Monday, June 8, 2015

Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be Fellowship Interview

Belladonna* finance director Krystal Languell, formerly a Poetry Project E-S-B fellow, recently interviewed Morgan Vo and his mentor Brenda Coultas about their experience in the Project's fellowship program. The conversation follows.

Watch for the application deadline for next year's fellowships! The deadline is usually in August or September.

KL: How did you use your time together? And Morgan, if you can offer a particular nugget of wisdom you got from Brenda this year, would you?

MV: Brenda and I met on a monthly basis, primarily at Physical Graffitea on St. Mark's Place. At one point we worked on a collaborative poem, and I think we met three or four times that month to figure that out. Otherwise, it was once a month to share work with each other. It wasn't just me bringing poems—Brenda would bring in examples of her work in progress, too, which was extremely useful to see.

One thing I've picked up from Brenda is that curiosity can be a sort of embodied position you put yourself in. You can physically spark the action of writing by actually going to places that evoke desire.

BC: Morgan defined the our meetings very well.  We had meant to take a trip to the Hispanic Society in Washington Height because its such an odd and neglected site. And to visit the neighboring grave of John James Audubon at the Trinity graveyard, but the rough winter never let up so we based a collaboration on the trip we never made.

On one occasion we visited Simon Pettet in his old tenement apartment in the famous E. 12th St. poet's building that was home to Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Morgan had an upcoming reading with Simon and I thought it would be great to introduce them before hand. Simon served us tea and gave us an intimate history of the East Village poets. 

KL: What has changed for (either of) you as a result of this fellowship? Morgan, do you feel better equipped to surface and be?

MV: I think being told that other people believe in my writing has been a really encouraging event for me. There's always been an approachable nature to the Poetry Project, but all the more so as I've gotten to participate more regularly. The Project is mostly filled with people who are giving kind but stern attention towards poetry. I think there's hope that an incredible meaning will come out for if we all listen well, and it's been easier to be a poet the more I see that in the community.

BC: Literary transmission is essential for any community to survive, and in meeting Morgan, I found a younger generation of serious readers and artists.  It was a valuable experience in all; listening to Morgan's take on poets that I've known for a decade or two and to see that a younger generation found the work of my peers and my seniors as worthy as I do. 

KL: To what extent is mentorship hierarchical? Did you adopt any practices to subvert this in your meetings/exchanges?

MV: Brenda started the mentorship with very little intention of enforcing hierarchy. In terms of working through poetry, she really leaves it to me to take her advice or not, and to work on my own through any problems she might raise. But on the other hand, for me, it's incredibly useful to recognize her as a writer to admire and look up to. Writers can be so different from each other, but certain traits come up a lot. All writers have curiosity and rhythm, for example, but practiced writers have specific ways that they handle those things, and I can learn from that because I'm still working it all out.

BC:  I wasn't sure what a mentor is/was? I did not approach this as a teacher/professor, but as a friend, a bit more seasoned in the community.

KL: To my knowledge neither of you has what's become the 'conventional' poet's life of academia / adjunct scrambling (maybe I'm wrong). How did this fellowship fit into your lives alongside your professional, maybe also personal, commitments?

MV: I think that my work as a creative person is right now the most pressing aspect of my life, but I don't think I will make a move to finance my life through creativity any time soon. At this point in time, pursuing one's life as a poet (particularly as a young one) is weirdly complicated by how defined that track can be. There's so much pressure to be involved in higher education. And I really believe in education, but I'm more interested in self-education and community education. At the time I applied for the fellowship, I had been taking workshops regularly at the Project for three years. They have always been good models for me of communal learning, in that they don't define a lot about what you are required to do, but instead provide a lot of opportunities to participate. The fellowship has been an experience just like that, generous in terms of personal freedom, and generous in terms of opportunities to participate. I don't know if academia is good or bad for poets. Probably both. But I do know that I wanted very badly to proceed as a writer, and that I felt uneasy about submitting myself to a larger institution in order to make that progress happen. I like having a job and being a poet, and seeing where those meet, as well as where they can't meet. The most special thing for me about the fellowship has been the feeling that I am able to be taken seriously as a poet, solely based on the work I do as a poet. I think that has a lot to do with the fellowship, but probably has more to do with the Poetry Project in general.

BC: I do teach but I teach what I call meat and potatoes (basic comp and survey literature courses to non-writers who are preparing to enter the medical fields).  I don't have tenure or other forms of security that a university might ensure; however, I am rewarded by teaching at a college with one of the most diverse student populations in the city.