Interview with a Poet: Gillian Wegener

Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with poet and educator Gillian Wegener, Spring/Summer 2019’s Featured Poet, to discuss poetry, teaching, literary activism, and poetry’s responsibility to our rapidly changing larger world. Valuable and sometimes unexpected insights followed.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

 

MockingHeart Review: Hi, Gillian. Good to talk with you, and I wonder if we could discuss your poetry from our latest Spring/Summer issue. In “How to Handle Americans,” which appeared in MockingHeart Review 4.2, you write, “Please read the directions before / handling your Americans. / You’ll find an Allen wrench useful. / There will be parts left over.” These lines are good aphorisms to observe. In poetry and life, what parts of ourselves become extraneous—unused or unsung in some way? How can we address them?

Gillian Wegener: Oh gosh, what an interesting question. I think that we Americans are quite good at using only parts of us that are most needed at any given time, sometimes because it is safer to leave a part of us out of the tumult and sometimes because we dive in head-first and don’t think. It seems like often we leave our logic behind, or our emotions, or our compassion. Perhaps this is a fault of humanity in general. Jack Mezirow, a philosopher in adult learning, said that often adults are quite good at overlooking that which makes us uncomfortable; we sort of let that part of our lives blur over and we are able to ignore it even when whatever it is really requires attention. This is a sort of survival mechanism, but I’m not sure it allows us to fully experience the world around us. Poetry helps with this. It needs its own kind of urgent attentiveness, and it doesn’t let us ignore the uncomfortable. Poetry calls us out and connects us to each other through its urgency.

MHR: You cofounded the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center. Can you speak to your work with the organization, and how poetry influences your life?

GW: I live in a town (Modesto, California) in a largely agricultural area that some people have considered a bit of a cultural wasteland. This could not be farther from the truth. We have incredibly vibrant theater and visual arts and music scenes in our area, as well as poetry. I helped found MoSt Poetry Center to help bring poets in the area together, to give them a shared sort of identity as poets, and to help promote poetry in our county. So, we do a lot of community events, readings, and workshops that help bring poetry to children and the elderly and to places people would not always think of poetry like juvenile hall and craft fairs. One of the things we do that gets people the most excited is Poetry-on-the-Spot. We bring our typewriters to an event and based on three to five words a person gives us, we write a poem for them right there, on the spot. We’ve probably written hundreds of these poems and every single time we do this, there are people who find meaning in poetry when they have previously thought of poetry as not for them. It is such a pleasure to do this for the community and to see the joy people get from these poems. I often tell people I work with that I truly believe poetry makes the world a better place, and I do.

Poetry is such a huge part of my life that it is really hard to say how it influences me. It has certainly influenced my teaching, my identity, what I read, and how I choose to spend my time, and contribute to my community. I’ve been writing poetry since I was in junior high, so it has always been a big part of who I am. Images stick with me and metaphors help the world make sense to me. Poetry is everywhere around us, and I feel lucky to be tuned into that.

MHR: Your poem “An Aspect of the Apocalypse, Alive but Just Barely” includes the lines “Because the hearts are piled in the corner / we can continue to delay and delay.” Can you speak to how emotional awareness figures into this poem, and perhaps others you’ve crafted? How do you suppose we interact with the world through our work in emotional ways?

GW: I do think that poetry is inherently emotional, and so I don’t think there are poems that can ignore emotion. Maybe some very experimental, fragmented work attempts it, but even that evokes emotion the reader, so emotion is just part of what we do when we create any kind of art. This poem was, obviously inspired by Brooks’ poem, but is deeply informed by my own reaction to our presidential administration and how helpless that has made me feel — helpless to stop Trump from being elected in the first place and helpless now to stop what is happening to our democracy and even to our language. And now all those hearts, our hearts, are piled in the corner while we wait this out. This is very emotional for me and for many I know, even as I watch people who are pleased with this administration have a different kind of emotional reaction. As a citizen, I can do little, but as poet, I can write my distress and share that with the world and hopefully connect with others. I think a common thread runs through some of my answers here in that poetry (and other art forms as well) create connections between humans that we need in order to be fully human.

