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In our Interview With An Author series, Writer’s Relief asks professional writers to share their tried-and-true secrets for publishing success.
Jonterri Gadson is the author of the chapbook Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012). She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Cave Canem, Bread Loaf, University of Dayton, and the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing MFA program. In the fall, she will be an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.
CONTEST: Leave a comment or a question for Jonterri below by July 16, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her book, Pepper Girl! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Neil S. Bowers! Thank you to all who participated!
What advice do you have for writers who want to improve their poetry-writing skills?
Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Go to the library and check out as many poetry collections as possible and read them. When you find a collection that you like, read everything else that poet has written. Then ask yourself why you like this poet’s work. How has the poet created the effects that intrigue you? Try those techniques in your own work. Repeat.
So many times I’ve read a poet’s work and thought, “Wow! I didn’t know a poem could do that!” Reading helps me to see greater possibilities for what poems can do.
How do you stay inspired to continue writing poetry?
I like to say that I live a poem-led life; that I live my life from poem to poem. Writing poetry has been a guiding force for me. It’s what I’m internally driven to pursue. I tell myself to just write the poems and then everything else will follow. By that I mean, I’ll know what to do next when it’s time, but for now—write a poem. My plan was to be faithful to this thing that made me feel more connected and less alone than anything else. I practiced and studied it religiously. What keeps me going? It feels good. I love that feeling of just having made something from nothing. Since I decided to live a poem-led life, I’ve felt more alive. I trust that writing and poetry is a remedy that I can go to again and again. I continue to write poetry because I’ve found the thing that makes me feel most alive and I don’t want to lose the feeling.
How did you get your book of poetry published?
I love this story. Presently, I have a chapbook of poetry published and I’m pursuing a home for my full-length poetry collection. A few years ago, when I was in the MFA program at University of Virginia, I submitted my work to literary magazines. A few poets I know and admire had been published in Vinyl, an online literary magazine. So I sent some poems to Vinyl. I had simultaneously submitted and in my luckiest streak ever, all of the poems I submitted got picked up within days. So I contacted Katherine Sullivan, the editor of Vinyl at the time, to withdraw my submission. She asked if I had anything else to submit and all I had was a poem I was planning to workshop that week. I sent it to her, she gave feedback, I tweaked it and she published it in Vinyl. She was finishing up her MFA at Virginia Tech, just a few hours away from me, so she drove over for lunch one day. She explained that she was planning on starting a small press to publish poems and asked me to send her my manuscript when it was ready. A few years later, her press, YesYes Books was taking off and I sent her my manuscript. She said she didn’t think my full-length manuscript would work for the press, but that she saw a chapbook in it. She pulled out the poems that moved her most, added a few more that I’d recently written, and my chapbook, Pepper Girl, was born!
Short answer: My chapbook was published because I submitted my work to literary magazines for publication, which resulted in a great working relationship with an editor who remembered my work when she started her own press.
What’s one “mistake” you see pop up again and again in poems (or poets)?
Based on my experience teaching introductory poetry workshops, there are a few things that I warn my students against. I was shocked by how much the phrase “and I couldn’t help but smile” shows up in student poems. It comes up so much that I banned the phrase in my classes. It simplifies the response to whatever experience brought on this smile.
Also, form matching content is something to strive for, but whenever leaves fall in a student poem, the word “fall” tends to be stretched vertically, like:
The first person to think of that was a genius. The rest of us just aren’t as original as we think we are because I see this all the time!
Why does poetry matter?
Poetry matters because it can be a powerful vehicle for empathy. Poetry can be a way to communicate how connected we all truly are. Something makes people turn to poems when they’re in pain and when they’re in love or when someone dies. Poems can be freeing in that way; a way to encapsulate emotions and say, “Look what I’ve done with how I feel,” but more often than not they seem to say, “Listen.” Writing a poem can make you feel heard, even if the only one listening is you.
About Pepper Girl
“The poems in Jonterri Gadson’s Pepper Girl certainly live up to their title: spicy, provocative, pungent. These capacious and generous poems hold bodies full of candid desire and blood—the blood of passion, family, and violence. Gadson’s lines brim with spunk and grit, humor and heartbreak. Her imagination is acrobatic in dazzle and prayerful in its grace.”—Denise Duhamel
Follow Jonterri on Twitter!
CONTEST: Leave a comment or a question for Jonterri below by July 16, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her book, PepperGirl! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed.