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Interview with Pamela Hart

SNR Managing Editor Hannah Harris recently chatted with poet Pamela Hart over email about how you know when a piece of writing is finished, why she writes, and what inspires her.

Pamela Hart was the winner of the 2017 Brian Turner Prize in Poetry. Her debut poetry collection, Mothers Over Nangarhar, is available January 8thfrom Sarabande Books. Pre-order here: http://www.sarabandebooks.org/titles-20192039/mothers-over-nangarhar-pamela-hart. You can find Pamela at https://www.pamelahartpoet.com/. A selection of her poems follows this interview.

 

Hannah Harris: Why do you write?

Pamela Hart: I write in order to look more closely, slowly and carefully. I write to comprehend my life, the world, what I read and experience. I write to figure out what I think. I write to remember. I write to make something. I write to make or unmake what I know and don’t know. 

HH: A piece of writing is, essentially, a collection of the series of choices the writer has made. How do you make the final choice: deciding when a piece of work is done? How do you know when something you’re working on is ready?

PH: I’m not sure I ever fully understand when a piece of writing is done or ready. My background is as a newspaper reporter so of course finishing an article had to do with deadlines. There wasn’t the luxury of never-ending tinkering. A poem can be worked and reworked over and over again. And I’ve spent huge amounts of time revising poems because I love that part of the making process. To fiddle and fine-tune, to play with line breaks and punctuation, to look again at structure – all this carries me away.

But eventually a poem has to move to completion if you want it to be seen and read by someone other than yourself. So I attend to some revision strategies. Things like best word/best order, to paraphrase Coleridge.  Sound and beat help me see and hear when a poem is done. I read it out loud to listen for the beat and pitch of syllables, for the pulse of syntax and to look at how these serve the overall flow and meaning.

Perhaps a poem is never really finished but there comes a time when it needs to go into the world so that it (and the writer) can see whether it’s ready or not.

HH: Likely all of us can point to other writers who inspire us, but what, outside of literature, compels you as a writer? Where do you encounter, or glean, the motivation to work in your daily life?

PH: I work at an art museum, teaching and managing a program that uses the visual arts as a way to engage students’ creative and critical thinking skills. So art –  the arts in general – is a big source of inspiration for me. Not just a painting or photograph or sculpture, but the concepts behind the work: the artists’ thinking, the materials being used. I love learning about and then trying to employ such thinking in my writing of a poem. As I said, other arts engage my creativity as well – music, theater, dance. This year I’ve been working with a dancer choreographer in our museum program. This has offered some fantastic moments of encounter. How does language contain movement? How might the poetic line represent some kind of structured improvisation, as in dance?

In addition, I am compelled by the events of the world. This likely stems from my background as a journalist. So the news might enter one of my poems. Or I’ll respond to information gleaned from the science or obituary sections. The inventor of Kevlar –a woman – died several years ago. I found her obituary fascinating and wrote several poems that are in my book, reflecting on her life, her discovery and its uses in the world.

The poem here, For Alexsandr Vyrotsky, was inspired by photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who had been covering the uprising in the Ukraine in 2014. She wanted to personalize the conflict and thus started “Welcome to Donetsk.” The interactive memorial featured the names of people killed in the war, which she recorded on postcards and sent around the world. When I received a postcard with Alexsandr Vyrotsky’s name, I was moved to learn a bit about him and his death, and to make a poem.

I find this kind of collaboration important because writing is a solitary enterprise. It’s thrilling to engage with other writers, artists, photographers and so forth. However, I encounter ideas in the course of an ordinary day – when I’m running, stuck in traffic, walking in the city or doing the dishes. My brain is basically always on fire.

HH: What are you reading right now?

PH: A bunch of books. I’m re-reading Tyehimba Jess’ Olioto understand his use of the syncopated sonnet – a form he created I think – because I’m hoping to teach it this spring. And then I picked up his book Leadbellybecause, well, one thing leads to another. Also Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Which is so beautiful. A novel Pachinkoby Min Jin Lee about Korea and then a book on Buddhism. There are too many books to read in one lifetime.

