Saturday, August 22, 2015

Interview with Rhonda Pettit

Rhonda Pettit at Split This Rock 2012

                        ...Swimming was always
                       half water, half air;
                       half hold me

                       half get away.

    from “The Invasion,” Rhonda Pettit

Rhonda Pettit, Ph.D., is a poet, scholar, and amateur musician who teaches writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, where she is also editor of the Blue Ash Review. In addition to her chapbook Fetal Waters, and poetic drama The Global Lovers, she has published poems in online and print publications across the U.S. Currently at work on two manuscripts and a series of collages, she has been awarded writing fellowships to Hambidge Center, Hedgebrook, Hopscotch House, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her scholarship includes two books on the poetry and fiction of Dorothy Parker (A Gendered Collision and The Critical Waltz), and articles about a range of poets and poems. She also served as a poetry editor for both volumes    of the Aunt Lute Anthology of U. S. Women Writers.
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I first met Rhonda Pettit at a monthly meeting of the Greater Cincinnati Writers League where she served as the poetry critic for the evening. She spoke of our poems in intuitive and comprehensive ways, posing questions that invited the poets to think about ways to deepen them. We both grew up and continue to live in Northern Kentucky, where we sometimes see each other at poetry readings, workshops, and writing retreats. 
Karen L. George

(This interview was conducted via email.)

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What inspired you to write poetry in the beginning, and have the reasons changed over the years? 

RP: I grew up with poetry in the house. My father had saved his mother's scrapbooks which were filled with old newspaper verse. My mother, a talented pianist at one time, had several anthologies of poetry on her bookshelves. She read poems to me -- a favorite of mine was "The House That Jack Built." She bought me my first poetry book -- Poems for the Children's Hour. In this atmosphere I started writing poems as a child for the sheer joy of rhythm and rhyme, then broke into free verse in high school. Later I got away from writing poems when I became focused on how to make a living. I got back to it when I faced what James Still called "the then-what days." After you have your job, your house, and all your pretty little things, Still said in an interview, "the then-what days will come." I took this to mean: What will your life and life's work be about? What will be their significance beyond mere comfort and survival?

Which poets and/or particular books have been your poetry touchstones?

RP:  In my early twenties, Blake and Whitman were important, and then I was fascinated by the Beat poets and novelists. Later, as I took workshops with James Baker Hall and the visiting poets he brought to UK, the poems of W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, and Louise Gluck were essential to me, all for different reasons. Dorothy Parker was important to me for scholarly reasons when I began working on my PhD. More recently, Muriel Rukeyser and C. D. Wright, especially her books One Big Self and One with Others, continue to inspire me. But I'm also drawn to the narrative poems of Philip Levine and B. H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe, as well as the land-rich writing of Jim Wayne Miller, Ron Rash, and other Appalachian writers. And of course, I drop into an Emily Dickinson swoon periodically -- wait! -- I feel one coming on now!

Do you write poetry with a specific audience in mind? What do you envision or hope readers receive from your poetry?

RP:  Wow. The audience question is a provocative one for me. As a reader, I think it's wonderful that there are so many different kinds of poetries -- styles, tastes, voices, traditions, poetics. But I think it is dangerous for a poet, a word artist, to think much -- if at all -- about audience when she works. For me, part of the noise I need to turn off when I sit down to listen within, i.e., write, is all the talk about labels, trends, "schools," and what editors or contest judges want. If some idea of what the audience wants guides your writing, then you're writing niche verse, regardless of its technical merits.

I wanted to ask you about your poem “The Transposition Blues (with dynamics),” which I found to be a complex, challenging, haunting poem—one I wanted to read many times to tease out new connections, new layers of meaning. I’m thinking it’s what I’ve heard termed as a contrapuntal poem, which involves two separate poems that relate in some way to each other, as in music where you have a counterpoint—two relatively independent melodies sounded together.  This went along with the titles of the two columns of the poem:  “Key of C” and “Key of E.”I saw the poem as a series of images that gained momentum as it went, just as the titled parts did: from the first (“Pianissimo”) a musical term that means “very soft” to the second (“Mezzo piano”) which means “moderately soft” to the fifth (“Crescendo”) which means “a gradual increase in loudness.” The “Key of C” side of the poem contained images of the more privileged life or state of being while the “Key of E” side held images of a more stark and underprivileged way of life, for example “How the couple calls / their love:  deeply igneous” vs. “This goat and sack of grain / for a twelve-year-old wife.” Or “June and the sonorous bodies / glide in the pool” vs. “Starvation’s eye / holding you for the whole note.” A great sense of tension was created by these contrasting images and sides of the poem, which I interpreted to represent a portrait of the current world—countries such as America vs. third world countries—and all the inequities that exist between the two, and the tensions that can result from this imbalance.

Can you talk about how you came to write this poem in this particular form and ways in which you intended or hoped the poem would be read?

