To celebrate the inaugural Riddled with Arrows ARS POETICA PRIZE, we conducted a triptych of meta–esque interviews with three poets at very different stages of their literary careers: Ars Poetica 2018 guest judge and celebrated poet Jeannine Hall Gailey; Holly Lyn Walrath, whose debut poetry chapbook Glimmerglass Girl was recently featured in Vida: Women in the Literary Arts; and Andrew Laurence Graney, a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program. You can read more about the poets and their projects here.
On Loving Poetry
When did you first meet poetry?
JHG: Oh, I’ve been writing (and memorizing) poetry since I was a little kid. I won a poetry recitation contest in fifth grade and got a huge hardback poetry book as a prize – I think it was Emily Dickinson’s Collected. That started me on a thirty-five year path of loving reading and writing poetry.
HLW: I was maybe fourteen, sitting outside the crappy pizza joint across from my high school, where I often went to wait for my mom to pick me up after school. I think I was scribbling in my journal, you know, the kind of dreams and chapstick-scented hopes at that age. Maybe I was in love, or maybe just as lonely as only a teenager can be, when poetry came up to me. She had this lopsided grin on her face and she was wearing a cloak made of stars. Her face was cracked and two-toned like a faded map you might find rolled up in a scroll, hidden under the porch stairs in a dusty box buried in the dirt.
ALG: Playing basketball as a kid. I was writing a poem for my MFA program when I realized that fact. As I say in the poem, “Before I loved language, it revealed // poetry: missed shots were bricks. Defense / was traffic. Threes came from downtown. / The ball was the rock.” I didn’t know what metaphors were then, but they were part of my everyday parlance. Also, basketball gave me direction; poetry gives me direction. I felt at home on the court; I feel at home inside a poem.
What was the first thing poetry said to you?
JHG: For some reason I was a big fan of irony and sarcasm in poetry – you know, Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and e.e. cummings “anyone lives in a pretty how town.” I also learned to write in persona early on – thank Eliot for that – and love to use humor when I can, even with serious subjects.
HLW: She opened her mouth full of sharp things, universes and promises and red pocket knives, and I think she sang a little Leaves of Grass, or maybe even some Seuss. I knew her then. It was like I’d always known her, but mostly because she said this: I believe in you and I’ll always be here for you. It was a lie, but it made me feel better. It made me feel like one day I could aspire to be as cool as poetry.
ALG: “Isn’t this fun? Isn’t language fun?” Before I knew much, or anything, in the way of craft, before I had any kind of vision or took writing seriously, it was simply fun to play with language.
What annoys you about poetry?
JHG: I don’t get annoyed by much in poetry. I like poetry that takes risks, that has some emotional stakes, that has a grip – either an image or a tone or a rhythm or something that takes hold and won’t let go.
ALG: Nothing annoys me about poetry. Sometimes it makes me go crazy trying to find the right word, make the right line. Sometimes trying to find the right ending aggravates me to no end. But to say it’s annoying doesn’t hit my ear right. It does something greater than annoy me. It disturbs me. But it also brings more than happiness. It brings joy.
Tell us about your first poetic dalliance.
ALG: In high school, inspired by the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Doors, I was writing what I thought were poems. I had this green notebook in which I wrote them all. At college, my junior year, I took my first poetry workshop class. I misplaced my notebook during that time, and I was pretty bummed that I lost a whole book of what I thought was pretty good stuff. I found that notebook towards that end of the semester and started laughing as I flipped through it. The stuff was terrible.
If poetry were a color, what would it taste like? If it were a sound, how would it feel?
ALG: Poetry tastes green. Like trees, it is essential. It allows us to breath. Poetry sounds like waking up, like lifting the eyelids.
How do you know when poetry is real?
HLW: You don’t really, not at first. She’s in your head like a song you’ve forgotten the words to so you fill in the blanks and before long you’re speaking in her bone-voice, the ancient one that came long before Keats or Plath. And then after a while, you get the urge to put that voice to paper so that someone else can be a part of the mad dream you’ve stumbled into. And you start to wonder, when are the words yours and when are they hers? It’s best not to concern yourself with questions of who is real and who is not, because that mirror is a glass darkly you probably don’t want to turn on yourself. I mean, do you really want to find out if you’re real, or that nothing is?
ALG: The poet Claude Wilkinson gave a craft talk to my MFA class, and I might be misremembering, but I think he said something like, “If it talks—it’s prose. If it sings—it’s poetry.” I like that. If it sings, I know it’s a poem.
What do your friends and family think about your relationship with poetry?
JHG: I think very few of my elementary school friends are surprised that I’m a poet, and my mother was the person who lent me her college textbook on poetry when I was in fifth grade. My husband has always encouraged me to write more, not less. I think I’m lucky that way.
