and scared. That's a serious situation. I took a breath and calmed down and noticed that it wasn't just me. There were hundreds of names on that list—professors, poets, artists, and academics. So I began to think that the people who had made the list were trying to empty Iraq of its culture and silence her real voice. Over the months they updated this list, adding more and more names, and began to publish it in the local newspapers. So at that point things were getting way too dangerous and I decided to escape to Turkey with my two children. But through all of this, I never stopped writing and I never even considered stopping writing. I thank God every minute for the gift he gave me and can't imagine I would survive all these horrible situations without my poetry. It's like a therapy for me and it kept me alive. And just to clarify I did take risks to write many essays and poems and stories and even a novel about the truth of our lives during the war. But I never mentioned Saddam's name or any government official's name. I didn't want to be a target or grab more danger to kids' lives. The truth is I wanted to write even more after seeing my name on the death list. Not only to survive but because our voices needed to be heard.
SLP: You have been deemed the “Maya Angelou of Iraq.” You have published 20 books that were widely translated, along with plays and short stories– did you ever even for a brief moment in your life think that all of this was going to be possible?
Hassan: Since I was a child I have paid attention to my dreams. I am a woman of faith and believe that Allah or God speaks to us through signs, including in our dreams. So when I have a dream, I trust it to guide me to the next step. Some examples: One of the first dreams I had was when I was a little girl. I dreamt I was jailed in a dark locked room in a house. In the dream I freed myself. After I freed myself, every word I spoke fell to the ground and instantly became a green flower. Another time I dreamt I was in my house which was facing a big forest. It was nighttime and out the window I saw a man with a torch who was searching the edge of the forest. I asked him what he was looking for. He told me he was looking for the truth and invited me by name to look for the truth, too. Then he told me his name--T.S. Elliott. I had never seen an image of T.S. Elliott, but later when I searched, I saw that his image matched the face in my dream. And just one more--One night I dreamt I was in the general library in Najaf. I tried to borrow a book, but the librarian instead gave me a gift in a red box. In the box was a pen. She told me, “This is the French poet, Louis Aragon’s pen. Take it and write our history.” These dreams all had meaning and showed me the next step. So yes, I have always thought big and deep thoughts and have always felt in my gut that special things would be possible in my writing life.
SLP: Your poetry discusses a variety of issues from being at the center of war, to being a Muslim woman living in a world that fears you. Would you say that you're inspired to write, in effort to bring about change? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?
Hassan: I want to say that I am a witness to all the horrible things that happened since 1980--all the wars, the death, animals eating the dead bodies, and military marches from country to country. I am a witness to all the cities that have been destroyed, the missing friends and siblings, and living a difficult life under siege with no food. That’s why when I write something I want to heal myself first. Writing is my therapy. So if a poem comes into my heart or my brain or my soul and I don’t write it down, I can’t sleep or eat or drink or even communicate with others. I can’t do regular things. But if my work helps some person to change his or her life then maybe that is my real reward. It’s not so important that people recognize me as a famous poet, but rather that they have read my work. So if a woman says that she keeps my novel in her kitchen and she leaves it open and every time she has a chance she reads it, that is a big prize for me. I imagine that she needs those words equally to the need to cook for her kids.
I don’t think most of my stories and poems really have a feminist voice. The voice is more general and is not really talking directly about women’s rights. But I do want to be equal to the men, because the men control the cultural scene in Iraq, especially in the holy city of Najaf. People say I took a great risk to talk about men from a woman’s point-of-view. You have to understand that there are three red lines in Iraq and maybe elsewhere in the Middle East--politics, religion, and sex. You can’t talk or write about any of these things especially if you are a woman. But I *did* write about politics and sex--carefully and not in an easy or cheap way-- especially in my poetry. I didn’t write *against* these things but rather explained my feminine point-of-view. Still and all I was shamed for this work not only by men but in general.
SLP: You have been quoted as saying, "I don't know if I have a life without war," and I found that to be a very powerful statement because it unveils the backdrop of your creativity. During times of intense strife and even in the midst of your journey to America, what has writing been for you? Has it been a sanctuary of sorts; has it been a conduit to happier memories?
Hassan: I am remembering back to the days when I was a student in high school. One morning, the principal gathered the entire school together. She told us the government was closing the school down for ten days, because a war had just started with Iran. And it was believed that the war would end within ten days. In fact, the war with Iran lasted eight years. On the heels of that war was the war with Kuwait. In 2011, I escaped with my children to Turkey where we lived as refugees. With no job, no language, and two kids to raise, this was like a personal war for me. So there was no space to breathe during this entire time. No space to laugh or smile or feel safe. My writing was how I survived. It didn’t just help me to heal. It gave me courage and hope about the future. It gave me strength when I had none. Even when I faced horrible and disgusting situations in Turkey, I wrote my novel every day. That novel was the voice to explain myself when I had no one to confide in. It was the medicine that kept me alive and helped me survive. It sheltered me when there was no shelter or safety anywhere.
Poetry is not a conduit to happier memories for me. Right now, I live in a safe, clean place. But it’s not easy to erase your traumatic memories. You are dealing with human memories. They can’t be deleted with a single button like on a computer. I think any time I try to write anything, my memories jump up. Even when I try to write something about love, memories of the wars jump up. I must live situations before I write about them.--That’s me. I’m not a tailor of words who is always ready to create something out of the air. I must feel it before I write it.
SLP: Another portion of the interview you gave with The Guardian that inspired me (and actually made me tear up) was when you said, "Trump does not think a woman refugee in a hijab can make America great, but I am trying." Personally, I think you are succeeding more than trying, and I wanted to ask you: For what purpose do you write? Is it for yourself, your children, your country, or for the betterment of the society which you now inhabit?
Hassan: I want to share with you the story behind a poem I wrote recently. The poem is called Scarf (featured in issue 9 of SLP).
