HELLO, TYPEWRITER: poetry is a way to belong
July Westhale speaks with Stephanie Glazier, acting-director of the Michigan State University’s Residential College in Arts and Humanities Center for Poetry.
Transcribed from a live interview, January 30th, 2013
July: One of our main goals here at Hello, Typewriter is to interview established writers in their fields and start up conversations about what professional arcs are possible — from academia to janitorial work. Stephanie, six years ago you co-founded the Residential College in Arts & Humanities Center for Poetry (RCAH) at Michigan State University. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about that process?
Stephanie: I would be happy to, July. In the fall of 2007, when I was actually still an undergraduate at Michigan State, my professor & fellow poet Anita Skeen said to me “We are going to start a poetry center.” and I said, “OK.” And then we did. It has made up the last six years of my professional life. And I have loved it.
That sounds really fabulous. Would you be able to tell us the mission of the RCAH Center?
It is to increase the power and place of poetry in our everyday lives. We think about that in a number of ways. We do all sorts of programming; something like a reading or a poetry slam happens through us. One project that I’m really proud of is a reading event I hold each year with the Rape Crisis Center on campus. Alumni and students from all different eras have called the trail next to our beautiful river on campus ‘The Rape Trail’. So as a gesture to get students to consider the language that they are using around about our environment more carefully, we host an event every year where we stand out there and hand out poems about empowerment. They are almost always written by women and we talk those poems up and down the river trail. It’s a beautiful event. People can come and walk and draw with chalk and write poems of their own. We also think of our mission in terms of event-based programming. I run a program called Poetry in Motion, which is a nation-wide program that places poetry excerpts & graphic art on public transit. It began in 1992 in New York, but now there are 30 locations in the country that have this program. Michigan is proud to join the list and I am proud of the program; it is the only one of its kind in Michigan — it has never been done here before. It’s the smallest way to reach one of the most depressed areas of this country.
I am also working on building a Poets in the Schools program for Michigan. Next week a colleague and I are co-teaching a poetry workshop for teens who are in a rehabilitation program. We try to think about this mission in a number of ways to facilitate the biggest possible audience for poetry. We think about the mission in terms of not only the University, but also of the community. I feel that this is essential to the work we are doing.
It sounds like RCAH does a tremendous amount toward community-building & outreach! Stephanie, I know that you are also an extremely talented poet yourself, and I would love to ask you some questions about your own work and process, if that’s OK.
Thanks July. Sure thing.
To begin, who do you name as your poetic lineage, or your influences?
I love that question! I love that question a ton because poetry, for me, is a way to belong. I think it is that for a lot of people. I very much grew up in the Eloise Klein Healy, Jenny Factor and Mary Oliver school of poetry. I deeply empathize and belong to those people, those poets and there are a few of them — people who helped cultivate the voice I have, like Irene McKinney and Ben Sanez and Rilke, Anne Carson and Theodore Roethke. I can’t stop reading Larry Levis right now. I feel like I belong to them, too.
Absolutely you do. What would you say your creative process is?
I am a mess! The last poem that I wrote that I really like, I feel like it took me nine years to write. It’s about my brother being in the war, and how I’m afraid of losing him to the war even though he’s back now and getting married and doing pretty well. It takes me a long time. I have to feel settled about something to write the poem, which is a terrible process. I’m working in the direction of being a person who can breathe on paper. I’m working on taking up more room, I guess. I tend to compress until it’s not working anymore. That is emotionally how my process works. And then I tend to revise in big chunks of time. Copy and paste. I started doing this thing where I record myself reading my poems out loud. I came way late to the party! I have friends who have been doing it for years. But if you record your poems, you can hear how they sound and you can edit accordingly. To me, that’s just a miracle of technology!
It’s a wonderful thing. And lastly, what would you say to younger writers (younger as in, newer to the community) about choosing a “career path” as a writer? It’s a much discussed topic: “Can you really make a living?” for instance.
I know how extremely lucky I am to have the job I have. I get to work in poetry and not a lot of people do. I love how I spent my day today. I worked on a grant for the first half of today. Then I planned a workshop, then I proofed designs for Poetry in Motion, and after that I taught a workshop on Lucille Clifton. I love the way I spent my day! There are lots of ways to make a life. There was once a Dear Sugar column that said, “You don’t have a career, you have a life.” As a poet, your job is to be the most alive you can possibly be. I think there are people who are hard-wired to do it. It has to do with purpose, I hope it’s not too dramatic to say. You’ve got to do the thing that allows you the most room to do that. And this applies to so much more than how you make your money. It applies to the kinds of relationships you have — how you make a life.
July Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com