Interview: Laura Hope-Gill on Soul Tree Solstice

Soul Tree Solstice

Laura Hope-Gill is a poet, teacher and author of Look Up Asheville: An Architectural Journey and Look Up Asheville II. She is a NCArts Fellow, founding director of Asheville Wordfest and Coordinator of M.A. in Writing Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies in Asheville. Laura was named the first poet laureate of the Blue Ridge Parkway following the publication of The Soul Tree: Poems and Photographs of the Southern Appalachians. On December 20th she will perform selections from The Soul Tree with musicians at the “Living Room” above the Asheville Visitors Center at 36 Montford at 7 p.m. There is a $10.00/sliding scale admissions cost. Laura graciously agreed to a short interview regarding the book The Soul Tree and the event Thursday night, Soul Tree Solstice.

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You recently wrote on Facebook that The Soul Tree poems “were the poems I had been preparing (… being prepared?) to write since I first fell in love with the music of language as a child…” If you would, please explain that statement and then tell how they developed into the book The Soul Tree.

Laura Hope-Gill

I view the Soul Tree poems as a miracle in my life. They were the “finishing touch” on a years-long journey to understand something. That something has its stirrings in my childhood. I was a very nature-bound child. I could sit for hours out there just watching, absorbing the air, the sounds, the presences of animals. These poems took me back to that, only it was with the knowledge of what felt like all I’ve read and learned and wondered about since that time. I felt all that wonder we can hold as children but lose as we grow older. Somehow the music of language opened it up in me again. What a gift.

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The Soul Tree poems were (still are?) healing and transformative for you. Explain that process and how these poems have grown you (or are continuing growing you).

Laura Hope-Gill

Still, when I read them, they take me back to that space of awe and wonder. They unjade me, and they bring me back to nature, back to my soul, and that’s where all the medicine is. They grow me because we don’t live in a world where we can walk around with that wonder and awe, that innocence and still work at the good we need to bring into the world. We need to shelve our innocence. We can’t check out and still be effective. What we can do is catch a glimpse from time to time of our divine state, that nascence. I think that’s our awe, the way we feel when a view of the mountains takes our breath away, when something deep inside us connects with something deep inside the earth. It’s a sort of recognition. Writing the poems was a submersion in that recognition. It taught me a lot, much of which I’m still learning to hear when I read them.

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The upcoming Soul Tree Solstice event on December 20th will be the second time that you and Doug and Darcy Orr will perform together. Share about the first time you preformed with them and what people might expect of the upcoming event.

Laura Hope-Gill

Doug and Darcy have invited Joe and Karen Holbert to perform in their place due to a family sadness. We do have plans to continue collaborating, the five of us. A mutual friend gave Doug a copy of The Soul Tree a few years ago. He has since given it to his friends. Recently, he forwarded a note one of these friends had sent to him, thanking him for the book. I was so moved. Also, at that time, I had just given a reading at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and I realized while reading that I was finally “ready” to collaborate musically. I remembered playing with Doug and Darcy in a circle on the grounds of Warren Wilson College at Swannanoa Gathering. That night I was supposed to read on stage with Doug but due to some motherhood scheduling problems I arrived late. We ended up reading and playing together much later, in a much less intentional setting, and there was a magic to it. It was like the poems were home. It’s taken some time, though, for me to be able to read the poems whole. I mean I could get up in front of people and say them, but I was afraid to embody them, because they hold stuff that’s enormous to me. I have long believed that poet has a responsibility when performing to hold the audience in a safe place. The poet has to be solid, to be strong. I can do that with poems written in a voice people are more accustomed to. But the Soul Tree poems had their own voice, something more core. Maybe they were a promise of what I would one day be able to hold. Maybe they were a challenge inviting me to grow into them, that when I did I would be fully standing in myself. I can do that now,and I can read the poems. And I’m thrilled to read them with this extraordinary group of musicians.

