7 Questions for 5 Working Class Poets
In this interview, I wanted to learn more about the value of poetry. It is a long-standing joke that poetry won’t likely make you rich and famous, though there are the few beautiful exceptions. When I tell people that poetry and literature are what I studied and got my B.A. in they will often ask if this is something I get paid to do. As a disabled person who cannot sustain gainful employment in any field, this question has always plagued me as my answer is not usually what they intended to ask. Writing and submitting poetry has gained me a community, friends that drop clothes off, offer to take me out to breakfast, it is also how I became friends with the person that eventually became my spouse.
Though I know poetry and its open doors are beyond value I’ve also wondered for a long time how other poets struggle through their work lives to create of all things: poetry.
So, this month I reached out to five poets I admire and asked them about what it means to be a working-class poet.
Dr. Donny Jackson, Derrick C, Brown, Lisbeth Coiman, Lincoln McElwee, and Jeremy Ra all rose to the challenge to provide these insightful answers.
First, I wanted to know, with the realities of work and self-care, why take the time for poetry and how do you make this time and space?
Lincoln, “Poetry is self-care, and it’s one of my favorites. Before the pandemic, I’d write when I felt there was a pressing idea or struggle, which meant that I didn’t have a routine writing practice in place. I now try to write daily. My writing time is often the reward for finishing work. Other times, work waits while I write.”
Derrick, “It is a beautiful thing to feel an emptiness inside, go on a hunt through the caverns of art and reflection and finally find the damn thing you’d do when there is no money. For me that’s poetry and I must make time for it to empty the tartar build-up of want and sorrow.”
Donny, “In my case, poetry is self-care; I don’t feel whole or connected to the world or vitally human unless I’m writing poetry regularly. As a result, I build it into my week as something as essential to me as meals.”
Second on my mind, is does poetry come up in your work-life, and how so?
Jeremy, “Poetry comes up in only very subtle ways in my work life. (I’ve learned that ending work missives with Sylvia Plath quotes only leads to confusion.) But the one lesson of poetry that permeates prominently is that of the economy of words. Everyone can appreciate a clear message or direction in a work setting without superfluous ornaments. Poetry and good work memo both need to be anti-Grant-Margolin (that guy from Fyre Fest).”
Lisbeth, “I teach English as a Second Language. Although I must follow a strict curriculum that offers few opportunities for poetry or creative writing, I find ways to read poetry and have my students write poetry. For instance, they read an abridged book about the travels of Marco Polo. At the end of the book, I told them to imagine they were Marco Polo and they were going back home after 20 years. What would they take with them? I asked my student to write their answers in the chat room, and not hit enter until I said waterfall. The result was a beautiful poem in the form of an Exquisite Corpse, where each student wrote a line without knowing what the others were writing. At the end, we rearranged the lines and completed the poem in a collaborative writing effort.”
Lincoln, “It does! I work for a company that produces literature study guides, so I have the pleasure of working with poetry consistently. It has mostly been classics and modern poetry (curriculum oriented), but I’m hoping there will be more space/interest for contemporary poetry soon.”
Thirdly, do any of you find any connection between your health (physical or mental) and your relationship with poetry? Lisbeth and Jeremy shared how poetry affects their brain-space, while Donny felt his truth somewhere in the middle.
Lisbeth, “Poetry is a refuge for me–the warm and comfortable place I hide in when my emotions overwhelm me when the light is too bright and the world too rough. Poetry is an excavation site, where I dig the traumas of my past to find meaning to the incoherence of my life. Poetry is a platform to raise my voice for social justice. Poetry is the airplane I take every night to visit the land of my youth. And poetry is a kiss on the mouth of the elusive lover that would not look at me. I have been writing consistently for the last 12 years. I don’t think I wouldn’t have been able to survive the difficult life events I have gone through in the last years without poetry or writing in general.”
Jeremy, “I am generally a lot happier when I am creatively fulfilled. This does not mean that I write poems to be happy, but with poetry, I can examine and craft something akin to truth, and that is satisfying, if not always euphoric.”
Donny, “Writing, as much of an initial confrontation with nothingness as it is, ultimately relaxes me as I settle into finding the poem that somewhere in my head has already been written. Although we’ve westernly made a binary of body/mind descriptions, we benefit, I believe when we embrace that everything about mental processes comes from a physical home. For me, then, wrapping myself in the poem that I’m writing is relaxing: a physical process made mystical by snatching ideas floating around in my head, and putting them into writing.”
