Poet Interview #53: Marianne Szlyk

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? At what age did you start writing? Have you always written poetry? Who/what first inspired you to start writing? Who are your favorite poets?
 
I’ve been writing off and on throughout my life. In fact, before I could write myself, I was dictating stories to my grandmother who would write them on the blank pages of My Little Book House. In high school, college, and even my first go round at grad school, I was an avid poet, attending workshops and open mics and publishing here and there. My college workshops with Jane Shore and Philip Levine emphasized the exploration of an eclectic range of poems, so I laid a strong foundation. My favorites then were Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth’s anthology of the Chinese poets, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, and Anne Sexton. I remember as an undergrad choosing a poetry reading over a chance to see the Grateful Dead! After leaving grad school in Oregon, I didn’t write poetry for almost twenty-five years, in part because I felt that writing was distracting me from making a living. Then, as my parents were moving out of their home in Maine, my husband and I came across a box of my poetry, and I thought about writing again. After signing up for Reuben Jackson’s workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, I became fascinated, once again, with shaping words into poems. He was a very supportive teacher. We often wrote to music, especially jazz, which has influenced my current approach to poetry through its free flowing, rhythmic nature that exists within a structure. By the way, Reuben now has a jazz show on Vermont Public Radio, which is not surprising as he has a great love for jazz as well as an incredible knowledge of the genre. My favorite poetry has evolved, but I always enjoy poetry with a strong sense of place like that by Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Clifford Brooks III, Elizabeth Bishop, Ross Gay, Ngo Tu Lap (in translation!), and Mary Jo Balistreri. Felino A. Soriano’s poetry continues to intrigue and impress me as he is the ultimate jazz poet, evolving throughout his career. I am finishing up a unit on poetry in my literature survey class and made sure to show the students Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the rites for cousin vit,” Philip Levine’s “M. Degas…,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” some of my favorite poems to read and discuss in class. I would also like to show my students some poems from The Song Is…, specifically Martin Willits, Jr.’s “The Elephant on the Keyboard.”
 
How do you first start writing a poem? Does it come to you out of the blue, or do you have a set time where you meet with your Muse each day and let the words just … come? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poetry?
 
I revise at all times of the day, but I generally break ground in the morning. However, before writing, lines, images, and themes come to me as I walk around my neighborhood. When I next have a chance to sit and write a poem, I would like to convey the experience of seeing the leaves turn and walking in hot sunshine. It was surreal—and frightening because it screams climate change. My idea of what poetry is about has definitely evolved over the years. As a young person, I mainly wrote about family and friends as I was strongly influenced by the confessional poets. For a while, I was writing poems in which famous and semifamous people appeared. Then I was writing very terse poetry, thinking that terseness was all. Recently, inspired and encouraged by a writer’s group I belonged to very briefly, I’ve been writing counted verse. The two poems appearing in Walking Is Still Honest are counted verse, with a specific number of words in each line. Except for this recent foray into idiosyncratic form, I am generally a free verse poet. I have also always striven to write poetry with a strong sense of time and place, at times reflecting my concern for the environment.
 
How have your efforts serving as editor-in-chief at The Song Is… impacted your own work, if at all? What has your experience been like while operating your own literature site, and what are you generally looking for in submissions?
 
I see being the editor-in-chief at The Song Is… as an opportunity to give back to poetry and to become more involved with other writers. I have gotten to know many writers, especially Catfish McDaris, Angelee Deodhar, Will Mayo, and Mary Jo Balistreri, through this blog-zine, and I’ve been able to publish much wonderful writing. I am particularly excited about the poems I’ve nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as those I’m receiving in response to my contest for work inspired by jazz musicians born in the 1930s. I wish that I could receive more poems about life without a car. That is a particular cause of mine as neither my husband nor I drive, and I would like to see more pride in this lifestyle…as well as more protest against the damage caused by car intense lifestyles. As far as submissions go, I am looking for poems that show the poet’s personality, evoke a strong sense of place, and display some craft and even intent to stretch oneself. I appreciate poems that follow the contest guidelines. As I tell people, every poem is eligible for Thelma’s Prize, but as Miles Davis remarked about then-young lion Wynton Marsalis in 1985, poets “should take a step and stretch out a little bit.”
 
Are you on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?
 
I am on Facebook and (technically) Twitter. Facebook has been a wonderful way to meet poets and promote The Song Is… In fact, I think that most of my readers come through that portal. This past summer I was also involved in a writing challenge that I found out about through Facebook as well. Don’t know what I’d do without it!
 
Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What are you reading right now?
 
I’m trying to get back into a community of writers. During the semester, I focus on my teaching, and recently two of my writers’ groups went on hiatus. Fortunately, both of them have started up again, although one is now in a distant location. Both of these groups are very diverse, somewhat politically oriented, and are based in DC. My husband is trying to encourage me to start a group here in Rockville although sometimes I feel like, as a poet, I am really from the internet. (In fact, my recent artist’s residence with The Wild Word was online.)
 
I am afraid I am reading mainly student papers and the newspaper. However, I have downloaded some poetry chapbooks from the Poetry Superhighway’s Free-for-all. I was especially excited to see David Chorlton and Ali Znaidi’s chapbooks. In addition, this past summer, I read quite a few wonderful books, especially Abdul Ali’s Trouble Sleeping, Felino A. Soriano’s collected poems, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and Ngo Tu Lap‘s Black Stars (in Martha Collins’ translation). I must add that I am reading The San Pedro River Review and The Blue Mountain Review in bits and pieces and enjoying the other poets’ work immensely. On the bus ride home from Thanksgiving, I read Tim Murphy’s novel The Christodora, which was both absorbing and troubling.
 
What words of encouragement can you offer other poets who are trying to get their work noticed?
 
I encourage you to find community online although community offline is also important. Facebook has turned out very well for me, but other sites may do for you just as well. I also urge you to send your work to The Song Is…, especially if your work fits my current contests. (This fall/winter the contests are for poems inspired by jazz musicians born in the 1930s and by life without a car. The deadline is January 30.) Sometimes, contests and anthologies can help you stretch a little. Early on I used Kind of a Hurricane Press’ themed anthologies to stretch myself as a poet. You might even want to set up your own poetry site!
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17numa

Scott Thomas Outlar hosts the site 17Numa.wordpress.com where links to his published poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, reviews, and books can be found. He is a Best of the Net and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Scott's poetry books include: Songs of a Dissident (Transcendent Zero Press, 2015), Chaos Songs (Weasel Press, 2015), and Happy Hour Hallelujah (CTU Publishing, 2016). Scott is a member of The Southern Collective Experience; he also serves as an editor for Walking Is Still Honest Press, The Blue Mountain Review, The Peregrine Muse, and Novelmasters.

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