“I return to these scraps during the day and type them…”

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

In my first days in Bloomington, Indiana, where I had just moved to go to school for my MFA, I met Luke Hankins. He spoke deliberately and with a bit of southern drawl, and he taught me that the building where most of our days were to be spent was called Ballantine, which rhymes with Valentine (not with trampoline, as I had mistakenly been pronouncing it). Besides making the world a more grammatically-correct and well-pronounced place, Luke is devoted to the craft of poetry and machine of writing, that is editing and publishing, the needful things to get writing to readers. He is the founding editor of Orison Books, a “literary press which is focused on the life of the spirit from a broad range of perspectives” and which has a prize for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  You can find links to his work and learn more about Luke at his website.  Below, Luke was generous enough to share a little bit about his writing and working life. Read on and be inspired.

What do you write?

I primarily write poetry, but also essays and book reviews, and I also translate Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s French language poetry. In fact, my next book, The Work of Creation (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming Jan. 2016) is a collection of prose pieces in various genres (literary criticism, personal essays, meditations on art and literature, etc.). I also hope to start writing a memoir focused on my religious upbringing and eventual evolution out of traditional religion over the next few years.

How do you write it?  Continue reading

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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!

Adventures with Poet Christopher Citro

Sarah, Chris and thier cat in the backyard

Sarah, Christopher and their cat in the backyard

I wanted to find a way to celebrate National Poetry Month on my blog,  yet it is April 17, and this is my first post. Luckily, this post is a celebratory one! It contains an awesome interview with Christopher Citro, who lets us into his rigorous writing life and adventurous temp jobs in Syracuse, NY.

Christopher is friend and colleague from Indiana University. I had the pleasure of first meeting him on a road trip from Bloomington, IN for Chicago for AWP. In Chicago, as I remember it, Christopher fortuitously ran into a long-lost cousin on the sidewalk. In all workshops, classes, lectures, and rooms where I saw Christopher again surprising coincidences were often unfolding. On his website you can find his full bio and links to his published works. I encourage you to check it out, because coming to the last line of a Christopher Citro poem is waking from enjoyable dream–you want to linger in the enthralling imagery and emotion, the depth of imagination and humor. One reading, one poem is never enough.

In the following interview, Christopher gives us a snapshot (in words and photos!) of his life and a great deal of insight in to a writer’s life, temp jobs, and empathy as underlying force of poetry.  Interestingly enough, this interview provides a great contrast to last month’s interview with Naoko, and like all the interviews so far, its inspiring. So read on, dear reader!

Can you tell us a little bit about what you write? or how you write? Are there writers you return to or other sources of inspiration you seek out regularly?

I write poems. Or I try to, at any rate.

To speak concretely, I’m currently at work on poems for my second manuscript. (My first, The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy, is still unpublished, but why wait?) After leaving graduate school two years ago, my partner Sarah and I spent five nervous months living off our savings in an apartment above Main Street in a small southern Ohio village near my family while we waited for one of us to get a job to take us somewhere. With nothing but free time–and Amish buggies clopping by at 4 a.m. outside our windows–I thought to myself, if I don’t use this opportunity to get into a serious post-MFA writing groove then I’m a fool.

So I did. I set up a regular morning writing schedule along with my pint of Darjeeling. I sat in a window, listening to Lee Morgan’s 1966 album The Rajah on my headphones, and writing for an hour two each morning. This ended up being one of the most fruitful writing periods in my recent life and produced the bulk of the poems which are forming my new manuscript.

I also made a writing webpage for myself. I debated doing so for weeks, as it felt kind of silly and narcissistic at first, but I’m glad it did it. If you’re not teaching, it can be hard for editors and people to find you. I’ve found that a webpage for my writing has helped me with receiving solicitations and making connections with fellow writers over the last couple years that I don’t think I could have done otherwise.

In addition to Darjeeling tea, and Lee Morgan’s jazz, my other sources of inspiration included the life of the town outside my window, the golden slide of summer into autumn, and a revolving selection of poems which I’d dug out of some of our moving boxes for inspiration. I leafed through recent copies of Indiana Review. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs was a major companion, especially for his speed and sense of rhythm and movement down the page. I started reading the poetry of Matthew Zapruder and Tony Tost, along with old favorites like Wallace Stevens, Jim Harrison, Mary Ruefle, and D. Nurkse.