HLW: Oh, they’re all very complimentary, I’m sure. There may be one or two along the way who wondered whether it was all very healthy, this wandering away to the stars with a woman made of mist and bracken who has a voice like the rain, but those people aren’t the sort who can really see, are they?
ALG: My friends and family are very supportive of my relationship with poetry. They know we’re serious about each other, and they’re happy for me.
What is the secret to a successful relationship with poetry?
JHG: Read, read, and read some more. Read great poems out loud. Bring a poetry book with you to a waiting room. Get a lot of MRIs so can use your memorized poetry in a constructive way. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
HLW: You must catch her in the morning, when the light is still fae, and all the world is a quiet moor. Or else in the witching hour when the moon is laughing a coyote smile and men are singing in the streets. If you miss her, she’ll simply be gone and that helps no one. The itch to talk to her will still be there, all bottled up in your belly. Most importantly, you must not try to bind her. If you cage her, she will die. Her wings will wither and her mouth will fade to oak and then you’ll be the monster, won’t you?
ALG: Read. Read. Read. Keep reading. Find the poets that break you open. Read with a critical eye. Why does that poet/poem break you open? If a poem does nothing for you, why? If you hate a poem, why? And then write. Allow yourself to get fed up with it. Take a break. Take a walk. Breathe. Read.
What do you wish someone had told you before you got involved with poetry?
JHG: I did have someone tell me poetry was a really tough game early on. After all, Emily Dickinson died without knowing her poems would ever be widely read. So at least I was a little prepared with how tough a world it can be.
ALG: I tend to agree with what Annie Dillard tells her students in Holy the Firm: you must go at your life with a broadax.
What advice do you have for the next generation of poet-human explorations?
JHG: Don’t limit yourself – try a lot of different things. Read widely, especially people with different outlooks and backgrounds than you, from different countries, different eras. I hope someone writes a poem in space.
HLW: There’s only you and poetry. No one else really matters. Sure, you might learn something from the greats. Poetry can transport you back in time, but you mustn’t get stuck there languishing in the dizains and chansos and ghazals. Flexibility is key. Because poetry can also take you to the future. To places unheard of and worlds untethered. And even more importantly, poetry can take you to today—to the perpetual now. Have you ever stopped to notice the way the leaves fall in a strong breeze or the sound of a baby’s laughter? Poetry can give you true sight. So don’t let anyone tell you how to love or grieve or be a poet. We need seers in today’s world.
ALG: In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write.” I think that’s important. Also, simply sit your butt in a chair and do the work. Don’t fear rejection. Keep writing. Keep reading.
What are your long-term poetic plans?
JHG: I hope to keep writing and publishing books as long as I am able, and also talking about poetry to others and celebrating it as much as possible.
HLW: Oh, I’m very certain poetry and I have many miles to go before we sleep. You see, we haven’t quite found all the answers yet. There are still dark places left in the world we’d like to explore and there are still people out there, very nice, very cordial people, who don’t quite see the glimmer in everyday things all the same—and we still have much work to do on their behalf. The curious can always find us in the ether, if they look close enough.
ALG: I’d love to teach poetry writing, get some books published. Right now, the plan is to keep writing, keep doing the work. Hopefully the rest will follow.
On Ars Poetica:
JHG: I had a lot of fun reading the contest entries, especially because the entries took a very diverse view of what an Ars Poetica can be. It even inspired me to write one!
HLW: Every so often I stumble across a journal that specifically states in their submission guidelines “No Ars Poetica.” This has always baffled me. This is going to sound a bit fanatical, but isn’t all writing about writing itself? What I mean is, the very act of putting a piece of art into the world is saying, in its very essence, “I believe in art.” When we sit down to write, every choice we make is a conversation with the history and act of writing. When we pick a poem form we are in dialogue with every poet who has ever used that form. When we use metaphor and simile and all those other lovely terms to describe how we get words on the page, we are drawing on the ancients. So to say, “Do not write about writing” is shortsighted to me. It’s like saying don’t write at all.
ALG: I write poetry to discover what I know, to see the world, one full of grief and grace, chaos and communion, hardship and humor. I think the role of poetry is to awaken us, to bring us back to life.
Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets: A Guidebook to Publicity and Marketing. Her work has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and The Best Horror of the Year. Her work appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review and Prairie Schooner. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter: @webbish6.
Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. She is the author of Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is a freelance editor and host of The Weird Circular, an e-newsletter for writers containing submission calls and writing prompts. Find her on Twitter @Hollylynwalrath or at www.hlwalrath.com.
Andrew Laurence Graney graduated with his MFA from Seattle Pacific University in the spring of 2018. He was recently published in Catholic Things, a short poetry anthology from Piddiddle Press, and he has work forthcoming from The American Journal of Poetry. He is from Wilmington, DE.