There is a story behind this poem. Every day when I leave the house, I cover my head with a scarf. I have been doing this since I was 18 years old. Here in America, not everyone thinks this is normal. I think because people have images from television or media, they think Muslim women are involved with terrorism. Or that Muslim women are not brave or intelligent. Or that we are easily controlled, especially by men. Even my next-door neighbor, who I helped find her missing cat, who I try to communicate with almost every day in a neighborly way, has never accepted me as a Muslim woman. One day, I finally asked her why when I smiled at her she would talk under her breath. She told me that every time she saw me she prayed to God to keep me away from her because she thought every woman who wore a hijab was a terrorist. I didn't like that answer. So the poem, "Scarf", came to me. I wrote that poem for non-Muslim women to express that we are equal. That the hijab doesn't make Muslim women lower. Maybe lots of other people will read the poem. Women who don't wear hijab may read the poem and see the human being under the scarf, a human being like them. Women who wear hijab may read it and find their voice. Men may read it and change their minds or at least think about it. You never really know who your poem is for or its true purpose is until people start reading and interacting with it.
Faleeha Hassan is a poet, teacher, editor, writer, and play write born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967, who now lives in the United States. Hassan is the first woman to write poetry for children in Iraq. She received her master's degree in Arabic literature, and has now published 20 books. Her poems have been translated into English, Turkmen, Bosevih, Indian, French, Italian, German, Kurdish, Spain, Korean, Greek ,Serbia and Albanian. Ms. Hassan has received many awards in Iraq and throughout the Middle East for her poetry and short stories.She has also had her poems and short stories published in a variety of American magazines such as: Philadelphia poets 22, Harbinger Asylum, Brooklyn Rail April2016, Screaming mamas, The Galway Review, Words Without Borders, TXTOBJX, Intranslation, SJ Magazine, Nondoc, Wordgathering , SCARLET LEAF REVIEW, Courier-Post, I am not a Silent Poet, Taos Journal, Inner Child Press, Atlantic City Press, SJ Magazine, Intranslation Magazine, The Guardian, Words Without Borders, Courier-Post, Life and Legends, among many others.
SLP: Mary Oliver likes to say that writers, specifically poets, are not made but born. This is true, I suppose, in that when one finds themselves becoming a writer there is almost a fated quality to this turn of events. However, as everyone knows, no one is actually born at the height of their craft—there is a process. Could you describe the journey you have taken with literature? What was the moment that drew you to writing, were there any obstacles, how did you combat them, and how have your experiences made you the artist you are today?
Allen: First off, thanks so much for reaching out to me for this interview. It’s definitely been a long process to get where I am today, and so much of that has depended on patience and persistence. Just like all the authors I’ve heard talk about their own paths, I started by reading a lot as a kid, and then at some point I wrote some cliché-filled poems and the occasional basic (usually awful) short story. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d decided that I wanted to be a novelist, though I had no idea how to write a novel and no clue just how much work it takes to write a decent one, let alone a novel at the level of any of my favorites. So after many years working blue-collar jobs, I returned to school; then, throughout my undergrad years, then an MFA program, then a PhD program, I read a ton of books, studied with and learned more about craft from experienced authors, and along the way managed to publish short pieces while writing drafts of book-length manuscripts.
The main obstacles have come from within—the self-doubt, the inner-critic that at times just won’t shut up—but then there are also the realities of how incredibly competitive the publishing world is, especially in terms of signing with an agent and getting a manuscript in the hands of an editor at a major publishing house. I taught myself how to craft a query letter, corresponded with many agents over roughly a five-year period (for two early manuscripts), then finally finished a novel that sparked interest from a number of agents and was fortunate to sign with one who has been a great fit. The persistence that propelled me through those years can also be labeled as stubbornness, or even obsessiveness. At a certain point, I understood why many writers give up—but I’d already decided well before then that I was never going to give up. I knew deep down that this extremely impractical career—being an author—is what I was meant to do. So I kept writing, kept honing my craft, kept reading widely, kept querying agents, and eventually found glimpses of light at the other end of the tunnel.
SLP:You recently signed with a literary agent for your novel The East End. Can you give our readers the inside scoop about your novel?
Allen: Sure, I’d love to. The East End opens with Corey, a working-class kid in the Hamptons who’s been breaking into mansions in the area. His mother, Gina, has been bottoming out with alcohol and pills. She works for a billionaire named Leo Sheffield, who’s been cheating on his wife with a much younger man. The characters all have secrets, some have obsessions—and when someone suddenly dies at Leo’s summer home in Southampton, Corey, Gina, and Leo all find themselves in new states of desperation, caught in different strands of the same complex web. While The East End has a purely fictional plot, I know the place and the tension between rich and poor there very well, and wanted to set the stage for characters from those disparate worlds to collide. Whenever I mention that I grew up in the Hamptons, I always have to add that our family had no money at all—we weren’t the rich people that vacation there; we worked for them. So one thing that has been especially satisfying with this novel is to convey to readers what it feels like to have very little and to work for people who have more money than they could spend in a lifetime. Now that my agent and I have finished the final round of revisions, she’s just begun the process of pitching it to editors at publishing houses. It’s pretty surreal to finally be here, and to say I’m excited to see what happens next would be a huge understatement.
SLP: Not only do you write fiction but you have also previously published poetry; do you find that mixing genres is challenging to the creative process? Would you say that writing poetry allows you more freedom compared to writing a novel (or vice versa)?
Allen: I imagine that writing novels, memoir, and poems at different times has allowed me to avoid falling into a rut with any one genre. There are some thoughts or moods or moments that are much easier for me to convey through a poem; there are some personal memories that I’ve written both as sections of a memoir and individual narrative poems; there are some places I’ve lived that I wanted to feature in a fictional story, or people I’ve known who’ve become amalgamated characters in my novels. I feel fortunate to work in all these genres because each one allows for its own sort of freedom, and each one can bleed into the others. Poetic language can end up in fiction or memoir, sometimes a fragment from a novel page that’s cut can then become a poem. Working within multiple genres seems to provide more forums, more options for the sizes of the canvases I can paint on, and in general, a room with more windows.
SLP: Numerous writers struggle with the writing process (finding a time to write, motivation to write, etc.) can you give us insight into your own writing process?
