“I got to know a highly collaborative art form that helped me to question why poets sat by themselves so much in coffee shops and at home.”

vardaman2-12I was lucky to meet the wise Wendy Vardaman at The Book Cellar last year because we both had saint poems in the anthology St. Peter’s B-List  and joined together with a few other poets for a poetry reading in honor of Saints and Strangers. Wendy writes poems that are warm, human, inviting, and often humorous. They kind of poems you want to walk around inside for a little while. I loved listening to her read her poems that night at the Book Cellar and loved reading her first collection, Obstructed View (Fireweed Press), on my own afterward. Wendy is the poet laureate of Madison, WI, and recently published another collection of poems, Reliquary of Debt (Lit Fest Press 2015).  As you can see by taking a look at her website and the following interview, Wendy’s interests and accomplishments as an artist and an interpreter of art are many and varied (Check out the #midwestpoetic project in the list of links below the interview). I’m so grateful she took a moment to share with us about her journey because she’s reminded me of the importance of learning and collaborating and questioning and growing all the time.

What do you write? 

I write poetry and prose. And prose poems and poetic prose. I write creative nonfiction and book reviews and author interviews. I write reviews as prose poems. I write scholarly poems and poetic scholarship. I write comments on student essays and poems. I write up product information for one of my jobs and upload it to websites. I write website content for the poetry press that I co-founded (Cowfeather) with Sarah Busse, and I write that with html and css code. I write journal entries and notes to myself and lists of things to do. I write Facebook status updates (occasionally) and Tweets (rarely) and blog entries that are more long form essays than blog posts. I write up events and copy for the jackets of books and the occasional press release, which I’m terrible at. I write texts to my kids, which I am also terrible at. I used to write letters, but I gave up on those a few years ago. I write way too many emails. I’m a compulsive note taker.

How do you write it? (Like when, where, with what, etc)  Continue reading


Poet Elizabeth Hoover on big projects, collaboration, and hard work

Hoover in a performance she created with her sister, artist Dorothy Hoover.

Hoover in a performance she created with her sister, artist Dorothy Hoover.

When I moved from Los Angeles to Indiana, Elizabeth Hoover is one of the first people I met. As she helped me adjust to life in the little town, pointing out the good vs. sketchy grocery stores, and where the most beautiful parks were located, I got to know how hardworking and well-read Elizabeth is. She is the kind of friend where your conversation easily spans from summer reading lists and bike maintenance to museum recommendations or the latest discovery on mars. If she cooks dinner for you, she will use the finest local foods using a recipe she got from an obscure magazine, and when she writes poetry, she will draft and draft and draft until she unearths magic.

I am excited to share her interview with you today. In it she shares both about her writing process, her current projects, and why she sought out a salaried job when she was working as a successful freelance writer. For this interview, I decided to start with the job-related questions and then move on to juicy writerly details. Enjoy!

What do you do to pay the bills?

I am the Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. I had been a freelance writer for some time and I would say a successful-ish one, but I was tired of always worrying about money and of re-applying for my job every day–which is what freelancing felt like. I find I am very productive even though I don’t have as much free time because the free time I do have I am not stressing out about money. JMU in general and my department in specific are very supportive so I can take time off to write. I get 20 days of vacation! Some days I write grants all day, but some days I get to learn about poets and read poetry and that’s good.
When you applied for the JMU job were also looking for teaching? Do you see any advantages to working on a campus?

 I did also apply for teaching jobs. I never heard back from any of the places I applied to teach at. I don’t know if I will pursue professorships in the future. Since I just got here, I am not really thinking about what’s next! Being part of the academic community is helpful mostly because it gives me access to a lot of resources through the library. I  have unlimited access to books and other scholarly material.

Now, tell us a little bit about what you write, how you write, and sources of inspiration you seek out regularly?

When not working with index cards I use huge notebooks that sometimes get wet

I write poetry and enjoy working on big projects like series that have a conceptual or research element. For example, I am working on a series of prose poems in the form of letters about sexual assault, how women are silenced in the academy, and ways that art can offer opportunities for healing. They rely on personal narrative but also art history and aesthetic theory. I’ve also been writing about women in pop culture, which is new for me because usually I don’t like pop culture poems. But I’ve been enjoying applying the visual analysis skills I gained as an art critic to pop culture. I am also working on a series of poems about an archive with an infinite collection of objects, including living creatures and artifacts from imaginary historical incidents. These poems enact my own obsessions with information, research, and historic material. I like to write in the mornings before work.

