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Monday, April 23, 2012

Couplets: Interview with Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Today, I'm very excited to bring you the second of my poet interviews for Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour. Iris Jamahl Dunkle is not only an amazing poet (her poetry, creative nonfiction and scholarly articles have appeared in numerous publications including: Fence, LinQ, Boxcar Poetry Review, Weave, Verse Wisconsin, Talking Writing, Yalobusha Review and The Mom Egg), she's an educator and a Web Developer. Read on below to see some of the fabulous things she's up to, but also visit her blog Poet 2.0 to get a fuller picture of her writing and other work.

The first thing that strikes me when I read your poetry – for example, the marvelous pieces at Talking Writing and Radius – is how intricately connected to nature they are, weaving in elements from the Northern California landscape, following its cycles of decay and renewal. How important is the place you live to the way you write?

Place is a central part of my writing process. I am fortunate to have grown up in Sonoma County in Northern California. And I live and write on the same property where I grew up, so my natural surroundings are something I’ve been learning about since I was eight or nine and set off on day-long creek exploring adventures. The hawks raise their young in the same tall pines above my home as they did when I was a child. The quail nest in the same spot next to our gravel driveway each year. The deer follow the same paths year after year. I have a visceral love of this place and I guess I never get tired of trying to understand where I am. These days I’m equally focused on digging into the recorded history of the place where I live too.

I do a lot of work centered around Web development, so of course I was particularly drawn to the series of “code” poems (incorporating elements of HTML, XML, PERL and javascript) that you wrote for Raft. What attracted you to experimenting with these syntaxes, and what possibilities do you think they offer up for poets interested in exploring new forms?

Well, I’ve spent the past fourteen years as a web developer and social media communications consultant. For most of my career as a web developer I kept my poetry life separate. But something happened to me once I had children, and I just couldn’t believe in boundaries between my writing life, my work life, and my home life anymore. One day I was trying to write an elegy for a friend’s father and I just couldn’t break the lyric enough to express what I wanted to say. Then, I remembered how malleable XML code was and thought, “why couldn’t I frame my lyric thoughts in tags?” It was really empowering to blend the language of poetry with the language of code. It was especially fun to bring in the Perl tags. I hate Perl. Every application I had to build and support at one of my old jobs was built in clunky Perl code that I never felt I could control. It was so liberating to use Perl poetically rather than functionally.

In the wonderful non-fiction piece “The Flying Trolley” you had published in The Barefoot Review, you recount some of your experiences teaching creative writing to MS patients at Goldwater Hospital in New York. How for you has poetry been about much more than putting words on a page, about the ways you’ve helped introduce it into other people’s lives, especially those in situations where it’s “most needed”?

Teaching, especially teaching poetry, is the greatest gift I’ve even been given. Teaching at Goldwater Hospital was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was 22, had just been severely injured in a car accident and told I would never walk again. Working at Goldwater helped me learn the power of poetry to speak the unspeakable. I’ve been lucky enough to get to work with students from all backgrounds: Juvenile Hall in Marin County, CA, the Library for the Blind in New York City, the Women’s Center in Cleveland, Ohio. What I’ve found is that those who “need” poetry, speak it in its purest form and with little help from me. I’ll never forget some of the poems my students have written in my classes. Or what they’ve taught me about poems I’ve brought for them to read. People who walk different paths than your own teach you what it is like to see the world from their perspective. For that, I am eternally grateful.

In addition to teaching writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Napa Valley College, you also are very involved with bringing poetry to younger students, through the California Poets in Schools program and the recital contest Poetry Out Loud. How does recital help young people connect to a poem?

I’ve been teaching Poetry Out Loud for three years now and each year I am amazed that I can actually get paid to do such meaningful work. Imagine sitting down with a sixteen year old kid and close reading a Robert Duncan poem? Or, a sonnet by John Keats? It’s fascinating to watch these intelligent students illuminate the text with their voices. Reciting poetry has always been how I best hear a poem. I have to read a poem aloud in order to understand it, or see it’s lyrical path. Watching students fall in love with a poem enough to take it to heart, to memorize it and allow it to be something that is a part of them, is an incredible journey I savor each year. This year my student Brynna Thigpen won our County finals and I had the incredible experience of travelling to Sacramento and watching her recite her poems on the state senate floor as part of the Statewide competition. She didn’t win state finals, but seeing the whole senate chambers filled with students reciting poetry is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Your chapbook, published by Finishing Line Press, is titled “Inheritance” and, webgeek that I am, the idea as related to CSS immediately sprang to mind, all of the “parent” influences that cascade down through time to make us who we are. Can you tell me a little about what inspired this collection?

(I love that you went immediately to computer code! :) )

I wrote Inheritance while I was living in New York City. I was finishing my MFA at New York University and working at the Poetry Society at the time. My boyfriend, who lived in Washington DC was about to propose. I was uncertain about how my writing life would fit into my life after my MFA program so I started writing a poem-a-day to examine all of the things I would be inheriting: what it was to be an writer (and no longer a student), what it was to be a wife, what it was to return to where you were from. It was a powerful exercise and those 65 poems were edited down to this collection.
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