Allen: I think all writers struggle with the writing process most of the time. I do think that we can always find the time to write, though. I need to work in total silence, which is why my favorite times to work are generally when no one else is awake or I have a space all to myself. Some days it feels like much harder work than others, but when it’s working well, there’s really no better feeling. I’ve found that first drafts are much more difficult for me than revision nowadays, because with revision there’s a greater possibility for immediate gratification—I can see improvements, sometimes in the moment—metaphors develop, characters begin feeling more genuine, the plot or pacing becomes tighter, there’s more clarity overall. On the other hand, with first drafts, no matter how much I plan or outline, there’s a wildness that sometimes feels unwieldy—basically anything can still happen. That can be an exciting process of discovery, or just as easily can feel like I spent an entire day (or much more) following tangents that veer far away from the story and will eventually be cut. Whatever phase of the process, my favorite moments are when I’m immersed deeply enough inside the dream to forget that I’m writing—when I’ve successfully tricked myself into believing the story world is reality, and the characters are not characters but real people.
SLP: When do you feel you’re most creative?
Allen: That’s changed some over the years. I used to work mostly late at night, between around 11pm and 6am, but during the past few years I seem to get some of the best work done early in the morning. If I’m strictly revising, then any time of day works, but for new pages it seems best to work either when I first wake up or during the quiet late-night hours. There’s something about being on either edge of sleep that opens up possibilities that may not have surfaced otherwise. But then again, some of the breakthrough moments come when I’m not writing at all, when I’m just staring at the wall thinking about the story, or even when I’m not thinking about the story—when I’m driving or in the shower or walking down the street, and suddenly from out of nowhere a thought pops up about the novel—a key that unlocks some tricky point that’s been gnawing at me—and then I find myself scrambling to get to a pen and paper. Honestly, I wish I knew when I was most creative, but mostly it’s a matter of keeping the story alive in my mind, sitting down with an intention, and staying there long enough to let it happen.
Jason Allen is the author of the novel The East End and the poetry collection A Meditation on Fire (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2016). His poetry and short fiction has appeared in Passages North, Oregon Literary Review, Contemporary American Voices, Cream City Review, Ragazine, and many other venues. He holds an MFA from Pacific University and a PhD from Binghamton University, and currently teaches writing in Atlanta, Georgia.
SLP: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Eden: I love this question but I don’t think I have a really great answer! I travel a lot, but I don’t necessarily think of any of my travels as literary pilgrimages (but maybe now I will!). I recently went back to Okinawa, a significant place for me and my childhood. I saw that as a kind of pilgrimage—I wanted to return to write about it, and to relive what I remembered as the perfect oasis of my childhood. But in getting there, I realized that memory is an unreliable narrator, and while I love Okinawa, being there wasn’t going to somehow fix every problem in my life. Being there, I realized my perception said a lot more about the things I was struggling with at the age I was last here than about the actual place of Okinawa. So not exactly a literary pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage that I think will become a literary project in the near future!
SLP: Do you think it’s necessary for a writer to feel emotions strongly?
Eden: YES. I feel so many things, and I think it would be hard to write without this. I experienced this even more so when I was a girl, but I’ve felt very strong emotional connections and experiences with objects and places. It’s definitely given me fuel to write about. I also find writing as a way to process and cope with the emotions I feel. When I went to Thailand and was in a chaotic market the first day and became over-stimulated, I went to writing to process all the emotions I was feeling. Since then, if I find myself getting over-stimulated, overwhelmed, or out of place, I go to prayer and writing (which for me are very similar, if not at times the same mediums).
SLP: If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
Eden: There is always time. Don’t rush a project—there will be future contests, future presses and opportunities. You don’t need to be the best; your worth shouldn’t be in others recognizing your work. Write because you love writing, because you need to write. Don’t lose sight of why you write in the first place.
SLP: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Eden: A combination of feedback and events. There was a season that I had a really well paying job and I knew it would probably not last forever, so I invested a bit of that money into writing conferences, writing trips, and feedback on my work. I paid for pitch sessions with agents and editors, and for people to review my manuscripts with edits. I paid for workshops and big conferences. I’m so glad I did these things because I think I really developed as a writer through these experiences, in both my craft and my trade, and I met so many amazing people along the way that I still fellowship with in this writing journey. I really learned what exactly I was getting myself into.
SLP: How long did it take you to write Post-high school reality quest? What did your writing process consist of? Why this book?
Eden: This is complicated. I started my first draft at community college, around 2009/2010. It was horrible and I put it down for a few years, then in 2012, a friend suggested I write a text adventure novel. I was sick with strep on and off that year, so I played with the idea and rewrote this old novel in the text adventure form. I edited it on and off from 2012-2014, then got interest from CCB in 2014, signed a contract in 2015, did major edits in 2016 and saw it published in 2017.
My writing process is haphazard. I have to word vomit and do some kind of goal-oriented program (like Nanowrimo) to actually finish a first draft (and then again for the second and third drafts typically…). Then I think of myself as a quilter—I take the pieces that still interest me, flesh them out, and stitch them together. I end up taking out a lot of stitches, and making a lot more new quilt squares, but it all comes together in the end.
And why this book? This one is close to my heart because I see so much of myself in it: it doesn’t really fit into any traditional genre, some people just “aren’t going to get it,” and pieces of my spiritual and personal experiences are in here. Not the literal experiences, but the heart of them. The capital-t Truth. The allegory of the relationship between the text parser and Buffy is one that’s very important to me. I really wrote the story about coping with change and making decisions that I wanted to write—and because of that, I knew even after letting it sit for a long time in a desk drawer that it had potential, and that I needed to get this book out into the world.
SLP: Let’s talk a little bit about publishing which is often a daunting and downright frustrating task. What advice would you give writers when it comes to publishing? For finding a literary agent?
Eden: I think the advice I can give is: it’s hard, and you have to want it, but it can be done. Persist. Read your rejection letters, learn from them, don’t stay down for long, and make sure to cultivate a community of supporters. I am eternally grateful to my spouse, family, friends, and writer comrades who have had to remind me to keep at it during discouraging times. Another part of persisting is also sending lots of submissions. Constantly. My response to a rejection letter is to send out that same piece to two new places. The odds work in your favor over time. Meet people in your local and global writing community. Find ways to serve others. Read their work, do blurbs and reviews, learn from them and give. Building these friendships is so valuable and rewarding, and really teaches you about the writing world in the process as well.