Interview: Emöke B’Racz on Remember Me as a Time of Day

Remember Me Event

Emöke B’Racz, born in Budapest, Hungary, is a poet, translator, and owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore. She is the author of poetry books Raising Voices and Every Tree is the Forest and translator of collected poems by exile Katalin Ladik Stories of the Seven-Headed Sewing Machine. Her work is published in New York Quarterly, Asheville Poetry ReviewInternational Poetry Review, and many others.

The Women on Words poetry anthology Remember Me as a Time of Day was compiled by Emöke and will be featured this Sunday, December 16th at 5pm. The poetry reading features the Women on Words poets Alicia Valbuena, Barbara Gravelle, Eileen Walkenstein, Emoke B’Racz, Genie Joiner, Maryann Jennings, Nancy Sanders, Patricia Harvey, Piri B’Racz Gibson, Sena Rippel, Virginia Haynes Redfield, and Zoe Durga Harber.

Emöke took time out of her busy schedule for a brief interview about Remember Me as a Time of Day.

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First, share a short history of the group Women of Words.

Emöke B’Racz

Women on Words has been in existence practically since I opened the doors to Malaprop’s. The poetry selection in th store was more international then American because I was more familiar with poets from EU, but as time went by I learned. Women on Words was formalized about ten years ago or so. There has always been a performance group or a poetry writing group.

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As an anthology celebrating the 30th year anniversary of Malaprop’s, what can readers and poetry lovers who are not from the local region learn from Remember Me as a Time of Day?

Emöke B’Racz

Readers of the anthology Remember Me as a Time of Day will learn that the local poets’ voices are universal that poetry is within geography but borderless. It is also a nice mix of voices that support the body of the work as presented.

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Finally, I recall a verse from Alicia Valbuena, “this poem is why I can’t sleep at night why I can’t lay my head/to rest…” It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s line “Do I dare Disturb the universe?” How might readers be affected after reading Remember Me as a Time of Day?

Emöke B’Racz

A feeling of joy and sorrow that is the essence of life and balances our soul’ s path into ourselves. A stronger self at that.

Interview: Barbie Angell on Roasting Questions

Roasting Questions Flyer

Barbie Angell is Asheville’s “poetess extraordinaire.” She has performed her poetry before audiences at bars, coffee shops and this Friday she’ll be at The Hop West promoting her new book Roasting Questions, a collection of children’s poems. The Hop West book release event is free and runs from 7 – 9 p.m. Visit Barbie’s web site for more details or visit The Hop West for directions.

Her previous self-published volumes of poetry have sold over 500 copies, according to her publisher, and she has earned a loyal audience from people who don’t know they like poetry to celebrated artists like Rosanne Cash and David LaMotte. Barbie kindly agreed to an interview to discuss the release of her first book Roasting Questions.

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For those who don’t know a thing about you, tell a little about yourself and how you came to poetry.

Barbie Angell

As a child, I loved reading Shel Silverstein. I was sick a lot & often alone and Shel’s poetry really grabs hold of loneliness and pushes the reader into a new world with quite tilted perspectives. My first Christmas in Mooseheart, a sort of orphanage, I was given a diary. Knowing I didn’t have the privacy required to keep an actual diary, I chose to hide my thoughts in poems. When I was in college I realized that, while poets didn’t appreciate my rhyming style, people who didn’t normally go to poetry events really loved my work. I was able to tap into an entirely new audience who had previously been ignored. In 1997 I was offered a children’s poetry gig which paid $75 for a half hour of performing. I didn’t write children’s poetry, but I needed the money, so I chose some of my rhyming pieces that were G-rated and the event was so successful that they gave me the job the next 2 years.

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Roasting Questions has been in the works for a little more than a year. Tell how the Roasting Questions developed as a collection of poems for children of all ages.

Barbie Angell

The book has changed a great deal since its inception. Originally it was going to have poems with blank sections for the children to draw a picture and also pictures with blank sections to write a poem. I still plan to do that book, most likely as a black and white supplemental to Roasting Questions. The pieces that ended up in this book were all given final approval by my seven year-old son. About half of them are also ones which I perform when I do bar shows and get the same incredible response from adults as they do at my children’s performances.

