My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas presenting at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 Fall Literary Festival*

Love poetry or hate it (btw, you don’t really hate it), Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas is right there with you.

What’s it like to be a poet laureate? I asked Dave Lucas that–and more–in this interview over email. Here’s what the author, teacher, and “poetry evangelist” had to say.

Dave, how much does it mean for you to have been chosen as Poet Laureate of Ohio, and what’s up next for 2019?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would have said how honored I felt by the selection and how excited I was for the two years to come.  A year into my term I still feel honored and excited, but more than anything I feel gratitude.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see parts of my home state I’ve never visited before, to talk about poetry in such varied settings and with so many people for whom poetry is a way of making meaning of their lives.

In 2019 I hope to continue those travels, but I also hope to “meet” more Ohioans virtually through the “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” project.  The project entails a monthly column syndicated in Ohio newspapers and media outlets; this year we hope to create a podcast version as well, so that we can promote poetry in whatever medium Ohioans get their information and culture.

As Poet Laureate, I imagine you’ve met many Ohioans in your travels around the state. What has surprised you most?

I’ve certainly been struck by the number and quality of poetry programs taking place at the regional and local levels.  These are workshops, reading groups, recitations, slams, and more, and I’ve encountered them everywhere I’ve traveled in Ohio.  The internet has of course been revolutionary for bringing people together around a common interest, but there’s something wonderful about seeing people gather in common physical space to talk about poetry.

In your Poet Laureate column on the Ohio Arts Council site, as well as in the classroom, you send the message that most of us love poetry, even if we don’t know it yet. Can you talk a little about how you define poetry and give us a couple examples of the kinds of poetic language we can find outside of what we traditionally think of as poetry?

Literary history tells us that anyone who attempts to define poetry today is about to be proven wrong tomorrow.  That’s both the pleasure and challenge of trying to say what poetry is or isn’t.  So I try to maintain as broad and flexible a definition as possible.  I think that poetry is the aesthetic pleasure we take in language.  Words are for play as well as work, as the groan-worthy puns of any good “Dad joke” will demonstrate.

So puns and jokes in general might be examples of the poetry we find outside of “poems.”  So are the metaphors we use to describe the world.  Riddles, jingles, lyrics, mnemonics, and more.  For instance, I’ve just finished a column (my sixth installment) about the artistry of slang, which Walt Whitman treats as the democratic aspect of poetry.  In this column I argue that even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, you participate every day in the artistry of language simply via the creativity of the slang you use.

One of the daunting things about poetry is the idea that we poetry readers think we’re supposed to read it “right” and find buried meaning. How can you assuage our reader-guilt at perhaps understanding a poem only on its surface level?

Too many of us seem to have been taught that poems are supposed to be solved, some “deeper meaning” discovered and extracted like a vein of ore from a mine.  If we can’t find “it”—or if we find something that we’re told is not “it,” we feel inadequate.

Let’s change the terms.  For example: you hear a song for the first time.  You don’t get all the words, but you like it enough as a whole—its rhythm, its sounds, how it makes you feel, etc.—that you want to hear it again.  You don’t feel guilty about not getting all the words; you just want to listen a second or even a third time.  You keep listening.  Eventually, you get all the words, often before you’ve realized it.

Your poetry collection, Weather, begins with place poems.

“River on Fire”
Stranger, the way of the world is crooked,
and anything can burn. Nothing impossible.
Who comes to send fire upon the earth may find
as much already kindled, may find his city
bistre and sulfurous. Pitched and grimed.
On those suffered banks we sat down and wept.
There the prophets, if there had been prophets,
would have baptized us in fire. Who says impossible
they fill his mouth with ash, they quench him
as if a man could be made steel. A crooked way
the world wends, and the rivers, and the prophets.
Go down and tell them what you have seen:
that the river burned and was not consumed.

…and your collection ends with a poem that examines the language we use for Northeast Ohio’s natural landmark of Lake Erie. How did you decide how to order the collection: as an argument for or against something, as a journey from one time to another, from the external to the personal–or something else entirely?

As you mention, the book begins and ends with the lake.  (Of course, it shows up in the middle of the book, too.)  For me, the lake—or my idiosyncratic idea or myth of it—is what Seamus Heaney calls “the first place in myself.”  So I wanted to begin in that place and with local flora and fauna before moving into the human and even personal histories of (or in) the region. The whole book is an attempt to marry those different histories and mythologies into a coherent vision of place.