SLP: You teach courses on publication at the University of Maryland, what do these courses consist of? What is something you stress in these courses to your students?
Eden: I teach creative writing and humanities courses at UMD. My favorite that I’ve taught is the writing and publication course, where we talk about submitting to journals and presses, and even make our own chapbooks at the end of the semester! In this course and all my others, I really try to teach what it means practically to be a writer. Craft is essential, but many courses don’t talk about what it means in the every day to be a writer, how to submit, or how to set realistic expectations. Because I didn’t see this that often in my courses as a student, I really emphasize it when I teach.
SLP: Where do you see publishing going in the future?
Eden: I don’t know, but I think it’s going to change a lot. The current traditional publishing world model is outdated, and self-publishing is still relatively new and still learning how to work most effectively. The market is so saturated that one of the big issues publishing will have to keep responding to is how to get target audiences to find these books. Publishing needs to get more creative and innovative, and find ways to collaborate with and learn from other art forms. But it will. Publishing will always exist in some form, it’ll just keep changing to suit the needs of the time it exists in.
SLP: You found your first literary agent in high school (which is incredible), can you tell me a little bit about that experience? How does this experience differ as an adult?
Eden: So when I was in high school, I got a copy of the writer’s guide, and emailed everyone who did my genres. I found my agent because I queried her thinking, “Why not?” As a kid, when I got an agent, I thought that was it: that now I was going to hit it big-time, sell my book instantly, and be able to live as a professional writer. That was not the case! I think as a kid, I had my youth, hutzpah and determination in my favor. Now, I’m not that old and I still have hutzpah and determination, but also I’m very picky now, so I’m querying a little differently than before. I have a more specific idea of what I'm looking for. I have experience with publishing a book now, and I know what I need most from an agent. I had a very positive experience with my first agent, but now as I go back to the “query trenches,” I’m having to make some very tough decisions. I’m having to think with a much more long-term scope than I did as a kid. Also, I’m less patient now than I was then, which makes the waiting and trying to find “the one” all the more difficult!
Meg Eden's work is published or forthcoming in magazines including Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Poet Lore, RHINO and CV2. She teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is published with California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Books. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.
Vaghy: How did you get involved in poetry and publishing and when did you know that these fields were going to become your careers?
Liebler: I first started writing down my “feelings” in the second grade. I did not know what that was or why I was doing it. In the fifth grade-my teacher called what I was scribbling “poetry” because it had a lot of white space on the page. That is when I learned what a “poem” was, or what a “poem” was supposed to be. Coming from a Detroit working-class background and being raised by two grandparents, I had never heard of a “poem” or “poetry.” However, my grandmother turned me on to Elvis Presley when I was four, so I guess I was getting a dose of lyrical poetry with my Elvis. Once my fifth grade teacher mentioned the “p” word, I knew what I was doing, but I still did not know why. By the age of ten, I learned more about poetry because my hero John Lennon had written a book of these so called “poems.” I never told anyone, not even my grandparents, that I wrote poetry. When I was 12 years old, I heard The Doors do “Horses Latitudes” on their album. That is when I decided to tell my two closes childhood friends “Hey guys!I wrote poetry.” Of which they both stared at me like I had a pelican on my head. “Poetry?” “What the hell is that?” I played them “Horses Latitudes” by Jim Morrison.I then read them one of my handwritten poems. They both looked at me strangely and said “oh that’s nice-now would ya drop the needle on When the Music’s Over.” I continued on with my writing. Filling pages and note books through high school. When I got to the community college-I started to publish a poem here and there. At that point, I knew it was something I would do the rest of my life. I never thought I would get paid for it. My real love is teaching. I do get paid for that. However, poetry has been very good to me too over these 55 plus years.
Vaghy: One of our members recently attended a talk you gave at Binghamton University and she was utterly enamored by the “anarchist” methods you and your colleagues used to create your first press. Could you relay those methods for our readers here? Do you think that writers who wish to start presses or their own publications must have that same drive to make their projects work? What advice would you give to young writers who wish to break into the publishing industry but have very little resources at their disposal?
Liebler: I think our “anarchist” beginnings came out of our late teenage angst and our overly rambunctious spirits. Also, we had a total lack of knowledge and understanding of how to get our creative work out to the public, or at least out to a couple of unsuspecting souls. I think the fact that The Ridgeway Artists Collective, started in 1974, grew from our mutual blue collar, working class backgrounds. We were DIY out of necessity vs principle. Our first couple of publications were in limited editions of 8-10 copies of a few pages. We didn’t know how to get printing on both sides of the paper, so our booklets had several blank pages between poems. Two-sided printing hadn’t been invented yet, and Kinko’s didn’t exist. After a few books like this, we decided we needed more copies. So, we started by signing professors’ names to printing work orders at the college. We would ask for 100 printed and stapled booklets. We purposefully left all names off the printed copy, so we couldn’t be traced. After a few days, we would go back to the printing office and ask for that order for Professor Schmackleworth (not a real professor even). We then created 100 handmade covers with names that matched corresponding Roman numerals in the pamphlets. After doing a few books that way, we thought “hey books belong in bookstores!” To that end, we stated sneaking small piles into local bookstores with written prices on them to look like the bookstores’ pricing. We basically did reverse shoplifting. One of us would stand look out while others unloaded their books in the store’s Poetry section. Every few weeks, we would see if they needed a new shipment. Often they did, so we repeated the steps above. As time went on, we in the Ridgeway Collective got jobs, and we better understood how to do chapbooks properly. By the mid 80’s-we were off and publishing 10-12 books by authors in Detroit and across the country. Eventually, we did perfect bound books with real covers, etc. The rest is history.
Vaghy: At this same talk, you were quoted as expressing a deep love for coming up with ideas for anthologies. What is the power of the anthology for you; why do you find it so important?
Liebler: I like to put together anthology on subjects that haven’t been done before. For example, my first idea more than 20 years ago was to put together a historic perspective of Detroit poetry from 1900-2001 (which was the Detroit Tercentennial celebration). That anthology featured close to 200 poets from Detroit (from the famous like Robert Hayden to Phillip Levine and included the new up and coming poets at the turn of the century like ViVee Francis). The anthology was a big seller, and it is still used in classrooms in Michigan. My second anthology of working class and labor writing grew out of my need to have a text book in my Labor through the Arts classes at Wayne State. I thought rather than Xeroxing all these pieces of writing, why not combine them into a national anthology of poetry, stories and creative nonfiction. I did just that, and I sold the idea to the late great Allen Kornblum of The Coffeehouse Press. This books 500+ page book included everyone from Amiri Baraka to Michael Moore to Diane diPrima, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, X.J. Kennedy, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The book hit in 2010 just as labor was rising up in Madison, WI. I toured everywhere in the country from LA to NYC and all points in between.
Labor Consciousness has been raised, and the anthology really caught on. The thing I am most proud of is that every single contributor contributed their work gratis to preserve working class literature. This, to me, is something money can’t buy. This book still sells nicely everywhere, and it sells in Europe. My third idea was to preserve the history of Detroit Music through essays by some of America’s most talented music writers and musicians. Again, in the spirit of Detroit, everyone agreed to offer their essays gratis. This boo became Heaven Was Detroit: Detroit Music from Jazz to Hip Hop and Beyond published but the Wayne State Press. This book featured essays written by Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Bill Harris, John Sinclair, Susan Whitall, Bill Holdship and many others. This has become the main book on Detroit music from the turn of the 19th century to the today. This book became, and remains, a best seller on Amazon and around the globe. It has won several major awards, and is still selling very well with record university press sales. I followed that up with a collection of short stories entitled Bob Seger’s House and featuring well known Michigan fiction writers (including Matt Bell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jack Driscoll, Loren D. Estleman, Laura Kasischke, Janet Kauffman, Ander Monson, Eileen Pollack, Gloria Whelan, Michael Zadoorian, Thomas Lynch, Desiree Cooper, Peter Ho Davies and others). Currently I am putting the finishing touches on a collection of poems about or related to Detroit music. It will appear in Fall 2018. It is entitled I Just Wanna Testify: Poems about Detroit Music. This anthology features poems by Rita Dove, Eminem, Jack White, Patricia Smith, Robert Hayden, Robbie Robertson, Paul Simon and others. We even got Fats Domino in this one with his Detroit City Blues.
Vaghy: In an interview you gave the Detroit Free Press last year, you were noted as the “bard of Detroit.” A completely fitting title! You are a poet who values his hometown. What is your opinion of young poets who believe that in order to “make it” in the literary community they must travel to large city centers? Do you think young artists should remain in their hometowns and form artistic communities, or does this prospect simply reek of gentrification?
Liebler: I think artists should be true to themselves and what they feel their destiny should be. I don’t judge. If an artist needs to leave Detroit for a gig at Princeton like Jeffery Eugenidies or Marge Piercy to live in New England, that’s cool. I find for me that Detroit is where my world lives and breathes. It’s where my art is. I can travel anywhere in the world, and I do. However, this town is in my blood, guts and soul. Detroit is a certain state of being. Some have successfully moved here from elsewhere and become Detroit. I think of the great New Jersey native Detroit transplant poet Blair. However, I think in general you have to be from here, have lived the working class existent from the cradle, and continue to live it everyday. A lot of Detroit artists retain this working class vibe their whole lives. It doesn’t matter of you’re Eminem or Jack White or Phil Levine. We just think differently about fame and fortune. Most of us do not believe our own press. Check out Marshall’s new single “Walk on Water.” That vibe is in there.
My longtime saying is “A bad day in Detroit beats a good day anywhere else in the world.” That’s what I believe.
Vaghy: What is the mindset you want young poets to have when sending their poems and/or poetry books out for publication?
Liebler: Well, being an author is like being a prize fighter.You do have to believe in yourself. If you don’t, you won’t last long in the game. However, serious writers have to lean that a rejection is not a rejection of your work forever. Sometimes what you’re doing takes time to catch on and be accepted.Remember, a young poet can be a “young poet” at 60 years of age. I say keep doing what you’re doing. Learn to be discouraged briefly, and then you must move on.Being a poet is not a “choice.” It is what you are. Boom! You can easily test this by saying to yourself, “I am getting out of this racket-it’s too painful.” If you pick up a pen within the next day or so-it is who your are. Surrender and let it flow.
Vaghy: What piece of advice were you given as an aspiring poet that you feel benefited you the most?
Liebler: Don’t stop! Don’t have expectations of what is your best work or what is your weakest work. Just forge onward. When things start picking up and going well, don’t start to believe your own press. Believe in yourself, but not all the “nice things” people, especially friends and family, write or say about you. When people say to me “you are such a good writer,” I always ask them to ask my wife or my kids about how great I am. Here’s what I preach and teach. Don’t approach the art with the idea to make money, or that you must make money, or that you should make money. The money will come if you remain true to yourself and your art. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT MONEY!!! Just do the work, forge onward and stay focused on what is ahead. If you trust this, you will go far and you will make the money. The money will come.
Vaghy: What is the most important quality a poet can have in today’s literary community?
Liebler: Always, always give back. Don’t even think twice about offering free workshops at your library (I have been doing a monthly workshop at my local library since 1991. I receive no pay, but the attendees are very happy to have a place to share their work and where they matter), teach a poetry class in a community education program or even facilitate a workshop for seniors at a nursing home, a domestic abuse shelter, prisons, etc. I say whatever good you do will come right back to you in a good way. Do a reading when asked.Don’t ask “what does it pay?” Look, I have been around this world many times (literarily), and it has all been a positive experience paid or unpaid. Once I flew to Hong Kong to read one short poem at The Hong King Literary Festival. I paid my own way there. However, that lead to two residencies at Macao University and one at Hong Kong University with pay. I have many stories like that I could tell younger writers.
Vaghy: What do you think is a poet’s purpose in society?
Liebler: Love-I say. People just want to know that they are human, and poets and poems can offer and allow that freedom. It also tells people that it is okay to express your thoughts and feelings, and that you matter in this world. Everyone needs and desires respect, and art can offer this to people. It let’s all of us know that we are okay, and that we too can write or paint or sing.
The purpose of the public artist, in my humble opinion, is to unlock doors, throw open windows and let the light in. Once people see that there is another place of possibilities, then they soon realize that they have the freedom to see and discover new things for themselves. For me, being a poet in our society is to give, give, give, and when you can't give no more-you reach down and grab just a little more. But-hey-that’s just me!
M. L. Liebler is a internationally known & widely published Detroit poet, university professor, literary arts activist and arts organizer. He was named The 2017-2018 Murray E. Jackson Scholar in the Arts Award at Wayne State University. Liebler is the author of 15 books and chapbooks including the Award winning Wide Awake in Someone Else's Dream (Wayne State University Press 2008). Wide Awake won both The Paterson Poetry Prize for Literary Excellenceand The American Indie Book Award for 2009. In 2005, he was named St. Clair Shores (his hometown) first Poet Laureate. Liebler has read and performed his work in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Russia, China, France, UK, Macao, Italy, Germany, Spain, Finland and most of the 50 States. M.L. Liebler has taught English, Creative Writing, American Studies, Labor Studies and World Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit since 1980, and he is the founding director of both The National Writer's Voice Project in Detroit and the Springfed Arts: Metro Detroit Writers Literary Arts Organization. He was selected as Best Detroit Poet by The Detroit Free Press & Detroit's Metro Time, and in he is the nation's first ever Artist in Residence for a Public Library at The Chelsea District Library for 2008-2009. In 2005, Liebler became the Co-Editor In 2010, he received The Barnes & Noble Poets & Writers Writers for Writers Award with Maxine Hong Kingston & Junot Diaz. In 2011, his groundbreaking anthology Working Words: Punching the Clock & Kicking Out the James (Coffee House Press) was given a 2011 Library of Michigan Notable Book Award. In 2017, Liebler received two Library of Michigan Notable Book Awards for both his new collection of poems entitled I Want to Be Once (Wayne State University Press / Made in Michigan Series) and for Heaven Was Detroit: An Anthology of Detroit Music Essays from Jazz to Hiphop (The Wayne State University Press Painted Turtle Series) Editor. Bob Seger's House: An Anthology of Michigan Short Stories (Co-Editor with Mike Delp). Both Heaven Was Detroit and Bob Seger's House are Winner of the prestigious Forward Book Awards. Forthcoming books are I Just Wanna Testify: Poems about Detroit Music a new book of poetry, and recordings & vinyl including Poetry Score: M. L. Liebler & Al Kooper. He currently directs the Detroit Writers Guild. www.mlliebler.com
Williamson: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? How did you get started in the publishing industry? What is your life as a writer like?
Longfellow: Johnny Longfellow is a nom de plume I both write and edit/publish under. I founded Midnight Lane Boutique in 2014, and began a second project called BAD ACID LABORATORIES, INC. two years later. The boutique is active, and currently publishes on a weekly rolling basis. The laboratories is on an indefinite hiatus, though it publishes in issue format on a very irregular basis.
I got started publishing, in part, because I left a 25 year career as a health care worker, and needed an outlet to place my more altruistic tendencies. (Which honestly, are rather few, but I try.) Also, I was influenced by the memory of the late Joe Dunn, who along with Jack Spicer, founded the White Rabbit Press back during the mimeograph revolution of the late 50s, early 60s. Joe was—beyond being a great friend—an impresario who took immense joy in developing environments where creative, talented people could come together. He was also a nurturer of such individuals and their talents. What I dug about Joe in his role as a publisher and poetry reading organizer was his willingness to play second fiddle to those poets, writers, and artists whose work he promoted. I never met a man in the arts with a healthier ego than Joe Dunn. The boutique was founded in memory of Joe, and a dedication to him is included on the “Come Hither” (a.ka. About) page of the site."
As to my own writing, in recent years it has been overshadowed by my online publishing efforts. However, for anyone interested in reading my verse, they can visit the following link:
Williamson: As a publisher/editor what are some of your pet peeves when dealing with submissions?
Longfellow: My pet peeves are few and far between. The two major things I dislike are receiving previously published poem, and also simultaneous submissions. In the former case, I vet all poems twice via a Google search; first, before acceptance, and second before posting. If between acceptance and posting I discover work has been published elsewhere—and my own publishing schedule is thus effected—that poet will more than likely not be welcome at my site again. In the latter case, my turn-over time is 14 days or less. So, I feel it's not an undue burden to ask that for that short time, work submitted be exclusively mine to review. I'll just add, by not accepting simultaneous submissions, the chances of work being published elsewhere prior to my own on-site posting is mitigated to a degree.
Williamson: What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make when submitting their work to publishers like yourself?
Longfellow: Not practicing due diligence in terms of 1) reviewing a journal's contents to ensure they target their submissions; 2) reviewing the submission guidelines to ensure they understand both their obligations and those of the editor. In the former case, they run the risk of wasting their own time, along with the editor's time. In the latter case, they run the risk of giving the editor a bad impression, or worse, violating the editor's trust. For many editors, submission guidelines are a contract which spell out the responsibilities of both the poets and editors. As such, poets would do well to carefully review the guidelines of any journal to which they wish to submit, and assess whether the stated terms surrounding review, publication, rights, etc. are acceptable. If so, they should hold up their end of the bargain, and expect the editor(s) do no less in return.
Vaghy: What convinces you that you *must* publish a submission?
Longfellow: The notion of “must publish” suggests a sense of urgency, and honestly, that's rarely something I feel. Nonetheless, a poem that is impeccably well-crafted, and has edge in terms of subject matter can inspire that “must publish” feeling. Also, I review all submissions more than once, reading them aloud if interested. Should the sonic effects of a piece in terms of word-play, alliteration, and other devices make both my tongue and ear horny—while also instilling in me an affective response which resonates personally—then that “must publish” feeling is inevitable. It's kind of like a crush, I suppose.
Williamson: What advice can you give emerging writers?
