Please enjoy this interview, and please, share your opinions and impressions with me!
Michelle Williams is a poet, mother, community organizer, advocate, and arts supporter. I first got to know her well when I read poems at a fundraiser she organized for No Kid Hungry, part of Share our Strength’s initiative to wipe out childhood hunger in the US. The event, called Poets/Artists Speak, featured poets, dancers, musicians and visual artists contributing time and talent to raise money for this important initiative and Michelle dreamed the whole thing up and kept it alive. There are plans in the works for another Poets/Artists Speak this June somewhere in Toledo.
Michelle is an island of peace in a ocean of Toledo poetry personalities. She seems to have relationships with poets of all types, regardless of creed or point of view. Her poems, and her demeanor, are calm, reflective, open, serene, and sacred. The poet you will meet in this interview is concerned as much with meaningfulness as meaning, the blessings of life over the troubles of life, and the spacious intimacy of lyric poetry over the crowded verbosity of more modern, super-confessional and urban poetry.
Can you tell me what Vocal INKorporated is? Who started it and when?
Vocal INKorporated is my baby. I am the founder and head of the 'unofficial organization' as it is. Its birth was really just a natural progression of all that I was already invested in..bringing the art of poetry and spoken word to its fullest expression. A genuine attempt to bring the world of online poets to the world of 'real life' poets. The logo for V.I. is quite intentional. You will always see the "L" at the end of vocal overlapped by the "INK" to create a literal and figurative 'LINK'. Prior to its inception I had dedicated three years and a whole lot of late nights to building and nurturing poetry and spoken word online/worldwide with organizations like FlexWriters Creative Network (where I was the Vice President) and Poetry Over Music (I am a Senate Member) and it just felt 'right' to create my own quiet but persistent voice among it all.
There are several creative facets to Vocal INK, including the live poetry, music and art events we hold and the online radio shows we run on our BlogTalkRadio network. 'Vocality' and 'Selections' are the shows I host, 'The Poetry Corner' is hosted by Melvin Johnson, 'The Foundation' by Larry Kuechlin and Susan Glover and we also have the honor of featuring Tshombe Sekou and his Freedom Verse Cafe in 'Freedom Verse Cafe Xpress'.
We are looking forward to Poets/Artists SPEAK II at Fat Fish Blue this summer which will be another fundraising event featuring poets and artists from all over the country to raise money and awareness for No Kid Hungry. Our most successful event was the previous summer at the historic Hines Blues Farm (Crossroads ~ Where the Art of Poetry and Blues Meet) which featured the award winning spoken word duo of Max Parthas and Tribal Raine and the legendary blues artist Billy Branch.
Who are the first poets you read as a young writer? Who were the influential voices? And who are you reading now?
I have so many poetic influences. It would take a page to fill. But if I had to list spontaneously I would say: Rumi, Merwin, Dickinson, Giovanni, Jane Hirshfield, Neruda, Kerouac, Sanchez..that list is eternal and always evolving. As are the influences and touches of my contemporaries. As corny as it sounds I am 'soul fed' by the poetic voices surrounding me in the live events and online forums. They inspire and challenge me to always dig deeper, reach for that necessarily elusive 'better than your best'. And they are profoundly talented. I have been writing since I was ten years old (journals, prose, short stories, the eternal novel in progress), but to my best recollection did not create my first poem until five years ago. I was outside raking and playing in the leaves with my youngest son and these words just came..cascading..demanding to be released..and I was caught. I cannot imagine a world or a day without poetry in it. I see and feel poetry everywhere now.
Do you have a writing schedule you keep? Or do you write when you feel like it, when you're inspired by the moment, or when that sudden urge strikes you and you can't ignore it?
I have no writing schedule or discipline, but I always smile at that term ‘disciplined’ because in my view any individual who permits words in their head and heart to form upon the page is a disciplined writer. So for me, the words come and go as they want, as they should.
What can you say about the mysterious urge to write? Where does it come from? And here's one for you that I've been thinking about lately: are poets born, or made? This is something we can talk about at length if you're willing.
I have very strong feelings about your question, and I am actually thrilled that you asked. I strongly contend that poets are simply born, not made. Anyone can write poetry. Some can write good poetry. A select few can create really great poetry. And then there are poets. And one need never, may never, write or utter a single line of poetry to be a poet. They just have this essence, this movement, this knowing and way of being in the world. I think there are many songwriters, musicians, painters, sculptors, teachers, doctors, steel workers..the list goes on and on who just have a different way of looking and being in the world. Everything they do, everything they are is poetry. You cannot teach that. But you feel it the moment you are in their presence.