Your newer poems center around myth. Can you tell us how the new collection is shaping up and where we can find one of the poems?

The new collection has been “done” several times now.  I assume the writers among your blog’s readers will nod and sigh in recognition of what I mean.  I hope it will be “done”—again—soon.

You can read “About Suffering—,” my take on the myth (and on other takes) of Icarus and Daedalus at the online home of The Threepenny Review.

Do you see poetry changing along with our digital age, with the Instapoets (poets who feature their poems on Instagram), for example? What do you think about it?

The Instagram phenomenon is interesting to me because “Instapoetry” blends forms and genres: you experience the poem as a photograph of the poem.  So you get an experience of the poem as a visual artifact, something different from what you might experience at a reading or a performance.  It’s a reminder of just how many ways we can experience language, and the subtle differences between one experience and another.

What’s your best piece of poetry-writing advice?

The only piece of advice that I believe to be true for anyone who wants to write (poems, or anything else)—no matter who they are or what they want for their writing—is to read as much as possible, to read enthusiastically and omnivorously.

Thank you to Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas for giving us a lot to read and think about!

Find out more about Dave Lucas…

Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 

And more…

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*Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger

Rounding Up the Best Reads of 2018

No, not beach reads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Revived from my Thanksgiving food coma, my family made our almost annual trek to the beach for off-season rates on a boardwalk-front room, rainy trips to the arcade (we can all agree on skee ball), and reading to the tune of some pretty good surf (or so I was told).

With November and its captive, NaNoWriMo, losing their grip, I turn to logging some of my best reads of 2018, including Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas’s book of poems called Weather, which (trust me) is a perfect name for a collection including many place poems set in Northeast Ohio. (More on this poet soon, I hope.)

Seems I’m “on” again with poetry, a reading practice which helps the fiction flow. But I haven’t stopped mooning over my fave novel I read this year, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which I talked about here. (Expecting some kind of twice-tolling timepiece this year, Santa!)

So when my favorite writing- and book-blogger from New Zealand, Kim at Writer Side of Life, asked for 2018 fave books, I couldn’t resist singing the praises of that very Gentleman. Here is Kim’s entire list of Bloggers’ Picks: Best Reads of 2018, which includes historical and modern novels, the literary and popular, a memoir and even a murder. Of that list, I’ve read three–including Charles Frazier’s Varina, which I talked about here and Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, which I…um…didn’t. What would you add to this Best Reads list? Comment here or on my Facebook page.

And since we’re heading into gifting season, what are your fave books to gift–for children and adults?

*For those of you who pay attention to my nonsense, my new muse in stone (likely actually Zeus or Heracles/Hercules) has been (diplomatically) dubbed: Grateful Edgar deVacca and titled muse of resourceful NaNo writers everywhere. (More on NaNo lessons learned coming soon…)

3 Reasons to Connect with Your Creative Community; 3 Words of Thanks; 3 Inspiring Writers

The writing life is often, necessarily, an isolated one. To create a world on paper (or screen) takes holing ourselves up, cutting ourselves off from the myriad distractions of modern life.

For our writing to matter to anyone outside our own heads, however, we must connect.

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3 good reasons to connect with your creative community:

To find readers: Not surprisingly, most of the followers of this blog are other bloggers; the readers of my short fiction are other writers. You will find readers in writers, and v.v.

To research that next WIP: Let’s not research entirely online (pleads this former college composition instructor). Speaking of research, heartfelt Kiiitos paljon (Thanks a lot!) to all the wonderful folks at the Finnish Heritage Museum and to Lasse Hiltunen, president, in particular for the wonderful tour and background information on everything Finnish! (If you ever find yourself near Fairport Harbor, Ohio, don’t miss this gem of a museum.) Lesson-learned: take your research on-site, when you can.

 

To gain inspiration: How inspiring is that library carrel? As delightful as isolation can be, even the most introverted writer needs to get “out there” once in a while.

While online writing communities and critique groups, library databases and catalogues have been invaluable to my perspective, there’s no substitute for the in-the-flesh writing community.

I’m a writer interested in exploring place, specifically the U.S. Rust Belt (more specifically, Ohio), and yet I no longer live in that place. No, the irony isn’t lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog–to connect with readers and writers and photographers in my native place.