Since moving to Syracuse, where Sarah eventually found a job, I’ve continued working on my second book, revising the poems begun in Ohio, creating new ones, and listening to the poems as they suggest what shape the book as a whole might eventually take. It’s a rather inchoate thing right now. And I think that’s good for now. My Ohio poems are a pile of throbbing stem cells, only just beginning to specialize into the organs and systems of a new book. And I keep making new ones to add to the heap.

When you write in the mornings for two hours, does that include revising poems, or only generating new material. Do you have  favorite time of day or regimented way to make sure you are sending out your poems to magazines?

The simple answer is: when I’m writing I generally write new poems in the morning and revise/submit at night. Every poem I write is the result of free-writing–an intuitive, unplanned pouring of words onto the page–and I have found that as I get older my brain is more limber and likely to make interesting, energetic leaps if I write shortly after waking.

I’m sort of always revising: in my head with new poems or poems I’ve been struggling with, in the margins of my handwritten journal where I write my first drafts, while typing the handwritten drafts into my computer, with printouts taped to the wall, or when I open poems up on my computer throughout the day.

When I’m in a writing groove, which is most of the time, after Sarah goes to sleep I’ll spend an hour or two or more revising and sometimes submitting. I’ll spend time working on my submission spreadsheet, researching new journals, revisiting old ones, looking for submission calls, reading online journals, reading book and journal reviews, and just generally splashing around in the rich digital waters of contemporary literature. Then when my fingers get all wrinkly and waterlogged, I turn everything off, pour myself a nightcap and read from a book of poems or whatever novel I’m in the middle of. To an outsider, this probably looks like obsessive behavior. To me, an insider, it’s clearly obsessive behavior. And I love it.

What do you do besides write (to pay the bills)? How did you end up doing that? and how does it influence/interfere/inspire your writing life?

If I were on my own, finance-wise, I’d probably be in the gutter, or curled up muttering in a fetal position in a loving family member’s attic. Since finishing my MFA program, I’ve been largely unemployed. Thankfully, I have a caring and generous partner who has a good job which more or less keeps us and our cat in Tender Vittles, chicken thighs, and whisky. I have very few expenses and have stripped down what I need to live to the bare minimum. Living as a graduate student helped this process, but living even broker subsequently has really tightened things.

Job-wise, upon arriving here, I signed up at half a dozen local temp agencies which have found me a total of two jobs for two months in the last year.

Dismantling the tech center

Dismantling the tech center

The first one was a manual labor job helping to dismantle a cell phone tower installation tech center. The supervisor let us take a some of what was left in the office, so I got a nice leatherette desk chair, some unused sticky notes, a ladder, and a case or two of printer paper which I use for printing poems. I’m not sure what I’ll use the ladder for. From the supervisor, a pompous and unsettling old man from Chicago, I got an interesting anecdote which I wove into a poem I was working on at the time.

Delivery job - Wampsville, NY

Delivery job – Wampsville, NY

Over this last winter, I worked as a delivery person for a compounding pharmacy, filling in for a driver who’d had a heart attack. I motored all over central New York, making deliveries inside the homes and basements of the very rich and profoundly poor. The only common dominator was that everyone was, or had someone in the family who was, seriously and gravely ill. One minute I’d be in a glittering mansion on the shores of a Finger Lake, and immediately after in a rusty trailer with an obese man with one leg telling me it’s a good thing I don’t knock like a county sheriff. (I made a mental note to be sure never to do this.)

Delivery job - Oswego, NY

Delivery job – Oswego, NY

The view into the homes of my fellow humans here was actually quite moving. I can’t say at all in what ways it has already or might enter my writing, as that kind of thing often takes time for me, if it happens at all. Memories and experiences pop up in poems quite unexpectedly after months and years. And in general I like to write from my sheer imagination, rather than as a form of nonfiction notation. My own penchant for recording the details of my life meant that for most of this delivery job I kept an audio diary while driving between deliveries, and took lots of pictures along the road. I may use these someday for an essay. As far as my poetry goes, I imagine the things I saw (hand guns strewn between cereal boxes on dinner tables, an old lady who couldn’t get out of bed so she kept her bed in the kitchen, charming couples caring for one another as best they can) will find a way in one way or another. If for nothing else, it’s been a serious anti-cynicism aid and a push to maintain the kind of empathy without which good poems don’t really come alive.