I’m unbelievably proud of Roasting Questions. Laura Hope-Gill assisted in the editing of the pieces and Michele Scheve and I brainstormed about the layout. With each “problem” that arose, I ended up finding a solution that made the book even more rich and quirky. Those two ladies from Grateful Steps Publishing House taught me a great deal and because of them the book is everything I could have hoped for.

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This is your first published book. Years from now, and hopefully many published books down the road, when you look back at Roasting Questions what do you hope readers will remember as the enduring idea of the book?

Barbie Angell

I absolutely hope you’re right and that this is the first of many books. The main philosophies behind Roasting Questions are fairly simple. I try to speak to the reader the way that Shel did, not over their heads or talking down to them, but speaking directly to them. Letting them know that we are all confused at times, all struggling with who we are and who we want to be. In the end, even though we’re all different, we want to connect with each other and be the best “us” we can be.

Interview: Luke Hankins on Poems of Devotion

Poems of Devotion

Luke Hankins is Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review and the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, a chapbook of translations of French poems by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, I Was Afraid of Vowels…Their Paleness and editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets. This Sunday, December 9 at 5 p.m., at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Luke will read selections from Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets along with other featured contributors: Malaika King Albrecht, Richard Chess, Morri Creech, Richard Jackson, Suzanne Underwood Rhodes, and Daniel Westover. Luke agreed to a quick interview to discuss the recently published Poems of Devotion.

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Tell me how the anthology, Poems of Devotion, developed from concept to final printed book.

Luke Hankins

In my final year of graduate school, I took an independent study course with the superb poet and teacher Maurice Manning, which essentially meant that I chose an academic/creative project and he offered input on and evaluation of it. I have had a strong interest in spiritual poetry for many years, so it was natural that I would choose a topic that reflected this passion. The essay I wrote for that class was an examination of a particular set of qualities that characterized many of my favorite spiritual poems, qualities which, in my mind, constituted a distinct mode of composition. The essay was an early form of what is now the introductory essay of the anthology, examining what I call the devotional mode in poetry. When I first wrote it, the idea of editing an anthology hadn’t occurred to me, but as I continued to revisit and revise the essay after graduate school, I felt increasingly that the compiling “poems of devotion” would make for a superb collection of poems. As an experiment, I began gathering poems that I would include in a theoretical anthology, and that’s when I began to feel a real impulse — a “call,” if you will — to bring these poems together in an anthology. I sent out a proposal to several publishers, and I eventually signed a contract with Wipf & Stock Publishers.

What followed was — well, let’s just say a year of very hard work! Gathering the poems I wanted to include was one aspect: reading widely, taking recommendations, spending long days in the library or in coffee shops with large stacks of books. But all of that, though difficult, was full of pleasure and felt deeply rewarding. The other aspect was obtaining — and paying for! — permission from copyright holders to reprint the poems. That process was often labyrinthine, frustrating, and, not least of all, expensive. But it was worth it. I’m very excited about the finished anthology, and am moved and challenged anew each time I read it. Truly.

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Maurice Manning is becoming one of my favorite living poets. At the public library, I discovered his book Bucolics and then had an opportunity to attend one of his lectures at Warren Wilson. But I digress. You beat me to the second question which is what did you learn most? Seems like the whole publishing side of the anthology was quite a classroom of experience. If you will, highlight one moment during that year long process that “felt deeply rewarding” for you.

Luke Hankins

I think approaching the copyright aspect of the anthology with a certain level of naivety in many instances worked to my advantage. People were more inclined to take mercy on me and my minuscule budget! But there were a few publishing houses who were absolutely unmovable, and I had to pay out my teeth, so to speak, to include poems I felt were necessary to the anthology. So I learned to rejoice in small mercies where they came, and to practice stoicism about what I saw as exorbitant pricing from some of the major publishing houses.