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But virtual connection is not enough. Sometimes one has to be boots-on-the-ground there. And so, after some preparation to make the most of the conference, I drove my proverbial boots the five-and-a-half hours to attend Lit Youngstown’s 2nd Annual Literary Festival this past weekend. 3 inspiring festival highlights–not just to plug this literary festival (but do come next year, if you’re in the area; I plan to) but every and all such excuses to communally share our stories:

Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate and author of Weather: Poems, presented a piece about the mythic in poetry for an audience of fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and poets. (Poetry not your thing? I get that, and have talked about my on-again-off-again relationship with poetry. But Lucas is all about finding the poetic in the everyday; he talks about that here–from about minute 8 on).

Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of the amazing short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, read a few of her stories and graciously shared a little from her formative years. Arimah told a story about visiting the public library in summer with her sister, where they would each check out the max amount of books–50–and when finished with her tower, trade, and read her sister’s. Sure, Arimah read literature with a capital “L”, she joked; but she also read romance novels and fantasy, and continues to do so today–and her literary short fiction is all the more playful and magical because of it.

Jon Kerstetter, read from his memoir, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, which chronicles a life begun in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin to a life in business before Kerstetter pursued his dream of becoming a physician. When his days as an emergency doctor weren’t proving exciting enough, he volunteered for tours as an emergency military medic. After three tours in Iraq, Kerstetter returned to the U.S., injured, but this was only the start of his stateside struggles, as he suffered a stroke–leading to his reinvention as an author through the writing of his life’s story.

 

Inspiration abounded at this literary conference–and not just from the big names but from the poems and stories bravely shared by writers at all stages at open-mic and in conversation.

Me, I braved the mic to read a flash fiction piece of mine set not far from where we sat, amid the rolling hills and history of Northeastern Ohio. I also took part in a publishing panel to extol the virtues of connecting through traditional and nontraditional publishing, including sites like this blog–when we can’t connect in person.

And today I returned to my writing desk feeling inspired and connected in a meaningful way to the stories of home. Thanks a lot to all who made it happen!

Have you done the conference thing–for writing, blogging, or anything else? What are the benefits to in-the-flesh arts and literary communities?

Are you a Rust Belt author, blogger, or photographer? I’m always looking for stories to share.

 

*Photos from top down are of Youngstown, Ohio, buildings, the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, and interior shots of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngtown, where the Arimah and Kerstetter readings were held.

 

 

 

 

Making the most of a literary conference…with a card and a queen

On my writing desk sits a small box filled with even smaller business cards I ordered for the Literary Festival I will be attending next month. These cards are, in effect, the professional “me.” On one side is listed my freelance biz; on the other (shown below) my creative writing credentials.

My two-sided business card mirrors the divided roles I play in this writing life of mine. This is the gig economy in action, folks, and I am a 2 inch-by-3 inch fraud. OK, no, there are no untruths on my business card, but still I feel like a fake sometimes.

It’s natural, self-doubt–especially when pulled in many directions–and inherent in this introverted writer. But business cards? Networking? I mean, networking is no less than 5,000 miles away from my natural habitat. So, what to do to make the most of my time at a literary (or any other kind of) conference?

Come along for the ride…

First, strike a power pose. What does that look like for an introverted writer? Particular pose aside, power-posing is all about boosting your confidence and is key to overcoming “imposter syndrome,” says super-talented career coach and humor blogger, Becca–who encourages those of us who unjustly feel like frauds to “Fake It ‘Till You Become It.”

OK, so I’ve got my business card. And practiced body language (time to break out the full-length mirror I don’t have!).

Second, follow a three-tier plan for getting what I want out of this conference (and by extension this writing life, but…baby steps).

Let’s be clear, I’m attending this festival for the backside (ahem), the creative side of me. With so many talks, readings, and panel discussions to choose from, I need to choose wisely to return home not exhausted but ready to write.

Craft: outside of an online writing workshop or two, it’s been a good while since I took part in a proper fiction workshop, so this tops my list of must-dos.

Connect: one big reason I started Rust Belt Girl was to connect with writers writing from and about the post-industrial Midwest, and I’ll have ample opportunity at this Ohio event; I also hope to meet a few of the many literary journal editors who will be there–always helpful to hear what they’re looking for in submissions.

Soak it in: with a schedule full of creative readings–from poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers–I hope to come away inspired enough by the stories of others to return, re-energized, to my own.

And then there are the side-perks of discovering a city I’ve never visited before and of being close enough to an Ohio site I want to research for my WIP that I can make the weekend a two-fer.

