Ask a Poet blogs are back! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on the poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.
Today, we are kicking off this series with Joy Ladin!
Hey Joy! What’s new with you?
I published my eighth and ninth collections of poetry last year, Fireworks in the Graveyard and The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems. I had always hoped to publish a selected poems, so it was thrilling to accomplish something on my poetic “bucket list.” This year, I’m publishing a work of creative non-fiction, The Soul of the Stranger, about reading the Bible from a transgender perspective. I’m hoping the book will help religious people recognize what transgender lives and points of view can contribute to religious traditions.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I started writing poetry – or rather, rhymes I thought of as poems – as soon as I learned to write in first grade. I’m not sure why – my family didn’t read poetry or have poetry in the house. But for some reason I felt from the start that something mysterious, powerful and important happened when I put words together into lines and stanzas. Making rhymes felt like making magic, as though I was revealing the hidden kinship between words and meanings that seemed, from the outside, to be completely different. I suspect that rhyme felt to me like a way of symbolically overcoming the isolation I felt as someone who was born male and seen as a boy, when I always felt I was a girl. If rhyme could show that totally different words were the same inside, maybe the magic of language could reveal that I was really the same inside as the girls who saw me as a boy. In one way, my childhood wish was right on target: all trans people have is language, the magic of language, to enable others to see who we really are.
What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
By the time I got to high school, I had been writing poetry for years. In fact, I went to my first high school poetry workshop when I was in junior high. Everyone who was into poetry idolized our poetry teacher, James Lavilla-Havelin, who not only taught us to write but took us to readings by famous poets and arranged for us to read ourselves. It was thrilling to be brought into a world where poetry mattered so much, and to be introduced to so many great poets. My favorites then were James Wright and Denise Levertov, but those classes inspired me to read and write poetry all the time – literally. My hands and arms were covered with lines I thought of while I was walking, and I always carried small, sweat-soaked notebooks on my body that were crowded with poems, quotes and ideas.
Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Some years ago, I was invited to go to Uganda as part of a program that brought American and European academics to African countries. I was there for two extraordinary weeks, during which I was constantly amazed and inspired by the way Ugandans from every walk of life – farmers, theater performers, nuns – shaped their lives in ways they believed would contribute to making Uganda better. One night, I was brought to a very dark, deserted, run-down part of Kampala, the major city, and led down an unlit alley into an open air performance space where a theater group devoted to making plays that would teach people conflict resolution techniques would rehearse and develop new material after their long days of paid employment. It was very dark – there was no overhead lighting – and most of the small group of performers didn’t speak English, but they insisted that I read them my poetry. When I did, I experienced the most intense listening my work has ever been blessed with. Every word I said seemed to flow through the dark and be absorbed into lives and hearts I could feel but couldn’t see.
What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?
I worked for years as a secretary to support my habit of writing. When I told one of my co-workers that I was a poet, she started backing slowly away and said, “You – you aren’t going to put me in one of your poems, are you?” I haven’t – but she became the star of an
anecdote I love to tell.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I think fear is one of the greatest teachers a poet has. Not that we should share everything we are afraid of sharing, but whenever we are afraid to write something because someone might see it, or just because we are afraid to know what we ourselves think or feel, it’s like a spotlight is shining on a locked door inside us. I have found that, scary and hard and even painful as it can be, I always learn and grow by opening those doors.
Joy Ladin is the author of nine books of poetry, including Lambda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, and two 2017 collections, Fireworks in the Graveyard (Headmistress Press) and The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press). Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. Links to her poems and essays are available at wordpress.joyladin.com.
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