MHR: As a longtime educator, have you found your creative and pedagogical interests working together? Also, would you share a bit about your teaching interests?

GW: I am very lucky that in the work I do now as an academic coach (I work with new teachers and on various district initiatives) I have the chance to teach poetry to students of all ages. I’ve written poetry with students from pre-kinder programs to junior high students, and I’m able to work with high school students as they prepare for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest. I also do workshops for adults a few times a year, so I keep my hand in teaching even though I am not regularly in a classroom anymore. I also teach creative writing classes weekly to teens in juvenile detention, and I feel very lucky to be able to do this with them. All in all, I get to introduce people of all ages to new concepts or ideas or poetry or forms that they haven’t worked with before, and this is a pleasure.

As far as my teaching interests go, I really love teaching junior high students especially, and I love teaching writing — not just poetry, but all writing. Writing is one of those challenging areas of school for a lot of people. They either consider themselves okay at writing or not good at writing at all, and once that self-image is created, it is very hard to change. One of my main areas of interest is working to break down those barriers to writing with teachers so that they can help their students feel better about it. Children are pretty creative writers from early on; we teachers have to tap into that and grow their confidence and ability, so that they know writing is something they can do.

MHR: In your Poet’s Statement, you discuss how one of your favorite activities is to respond line-for-line to a given poem, and to that point, you mention that “An Aspect of Apocalypse” was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks. Whose work do you imagine would be the most difficult and/or rewarding to respond to in this way?

GW: I find that some of the more challenging poets from the canon are good to play with in this way. I’ve worked with Wallace Stevens’ poetry and Ezra Pound’s. Part of the joy is simply paying such close attention to the masters’ works—their line breaks, their word choices, the movement of ideas in the poem. So much can be learned from that. Because much of poetry reaches for a universality, playing with a poem in this way can reveal that universality in a different way. Wallace Stevens may have thought about how the world changes when we place a jar on a hill, but how does responding to his poem line by line reveal our own ideas about how nature is changed by our presence or how we are changed by nature? Not every poem written in response to another becomes a poem worth sharing, but there is almost always a line or an idea or a phrase worth salvaging and taking forward. Rewarding is exactly the right word for this exercise.

MHR: Our current world is fraught in a number of ways—politically, climatologically, financially, and so forth. Your poems address some of these concerns to varying degrees. In your estimation, how can poetry bring awareness, and perhaps even response, to larger issues like these?

GW: As has been said so many times before, poetry makes the personal universal and the universal personal. My experience with climate change may be expressed in something as personal as the devastation of the Camp Fire last November in Northern California, which hugely impacted members of my family, but someone else who does not have that personal experience may read the poem and make meaning of it in their own life and therefore, make the poem their own. I think that is the way poets bring awareness to these larger issues. I can try to write a wide-ranging poem about abstract concepts like economic inequality or immigration or political chaos, but if I can get specific about those issues and write from personal experience or imagination tinged with the personal, I think that is going to be much more meaningful for readers.

MHR: Your sense of the lineation is intriguing—choices to enjamb or endstop a line subtly or radically impact one’s poetry, and the fourth stanza of “Apocalypse” is a striking example (“You, prone. All / curmudgeon, you . . .”). How would you describe your relationship to the poetic line?

GW: Well, in that particular poem, the poetic lines all come in some way from Ms. Brooks, and I cannot take credit. The line that inspired the one you have above reads “You rise. Although / genial, you….” So, deep gratitude to Ms. Brooks for pushing me to think about line, and in this particular poem, tone in a different way than I might ordinarily have done. In general, though, I do spend a lot of time thinking about line. Left to my own devices, I have tended to write long lines which has everything to do with the rhythm created when reading the poem aloud. In more recent poems, the rhythm has been more driving and so the lines have been shorter in order to accommodate that. I try to end a line with a word I want ringing in the reader’s brain for the split-second it takes to move to the next line, but other than that, my relationship to the poetic line is sort of that of minion. How can I craft a line that is going to serve the poem as a whole?