HH: The idea of being a writer and the act of writing are two very distinct things. How has your perception of what it means to be a writer changed over time?

PH: I’ve called myself a writer for as long as I can remember. But early on, my writing practice was limited by the biographies of writers I admired. I believed one needed an upbringing or family dynamic or life-style similar to writers like Emily Dickinson or Hemingway. Once I started working at newspapers, these notions were dispelled. Being a writer is about making something. About doing the work again and again. Just as being a carpenter is about making or being a chef or dancer or musician. You make the thing by doing the thing. And you fail and then you do it again. You also study and read and learn. You remain engaged with the beauty and craft of the thing you love to make. And with the beautiful and dangerous world we live in. Tom Lux says it so well in his poem An Horation Ode: “You make the thing because you love the thing and you love the thing because someone else loved it enough to make you love it.” No matter what you make or how you make it. At least that’s what I’ve come to see over time.

***

 

FOR ALEKSANDR VYROTSKY

            Killed in Uspenka Ukraine 5/16/2014

 

By the time your postcard arrived in the mail

the weather here was classic August

 

90 degrees the cicadas whirring

bales of heat piling on top of each other

 

like thunder storms, my day accumulating

its usual list – noisy, mundane – Trump,

 

another car bombing in Kabul while polar

ice melts though it’s snowing in Bozeman

 

I could go on and on about things

the stories, news, the sunsets

 

I miss you and wish you were here

not there or wherever you were

 

when you left emboldened

by face-mask and gun

 

I still picture the street lamps and spring blossoms

radiant like small beautiful explosions

 

 

 

OVER NANGARHAR

 

Powered by search engines

and history

mothers navigate

 

Google earth, view the flashing

lights of MRAPs

as cursors flag river or range

 

The mothers leap across time zones

check their satellite feed

sprint from screen to field

 

where you lie

split

calling their name

 

The mothers fly from Fallujah

Wanat Khe Sanh to Marathon

Hastings Vicksburg

 

Their hands are epic

their bodies large pouring

into and out of you

 

 

THETIS IN THE CAR

 

The soldier talks

about Afghanistan

 

I say I’ve never

been in a Corvette

 

The Big Dipper floats

like a sea creature

 

Phosphorous shoots

from my hands

 

Air splashing

in the front seat

 

I love him as the sky

breaks and breaks

 

His car leans into a slight

curve gears shifting

 

across narrow blacktop

the Mennonite field a blur

 

at 110 miles per hour

I love them loathing

 

them like a mother

like an ocean I’ll carry

 

their broken parts from shore

to carve a shoal

 

Pamela Hart is writer-in-residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she is a museum educator. Her book, Mothers Over Nangarhar, is forthcoming in 2019 from Sarabande Books. She received the Brian Turner Literary Arts Prize in Poetry, and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship. Her poems have been published in the Southern Humanities Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Toadlily Press published her chapbook, The End of the Body. She is poetry editor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and for As You Were: Journal for Military Experience and the Arts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions!

​The 2018 Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions! We welcome your unconventional, surprising, and risky poetry, literary nonfiction, and fiction from September 15th to February 15th. Visit  https://sierranevadareview.submittable.com/submit and become a part of our 29th volume. Visit http://blog.sierranevada.edu/sierranevadareview for submission guidelines.

DIY Poetry Scene – Part IV

I have a colorful chat with the the founder and inspirational muse of Poetry in the Port, Damian Rucci.  Rucci, a “no-holds-barred” visceral poet, details his experience in creating a lasting and impactful poetry scene as well as some tips on starting your own readings!

Poetry in the Port occurs on the first and third Thursday of every month at 7pm at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, NJ. Poetry in the Port is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Poetry in the Port, it is beneficial for local businesses as well!

Check it out below!!