I live only 10 minutes away from my office so I can get up at 6:45 and get at least an hour and a half in before I have to hop on my bike. What I usually do is read for a little bit and then work on a low-stakes poetry exercise. I recently moved from Pittsburgh to Harrisonburg and my writing partner from Pittsburgh and I exchange poetry exercises every two weeks. I hate poetry exercises because they force me to go off my plan and try something I wouldn’t normally do. So I actively seek them out. After the exercises, I’ll get to work on the project poems. I also  keep little stacks on index cards everywhere–next to my bed, on my desk at work, in my pannier bag, my purse, my car–so I can jot down things as they occur to me. I don’t know what I am going to do with those cards yet. I got the idea from reading Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary.”

My sources of inspiration have always been pretty heterogeneous. Anne Carson is a poet I return to a lot because she also combines other discourses (history, philosophy) into her poems and her poems can straddle the line between poetry and essays. Another book that has been really important to me is The Rape Poems by Frances Driscoll. I think it’s her only book, but it’s a knock out. I read pretty much constantly because I’m also a poetry critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I read about five books of poems a week. So recent books I’ve reviewed that I found inspirational/interesting/challenging: Sarah Fox’s First Flag, Lightsey Darst Dance, Heid Erdrich’s Cell Traffic, and Sun Yung Shin’s Rough, and Savage. My non-work-related book right now is Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno, but I’m not sure I like it.

Anabel Chong perhaps killing her porn persona

“Anabel Chong perhaps killing her porn persona”

I’ve been pretty obsessed with Feminist Frequency recently as well as with horror movies, copshows, and women in pop culture like Coco Austin and Annabel Chong. (So, yes, I have written poems while watching gangbangs. It’s really awful, but I feel like it’s important for me right now to lean into the things I find disturbing and terrible and sad about the way women are treated.

Hamilton collaborates with slugs

“Anne Hamilton sometimes collaborates with slugs”

A HUGE source of inspiration for me is visual art. I am constantly taking photos in museums(since we don’t have museums here!) or reading art books. I always have a note book with me in a museum. Artists I love are Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Anne Hamilton (I just saw an Anne Hamilton piece that included a vitrine with cabbages being eaten by slugs!), and Louise Bourgeois. Right now I am working on some poets based on Jindrich Heisler photocollagethings. It’s also enormously inspirational for me to read about artists’ processes. For example, seeing the film “Richter Painting” gave me a sense of freedom about relying on instinct rather than intellect. Also I try to write like Daft Punk says they play: “to the very edge of my ability.”

However the MOST important artist in my life right now is my sister Dorothy Hoover,with whom I have collaborated on a performance and a chapbook. She really inspires me because of her conceptual approach.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing with us about your journey as a writer and for letting us in on what you are working on now. I am excited to read your newest poems! You can find more about Elizabeth and order her beautiful chapbook at her website!

Naoko Fujimoto: poet, artist and the Japanese machine industry

I met Naoko at a poetry reading in an Irish pub in South Bend, IN. After the reading, we learned that we both lived in Chicago and decided we should meet in Chicago next time and save ourselves the two hour drive. She is a dazzling poet and in this interview shares a lot of insight into a writer’s life. You can find out more about Naoko and her writing and art on her blog

Naoko 021513 D

But first a little bio: Naoko was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. She came to America as an exchange student at Indiana University South Bend. There, she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. Currently, she works as a sales assistant in the Japanese machine industry to support her artistic pursuits.

Tell us, what do you write?

I write poetry and personal essays. My poetry is currently focused on the Japanese earthquake and following nuclear disaster. Before the earthquake happened, my focus was on war. My grandfather was in the navy in Hiroshima during World War II. He was a very quiet person; however, once a while, he rushed to speak about what he saw when the atomic bomb exploded. As Japanese poet, I have a passion to preserve how people live through those ongoing obstacles.  For my personal essays, I used to be a columnist in Indiana University South Bend’s college newspaper. The column series was called “Empty Suitcase.” The essays were about how an Asian exchange student survived American college life with a fork & knife over chopsticks. You may wonder, but they were not food critiques— though— I wrote about twizzler-astic experiments. Now I occasionally write personal essays for my blog.

Can you share a little about your writing process? 

I write everyday with a pen & paper and on the computer. My very first draft is written with both Japanese and English mixed in a notebook. I carry the notes everywhere like a yellow comfort blanket— just like a Linus from Snoopy. Once I am ready to formally write down a poem, I type it in English. For the final process, my husband proofreads my poem. He is a full-time industrial editor; however, we sometimes fight over his word choices, fixing former grammar, and comma rules. I scream, “You are destroying my poem!” even though he is right.

Who are the writers you return to for inspiration?

I like reading traditional literature and philosophic science articles in Japanese. Soseki Natsume (famous Japanese writer, 1867-1916) and Takeshi Yoro (doctor of anatomy at Tokyo Univ., 1937 – current) are my favorite authors. Natsume’s writing is funny in a kooky way even though he is writing about death. His sense of humor is like a ray of light in life. His writing teaches me that I cannot forget “hope” even though I am writing about tragedy. I read Yoro’s books when I need to think outside “common” sense. When I write a poem, I should be very flexible in American, Japanese, and other cultures. I want to write something that I can only create.  I also like “Firstborn” by Louise Glück, “Rose” by Li-Young Lee, “Internal West” by Priscilla Becker, “Rising” by Farrah Field.

So tell us more about being what you do for a living. 

I work as an inside sales support and translator in a Japanese-American company. I graduated in a horrible economic situation. All my college friends, including my husband, had really difficult times finding a job. Fortunately, I found a job through a Japanese agency and was hired.  For a long time I doubted my decision— should I be a starving artist?— However, I concluded that it is very important to have a secure environment financially and emotionally. It has been three years since graduation and I am finally happy where I am in my life.

However, it is tough to keep working in an office environment for artists or anybody; even though, I am paid with benefits. When I am upset, I try to think that I am in a business school with a full scholarship and allowance. I actually have learned a lot about business manners and rules— how to communicate with customers, decide work priorities, and have presentations with clear pronunciation! I am really thankful for my bosses. They understand my artistic characteristic and deal with me.

That business knowledge will help me when I become an established poet later.  Currently, I do not have any books; however, I want my readers to be happy when I sell my books. I would like to read my poems with proper pronunciation. And most importantly, I would like to entertain people through my art.

I recently opened a little art shop on Etsy.  I draw with soft pastels and colored pencils along with my poems. In addition, I am thinking to have a poetry and music reading concert again with a Russian-Estonian pianist sometime in the spring. We had a poetry concert about the Japanese tsunami last June in South Bend, IN.

For my dreams, I would like to create a poetry-musical-concert-theater-reading. I do not know how I am going to create one, but it is super-fun to think about that!

Thank you for sharing this insight and inspiration, Naoko. A mix-media art night sounds awesome. Keep up posted on this dream! 

I think Naoko makes an important point about whether it is nobler to be a starving artist or to create a stable, financially responsible lifestyle for yourself. Virginia Woolf weighed in on this conversation in A Room of One’s Own when she wrote, 

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write …

Jacarandas and JCL

Before embarking on my journey to midwest and MFAs, I lived with a good friend, JCL. One night she asked me to write a poem about jacarandas (amazing trees that bloom lavish periwinkle sticky) and I did. When I got to MFA school, I was nervously turned it in for my first workshop. Since then it has changed here, there, and back again. The poem, left in a drawer for many months,  was rediscovered and reburied. It came out from hiding long enough to find residence in a small Canadian lit journal whose clean layout caught my eye. Poems like people are always on the move. Currently, JCL is living in South Africa, I’m in Chicago and the poem is home in Canada. [Update: the Canadian Magazine is now defunct, and the poem lives here]

Jacarandas Bloom
for Jen Chi Lee

On 8th Street,
where the legless & drug-addicted

mumble pleading eyes
for the change in your pocket.

On Raymond Avenue,
where a teen shotandkilled

sparked retaliation gunfire & prayer,
we fast-forward to exhale:

gnarled branches set loose a purple-blue.
The sidewalk luminous with

this syrup, this bubble wrap. A water-
fall clipped to the trees,

who have not
forgotten it is Spring—

wring us out,
old dishrags, cleaned.

Prayer Flags

I was fortunate enough to come into contact with talented artist Gatis when I brought in Fine Art students to make broadsides for a poetry reading Indiana Review held last year.  He created a broadside for a Curtis Bauer poem.  After the event Gatis and I met up for coffee; I shared some of my poems with him and he sketched out ideas.

Later I visited the printing press, where artist and machines were buzzing away. It was fascinating to see the printing press at work. There is something more permanent about a poem when its words have hand set in metal typeface, and thin sheets of rice paper are lined up and ready to be hand-cranked through the press.

Gatis’ other work can be found at his website: http://rawtype.net/17059/rawtype