Regarding your second question, I wouldn’t want to try to single out one moment that felt rewarding. I’ll just say that the process of discovering poets I came to love, whose work I had never read or had only read cursorily, was one of the most rewarding aspects. Re-reading poets whose work has been very impactful for me was another aspect. Also, there was an overall sense of being blessed to be able to dedicate myself to an undertaking that felt like an important fulfillment of who I am. I felt that I was working with real purpose. I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do.

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One final question, what’s the biggest thing you hope readers take away from Poems of Devotion?

Luke Hankins

I hope that readers — whether religious or non-religious, theistic or non-theistic — come away with a conviction that the devotional mode is a powerful, ongoing, vital mode in literature. I believe in these poems and their ability to do just that.

How to Answer the 5 Toughest Interview Questions You’ll Face

  1. Why Should I Hire You?
  2. What is your greatest fault?
  3. What three historical figures would you invite to dinner and why?
  4. What are your salary requirements?
  5. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Read more.

(via moneywatch)

Interview: EVA SCRUGGS

It was early February when I visited Eva Scruggs at her River Arts District studio. The recent winter storms had swelled the French Broad River above normal levels and I watched the ominous river on that cloudy afternoon as I drove to meet her.

Eva Scruggs welcomed me into her studio and we exchanged pleasantries. She offered me beer, tea or chai. “Chai would be great.” I said as I retrieved some recording equipment from my canvas messenger bag. She prepared a cup of chai and sweetened it with honey and added soy milk. She offered me the warm drink then sat down in her white floor chair and sipped her beer from an old mason jar. I pressed the red “record” button and began, “Tell me a little about yourself…”

“I guess,” she said. “I started oil painting at the age of six.”

There followed a brief discussion about art school. Eva told me that she had majored in art at the College of Charleston and later received a masters in art education in Tennessee. After that, she took some time off. I asked her if she thought it was important, as an artist, to unplug from art-making.

“Yeah, well, I had to for financial reasons. So, I mean, it isn’t that I ever really wanted to just focus on teaching art. It’s that I had to teach art to make money to feed my habit which is doing art.”

It seems that most of the artists that I know work a day job to fuel their creative passions. Maybe it’s not possible to be a full-time artist. Maybe juggling between art-making and waiting tables is necessary for artists.

“If all I had to do was be here in the studio and paint,” she said. “I would probably go crazy. I would probably get a little too self absorbed. You know how you can really drift into your own world. I need that world and at the same time it helps to keep… balance. So, I teach and I do organic farming during the summer time. And I’m a mom.”

“I really like to teach. I teach at AB Tech and I really, really feed off the new energy of new students… fresh ideas… There is something about the farming thing, too. I have to have at least a certain amount of it, you know. So, no, I wouldn’t want to paint full-time. I think I would go crazy.”

Our conversation weaved into an unsuspected path of artists being the true scientists and modern prophets. But I’ll save that for another time. I wanted to know what direction she thought art education is heading. She suggested that there are two branches of thought. “One is more academic, more exclusive amongst artists. Lots of MFA programs are focusing on what’s relevant to this century or even this half of century. But to me it seems kind of elitist. It seems like that’s going to be a view of art that only a certain amount of people can understand. It’s art for artists.”

“The other, which is sort of my path… is art to the people. Part of the reason I am a figurative painter is because I know that people relate and understand figurative painting. Common, average people understand basic symbolism. Part of my thing… is being able to communicate with people, everyday people. Not just artists who are going to understand the breakdown of elements and principles. So I paint… paintings that… have messages. I don’t paint them for someone to buy. I paint them to express this.” She gestures at the paintings around her. “I’d like people to see and understand and relate. That’s what all those biblical paintings are kind of about, too. Let’s rethink this story. You know, turn it around in a different point of view and modernize it to some extent.”

At the mention of the biblical series, Eva appeared more relaxed, more confident as if she had arrived in her sanctuary. She took a drink from her mason jar. It appeared she was ready to discuss her biblical series.