MHR: Do you have any projects in the hopper or already underway? When can readers look for the next Wegener collection?

GW: Hmmm…good question. I have three chapbooks sort of making the rounds of various contests and submission calls, but I don’t have a full-length collection ready to go. I recently started a doctoral program in education, and so my first thought was that poetry would have to be on hold for a couple of years. What I have discovered is that it isn’t so easy to put poetry on hold. It bubbles up, whether I am making time for it or not. I’m so grateful for this. It is such a terrific feeling to know that poetry will find a way through the din of academics and make room for itself.

MHR: I can speak to that poetic persistence as well! Though I’m in a Rhetoric and Composition PhD program, poetry is a constant companion. Could you tell us a bit about the process surrounding your writing? What environment do you find best suited to creative work? Creativity is often ritualistic (for instance, I often work best when writing to jazz). Do you have any sort of writing custom, or ritual?

GW: For many years, I have done most of my writing at local coffee shops. My family and I live in quite a small house and having a family buzzing around, while joy-inducing in all kinds of ways, does not make for a good writing environment. So, I’d go out for a few hours on weekends and write. I prefer writing in the morning, and I almost always start my writing by reading some of my go-to poets: the late Jane Mead and the late CD Wright chief among them, but also Brenda Hillman and Charles Wright and the late Larry Levis. Reading before writing puts me in the right frame of mind and often points me in the right direction for the few hours I can give over to my writing.

 

Gillian Wegener is the author of two collections of poetry from Sixteen Rivers Press, The Opposite of Clairvoyance (2008) and This Sweet Haphazard (2017), and a chapbook, Lifting One Foot, Lifting the Other from In the Grove Press (2001). A winner of the 2006 and 2007 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, Wegener is co-founder of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center, has served as poet laureate for the city of Modesto, and volunteers to teach creative writing to girls in juvenile detention. A long-time educator, she lives in Modesto, CA with her husband and daughter.

Pushcart Prize Nominations!

Hi, MockingHeart friends,

We at MockingHeart Review are proud to announce this year’s nominations for the Pushcart Prize:

“For Myself in Some Other Life,” by Peycho Kanev

“Lineage,” by Jennifer Lothrigel

“The One You Love Most,” by Nathan Elias

“Goldilocks,” by Rebecca Hart Olander

“ellipses,” by Rae Rozman

“This poison dress is simply laced,” by Thomas Mixon

Congratulations to these poets, and many thanks to ALL of our MHR contributors for your excellent work in the world–it’s a privilege to read and publish your creations. Here’s to another great MockingHeart Review year!

PS – More information about the Prize and Pushcart Press can be found here.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Our Fall Issue is Here!

MHR friends! Happy November.

Just a note to say that MockingHeart Review 4.3 is now published! When you have a moment, take a look through these new and excellent pieces–poetry, screen prints, ceramics, and more!

Excellent poetry and artwork await. Enjoy! And as always, thank you for your excellent work in the world.

Cheers!

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Spooky Good News!

Happy Halloween, MockingHeart friends!

I hope you’re all staying warm on this chilly Halloween morning. It’s even brisk here in Baton Rouge, which is notable any day, but it’s especially festive today. I wanted to spread the word about some great MHR material heading your way soon!

First, as you might already know, our Fall 2019 issue (MHR 4.3) will be out in the world tomorrow! The issue is full of excellent poetry and art for the start of November–all of it liminal in some way, just like this season. Also coming soon is an interview with poet and educator Gillian Wegener, the featured poet from this year’s Spring/Summer issue (MHR 4.2)! Watch this space for these stellar happenings.

Also important: the season is upon us for Pushcart Prize nominations! Keep an eye on the MHR blog this November for notification of that happy news–and of course, if you follow MockingHeart Review you’ll receive that update and all others forthcoming via email.

