Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s chat with Stephanie Lenox!
What are you reading?
I’m “reading” (which means I’m listening to the audio book of) Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer and I are both members of the Potawatomi Nation, though from different bands. In the audio version of this book, I can hear the author recount ancestral stories and speak a few words of Bodéwadmimwen, an Algonquin language which has only a handful of fluent speakers. She takes a poetic approach, braiding her scientific research with traditional wisdom and her personal experience as an indigenous woman. It takes longer to listen to a book than to read it, but I really enjoy this extended relationship with a text and with an author’s voice.
With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
This is a question that every poet must answer and keep answering. When my daughters were infants, I would write at all hours of the night and early morning on scraps of paper before heading back to bed. When they got a little older, I wrote in the car (when it was parked), sometimes in crayon and on whatever I could find between the seats. Now that they’re 4 and 6, I try to involve them in my writing routine. They each have a journal, and we head to the coffee shop for writing time together. I try to write a little bit every day, and I invite my students to join me in the campus coffee shop for what I call The Butt-in-Chair Writing group. Making writing a habit is one way I safeguard it from other demands and distractions. But the real secret is this: poetry has the power to stop time. William Carlos Williams once wrote that a poem is a “machine made out of words.” But what he didn’t know is that a poem is a time machine made out of words: it can take us back, suspend time completely, or whisk us into a future we couldn’t imagine on our own.
Tell us about any personal habits, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions that are part of your writing practice.
I like to write in coffee shops—they’re the perfect mix of public and private space. But when my latté budget is getting out of control or my heart is racing from too much caffeine, I use a free online noise generator to reproduce the sounds of a coffee shop. There’s research out there about how ambient noise (such as the low levels found in coffee shops) can enhance performance on creative tasks. So now I can thank science for supporting my coffee habit!
What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?
The most common (and strangest) response I get from people is that they immediately start reciting a poem, any poem, from memory. There’s no transition. It’s like they slip into a poetic trance and out pops a limerick, a nursery rhyme, something from Frost. I love that we can be carrying these poems in our brains for years, and it’s like they’re just waiting for the right moment to make their appearance. It makes me want to memorize more poetry.
When was the moment that you thought, “I can do this,” about poetry?
This is not made up. The moment I thought “I can do this” was post-college, listening to the Language of Life series on cassette tapes in my Geo Metro. These recordings from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (circa 1995) brought poetry to life for me. I can still hear Naomi Shihab Nye’s voice saying “poems hide in the bottoms of our shoes” whenever someone asks me where I find my inspiration. That’s why I’m so excited about being a part of a festival that has played such a huge role in my development as a poet.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Writing is an act of extreme vulnerability for me, even if the subject matter seems banal. So the answer to your question is yes, everything, every time. Writing exposes my insecurities, fears, and failures. Just like in the poem I wrote about Christopher Wall who was born with his heart outside his body, writing exposes me to the world but also helps me survive in the world. To say the least, I’m always a bit hesitant to share my work and I’ve learned to embrace this hesitancy as part of my writing process. Thankfully, I have a supportive writing group, The Peregrines, who provide a safe space to share my first drafts. As an educator, I recognize this same anxiety in my students. I work hard to build a community of writers who realize how difficult it is to write, who celebrate each other’s successes, and who use their fear to launch them toward the next, risky, worth-waiting-for poem.
Stephanie Lenox is the author of three poetry collections: The Business, selected by Laura Kasischke for the 2015 Colorado Prize for Poetry; Congress of Strange People, short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize; and The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, winner of the Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Additionally, her poems can be found in national journals, including Poet Lore, Mid-American Review, and Washington Square among others. Her poetry has been nominated a half-dozen times for the Pushcart Prize and was named an honorable mention in 2013. Her poetry has been anthologized in Best New Poets and featured on Verse Daily, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, and the Poem of the Week website. She is the recipient of artist fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission. As one of the founding editors of the online literary journal Blood Orange Review, she oversaw the transition of the journal to Washington State University’s editing and publishing program, which continues to publish emerging and established writers. She earned her MFA in poetry at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Currently, she lives in Salem, Oregon, where she teaches creative writing at Willamette University.