“Well,” she paused and looked at her hands which were covered in dark fingerless gloves. “It seems like when I started with the biblical theme… I was working on a different series. I was working on the states of human emotion. Trying to capture different emotions… through expression.

“Anyway, so the last one I did, of that series, was a self portrait with my child. After I painted it, I recognized it as a madonna, and I painted in the background a scene from the WTO protests in Seattle. That’s where it all got started. It’s called ‘The Jaded Madonna.’ The madonna is holding this child and she’s obviously concerned, and the child is open, wide open. But behind the mother… the police, decked out in riot gear… smog in the background from the gas that they’re releasing. So, it was kind of a statement.”

“And then it just sort of clicked in my mind,” said Eva as she motioned with her hands. She seemed focused on some point on the floor. “This is something a lot of people will relate to. It’s a biblical theme. It’s a classical theme. People look at it because of that and then… if you can get them in that far then throw something else in there that talks about modern culture. You know, it’s just the juxtaposition that makes a strange commentary. So, I feel I could run wild with that theme.”

I sipped the chai then asked her to tell me about her recent painting series.

“I’ve been working on a dream series just because I’ve had these reoccurring dreams throughout my life. I’m not exactly sure where they come from. But I figured that’s a way to address them, and maybe make them go away.”

“It’s not that they are really bad dreams,” she continued. “I usually have these water dreams where I’m swimming. I can see the top of the water and I know I’m almost out of air. So, I just keep swimming and swimming. But I can never quite make it to the top and I start somehow recirculating my air and… breathing in the water. It feels really good. Anyway, that’s what that one is about…” she said as she pointed to the painting over her right shoulder.

“And that one” she pointed to another painting across the studio resting on an easel. “An image I’ve had in my head for a long time.”

We spent more time discussing ideas, life and art (which I may write about later). But I knew she wanted to do some painting that afternoon. So, I thanked her for the chai (complimenting her on the way she prepared it), packed up my recording equipment, and left Eva Scruggs in her studio with the visions in her head that desired to be translated into pigment on canvas.

(Originally published in The Indie, March 2004 issue.)

Interview: RYAN FORD

Byzantine paintings were created to as icons depicting the eternal while denying the ephemeral. That’s why many 11th and 12th century wooden panel paintings were gilded with gold backgrounds and exhibited floating figures of the Christ, the Madonna and the saints. These images are what inspired River Arts District artist Ryan Ford. “I’ve always been very intrigued by the aesthetics of religious icon art,” he told me in a recent interview in his studio at The Wedge (one of the many warehouse buildings scattered along the French Broad River District). The work that started it all was his replica of St. Anthony Beaten by Devils.

“It’s a fifteenth century, Sienese painting by Stefano di Giovanni,” Ryan Ford began. “The original was an egg tempera painting. I did this in oil paint,” he gestured to the panel on the wall.

“Interesting story about this one… supposedly the peasants were so moved by the piece that they [would] scratch away the beasts faces and genitalia revealing the under sketching. So, that’s what you’re seeing here.” Ford pointed at the portion of the painting where a beast’s groin revealed gold smudges. “I wouldn’t imagine this painting any other way. It’s one of my favorite paintings in the world. That’s why I did an exact copy of it.” Ford explained, “the Sienese artists… capture an air of inquisitiveness. It’s almost timeless and just for them. They paint very simply. They don’t over do anything. I mean, look at the trees in the background. They’re little mushroom shapes. It’s just got this air of truth and beauty that was just so moving to me.”

Ford hit on something that has been missing in contemporary art for a long time, “truth and beauty.” The formula, in the classical school of thought, was to display truth and beauty. Even disturbing images depicted in Stefano di Giovanni painting held a timeless quality and vocabulary that is lost on young, contemporary artists. In Ford’s work he combines violent and comedic elements that resonate.

