Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Sharon Coleman’s a fifth-generation Northern Californian. She writes for Poetry Flash, co-curates the reading series Lyrics & Dirges, co-directs the Berkeley Poetry Festival. She’s the author of a chapbook Half Circle and a book of micro-fiction, Paris Blinks. Her recent publications appear in Your Impossible Voice, White Stag, Ambush Review.
She’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart and once for a micro award for blink fiction.
She’s taught composition, poetry writing, creative writing, and college success at Berkeley City College for 15 years and directs their art and literary journal, Milvia Street.
She was a finalist for the Luso-American Fellowship for the Disquiet Literary Conference in Lisbon.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I simply gravitated to it. As a young person, I loved the rhythms and sounds, compactness and surprise. My older siblings and I used to make up all kinds of things to describe our world and make fun of it in the way that many children do until language is more about conforming than inventing. I read a lot of novels as a teen but ultimately found writing fiction a bit boring and predictable, though I’ve more recently picked it up again. There are interesting experiments in fiction to explore and I don’t think that every story has already been told. But I still gravitate to poetry and then creative nonfiction (a popular second love for poets.)
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I was first introduced through children’s books, most of which are written poetically. One such book was Spooky Rhymes and Riddles published by Scholastic. My older sister used to read that book to me with a different voice for the various poems and characters before I went to sleep. In high school, I was introduced to e.e. cummings and Edgar Allen Poe by my freshman English instructor, who had us memorize a poem and present it in front of the class. I began writing poetry throughout high school on my own.
Poetry also entered my dreams: during an afternoon nap, I dreamed of reading a long poem I had written and woke up remembering only the last line, “When my shadows get up and go good-bye.” It was clear that my poetic task would be to re-create the entire poem in my waking life.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Older poets have never had a “dominating” presence for me. Most of the older poets I know and have known have been very encouraging, suggesting books to read and places to send work and other advice. I’ve learned a lot about our local Bay Area poetry history through them. I have become very aware of the dominating arrogance of some poets in academia, of some in-crowd poets outside academia, of careerists, of the poetry industry, of prizes and awards. But I’ve become more acutely aware of how poets who have had an upward battle against sexism and racism and the old guard in the 60s and 70s can replicate similar barriers against the next generation. Our poetry scenes are still marked, even structured, by tokenism and compartmentalisation. I just read a book of poetry by a young white male (nominated for an award and published by Princeton Press) that contains a poem condoning base sexual harassment of women—and those that nominated it either simply didn’t notice or didn’t care. Or maybe because they nominated an otherwise diverse collection of books and authors, they felt this was ok. Fifty years later, it’s still an upward battle.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I wish I had a daily writing routine. I’ve tried to develop one, but I have too much other work teaching. Mine is a weekly writing routine in which ideas marinate over the week, and Friday or Saturday evenings, I either write a new poem or do a deep revision for my Sunday workshop. I carry a small notebook for ideas that come to me at any time of day.
5. What motivates you to write?
The desire to put into tangible form the insolite of experience. This is a term used by surrealists to express the manifestation of the mystery of the subconscious and of the collective unconscious in daily life. It means being poetically attentive to one’s surroundings at all times, which because I work, I cannot always do, but I try to. I write for coming generations to know what it means to live in this place and time, filtered through my historical perspective. I write to complete projects, to have a book or other publication, to physically hand over to another to experience.
6. What is your work ethic?
I try to not replicate the subtle linguistic constructions of racism, sexism, ethno-centrism, ableism, etc. that linger in our language even when we take a stance against them. This requires never-ending interrogation, learning, deep listening. As George Oppen said, words are never wholly transparent, and this is the heartlessness of words.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I began reading George Orwell when I was about thirteen, beginning with 1984. My writing engages the political on different fronts. From James Baldwin and Carson McCullers, I look for the psychological depths that form and are formed by social hierarchies. From Hunter S. Thompson, I learned to keep far away from highly entitled drug enthusiasts.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many writers today whom I highly admire, most come from demographics that have not had much voice in the literary world. They have a strong understanding of many elements that have made them who they are and have deep multicultural understanding of our communities. I admire writers who don’t stay in one aesthetic or genre, who explore form as much as meaning. In the 90s, there was a huge divide between experimental and more traditional poets. This was not about thinking but rather about waging war. Today on the West Coast, the divide has been crossed many times and is dissolving; on the East Coast, the divide is stronger. In the 90s, I just followed my own way and was not popular on either side, being too narrative for the experimental poets and too elliptical for the traditional ones. I admire the many other poets who have forged their own poetics through these two camps like Brian Teare, John Isles, Mk Chavez, James Cagney, and many others.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I write for mental clarity, to somehow put into words the almost inexpressible. I write to explore language(s) and their unexpected capacities. I write for historical understanding. I write for the personal pride of seeing published pieces I’ve worked hard on and believe in. I also do other things that are very fulfilling.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read. Write. Learn craft, process, and technique. Really learn craft, process, and technique. Never stop exploring craft, process, and technique. Find or create literary communities. Give to those communities.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I am currently finishing a book-length poetic sequence set in the house in which I grew up, the drama within the family, the transformation of the landscape and people of the area. When I was about six, my family moved into a wreck of a house in an otherwise idyllic suburban neighbourhood in a city south of San Francisco. It had been the farmhands’ house when the area had been a dairy farm. And another house had been added to it, forming a two-story house. One of my sisters said it had the “public uglies.” Yet it provided all four siblings with their own small room, and my parents fixed it up very well. Later, my father was told this was the dairy farm he had work at when he was eighteen. The place had changed so much that he didn’t recognize it.
The series is written in ten to eleven sections of four to seven poems. Each poem is nine lines, justified both right and left and with many caesura or spaces within the line. The narratives are multiple and fragmented and flow according to association, braiding in and out of each other. This series has been an exciting and painstaking exploration of form. I am very thankful to my writing group, the Green Heart Collective, for being the literary midwives of this project. Here is an early version of series’ beginning: http://www.yourimpossiblevoice.com/spinning-vinyl/