DIY Poetry Scene – Part III

I sit down before an early spring Words on Main event to speak with the bi-weekly spoken word reading’s founder, Cord Moreski. Morseski, a poet and a teacher, details what it is like to start your own poetry scene and helpful information if you are interested in starting your own!

Words on Main occurs on the first and third Friday at 7pm at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park, NJ. Words on Main is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Word’s on Main, it is also beneficial for local businesses!

An Interview with Brenna Womer

We at the Review are just as excited as you are for the 2016 edition to hit the shelves! Get hyped   for its release with a little interview with Brenna Womer, one of this year’s awesome contributors. Check out what Brenna has to say about writing inspirations, her piece “Frâiche” that we’ll be publishing, and which review is right for you.

What was the first experience with writing you had?

From a young age I had the desire to keep a journal and would go through phases where I’d commit to writing an entry every day. But I was inevitably dissatisfied with my inability to give adequate weight to my experiences, and often, I ended up tearing out the pages days later and ripping them into tiny pieces because I was embarrassed. Writing was stressful because I expected everything I wrote, every idea I had, to be spectacular. I quit writing for years, then picked it back up in college with fiction, and after a few semesters I learned it was okay to just get my ideas down, to play around with words and characters. When I took the pressure off myself, writing became fun.

What are some authors that you’ve read that have helped you to develop your writing style?

Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From was the first collection of short stories I ever read and I was greatly influenced by his use of domestic settings and his masterful creation of tension between characters. My stories are very character-driven and I strive to write characters as complex and relationships as tumultuous as Carver’s.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt will always be one of my favorite collections. I love Aimee Bender’s portrayal of characters, often women, during periods of disruption and adjustment. I also enjoy her discussion of female sexuality—what sex means to different characters and how they use it. These are themes I like to explore in my own writing.

In Junot Diaz’s book This is How You Lose Her—another of my favorites—not only am I immediately drawn in by the voice and his use of language, I admire the bold way he writes about class, race, sexuality, and masculinity. He consistently tackles difficult themes with honesty and authenticity, and his stories always leave me in awe.

**

What inspired your piece “Fraîche”?

“Fraîche” was actually born of a prompt in my graduate fiction workshop. Our assignment was to write a story using a borrowed form, and because eating is something I love so much I consider it a hobby, I thought I would try to write a story in the form of a menu.

What was your writing process for this piece?

Well, I began with the idea of a menu, and because I’m interested in relationships, periods of adjustment, and sex, I thought I would have the main character on a first date. I am a woman and I’ve been on dates, so it just felt natural to write this from a female’s perspective. I honestly didn’t even realize the story was in second person until I was finished and read back over it. I love to read second-person stories but haven’t written many myself, so I was relieved by how painlessly the point of view was established. I’d like to think second person helps alleviate some of the main character’s angst in this story because of the POV’s innately perceptive and instructional tone.

I didn’t have a strategy for weaving the menu items into the narrative, so I started looking through recipes for meal ideas. As I put the menu together, ingredients started sparking my own memories, so I decided I would write the story as a string of word associations and disjointed, worried thoughts as they might occur to someone on a first date as they read down a menu. It really was a fun piece to write!

**

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?

Oh goodness. The other day I had been revising a memoir piece at a coffee shop for about four hours when I finally made myself pack up and go. But I kept writing in my head and while I was driving home I had this idea for a sentence, so at a stoplight I opened up my laptop on the passenger seat and typed manically until the light turned green. Cops use laptops while they’re driving, so that makes it okay, right?

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

As I touched on when I was telling about my journaling failures, putting pressure on yourself to be endlessly insightful and eloquent will do nothing but foster self-consciousness and frustration. Start with a prompt and see where it takes you. If there is a character you want to flesh out or a place you would like to describe but you don’t yet have a story they fit into, just write what you have. The notepad in my phone is filled with random ideas, notions, and mini character sketches I jot down while I’m at work or happy hour or eating dinner, and when I’m stuck on a story or looking for inspiration, I scroll through those notes. Also, it’s fun to look back at the notes and find the seed of a now 10-page story.