Okay, have a great day–and until next time, keep on being spooky…

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

 

The Artist’s View: James Ehlers

Art Editor’s Note: The Artist’s View is part of MockingHeart Review’s burgeoning commitment to the discussion, exploration, and celebration of art. This interview (with more of its kind coming in the future) aims to delve further into each featured artist’s unique perspective. James Ehlers, MHR 4.2’s featured artist, is a canny and versatile observer and maker whose work delves into the fast-paced world of politics through the carefully crafted media of printmaking and engraving. I hope you enjoy learning more about his unique perspective and creative process.

Alex J. Arceneaux, Art Editor

 

MockingHeart Review: Hi, James. Congratulations on your recent solo show and inclusion in the 2019 North American Print Biennal! Are there any technical aspects of your process that aid your ongoing interest in printmaking?

James Ehlers: Thank you. My solo show at Kansas City Artist Coalition was a very positive experience. Everyone there is wonderful to work with. The Boston Printmakers exhibition has been my white whale for years, so it was exciting to finally have work accepted into the show. I have seen postings of some of the work in show and it looks be a really good one. Wish I could have seen the show.

In printmaking, I enjoy the physicality of carving directly into the surface of metal or linoleum. Though it is comparatively slower than some of the other techniques, I enjoy the immediacy of the cutting and the control. The type of mark making in of itself is a draw. One employs a calligraphic mark in both processes that entails a sensitivity to the pressure and to the material.

MHR: Your work has a strong narrative quality. How did you discover and nurture the narrative nature of your work?

JE: The imagery is informed from experiences with social media and witnessing how it is effecting myself and the people that are around me. It brings out a lot bad in people and sadly it seems to kill the ability to focus on anything. Social media is still relatively young, and it’s something that we are still getting used to and learning to manage. Think of the panic in 1938 that went with Orson Welles’ reading of The War of the Worlds on the radio. Similarly, there’s a lot of panic and anger in the virtual landscape that I see manifesting. People are lonely and demand to be listened to, they don’t want to listen to others, and many people are jealous of their friends—this isn’t anything new, but it does (now) seem worse. It’s a sad thing to witness. It’s bigger than politics.

MHR: The process of engraving seems calculated and methodical. What connects you to this process, and how did you discover engraving (and/or printmaking)?

At McNeese State University, my printmaking Professor Gerry Wubben worked primarily with intaglio. One day he had a print on the wall with these large beautiful calligraphic marks mixed with a gestural method of etching. It was this dynamic and explosive-looking landscape. I asked him how he did it and he demoed hand engraving. I was terrible when I first tried it but became obsessed with learning how to do it myself. I worked at a movie theater, and I would bring in a small plate and burin to practice making marks. The next semester the first engraving I did was an 18” x 24” rendering of Medusa’s head. I have been obsessed ever since. Later I was able to obtain Gerry’s landscape print—the image that started all of this. I also worked with Oscar Gillespie at Bradley University and he helped take my cutting, drawing, craft, composition, and work ethic to a whole different level. Those were valuable years.

MHR: A lot of your work focuses on and satirizes politics and the state of the world at large. Could you talk about satire, and how it shapes your work?

JE: I like to think that my primary approach to the work is that of allegory. I utilize a lot of symbolism to express things I am frustrated with. My work before 2015 used specific people, but I have stopped doing that as much. I want to make the work more accessible. Sometimes it ends up being funny. The artist that influence my imagery most are Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Heinreich Aldegrever, Lucas Van Leyden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hieronymus Bosch. What I think about most when I make work now is social dynamics and poor communication. At this point it seems impossible to do anything without it being interpreted as a political statement. I often avoid posting my thoughts as I feel I would have write it out like a legal document to fully explain any position I have.

With art, I don’t really care as much. I don’t think anyone gets what I am saying completely right, but I enjoy that. People carry their own baggage to viewing the work and interpreting it. Maybe they are looking for things they agree with? Or maybe they are hellbent on finding things that they could be angry about in it? This recently happened with one print I did that resulted in protest of the work and a bizarre writeup about how I was mocking Christ.