RP:  Thank you for reading this poem so attentively -- which is all any poet can ask of a reader. A conglomerate of factors helped produce this poem. I began drafting it during the George W. Bush administration, not long after my mother died. She -- Opal was her name -- is alluded to in the poem. I was learning to play the guitar, and had fallen in love with not only the instrument itself, but with the playing of instruments of all kinds, the internal and external physicalities of making music. I was playing a lot of blues during the Bush years! I was also working on The Global Lovers, a collection of poems in the voice of a sex slave that eventually became a poetic drama, so social and political issues were close at-hand. And I had a stash of images from failed drafts, poem notes, and journal entries that I wanted to build poems around or otherwise use. C is the first note in the natural scale, so the images in that key of the poem suggest moments to be expected or possible in the natural course of nonviolent events. I wanted to see how these images might change under stress, i.e., how they might appear if transposed into the key of E, the key most associated with the blues. There are image echoes across the two columns of the poem. You are right that some of the "E" images capture suffering that occurs outside of the U.S., but some of them allude to the shortcomings of American leadership under George W. Bush -- "Moment that signals / a nation in menopause" and "The 21st century / coming home to a crying house." I was thinking of Dick Chaney accidentally shooting his hunting buddy in the face when I wrote, "Caged birds / released for the hunt."

I saw your powerful poetic drama about sex slavery, “The Global Lovers,” performed at Grailville a few years ago. You delve into that same topic in your chapbook, for example the poem “Enfant Terrible” written from the point-of-view of a woman forced to work in a brothel. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to write about that subject?

RP:  Again, a combination of muse energies at work. I was on academic leave to work on a collection of poems about my mother's experience with Alzheimer's. In the course of staying generally informed, I had read an article by Nicholas Kristof about Aisha Parveen, a kidnapped Pakistani girl forced to work in a brothel. One morning, while working on a poem exploring dementia, I heard the voice of a young sex slave; I wrote down what she said to get that voice out of the way, thinking I'd return to it later, but the voice kept returning with more things to say, and it dominated the last six weeks of my leave, and the next four years afterward. This confirmed for me that, after taking in experience and impressions, writing poetry is first an act of listening.

Many of the poems in your chapbook touch on social issues such as segregation, war, and sex slavery. What do you think about the poet’s role as activist?  Do you feel the poet has a responsibility to address social injustices in their work? 

RP: I think a question behind this question might be: are social issues the most important issues for poets to write about? They are when a particular poet in a particular moment needs to write about them, feels that authentic need from within, in concert with the language and voice to explore it. The heavens and hells of humanity are always with us. We need poems about both.

You teach creative writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash. Does teaching impact your writing, and if so, how?

RP: The most direct example concerns The Global Lovers. When I returned from my academic leave in 2006, I taught the playwriting workshop in the fall. That's when I began to think about converting the sex slave poems into a dramatic performance. This generated a lot of new writing, and a fantastic creative experience working with my director, E. Charlton-Trujillo, for the staged readings and Fringe Festival production.

What advice would you give to a beginning poet about writing poetry?

RP: These days it would be: trade in some of your time with online, virtual experiences for physical interactions with people, nature, urban environments, the arts, and any other subject that interests you. Read -- not just poetry but history, science, philosophy, mythology. Go to live performances. Visit museums. Walk, watch, listen, breathe deep. Learn to play an instrument. In other words, get tactile.

You’re an editor of the literary journal, “The Blue Ash Review.” What are some of the qualities you look for in the submissions you read? Can you give us some examples of what you might reject a poem for?

RP: Most of the work we publish is by our students, who range in age and experience, and may be taking a workshop for the first time in their lives. I look for interesting subjects, vivid imagery, and other applications of techniques, but if I know the student, I also consider the writer's growth as demonstrated by the poem. Has she lived the struggle of writing the poem, learned from it? Has he explored rather than explained? As for what I reject:  clich├ęs, bad rhyming, predictable surface responses to the subject or situation of the poem. 

What poets and/or collections are you currently reading, and can you tell us what you particularly like about them?

RP:  This summer I read Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric -- a fascinating montage of poetry, essay, and visual art. A timely one. Everyone should read and discuss it.

What writing are you currently working on?

RP: I have several projects in-progress. I'm revising a manuscript of poems, Shore to Shore, for submissions this fall. I'm also working on what looks to be a book-length series of narrative poems about a World War II veteran, using my (deceased) father as a model. This project requires research, so much of my reading time this summer has been taken up with that. Then last year something new popped up. As part of a collaborative, creative arts faculty learning community, I began working on a series of call-and-response poems, scat poems, scatifestos, and collages, some of these with my collaborator H. Michael Sanders, as part of the Gaps & Overlaps exhibition at the UC Blue Ash College Art Gallery. This work will continue into the 2015-16 school year. I also have several poetry sequences that need work, as well as some play ideas I'd like to get to. And this summer, for the first time, I broke into a personal essay stemming from a "Write Your River Autobiography" prompt from Richard Hague. I thought it would be a poem when I started typing out my notes, but alas! Prose!

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To read Rhonda Pettit's poem "Epistemology" visit Tipton Poetry Journal.

Karen George, MFA, retired from computer programming to write full-time. She enjoys traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and Europe. She is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015). You can find her work in Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Wind, Permafrost, Blast Furnace, qarrtsiluni, Found Poetry Review, and Still.

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