My biggest piece of advice, though, is to pay attention. Be nosy. Listen in on conversations, watch people, ask a lot of questions and be sure to listen to the answers, and if you are curious about something, don’t just let it flit by without pursuit.

How do you know the literary magazine you’re sending work to is the right fit?

Reading literary magazines is the best way to figure out whether you think they would like your style, and it’s also a great way to keep up with how the writing community is evolving. I’m very fortunate to be a part of the English Department at Missouri State University where the Creative Writing faculty is very focused on keeping up with what’s new and exciting in the writing world. And because they are, one of my professors decided we needed a literary magazine library. It is a great resource, and if I’m wondering whether or not my writing would fit with a particular publication, my first move is to run downstairs and see if we have their magazine.

If you don’t have access to the publication, at the very least you should be able to find something on their website, most likely under the submissions tab, that will give you an idea of what they like to publish. Our library didn’t have a copy of Sierra Nevada Review, but when I read on their website that they prefer work that is unconventional and experiments with form, I thought they might be interested in a flash piece in the form of a menu. And I’m so happy they were!

Be sure to pick up our 2016 copy this summer, and look for Brenna’s work in the poetry section!

Signing out,

H


Womer_image

Brenna Womer is a Creative Writing graduate student at Missouri State University where she teaches composition and serves as an Assistant Editor of Moon City Review. Her work is forthcoming in Grist’s Online Companion and the Sierra Nevada Review and has been published in NEAT. and Midwestern Gothic.

IMG_2835

Hayden Takahashi is an English undergraduate student at Sierra Nevada College where she currently serves as an Assistant Editor with the Sierra Nevada Review.

DIY POETRY SCENE- Part II

Part Two:

An Interview with Allyson Dwyer

Check out the conversation I had with local playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer!  Hailing from Matawan, NJ, Allyson talks to me about what it is like being a writer in an up and coming scene as well as what Beatles album she feels her writing most embodies.  Allyson is a frequent open mic reader and a featured poet at both Damian Rucci’s Poetry in the Port and Cord Moreski’s Words on Main, the two local poetry readings at the Jersey Shore.

Enjoy!

Tara

Writing Scared

by Brandon Dudley

Something I learned very early in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program, thanks to my mentor Alan Heathcock, was how helpful fear can be in the writing process. According to Al, he knows he’s doing something right when he’s nervous hitting the submit button on the work. That’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I send out a story.

Fear, at its best, means the writer is tackling something close to their core. They’re tapping into something important and meaningful and harboring genuine emotion. They’re exposing something true about themselves.

That doesn’t mean the work is necessarily in any way autobiographical. It could be about getting stranded on Mars, or getting attacked by a bear, or being hunted by a witch (you’ll have to forgive the movie references, I’m writing this on the day of the Oscars). But the subtext is true; the emotional core of the story is true.

It’s something I’ve noticed editing the Sierra Nevada Review this year. The stories that risked some form of exposure, that created some genuine fear in the writer before they hit submit, those were the ones we enjoyed, admired, and, with many, accepted.

Something else Al told me early on resonated here as well: “The greatest grief of human experience is that we are all separate.” We are all bound within our own bodies, and the closest we can get to true empathy—to understand the world as another person sees it—is through storytelling. And that’s what made it so obvious that those writers were exposing something true: we felt that connection. The separation was erased, just for a moment, because the writer was willing to put a crucial piece of themselves on the page.

I thought about that often as I read the work submitted to the Review. All other elements being equal, the stories that risked exposure in some way always rose to the top. By exposing themselves, by subjecting themselves to that fear, these writers were more likely to bridge the gap separating them from the reader. It doesn’t always work, of course, because our experiences vary so widely that what resonates in one reader might not in another. But more often than not, that bravery lifts the reading off the page and creates a genuine empathetic experience. And the work that risks little or nothing? Well, it feels like reading little or nothing.