MHR: In our conversations in the past, you’ve expressed admiration for specific artists like Albrecht Dürer and Stanley William Hayter. Is the work of these artists a part of your development as a printmaker? How have you oriented yourself and your work in the context of these influences?

JE: Hayter was important to me as he showed me a way to improvise with engraving. I tried working in a similar manner and it helped me develop my engraving skills and problem-solving skills on a plate. With Dürer, I learned a lot about light, crosshatching, and composition. My work leans harder visually towards the influence of Dürer, but that improvisational element is always there. I rarely have an entire image planned out before I start working. I’ll have the main figures sorted out and then let much of the image evolve as I’m working.

MHR: Every artist seems to have their own individualized process for art-making. Could you share some tips for artists seeking to pursue printmaking or engraving?

JE: Give yourself reasonable goals to start off with. If you don’t, you’ll get discouraged quickly. As an example, drawing is at the core of all my working methods. Draw with a pen or marker and learn to crosshatch. Copy some of the old master works that you like. You’ll learn a lot from doing that. There’s no shame in doing master studies. The old masters did the same thing!

MHR: Does teaching influence your work if so how do your students play a part in your work? How do you maintain a prolific studio practice while on top of the demands of teaching?

JE: Some of the techniques that I have learned have been more so about learning to teach it. Scrollwork is a good example. Had I not gotten the job here, I would have never felt obligated to learn to do that. I’m thankful for it, as I feel I have been able to make some pretty interesting designs. As far as some of the prints, I imagine some of the things they talk about spark my imagination in some way.

Teaching and making work is an ongoing struggle. I do most of my work during the summer and try to do a little during the school year. I tend to get depressed when I’m not working on anything, so it’s important that I have something to chip away at. I started making more relief prints as those are quicker than engravings. During the school year, it’s typically me showing work and not really making as much new work.

MHR: Would you share your thoughts on what constitutes an effective art piece—whatever that word might mean from your perspective?

JE: That’s a hard one to answer. I suppose there are certain types of work that will always engage me regardless of the mood that I am in. In particular: work that is illustrative, technically sound, and has some meaning to it. I can look at work and not understand it, but still realize that there is a complex message. Then there’s more conceptual work that takes more time to take in. I have to be patient and ready to receive the work. I have to be in the right mindset. Sometimes the best work says something better than I could ever articulate.

 

James Ehlers earned his MFA from the University of Florida and is currently the Don and Mary Glaser Distinguished Professor of Engraving Arts at Emporia State University in Kansas — the only school in the nation to offer a BFA in Engraving Arts. Since 2007, he has given numerous engraving workshops at various events including the Frogman’s Printmaking Workshop (South Dakota), IMPACT Printmaking Conferences (Dundee, Scotland and Bristol, England), MAPC (Minnesota), and universities around the country. He has participated in group exhibitions in Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Norway, Romania, The Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, and across the United States.

Thanks for Your Fall Issue Submissions!

Happy October, MockingHeart friends!

I hope your day is a relaxing and fulfilling one so far! Just a note to say thank you for all of the excellent poetry and art submissions we received this reading period.

Submissions for the Fall issue are now CLOSED. We will open again for the Winter issue on December 1.

Looking forward to a month from today (November 1), when our Fall issue (MHR 4.3) will go live! Until then, thank you again for your great work in the world. Watch this space–more excellent material will arrive on the Beats blog before you know it!

Cheers,

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Ten More Days!

Hi, MockingHeart friends,

It’s Friday! The weekend is upon us, that wonderful time of unwinding, catching up on our work…and submitting poetry and art!

While we’re on the subject of time, it’s hard to believe it’s already September 20th. Halloween Season is right around the corner–and with it will come the close of submissions for our Fall issue.

But never fear! Since we’re open ten more days, there’s plenty of time to send us your work, and we look forward to experiencing it. To those who’ve already submitted this period: thank you for thinking of us! We promise that we’re treating your work with the utmost care, which art and poetry must always have.

Okay, enjoy your weekend! Good to talk with you a bit. And as always, thanks for considering MockingHeart Review when sending your creations into the world.

Cheers,

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief