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A Talk with the Poets

As part of University Press Week, the University of Virginia Press is proud to take part in a week-long blog tour. Today’s theme is “Presses in Conversations with Authors.” Please visit the other presses posting new content today—Temple University Press, Columbia University Press, Beacon Press, University of Illinois Press, Southern Illinois University Press, University Press of Kansas, Liverpool University Press, University of Toronto Press Journals, and Manchester University Press.

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When we heard the theme of today’s leg of the University Press blog tour was “Presses in Conversations with Authors,” we immediately thought of the latest edition of Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. That’s fifty new authors, after all. Poets Tiana Clark and Emily Vizzo were kind enough to answer our questions, and we give them our most sincere thanks. A longer version of each interview will be posted next week. For now, here are some highlights.

Q: When did you begin writing poetry? What was the inspiration?

Tiana Clark: I grew up the only child to a single mother who worked several jobs—IHOP, Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney’s—so I was alone with my imagination most of the time. Creating worlds within this world, creating the characters to place inside those worlds, became an escape hatch for me. My formative years were spent speaking back to the silences that filled our apartment. I spoke to myself often—still do. That was my coping mechanism, a way to imbue my life with language. In a way, this impulse to create, to dream, and to express myself vocally was grasping towards poetry before I ever put pen to paper. I still like to think of create writing as a form of a play, a way to re-access that childlike sense of spontaneous improvisation. It helps me self-soothe.

Emily Vizzo: I started out writing as a way to be alone, I think. Growing up in a big family (I’m the oldest of nine kids) there was always a lot going on. The summer of my junior year in high school, my mom let me keep her electric typewriter in my bedroom.

Late at night, I would keep my bedroom window open, listening to the highway directly behind my house, smelling the boggy Pacific marine layer creep over the garlic fields and strawberry fields, smelling the neighborhood night jasmine and the lemon tree in our midtown Ventura backyard. I would gnaw through cups of crushed ice and grape juice concentrate all night as I typed away.

All the empty white space surrounding my poems on those pages felt charged and ecstatic to me. It felt really radical and kind of debauched to allow that much room to surround what I had to say about my life and the way it felt to be alive and in my body.

There now seems to me something extraordinary and lucky to have been awake and writing in a house where my parents and sisters and brothers were sound asleep, in their safe, warm bodies. We all had these lives to live, hopefully these long and happy lives, but this was that short time period where we lived together. And something about that closeness made me a writer, too.

Q: Have you formally studied poetry and/or taught it? Can poets learn from each other, or is the workshop and MFA world primarily a network generator? Does poetry thrive outside such an environment, or does there have to be an academic component attached to it?

Emily: Yes, I’ve formally studied poetry and I’ve taught it too. I believe that poets learn from each other, just as they learn from other things and other people. The value of workshops and the MFA “world” seems to me a personal value. Poetry can happen anywhere. I’ve always loved school, so I loved the experience of being in school to study poetry. But others might view that experience as not important or valuable because they learn differently. I respect that perspective, just as I acknowledge that formal education is a privilege that is more available to some people than others. Poetry is better and stronger when there are more people at the table. Not just sitting at the table, but standing on the table, kicking apart the table, using the table as fuel for a bigger, warmer fire.

Tiana: Muriel Rukeyser has this wonderful poem, “The Backside of the Academy,” which addresses the “closed bronze doors” of academic institutions in juxtaposition to the open, vibrant, and diverse neighborhood that surrounds the Academy. Here, the formal and informal college and beg the reader to investigate: where does art reside? If art remains one possible way of working towards truth, then who gets to claim ownership? The classical music and chiseled meter inside the gates, or the graffitied profanity outside?

The first time I applied to Vanderbilt I was rejected. But I couldn’t stop writing. I licked my wounds, and sought out whatever the Nashville creative scene had to offer. I found mentors, attended various reading series (both inside and outside academia), and took several poetry workshops through a local literary arts center. I started a monthly workshop group with fellow writers, and I signed up to for local Open Mic nights. During this period, I worked full-time, using my lunch breaks to write. I did this for three years before I decided to reapply—this time with better results. I learned to hustle and grind on my own—no formal program can teach you that perseverance. James Baldwin said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” Now that I’m at Vanderbilt, I’m grateful that I built that foundation for myself to thrive off of first. I taught myself how to exist as a poet. I truly believe you can start writing—and grow as a writer—wherever you are, no matter who you are. There is no formula.

Q: How did you hear about the Best New Poets anthology? How do you think it fits into a community of poets, if there is such a thing?

Tiana: When I find a poet’s work that I admire, I check where else they’ve published—it’s often the most effective and efficient way to find poetic sustenance. I was reading Anders Carlson Wee’s contributor note and noticed Best New Poets for the first time. Soon after, BNP resurfaced attached to other wonderful poets like Peter LaBerge, Ocean Vuong, Meg Day, Tarfia Faizullah, and Phillip B. Williams. Usually this biographical scavenger hunt leads me towards new poets and literary magazines to add to my ever-growing list. This process is one way poets find each other, how good work spreads across communities and consciousness. The Best New Poets anthology absolutely fits into—and enhances—the poetry community, because it is a vehicle for us to connect, to gain access to other writers when often creating the work itself is such an intimately private process.

Q: What is your favorite poem?

Tiana: My favorite poem remains the first poem I memorized: “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. There is power in language, and there is power in claiming this poem, by reciting it aloud and with swagger. As an awkward twelve-year-old girl just beginning to become a woman, this poem was a necessary battle cry for my newly forming identity. I still repeat the phrase when I need a boost of feminine adrenaline. I have to claim that power continually—there are too many voices that tell me I’m not worthy. This poem helps me resist that darkness.

Emily: One of my favorite poems is “My Father,” by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

My Father

The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.

Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,

and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.

That poem was one of the first I ever read that made me feel I could write poetry, too – that I could write about my life. We used to run out to the front porch when we heard my dad’s work truck pull into the driveway for dinner. My dad is a plumber; he still wears that dark blue uniform with a patch spelling his name in cursive letters. His dad started a plumbing shop in Ventura back in the sixties.

There was a lot of laundry growing up. We must have folded those navy pants and buttoned those striped shirts onto their wire hangers a million times.

My parents had seven daughters and two sons – we’ve always been a family of strong, independent women. I’ve spent a lot of time, so many years, my whole life, thinking and writing about my sisters and my mom.

But lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I learned from my dad in the quiet, steady way he approaches his life. Thinking about the gifts hard work can give you, and about what it means to be a good person.

We will publish a complete version of each interview next week. Best New Poets 2015 will be available later this month.

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