Longfellow: I'm assuming by “emerging writers” you mean those individuals who have just discovered they've an aptitude for writing, and have either not yet published widely or at all. For such writers, I'd suggest take it slow. Put development of your craft first, and publication a very distant second. In the current publishing environment, there are myriad opportunities to find a home for one's work, and gaining acceptance is not nearly as hard as one might think. Herein, the danger is not rejection. Rather, it is having work accepted for publication that down the road—as one's craft improves—leads to feelings of embarrassment and dissatisfaction.
In sum, place the quality of your publications over and above the quantity. Do so by letting your work sit, and returning to it with fresh eyes after a period of time has passed. This will aid in ensuring any initial exuberance you felt was justified. As an added safe-guard, try and befriend a writer or two more established than yourself whose work you respect. Seek from such individuals critical and creative feedback, and take a fly on the wall stance in such regards. Finally, always remember Paul Valéry's admonition, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That's to say, revise!
Williamson: Can you suggest some resources for writers that you, yourself, use?
Longfellow: Duotrope is an excellent resource, both for publishers and those seeking to be published. It provides a wealth of valuable information, and is essential in connecting writers and publishers. Poets & Writers is a fine resource, though I'd argue its rather heavily biased toward more established poets and presses. Its message board is cool, though. In contrast, The Literary Underground is always worth exploring, for as it's name denotes it caters to poets, events, and venues more back-alley than Main Street in orientation. Also, the poet and editor, Scott Thomas Outlar, has pages on his blog 17 numa that provide outbound links to both poets' personal pages and also to journals. That's a nice, easy to use resource he provides, and one I'd recommend. Finally, for formal verse poets, The Hypertexts is a good resource, as is Eratosphere.
Vaghy: What misconceptions about writing poetry - that is, what constitutes "good writing" - do you see being disseminated in the modern poetic community? Have you noticed certain trends or fads in submissions that really irk you?
Longfellow: I don't know about misconceptions, so much as unwarranted biases. Broadly speaking, there remains a division between free-verse and formal verse poets that veers on being grossly prejudicial. As an editor who largely publishes the former type, but a poet who writes the latter, I find such broad-based biases very closed minded. However, that's not to claim I'm so open minded my brains fall out. Poetry that blatantly transgresses the boundary of Othering, and does so for its own sake, is not my cup of tea. Most—but not all—L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry turns me off when it appears in my inbox. Heavy breathing, moist, and tender erotica that makes me want to bathe in Purell after reading it . . . that's another type of verse I can definitely do without. Tin-eared rhyming poetry minus any metrical consistency is rather irksome. Finally, speculative verse that strings together multi-syllabic, Latin rooted words derived from the sciences is a trend I fear will only grow. And, I like speculative verse well enough, just not that particular type. Reading that particular type of verse makes me want to scrub my eyeballs with a toothbrush.
Vaghy: In every writer's journey, the concept of the "authentic voice" is eventually addressed. How do you feel about this? Do you believe a writer can generate an authentic voice, or do you believe every poem is in some way a persona poem?
Longfellow: Actually, I'd contend that the concept of “authentic voice” is an academic construct. As such, it's not one that all writers eventually address on their journeys. At least not consciously. Nor do I believe that all poems are somehow persona poems. Rather, I'd suggest they are highly compressed, structured spaces within which we might attempt to actualize and express aspects of ourselves. Still, what I appreciate about the framing of this two-fold question is the manner in which it generates binary oppositions revolving around notions of “real” vs. “counterfeit,” “genuine” vs. “fake,” “true” vs. “false,” and obviously “authentic” vs. “inauthentic.”
That noted, for a writer who actually does find him- or herself consciously addressing the concept of “authentic voice,” there is no shortage of prescriptions available for how one might achieve said “voice.” College and university classrooms, websites, and writing workshops are all venues in which such prescriptions can be found. Ideally, a writer—if critically minded—will recognize that any and all such prescriptions have wholly to do with mere matters of style deemed acceptable and aesthetically pleasing by others. In sum, what is defined from without as “good” vs. “bad” writing.
Please note, I make no claim such prescriptions should not be carefully considered in terms of craft development. Rather, I suggest writers recognize that “authentic voice” is a very loaded term, not to mention a Logocentric one. Ultimately, I fear to take it at face value can potentially lead to unnecessary self-consciousness in the development of one's craft. For, a personal sense of being “inauthentic” in one's chosen art is quite the ontological burden, as is the elusive journey in search of artistic “authenticity.”
I'll just add, one who consciously writes in a persona may be more apt to comprehend what the sociologist, Erving Goffman, called “presentation of Self.” And with that, the related concept of “impression management.” If skilled at his or her craft, such a writer may well create a “voice” that others—and I underscore, others—would deem “authentic.” And, that is probably because despite the underlying artificiality and pretense, one who writes successfully in a persona needs empathy to manage that impression. I hope that this final point—more than any other I've made—helps call into question the authenticity itself of “authentic voice” as a concept.
Johnny Longfellow is the editor of Midnight Lane Boutique and BAD ACID LABORATORIES, INC. Selections of his own verse have appeared in The Blue Mountain Review, The Five Two, The Literary Hatchet, The Rotary Dial, Stepping Stones Magazine, and other venues. A performance poet and recitalist, past readings include The Hyla Brook Poets' Reading Series, The Newburyport Literary Festival, and The Powow River Poets’ Reading Series. He has also served as a mentor for over two decades to Newburport, MA high school students through The Poetry Soup Reading Series and print journal.
Williamson: You run a rather advanced website that aims at helping writers with submitting how did this project begin? What were your initial motives when starting your website?
Hopkinson: Originally, I started saving things to my blog to keep track of them for myself, but the more I expanded my poetry community locally and on social media, the more I saw that others needed the info as well. I started sharing it and more and more people started stopping by my blog. It really has evolved by accident, and I expect it will continue to evolve that way. I stumbled upon the idea for guest blog posts, and those have been a huge hit. I’m actually booked out every Sunday into January 2018. Adding editor interviews to the submission calls just sort of happened too. It’s been so much more fun (and work) than I ever expected, but I’ve learned so much along the way and I’m so grateful for all the connections my blog has helped me make with other writers.