I'd like to talk more about the 'presence' of a poet with you. How do you think someone comes by this presence, this way of being? Is it innate or is it learned from someone? Does it come from discipline? Annie Dillard is sort of my spiritual guru, and so something I read in one of her books is usually my point of reference for all things metaphysical. I remember reading in her book For the Time Being that the pain of work is the agony of inexperience leaving the body. Does a poet start as an apprentice to a master, and feel the pain of inexperience leave the body to make way for the presence of Poetry?
And the best way I can think of to 'define' poetry (though I would humbly contend that by its very nature it is without definition) is to share one of my favorite quotes/reflections on poetry: "After years of looking, I can only say that searching for small things worn by the deep is the art of poetry. But listening to what they say is the poem." Mark Nepo
There's been a sort of muttering debate in Toledo poetry circles between the "Street" poets and the "Academic" poets. The crux of the debate is challenging to put into words but it seems like an issue of degrees is at play. One side resents the education that puts poetry in a box, that give it stucture and form, and the other side seems to resent calling anything with a line break and a strident tone a poem. Of course I'm simplifying the argument a great deal, and there are fine poets in Toledo and elsewhere on both sides of the line. But what I'd like to know from you is how you define poetry. What is a poem? Beyond the words arrayed as they are on the page.
I would also add that poetry is more than the lines on a page, whether their origins are from the 'street' or the university. I do understand the crux of the argument between the two sides you reference and honestly, like most things in life, the 'truth' is probably best uncovered in the middle. But even this debate is its own poetry.When you think about it, it's really all poetry,the exchange, the release and exhalation of things, just as Annie Dillard stated.
On a bit of a different path, I think I forgot to respond to another idea you mentioned in the initial email. You were talking about the impression of 'religious' and 'feminist' notions in my work and interactions if I recall correctly. I do understand where that impression would come from and I certainly would not deny nor discount the influences (I have a Bachelors in Theology and taught theology, morality/ethics and philosophy at St. John's and St. Ursula before making the decision to stay home with my youngest son). I do try to exist and create beyond those labels though, as I am much more in tune with the ideal that we are spiritual creatures at heart versus 'religious’, but even this notion is one I like to challenge within the words and expressions as they manifest, as I think there is so much more to what and who we are as creative, sensual beings and what we 'know' or think we know. I feel like I'm rambling here, but I hope it helped clarify the impression a bit.
You're a runner, aren't you? I love to run, it clears my mind and body, it feels good, and it's usually a solid hour of quiet time where I can meditate and reflect on poems I've been working on. Is running part of your meditation as well? And do you find that the exercise helps you creatively? Many of our predecessor poets, Emerson and Whitman especially, extolled the virtues of walking and its impact on the creative mind. I'm inclined to agree.
Yes, I am a runner. I am not a very fast one, but I endure. It has become essential for me as a woman and an artist. It is, as you say, a meditative thing. There have been several poems born of the sun, wind and pavement. We have to gift ourselves with the quiet. Sometimes, I think we fear it. Fear what it is going to say or draw us to, but it is where authenticity waits, and therefore, where our art waits as well.
Your poems, as they appear on the page, seem breezy, open, there's a lot room for light and air to get in there. But then you read them and you see how taut they are, like drum heads, like closed eyelids. This brevity and tightness is something I have never managed in my own poetry. Can you tell me, us, about your writing process? Does the poem start so precisely or do you wander? Is there a lot of revision and editing? Are you that special writer who meets the page with a complete poem or is there a bit of a struggle between you and the poem?
I cannot recall the exact quote but it is something like, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned"...This quote intrigues me, but I rarely encounter this. I would say that the poem actually finishes (with) me. I definitely feel like a conduit most of the time and I am very comfortable with this process. There are already so many illusions (maybe even allusions) of control we seek to hold in life but writing, creating should never be one of those. It is a flow and most of the time, we simply need to get out of the way and let it.
I am not much of an editor. It is a rare thing for a poem of mine to be retouched. It breathes itself through me in the moment and rarely do I feel that moment needs to be revisited or altered in any way. I do not know about being a 'special writer' as you say, but the poem usually meets the page in completion. There is very little struggle. Every once in awhile I will step away from the piece to let the words simmer among their own but I am usually back to the page within moments.
And yes, brevity appears to be my master. I have attempted to create lengthier stanzas and sweeping prose, but it is not to be. The spaces and silences fill those stanzas of their own accord and volition. So, as long as those spaces are able to speak to others (as eloquently as you phrased it above) I am blessed, gifted, grateful.