But, even before that, there’s the preparation*, and I don’t just mean packing “serious writer” outfits and a wrap for cool conference rooms. And, of course, having my own stuff together for my creative reading and appearance on a panel about publishing from the writer’s perspective. I mean reading up: not just writer bios, but the book of collected stories from the keynote speaker, Leslie Nneka Arimah; and poems from the Ohio poet laureate, Dave Lucas.

Many thanks to super-knowledgeable blogger, Lorna, at Gin & Lemonade for helping me to develop this plan for slaying it (insert power pose here) at the literary festival and for passing along this post with helpful tips for making the most of a conference as an introvert: “Breathe” is a good one to remember. So is: “Grab People’s Business Cards.”

If all else fails, I’ll just summon my inner Ally McBeal–yep, showing my age here–and come to the literary festival ready with an inspirational song in my head.

With the recent death of Aretha Franklin, followed by the singer’s Detroit funeral that included a procession of 130 pink Cadillacs (more details on that here), I thought I’d take a confidence cue from the Queen of Soul. So many powerful songs: “Respect,” “A Natural Woman.”

My fave: “I Say a Little Prayer”

Have any tips to share for making the most of a conference–literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear them!

*Update: One more item to prepare before a conference–literary or otherwise: the 30-second elevator pitch. Do you have one? “It’s a good idea to have one of these prepared for your art,” says poet and former marketing executive Danielle Hanson, in a wonderfully-informative article in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which is pretty much the bible for literary writers. Your elevator pitch should answer the question: What do you do?

Here’s my working elevator pitch: I write fiction. I’m interested in exploring the idea of the American Dream in place–both during wartime and at peace. My historical novel manuscript explores lives on the WWII home-front and tells the largely unknown story of the internment of Italians in America during that time. My short stories explore the contemporary American Rust Belt, with many set in my native Ohio. I also blog at Rust Belt Girl to connect with authors, photographers, and readers in the region and beyond. There I feature discussions on “ruin porn,” author interviews, and my own craft essays, drawn from my experiences as a writer and as a former college writing instructor.

What do you think? What am I missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Poetry…

Dear poetry,

It’s not you. Really. You’re great, if sometimes hard to read.

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Sun setting on my poetry romance (er, over Lake Erie)

OK, poetry and I were never very serious. But I want to try, try again.

Last year, a great friend (and great poet) turned me on to Marie Howe (the Stevie Nicks of poetry, am I right?) through several of Howe’s poems from her book What the Living Do and this amazing interview from On Being. I listened to that interview with Howe (the former Poet Laureate of New York) over and over, thinking, if I can “get” the poet, I can “get” the poems. She’s a woman, a mother; she was raised Catholic. Check, check, and check. I’m still working through her Magdalene, from which the poem “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” may be my fave. Do I get every single reference? Probably not? Do I still feel like a fiction writer in poet’s clothing? Sorta.

I don’t expect you to be easy, poetry. Really, I’m trying to meet you halfway here.

I recently came across the work of Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas, who grew up in Northeastern Ohio, like this girl. Check. And he had something interesting to say about writing about place:

For a lot of writers, there’s a realization: I can write about where I’m from, about what I know.

He says more in this interview here about “de-mystifying” poetry and about liking food and beer. Check and check.

I mean, we’re on the same wavelength now, poetry and me.

I’m looking forward to hearing Lucas read at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. Here’s Lucas reading his poems “Midwestern Cities” and “River on Fire” from his 2012 book Weather. I’m also hoping I can get up the gumption to see if he’ll answer a few questions for the ol’ blog here!

If I imagine you in your underwear, poetry, maybe I won’t feel so unworthy.

Humor can be an entry to literature, even poetry. Right?

I saw the poet Billy Collins read several years ago. My twin boys were infants and I remember feeling so free–and literary–leaving my brand new, screaming offspring with my sleep-deprived husband to hear poetry at a downtown theater by myself. Collins is a huge deal, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, the “most popular poet in America.” Is he read by “serious” poets; I don’t know. He’s read by me. The Rain in Portugal. Come on, that’s brilliant.

Is Collins funny and wise? He was that day, as much as I needed those things, sitting alone in that theater, contemplating the senior citizens around me who’d raised their kids and made it to older age with their sanity intact, it seemed.

The poet smiled and rubbed his bald head and read poems about his cat. I like cats. Check.

Maybe I’m the one who’s easy, poetry. Let’s try again!

First poem you loved? Last poem you read? And…go!

 

Like this post? Give a girl a “share.” Thanks! ~ Rebecca

*image my own