Lisbeth and Derrick also addressed the physicality of poetry…
Lisbeth, “Except in opportunities where work overwhelms me (from January to the beginning of May I was working 60 hours a week), I always precede and followed my writing routine with exercise and stretches. Writing hurts my back and my writs, and it damages my posture. Also, sitting for long hours is not healthy. So I have to exercise and move to stay healthy.”
Derrick, “To kill my nerves and not get antsy at long open mics, I used to drink whisky in the parking lot or in the back of the room. But it messed me up and I feel better now that I don’t do that. When I did that, it was killing my body’s natural ability to figure out how to gradually get less nervous.”
The fourth question I had was something I am always curious about: what current/recent poetry projects are you working on?
Lincoln, “I’m currently writing about a relative: Samuel Allen McElwee. He was a formerly enslaved man-turned-politician, serving in the Tennessee legislature during the Reconstruction era. His political career ended when he lost reelection due to voter fraud and voter intimidation and had to flee his county from the KKK. He has always been a hero to me, and I want to somehow honor his hard work and legacy.”
Lisbeth, “At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a chapbook manuscript ready. I worked on that book, translated it, and submitted it. It was accepted by Finishing Line Press in June last year, and it will be released on June 11, 2021. Uprising / Alzamiento is a brief bilingual collection dedicated to those fighting for freedom in my homeland, Venezuela.”
Donny, “I give myself a new writing project to post on social media every year. Last year, it was writing one poem a week for 52 weeks (actually 53; 2020 was strange in so many ways). This year, I’m writing 100 poems during 2021. No other rules.”
Fifth, because I am always looking for poets new to me, I asked who their favorite working-class poet is and why?
Jeremy, “Reading Philip Levine’s The Simple Truth (introduced to me in a class by Suzanne Lummis a long time ago) had an immeasurable impact on me. The fragile yet persistent beauty of the working class emerges from these tales, these poems, deceptively unadorned yet more dignified than anything I’ve read. He made the working-class life the thing of poetry at an age I was only prone to mythical, confessional excesses.”
Derrick, “Too many. Cristin Okeefe Aptowicz because she works hard to bring others into her work and to lift others up with advice. Jacqueline Suskin for fighting for a path to being a working artist and for being able to summon a muse with magic. Hanif Abdurraqib for his ability to capture a punk energy with craft. Clint Smith for a kind of clarity in poetry rarely seen. Brendan Constantine for being a carnival of inspiration for the creative. Jeremy Radin for showing us what it means to push yourself. Jessica Abughattas for showing how to tighten a piece down to the gold.”
Lincoln, “I usually gravitate toward a poet or a body of work based on what emotions are present. I happily turn to Luther Hughes, Chen Chen, Jake Skeets, and Aria Aber, among others. I recently read a poem by Noor Hindi (“Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that stays with me. I’ve probably read it daily since coming across it.”
Lisbeth, “I have read so much poetry that is difficult to say which one is my favorite, but three names come to mind. I love Xochit-Julisa Bermejo’s Posadas, which is related to immigration, and her work as a volunteer bringing water to immigrants crossing the desert. Janel Pineda’s debut collection, Lineage of Rain shows us how children can become a symbol of hope for an immigrant family navigating linguistic and socio-economic barriers. I love that collection by the way. Another one that comes to my mind is Orange Lady by Erika Ayón, also portraying the struggles of an immigrant family in South Central LA. These three collections are carefully curated and demonstrated the love the poets have for their families and respect for their upbringing.”
Donny, “Tshaka Campbell, whose latest volume of poetry is Tunnel Vision. He is a husband and a dad and a provider, and draws from all of that to create thoughtful, intricate, sometimes gut-wrenching, always beautiful poems that linger like a mist over the reader, a lake.”
My sixth question was a classic, but a goodie: any advice you would give to other working-class writers?
Derrick, “Yes. Submit. Submit to the muse when it bites. Submit to the feeling that your first draft should suck. Submit your work and learn to love rejection letters.”
Donny, “Understand that editing is finding an outfit for your perfect newborn before you take it out for a stroll.”
Jeremy, “I did not participate in the poetry world for a long-time using work as an excuse. Even though I was undeniably busy, I fell into the trap of hiding behind the comfort of work competence because I was afraid of failing in poetry (where my passion lies). Not that I consider myself seasoned, but my advice is to not be afraid of “failing” and put yourself out there. A wonderful workshop (of which there are many) or even a well-thought-out publication rejection letter can be so valuable in growing as a poet.”
Lisbeth, “Carry your notebook everywhere because you’ll write poetry when you can, where you can. […] Join a community or create a community of writers to share ideas, workshop poems, and simply enjoy reading poetry to each other.”
