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 Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.
What are you reading?
I like to go back to the “oldies but goodies.” So right now, I am reading, Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998 by Clarence Major. And I read a lot of history about African Americans and Native Americans; history really feeds my writing process. So I am re-reading W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 by David Levering Lewis.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write poetry?
I discovered music in poetry from my mother. One of my most lasting memories is when she would recite “In the Morning” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mama has the richest, prettiest voice.
I can’t say reading any poets made me want to write poetry, not as a profession. I started writing poetry as a child because the words came to me. Now, there are some poets that I read who make me want to be a better poet than I am already. Lucille Clifton and Mary Oliver and Rita Dove come to mind.
With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
I don’t make time—poetry intrudes on my life! If I don’t write poems for a couple of weeks, I find myself feeling off-kilter and vaguely sad. I’ll walk around my house (on my off days from teaching) and I will feel strange. I’ll ask myself, “Woman, what’s wrong with you?” And then, it will occur to me that I haven’t written any poetry. So I will turn off my phone on a Saturday and skip church on a Sunday and I will write all weekend long. Because I’m just not myself if I don’t write.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty-first century?
I think I’ve said this before someplace else: the role of poetry in this century is what it has always been, which is to bring beauty to this world and to connect humans to each other.
Today in this publication-centered world, many people think that if you aren’t publishing you aren’t a real poet. But Emily Dickinson didn’t publish. There are many beautiful poets who didn’t publish, mothers and grandmothers who spent their lives taking care of others, or people who couldn’t read and write but who could memorize their words and to recite to themselves. We might not remember their names, but they were poets.
When I was younger, I used to think that I had to be famous to be a poet. And surely, I want fame. Many of us do. But if I never to get to that mythic land called Fame, still I’ve connected with many of my fellow humans through my poetry. That is a real gift to me.
Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
I have many favorite experiences, but the first one was sixteen years ago at my first, “big” reading. I was wearing these super-cute, black velvet shoes, but I’d slipped in them because the soles were so shiny. So, before I began to read my poems, I took off my shoes, so I wouldn’t fall. I don’t know what it was, but standing there barefoot, I felt so confident. I felt filled with such power, like a spiritual power. It was wonderful. I still take my shoes off before I read. I just don’t feel comfortable reading poetry with something on my feet.
When was the moment that you thought, “I can do this” about poetry?
I don’t think I’ve gotten to that place! I just keep trying to do this work, poem by poem.
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” a poem?
I guess I’m old-fashioned, because I like folk to understand my poems. If somebody doesn’t “solve” my poem, then for me, I’m not connecting to humanity, which is really why I write poetry. That doesn’t mean that every poet has to feel the way that I feel about writing poetry—I don’t think that would be fair.
I do believe that these days, the word “accessible” has come to mean “simplistic” or “not smart.” And I don’t think that particular definition of accessible is fair, either. I am a person of color, African American (with some Cherokee thrown in.) For my culture, poetry of what is called “the oral tradition” is very important, because in the oral tradition, a poet is supposed to be understood by the people. And poetry for the people is just as smart and important as poetry that is written only for educated folk who have gone to college and to graduate school.
But again, everybody doesn’t have to feel what I feel about poetry. That’s what’s so great about what I do. There is room for a lot of points of view in the world of poetry. In my humble opinion, we poets are pretty great.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers was born in Kokomo, Indiana, and reared in Durham, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. She holds the BA in English from Talladega College and the MFA in Creative Writing from University of Alabama.
Her four collections of poetry are The Gospel of Barbecue (2000), chosen by Lucille Clifton for the 1999 Wick Poetry Prize, Outlandish Blues (2003), Red Clay Suite (2007), and The Glory Gets (2015).
She has won fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. As a result of her research on Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book, she was elected into the American Antiquarian Society, an organization to which fourteen American presidents have belonged.
A prose writer as well, Honorée is the recipient of the Emerging Fiction Fellowship from the Aspen Summer Words Conference, the Tennessee Williams’ Scholarship in Fiction from the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Goodheart Prize for Fiction from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee Review. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Callaloo, Common-Place: the Interactive Journal of Early American Life, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry International, Shenandoah, StoryQuarterly, The Fire This Time (2016), and Virginia Quarterly Review.
A native southerner, Honorée has lived on the prairie since 2002, where she is Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. For more information on her, please visit honorejeffers.com and follow her at @blklibrarygirl on Twitter.