Whether or not I’m working I always make it a point to keep writing–and I’m usually pretty good at this. When I have free time, it’s a joy to lose myself in the dream world for days on end. When I am busy working 40-plus hours a week, it’s a way I keep my sense of self and my enthusiasm amid exhaustion and the sadness of using the most productive hours of your day to create things for someone else instead of making poems for yourself.

Though I’m not working in academia these days, I’d ultimately like to return. I miss teaching very much, and rewarding jobs in publishing are thin on the ground here in Syracuse. Of colleges and universities there are a-plenty.

Winter never ends in syracuseIn the meantime, I do whatever temp jobs I can find, hope I don’t get sick (no health insurance)  and write as much as I can. I also make sure to submit my work fairly regularly. Being broke, I haven’t been able to afford to submit my first book to many presses, as they almost all charge, even for open reading periods. But I’ve found a few. And I try to keep sending poems out to journals. I pet my cat a lot. I read. I cook strengthening and nutritious dinners for me and Sarah. I look out the windows and wonder if it’ll ever stop snowing.

5-9: Ellis Felker, poet and owner of Red Oak Publishers

I am excited to post the interview of the first contributor to my blog series 5-9 which asks poets and writers who are working outside of academia what they do and how they do it. With this series I hope to create a place of dialogue for writers pursuing their craft away from the ivory towers.

I live for the colors of the morning! — Ellis Felkerellis-felker-2012

Ellis Felker is a poet and owner of an independent greeting card company. He is the author of several volumes of poetry which he published through his company. I recently asked him a few questions about his writing and his career.

Alessandra Simmons: What do you write?

Ellis Felker: I write daily journal entries, poetry, short essays and dreams.

AS: Who are the authors your are likely to return to for inspiration or other sources of inspiration?

EF: Depok Chopra and Henri Nouwen.
AS: I’ve also enjoyed reading Henri Nouwen. When did you first read him? Do you have a favorite title?
EF: I first read Henri Nouwen about thirty years ago when my printer was publishing a little book of his. My favorite title is: The Inner Voice of Love. I am now reading a short biography of his called : Genius Born of Anguish. Poor Henri. He never overcame his harsh Catholic upbringing. And he never embraced the fact that he was gay. He clung to the Church until the bitter end.
AS: Tell us more about the work you do outside of writing. 
EF: I own a greeting card company called Red Oak Publishers. I edit art and take photographs for the company. I also do marketing and sales.
AS: Owning a card publishing company sounds like creative and all encompassing work. I’m intrigued. How did you come into that kind of work?

EF: I started my card company 31 years ago. I was taking great photographs and I wanted to share them with the world. I always would rather sell one hundred photos at a dollar each than one photo at one hundred dollars. Again, I had my own vision and I could find no publisher who shared that vision. Out of nowhere I inherited some money. That was the seed money for my card company. I had a vision and a destiny to fulfill and I knew that only I could do it.

AS: What is the most rewarding part of the job? What is your least favorite part?

EF:  The most rewarding part of my card company is taking or finding new images that sell to the public. And that move and influence them. I love selling the card I shot of an archway in Ireland. It is a sympathy card that I have probably sold 10,000 of. I also love the printing of new cards on my printers new digital press. The worst part of my job is all the business and marketing and constant selling. It sometimes fries my poet’s brain! Luckily I have a very good sales director who helps me. Without him I could not run this thing.

AS: How does your profession influence/inspire/interrupt your writing or How do you manage your writing life alongside your professional life?

EF: I blend the two together as much as possible but running my own card company can get mentally overwhelming at times. I sometimes feel split between poetry and business.  Yet some of my writing does end up on my cards. It is still all “me” afterall.  I do wish I had more time to write but that will have to wait a few more years when I sell my card company. I hope I will be “freer” then!?!

AS: Tell me, how did you decided to go the self-publishing route? 

EF: [My poems] are all self-published. I started my own publishing company because I couldn’t find another publisher to publish me. And I felt I could have more control if I published my books myself. Greeting cards too. All I had to do was to come up with my company name (Red Oak Publishers) and hire a printer. Pretty easy. No rejection. Total control.

AS: That sounds great that you can use your writing in your professional work. Can you share an example?

EF: My all-time best selling card (about 30,000) has a photo I took of one of our kittens and below it my words that say: I once asked a four year old what the secret of life was. “Feed the kitties,” she said. “Feed the kitties.” A true story!

AS: Thanks Ellis! I love hearing about your career and writing. It takes a lot of thought and faith to start your own company! Thanks for sharing your story with me and the readers of this blog!