Lincoln, “I used to think that there had to be a muse or some grand, dramatic event that preceded writing. But everyday encounters provide much of the material for my poems—especially now. I don’t talk much, but I do love to listen and to people watch. My advice would be to never overlook workaday encounters; so many have the potential to share meaning.”
Lastly, I asked each of these gorgeous poets to share a few lines of poetry related to being a working-class poet, which they kindly did. I have decided to present these lines to you as an exquisite/canto poem and I will mark authorship through initials to acknowledge who wrote what.
In the Sweltering Heat (LC)
WITH LINES BY LISBETH COIMAN, LINCOLN MCELWEE, DERRICK C. BROWN, DR. DONNY JACKSON, & JEREMY RA
Show the person in the mirror you love him. This time,
don’t wave goodbye so eagerly (LM)
it is as sad as it is not sad-
that I too will join the quiet ones. (DB)
I want this hangnail of a life
to pull off, to wither and drop (LM)
rising into the sky, like the chatter of new now (DB)
i’m the ground words crawl across (DJ)
Marked by acacia trees, limited by
Concrete walkways leading to the porches
Of government-built duplexes with flat roofs
Expansive yards where our parents grow
Chickens, fruit trees, and herbs (LC)
and a part of me will flake off
as I blow into some stranger’s yard (DB)
everything blurs by
as if I’ve jumped out of a fishbowl, as if I’ve puckered my lips
for that last fatal kiss. (LM)
You didn’t run and kept a few bills
in the mattress like prayers— (JR)
Working 16 hours a day cleaning
gringo toilets or picking green onions.
Lose these encased sashes (LC)
of love and loss, the garland, the burning garlands
I have held so tight to my veins
that I thought I needed to keep it all together. (DB)
No prayers, no spells. Our lust expired in the occult
of routine things. (LM)
No diamonds or bases only a green space (LC)
Now you haven’t even a coat
to attract a tabloid mention
if a wound were to paint a pool.. (JR)
to get next to you (DJ)
that kept me warm for so long
all of it-
minced in fire (DB)
I was drawn to his flit of voice, to its wing needle hem
of omen (LM)
I am not a poet (DJ)
landing on a mossed out garden fountain
floating, spinning complete. (DB)
Stay, Norma Desmond,
you bet all of yourself on races (JR)
when you escaped hunger
you didn’t say no puedo. (LC)
ARRANGED BY KELSEY BRYAN-ZWICK
Derrick C. Brown is a novelist, comedian, poet, and storyteller. He is the winner of the 2013 Texas Book of The Year award for Poetry. He is a former paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne and is the owner and president of Write Bloody Publishing, which Forbes and Filter magazine call “…one of the best independent poetry presses in the country.” He is the author of eight books of poetry and four children’s books. The New York Times calls his work, “…a rekindling of faith in the weird, hilarious, shocking, beautiful power of words.” He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Lisbeth Coiman is a poet, educator, and cultural worker born in Venezuela. She received a BA in Modern Languages from Universidad Metropolitana, Caracas, and a Master of Education from Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Coiman’s wanderlust spirit landed her to three countries---from her birthplace to Canada, and finally the USA, where she self-published her first book, I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir (2017). Her bilingual collection of poetry, Uprising / Alzamiento, will be released in June 2021 by Finishing Line Press. Her poetry and personal essays are featured in the online publications and in several anthologies in print. An avid hiker, and teacher of English as a Second Language, Coiman lives in Los Angeles, CA. For contact information, visit https://lisbethcoiman.com. She can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter under Lisbeth Coiman.
Jeremy Ra is a Chinese-Korean-American poet, who was born in Hawaii, grew up in South Korea, and has been living in Los Angeles for many years. He has been a finalist for the PEN Center Emerging Voices.
Dr. Donny Jackson is a lifelong poet, Donny Jackson also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, and is an Emmy and NAACP Image Award-winning documentary television producer. As a spoken word artist, Donny has featured throughout North America. In print media, his poetry has been featured in multiple anthologies, including most recently, In Isolation, where he was a prize winner for his pandemic poem, “history.” Donny’s debut volume of poetry is boy (Silver Star Laboratory, 2020), the album of which is currently streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, and Amazon Music. His favorite food is pretzels.
Lincoln McElwee was born and raised in Southern California. He graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature. His poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including DASH Literary Journal, Open Minds Quarterly, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, and Lullaby of Teeth: An Anthology of Southern California Poetry. He is the author of This Place Could Be Haunted If I Didn’t Believe in Love (Moon Tide Press). Lincoln currently works as a freelance writer/editor in Los Angeles, California.