Terry Blackhawk, Keynote · Teacher, poet, and essayist, Terry is the founder of Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project in poetry that serves 5000 youth each year. She has won the John Ciardi and the Pablo Neruda prizes for poetry. She was named Creative Writing Educator and Detroit Bookwoman of the Year (2007), and holds a Humanities Award from Wayne County Arts, History, and Humanities. She serves on AWP and WITS (Writers in the School) Alliance. www.terrymblackhawk.com
Q&A with Terry Blackhawk
Meet award-winning poet Terry Blackhawk. She is a long-time friend of A Rally of Writers and we are fortunate to have her join us again this year. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work. www.terrymblackhawk.com
You are an award-winning poet. How do you describe the kind of poetry you write?
I guess the key word here is variety. Some of my poems are narrative and tell stories. Some poems come from meditations or pure imagination or memories.
Others praise or mourn or question or protest or make fun. I like to think that the poem takes me where it wants to go, and not the other way around. I experiment with form and line, enjoying the restrictions of form (sapphics, abecdarians, sestinas, for example) or what new meanings shake out as I jostle about (with spacing, indentation, dropped syllables, breaks) in the lines.
Recently I’ve been writing in syllabics, using a nine- or seven-syllable line, and I’ve also tried my hand at prose poems, which may set me in new directions. One reviewer said of my book Escape Artist, which won the John Ciardi Prize, that I seemed to be escaping from form itself in the poems, which had not occurred to me. Writing poetry is a kind of escape, though, a way of taking me out of myself and discovering what I really think about something instead of what I may have told myself about it.
How do your poems come to you? And how do you know when you are done?
If some idea or event or memory is nagging and poking around in my subconscious, and keeps coming back, I’ll usually write about it.
Sometimes I start out from a point of emptiness with free (or automatic) writing, which I trust to help me find what I have to say or to at least get started. From there, a line or phrase or passage will suggest something to develop farther.
I like a subject where the language seems to resonate, phrases might echo with other phrases and make new connections and new meanings. Images are also crucial. I’ll take a word like “feather” — which may lead me to “father” or “falter” – and explore the way the image looks, how it moves, what it can do, feel like, sound like. I like my poems to be as visual as possible, to be grounded in the senses and give the reader something to see as well as feel or think about, which is why imagery is so crucial. I think that I think in images, rather than words. The words come after the triggering image and are a way of exploring what the image means.
As to when a poem is done, well, there’s sometimes a little ‘click’ that lets me know the poem is finished. Often that occurs after I have tinkered and revised in a more deliberate and less creative manner and put in some changes that come from the ‘conniving’ mind, the part of consciousness that is too aware of what it is doing, too conscious of making its points. Once I take those last changes out, the poem seems to breathe better. I usually start off in longhand, but then take my poems through many drafts, saving different versions on my computer. I can also revise poems after many years. When I was putting together The Light Between, my most recent collection, I was surprised at how earlier poems that I had not considered for many years made connections with the more recent poems and fit into the manuscript.
Your dad was at Rally as a speaker before he passed away. Did you get your love of poetry and the patience to wrestle with your own poems from him?
I was fortunate to grow up in a literate family, with books and music and art, and a father, a professor, who shared poetry with me. So yes, my dad Ben Bohnhorst was definitely an early influence. After he died, I found a letter he had sent to a friend, in which he wrote, “Terry has been writing some verses. Not bad.” I must have been about eight at the time. I fondly recall him sharing poems he loved with me: e.e. cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s]” andFrost’s “The Runaway” are vivid memories. My parents gave me an anthology of poetry for children called Silver Pennies, which was a constant companion.
Dad didn’t write poetry when I was growing up. He became a poet in his seventies, after he retired from Michigan State, a few years after I had begun writing and publishing. He was an active member of the Lansing poetry community and loved his poetry group at the UU church. He organized readings with Ruelaine Stokes in Old Town and judged contests for the Poetry Society of Michigan, published half a dozen chapbooks, and took enormous pleasure in it all.
Tell us about your wonderful work with Inside Out.
I founded InsideOut in 1995, thanks to an invitation from a benefactor who saw potential in my creative work with youth and asked me if I wanted to “take the work citywide.” I had no idea where it was going to lead, but I retired in 2015, proud and grateful that the organization continues to serve thousands of Detroit children and youth every year with exciting, affirming ways to engage as writers. The program — of weekly visits from a writer-in-residence, school literary journals, citywide performance opportunities (and a whole lot more) — has solid roots in schools and great support from teachers, parents, and principals.
iO’s mission is to encourage young people to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world.” I write about how InsideOut developed in my introduction to To Light a Fire: Twenty Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, which I edited along with Peter Markus, and which features essays by some of the fabulous writers who have worked in Detroit classrooms over the years through iO. From 2011 to 2015 I also wrote a regular blog for Detroit Huffington Post that shares stories and highlights the beautiful voices of the students.
What kind of contemporary poetry do you love these days?
I’m enjoying Kaveh Akbar and Jericho Brown, Marilyn Nelson and W. S. Merwin. I was saddened to learn of the untimely death of Lucie Brock-Broido and plan to get to know her amazingly inventive work. One of my favorite recent books is Robert Fanning’s Our Sudden Museum, which received a review here, that does justice to the grace and gravity of his collection.
I am also a big fan of Lansing’s Poet Laureate Dennis Hinrichsen, both for the way he is stirring up poetic fire in the community and for the way his poems make me confront the beautiful ravages of the world we live in. I’m fortunate to be a part of the rich Detroit literary world, and I follow the work of people I know and admire there, many of whom have roots or connections with InsideOut. Bill Harris, francine j. harris, Airea D. Matthews, Matthew Olzmann, Peter Markus, Vievee Francis, Tommye Blount, Diane Shipley DeCillis, Jamaal May are some of the poets who are breaking new ground and winning accolades and major awards. What a feast they provide!
I’d also like to give a shout-out to Nandi Comer, whose first chapbook American Family: a Syndrome, is due out from Finishing Line Press later this year. Nandi was a student in my high school creative writing class the first year InsideOut was organized, and she went on to teach and become a leader with iO for many years, while pursuing two masters’ degrees and developing her poetic craft and voice. There will be more books to look for on her horizon!
And I send a great tribute to Peter Markus, who has been the rudder for the good ship InsideOut since its very beginning, bringing his magic into the classrooms, meanwhile publishing six novels or story collections and building a devoted audience for his experimental poetic prose. Kirkus Review called his most recent book, Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools, of which I am the humble dedicatee, “an inventive and inspiring memoir from an innovative educator.” It’s a book, as another reviewer wrote, that teaches us how to hold wonder at the center of our lives.
What’s the biggest misconception that “new” poets have about the business of publishing? How do you help them manage expectations.
I haven’t been in conversation with beginning poets for a long while, so I’m not sure what misconceptions are out there these days, but my best advice would be to dial down – way down – on the expectation of publication. I guess the writer must ask herself what exactly is she being true to, what is the motivation? What keeps her writing? Is her work bringing her joy, excitement, or sustenance, in and of itself? Is it honest? Is it helping her to understand herself better? Is it connecting her with others? She should give herself time to grow, and proceed with an open mind and a sense of adventure. I think this must be an extraordinary time to be a beginning poet. The literary landscape was far less populated when I first began writing and publishing in the late 1980s. The beginning poet has many more places to submit work, in print and on line, and there are hundreds more small presses, MFA programs and other literary organizations to get involved with. The more the poet reads and understands poetic styles and schools and trends and directions in poetry the more grounded she will be. She needs to find her literary forebears (both mothers and fathers) and be true to them as well as to herself.