Vaghy: As we’ve just defined your amazingly helpful blog as “advanced” and, by this, revolutionary, I would like to continue on this thread and ask if you yourself find your blog spectacular? That is, are you keenly aware of how important it is, or do you look at it and think, “Well yeah, but shouldn’t everyone be doing this?”
Hopkinson: To answer that, I think I’ll say that yes, I find the information on my blog most helpful to my own writing goals, which is why I share the information I do. It’s the first place I go when submitting or looking for resources. If I need something and I haven’t blogged about it, I go find it and most likely, it will become a blog post. Should everyone be doing it? That depends on your goals as a writer, but I definitely think everyone should find ways to give back to the community supporting their art or art in general for that matter.
Vaghy: What is your opinion on the state of support between writers in the modern literary community? The thing is, the team of Street Light Press all attended (or still currently attend) the same university and have come across each other’s work in either a classroom setting or by reading the university’s literary journal. This created a very strong writing community (in my opinion, at least) – however, I know that in other programs, this kind of camaraderie is not at all present. Would you say that in your experience you’ve come across more unity or discord within the literary community? How do you feel your blog addresses this issue of support?
Hopkinson: Many of my original writing connections started when I was attending university as well, but there were really only a few of those writers I’ve really worked closely with since we graduated. I’ve stayed more in touch with professors and a few like-minded students. I’m an extrovert… so poetry community really feeds my art, but I can see how for others, that may not be the case. I think you can gain by spending time with other artists, but I think you can also learn from others by staying home and reading. Either way, you’re immersing yourself in the craft and supporting the community while learning. I haven’t run into much discord, but I’m not the type of person to notice it. I’m solution-oriented--if a writer has some sort of issue, I’ll send them solutions until they can’t stand it anymore, which is probably where my blog comes in.
Williamson: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Hopkinson: That’s probably an essay length answer, but I certainly learned quickly how much work really goes into not just the content, but the format, placement, order, etc. After publishing Footnote with Lithic Press, I started to realize that books/collections are an art form in and of themselves. I do think more about how a poem might fit into a future collection, how they might group together, if I want to send them out in a series to lit mags to hopefully have more than one poem selected, etc. I also gained a lot of patience with my writing. I’m realizing some poems may not find a place in a collection for a very long time or that some topics may be difficult to write about for several months or even years, while others demand immediate attention and space in the world. Maybe this has little to do with the book and just my own evolution as a writer, but the work itself has greater importance to me now, more than the volume I’m producing or how frequently I’m being published.
Williamson: How long did it take for you to publish your first chapbook? Can you discuss the rejection process and how you dealt with it?
Hopkinson: I don’t really count my first two chapbooks, since the process was much simpler—Emissions was a school project and essentially self-published, and Pieced Into Treetops was for a small local contest, of which only 25 copies were printed. I started compiling various versions of Footnote based on submission guidelines and after several rejections, finally landed on the rough draft that become the final chapbook. I started submitting Footnote in February of 2015 and after 12 rejections, received the acceptance from Lithic Press in late 2016.
How do I deal with rejection? I submit more. Sometimes I’d get encouraging personal rejections, though those are often rare, and other times I’d have poems from the manuscript get picked up by separate lit mags. By the time Footnote was published, all but a couple of the poems had been published in lit mags and journals. I believed in the work and just kept trying. I think I would have likely revised the collection this year if Lithic had not accepted it. I have several iterations of manuscripts I’ve sent out in the last few years. Some of them definitely stronger than others. I’m not really ready to send out another chapbook or full-length yet, and I’m in no hurry. When I have something ready, when it speaks to me and feels complete, or at least close to complete, when the idea of the collection is solid, I’ve spent time with it, let it rest, gone back to it to be sure, etc., then I’ll send out something new.
Williamson: What in your opinion is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Hopkinson: Definitely the vanity presses and vanity-type anthologies. Writers who are passionate about their work and not sure where to start often fall prey to these less than ethical companies. Not only can it cost them hard-earned wages, but rarely will the writing have the audience they desire.
Williamson: What advice can you give emerging writers?
Hopkinson: Be patient with your work. Let it simmer. Read other poets and writers. Write book reviews. Attend local events—readings and open mics. Learn from as many different writers as you can. And write to each other! There’s a beautiful tradition of writers writing letters to each other, giving feedback to each other, and building life-long relationships. And yes, I think email counts.
Humphrey: I love your poem, “Mixed Tape,” which was published by Crab Fat Magazine. The raw emotion and powerful images you include like dirt in your eyes and being ripped from the womb are exactly the type of aesthetic we look for here at Street Light. Can you tell us how your poems are typically born? Do you begin with an image, a memory, or something else entirely?
Hopkinson: Most of my poems begin by paying attention. Something strikes me, causes me to feel something new or something powerful or something stronger than I ever have before. Sometimes it’s something I’ve read, an experience I’ve had, or something else I’ve otherwise witnessed. Sometimes it comes with the metaphor or imagery built in; sometimes I have to go find those things to create or finish the poem. I rarely write anything without research—reading definitions, and etymology, digging into the details of images, making sure the concepts are scientifically sound when needed, etc. I never write anything without learning something along the way.
Williamson: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I know I’ve written something good or important when I’m emotionally drained afterwards. Really great work is exhausting. Whether others will agree about the quality of the writing is another story, but usually I know when I’ve done something well. I can sense it, and it’s always harder when that’s the case. Revising is the energizing part—finding that perfect word choice, the line break that adds more meaning, finally settling on a title that works, realizing when a poem is done.
Trish Hopkinson has always loved words—in fact, her mother tells everyone she was born with a pen in her hand. A Pushcart nominated poet, she has been published in several anthologies and journals, including Stirring, Pretty Owl Poetry, and The Penn Review; and her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017. Hopkinson is co-founder of a regional poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets, and Editor-in-Chief of the group’s annual poetry anthology entitled Orogeny. She is a product director by profession and resides in Utah with her handsome husband and their two outstanding children. You can follow Hopkinson on her blog where she shares information on how to write, publish, and participate in the greater poetry community at http://trishhopkinson.com/.