By writing to expose yourself, you’re actually writing toward others. It doesn’t push people away, as I’d at times feared, it invites them in. Instead of making them recoil, it makes them want more. We are people greedy for connection, and the best way to make that connection is to take risks, to lean into your fears, and write until it scares you.

DIY POETRY SCENE – Part I

Part One:

So You Want to Start Your Own Poetry Collective?

ONE OF THE perks of being in a low-residency MFA program for an aspiring poet is that she belongs to a community of writers. The low-residency program at Sierra Nevada College is undoubtedly a sanctuary for me, an aspiring poet in said MFA program, and provides not only useful tools for my studies but also allows me to enter an intense program surrounded with like- minded individuals. But when the residency ends, when the silent shores of Lake Tahoe are but specks of cloud dew on the plane, I am back in New Jersey and am searching for a continuation of a poetry scene. It’s great to be able to curl up in the corner of my tiny apartment five blocks from the boardwalk of Asbury Park, listening to the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Lake while studying. There is a sense of personal gain, as my corner is now plastered with poems I need to edit or thoughts I need to put to poems. But a girl can only have a conversation with a wall for so long before she wishes for her words to bounce around the streets of her city.

Asbury Park is the Detroit of the Jersey Shore. Once a bustling resort town, it now exists in the shadow of its former self, with Bruce Springsteen echoing through the vastness of Convention Hall. Topping the state’s list of most dangerous cities in the Garden State, it is now just beginning to see a revival. There is a bustling downtown that was not present ten years ago, a new hotel opening in the heart of the boardwalk area, and droves of hipsters gentrifying and spreading their influence faster than plague rats. Famous for its music history, there is also a lot of art and great food to be found throughout the revived areas. This is the all necessary to make any great scene, so the lack of a writer’s group or poetry collective has been a serious concern of mine. I just needed to meet the right people.

Before the beginning of my last residency, I was invited to a local poetry reading by friend and mentor Laura McCullough. She was reading from her forthcoming collection, Jersey Mercy. I happened to be free that night (from the chains of corporate retail slavery that night) and wanted to check it out. The reading was at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, about twenty or so miles north from my little corner. I had the foresight that if I went I would be able to speak with those like-minded individuals, who also felt like there was a serious lack of a scene at the Jersey Shore.

Cue Damian Rucci. A native to the Bayshore (which includes aforementioned Keyport), this no-holds-barred poet is kicking ass and making poetry his life. Poetry in the Port, his bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Espresso Joe’s, features poets and an open mic for all types poets, whether seasoned or recreational. In his ruffian stature and words, I found a warm embrace to join his fold since he greeted me with a similar desire to reinvent the Jersey poetry scene. Damian, as the backbone to the collective I am part of, will be featured in this blog series as it progresses.

When I am not busy listening to the talents of my clan twice a month on Thursdays at Poetry in the Port, I am at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park for Cord Moreski’s hosting of Words on Main. Cord is another local poet and collective leader, a kind and intelligent lover of all things words. Every other Friday, Cord gathers with fellow writers at an Italian eatery on Main Street in the city. He follows the same format as Damian, a set of featured poets and a free-for-all open mic. Cord will also share with us some words of wisdom in the coming weeks.

Chelsea Palermo, another New Jersey native and poetess, is the ringleader for the Ministry of Artistic Intent. A talented writer with a beautiful reading voice, Chelsea hosts this monthly workshop in the confines of the Waterwitch Coffee shop. The workshop invites local poets and writers to host a workshop within the group. After the workshop, attendees are invited to share some words with an open mic. We will hear about her tips in creating a poetry scene later in the blog.

The first video blog will be an interview with active playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer. Allyson is a currently an MFA candidate at Augsburg low-residency program in Minneapolis, Minnesota for playwriting. She will also provide some insight on what it is like to be a writer in a burgeoning poetry/writing scene.