I'm in Nashville as I write this, visiting my fiancee’s family, and the whole drive down here I was reading poems and interviews with poets. And the question that comes up all the time, and the one I find hardest to answer, is why do you write poems? So, Michelle, why do you write poems? And consider, if you will, what poetry does for the reader, too. Is there a special transmission between poet and reader, or poem and reader?
I am not certain I have an answer to your question, Michael. As I think I mentioned previously, the words quite literally came to me upon that fall breeze several years ago without predication. Someone blessed me with a beautiful compliment today in declaring that there is no one else who writes like me. The context of this compliment was in regards to my penchant for saying much with very little. I would like to think that anyone who exhales thoughts to page is doing so because there is something to be said in a method and manner that can only be expressed in and through him or her. Did I answer your question? Not sure!
Can you talk a little bit about No Kid Hungry? What is it, and how did you get involved with the charity?
No Kid Hungry is a program run by Share Our Strength, which is a national organization committed to obliterating (not just addressing) childhood hunger in America. There is a date/year specific for this happening, but I cannot recall. Anyone can donate or pledge to this cause.
I understand you have a new chapbook on its way into the world. What's it called? And can it be ordered?
I became involved with it after watching an interview of Jeff Bridges, who spoke so passionately about this organization and its cause. I had been looking for an organization that we artists could contribute to locally and nationally and NoKidHungry just clicked for me. You can learn more about Share our Strength here: http://strength.org/
I understand you have a new chapbook on its way into the world. What's it called? And can it be ordered?
The upcoming chapbook has not been titled as John Burroughs and I are actually considering combining two collections into one, but I am thrilled...really very excited to announce that this collection will be published through Crisis Chronicles Press this summer. I will have details and ordering information listed on my wordpress blog as soon as they become available (http://www.mikkelle.wordpress.com )
Talk a bit if you will about your full length collection, "Female". How did that book come about? The poems are elegant and full of movement and music. If possible, can you tell me how our readers might get a copy of this collection, please?
I think I already sent you a link to my wordpress page dedicated to the book but I will include it again just in case for anyone looking for information. Anyone who wishes to purchase can do so via paypal and/or contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have opted not to list the book on any other sites for purchase as there is kind of an unofficial limited run of this particular collection. I have truly enjoyed the word of mouth and natural/organic way this book has found its way into the hands of others and would like it to continue that way with the remaining thirty or so books I have left in my possession. One can of course contact the publisher (http://www.alabasterandmercury.com) but there are no current plans to run a second edition at this time. I treasure the poems and thoughts within Female, but I have definitely progressed beyond the majority of those moments.
Another interesting note regarding, Female however is that it is not nearly as autobiographical as most assume. There are poems specific that speak to the interior of me, but the vast majority of pieces are a collective of voices, influences and experiences. I have a tendency to employ a first or 'immediate' tense in my work because I like the breeding of intimacy and resonance it manifests. Sometimes that leads people to presumption.
I understand what you mean by letting the poetry, the words of the poem come through you, as if they're already there, and maybe have always been there just waiting for you to say them. I believe that's a good way to look at the relationship between poem and poet. But at the same time, I wonder how you feel about what are considered technical considerations, like punctuation, line breaks, stanzas breaks, etc. Are those considerations built into the impulse to write the poem? I mean do they come with the poem as a whole package, or do you make considerations for them as you write? Or maybe words and rhythm come together for you? I'm curious.
The technical considerations are a bit of a slippery slope for me. It is a very personal decision for me when it comes to my work, as I usually prefer to omit all punctuation because I feel it interferes with the rhythm and flow of my particular form of expression. The same can be said for stanzas, line breaks and virtually any other formal structure. However, this is not something I would advocate in general.
Spacing, the pauses that are built into my poems are always quite intentional. They truly are their own poem. And they formulate simultaneously.
I'd like to know what you think is an important lesson you learned about poetry over the years. Do you know why you started writing? Do you know why you keep doing it?
What have I learned about/from poetry after all this time? That there is so much more to learn. Every day there is a new lesson. And I am so eager and willing to be taught for as long as poetry will have me.
i propped up the calla lily
by the weight of its own
claret & golden
just an arch
upon the wind
with molten hands
while the echoes
for our hearing
and life becomes
an incidental necessity
this vagueness of a stranger
as we entwine
the beauty and the broken
between the lines
there is no unknowing
..just the gale and thrust
..only the sun and moon
as the threshold
as if (branches)
i listen for the wind
were not already broken
as if the scars and branches
had not already gnarled
clean and through
and i know enough of love
to revere its drowning