He moved passed a huge furry mask hanging from the low ceiling and deeper into his studio to a work in progress. “I’m doing a show coming up in April. That’s what this one is for,” He told me as he stood to the left the unfinished painting on an easel.

“I’ve talked [with] friends that have faced the issue of suicide. So, this is kind of a tribute. You’ll notice the brains coming out of the side of his head I painted in gold. Like your ideas are golden. I had this composition in my head and I’ve [wanted] to do it for awhile. I just started yesterday so I’ve gotten this far. There’s a long way to go on it. This for the next show in April.” Ryan Ford is hosting a show April 30th at the Wedge Gallery. The title of the fine arts show is “All Desperate and Golden.”

Behind Ryan Ford hung a large painting dominating the far wall. Its intensity reminds me of an apocryphal vision. Last April, the Mountain Xpress ran an article by Connie Bostic featuring him and Julie Masaoka. In that article Julie wrote: “Ford, who’s now reading the Bible, says he loves the visions these stories inspire. He’s particularly moved… by the Book of Job.” As we moved deeper into his small studio as he told me of the story behind the painting and within the painting.

“I read the Bible. It took me like eight months to read. I’m not going to act like I know everything about the Bible now, because I’m probably just as confused after reading as I was before reading it. So, I was drawn to Revelation. I mean, I love the way it was written. This,” he paused as he looked at his work. “I took from Revelation. The alpha and omega,” Ford pointed to the creature in the upper right hand corner and then casually shuffled to the left side of the painting. “And the angel descending from the sky is dropping seven stars and seven candles. I forget what they are significant of. I’m mixing Revelation with my own little character. His name is Hot-Pants. He’s kind of like the unsung hero. He’s the everyday person. He’s you and me. He’s running blind through his own life. Just kind of taking it as [it] comes, and he’s getting hit from every direction. But he still has a smile on his paper bag.” Hot-Pants is represented by a figure in a red spandex body suit, a blue cap and a paper bag in place of a mask.
“I’ve got a lot of characters,” Ford continued. “This here is our typical businessman who is made a lot of bad decisions. He fears for his life. He’s got his wings right now, but they’re not going to last.”

We discussed other selections of the Bible. We reflected on vibrant imagery in the Bible such as a passage from Zechariah: “I saw by night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse, and it stood among the myrtle trees in the hollow; and behind him were horses: red, sorrel, and white.”

“Yeah that’s how it is in reading it,” Ford responded. “It’s like pieces of it really just grip me. Like I read fragments and… like whoa, you know, and get blown away. Throughout [my] life English and art teachers always move me the most, you know. Of course, Iâ??m retarded in math. But I had an English teacher who said ‘if you read one book, I definitely suggest reading the Bible. If nothing else for the literary quality’.” He turned back to his painting and continued to explain his vision.

“Another central figure here is a rapper. He’s got the armor piercing lyric logo above him, because he’s kind of like the Christ-figure. He’s using his voice as a weapon. And then Jacob’s ladder connecting heaven and earth. I also put [it] in there because it’s one of my favorite movies.”

“It’s just pieces I put together, you know. Actually a lot of the characters I sketch in there one day but a lot of it kind of grows as I go along. The cloud-eater… like what the hell is that? What does that mean? I don’t know. So, I took a cloud-eater [and] made this little monster that’s attractive to me. I don’t try to explain. It just fits for me. And it’s fun.

“My roommate always makes fun of me, ‘All your stuff is like a kid. You can’t grow up.’ Yeah, well, that’s what’s fun to me. I’ve got reference to Mario Brothers with the little bricks. That’s referencing to childhood… nostalgia also.”

Reesa Grushka, in a recent essay, wrote, “Translation usually makes what is foreign familiar. An inverse translation claims what is familiar as the domain of the foreign.” The creations of Ryan Ford seem to translate ancient themes of truth and beauty into contemporary visual stories. Inversely, his use of pop culture icons woven into early renaissance structure communicates well to the modern audience.

(Originally published in The Indie, April 2004 issue.)