With this blog, I hope to to show you how to create your own local poetry scene within your community.  There is much more than a sense of inflated ego that comes with presenting your art to the world! Hopefully one day you can make a collective that has the power to melt people’s faces off.

Or at least singe their emotional receptors!

tara

Hello From the Other Side: Some Editorial Observations

by Brandon Dudley

As a writer, the submissions process feels a lot like feeding a picky toddler. You offer them the best meal you could possibly make, a meal that includes so much of what they love that there’s no way the child could turn down.

But they just spit it right back at you.

And you don’t know why. You never know, because they barely speak to you. Once in a while, you might get a couple words of explanation, but usually it’s the equivalent of,  “I like this some days but not today.”

So you throw up your hands and go back to the kitchen.

I joined the staff of the Sierra Nevada Review because I was hoping to figure out what goes on inside . And I’ve figured out a few things that might be helpful, or at least comforting, to other writers.

1. Luck helps.

Sometimes, when submitting your work, you just get unlucky. You wrote a beautiful story in second person that just happened to be too much like the second person story we accepted a month ago. You could never know that the reader who happened to get assigned your submission hates dark, twisted pieces, or that we’ve just read one too many depressing stories about dead cats, or we’re just not in the mood for another weird sexcapade again.

So don’t take it personally. Of the 1,300 people that submitted to us between September and February, only about 35 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of .027 percent. Even at a small lit mag like ours the odds are long, with or without luck. If you keep working at it, though, luck will eventually break your way. That said….

2. You can help yourself get lucky.

There are things you can do to help improve your luck. Some have been covered ad nauseam on other writing web sites: keep the cover letter short and sweet; format your work properly; follow all the submission guidelines; read the magazine before submitting; polish, polish, polish; etc.

Follow all that advice. You are not the exception to that advice.

This has been covered before, too, but it can’t bear repeating enough: you must grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Because lit mags face a constantly growing pile of submissions, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll get the chance to recover from a weak opening. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, it’s like going on a date. You need to be on top of your game from the time you sit down at the table. You don’t get to be boring and derivative all through dinner and then hope you can wow them with a toe-curling goodnight kiss.

You have to grab the reader right away. Impress us with your language, your plot, your characters, your dialogue. Because we’re looking, desperately, for something to hold on to. We want stumble across something beautiful and tell everyone: Look at this! We really do.

So start strong. That means don’t start with a character’s name, then ramble on for a page about their traits and backstory. That doesn’t make a reader care about the character or the story. Show us the character in some unique and interesting light, or throw us into a conflict from the first line. Impress us with a lyrical, short description of the setting and plants us in a place so deeply we feel like we’re there, then populate it with interesting characters and compelling situations.

Start the date out right, and maybe you. That said…

3. You do not need to shock us to get our attention.

It’s surprising how many submitters go for the gross or strange right off the bat. Usually, this just backfires.

You want to start your story with a graphic scene of violence? How about sending in that piece about the weird and probably illegal act with the dog? You want to start your submission with an anthropomorphic penis riding a camel? Guess what? So did the last submitter (except it was a burro). We’ve read all those stories.

If we can go back to the date metaphor, this strategy is sort of like sitting down at the restaurant, opening the menu, then asking your date if they want to have sex on the table.

All I’m saying is a little foreplay would be nice. Build up to it. Makes us care about the characters, the plot, the conflict, before you throw the truly crazy stuff at us. We’re not prudes. We like the weird. And to be honest, sometimes we like it right from the start. But the key thing is it has to be done well, it has to exist for a reason, and it has to be done for more than just shock value.

In the end, the only thing you can do is your best work (weird or not). Polish it until it shines, send it in, and while you wait, start it all over again on your next piece. More than anything, this gig has taught me patience is key. Great work gets turned down for so many reasons, many out of the writer’s control. But great work will get recognized in the end.