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Poetry is a powerful force in D.C., weaving its way in and out of literary, political, and social discourse. Local poets read their work at state dinners, protests, and art installations, and publish their pieces in national journals and in their own collections from publishing houses both large and small.
Three 2019 collections—Scattered Clouds, A Constellation of Half-Lives, and A Short History of Monsters—are captivating readers with their accessibility. Don’t expect flowery, light dances from these poets. Instead, their poems open up the art form to readers who might normally prefer prose, and re-establish why poetry is such an important way of sharing words.
Reuben Jackson’s Scattered Clouds was decades in the making. He wrote Fingering the Keys, the first section in the collection, many years ago and incorporated it into this larger work. Jackson is known locally for his poetry, teaching, and vast musical knowledge, and it’s impossible to attend a literary event without running into at least one of his writing students. But his poetry sings its own song, and Scattered Clouds draws in readers with its warm, and often blunt, truth-telling.
WCP: What was the hardest part about writing this collection?
RJ: The hardest thing about this collection—and keep in mind, Fingering the Keys was my first book, published nearly 20 years ago—was trying to balance the thematic and emotional ratio. There is such a thing as too much longing and grief, even for a pretty wistful dude such as myself. There was also the fear that the poems in Fingering might make folks wince. Like, say, high school yearbook pics. Overall, I think things turned out pretty well.
WCP: What poet or poetry collection has impacted your writing the most?
RJ: I am indebted to countless poets and their published efforts. Not to mention musicians. If I could cheat a little, I’d certainly have to include Miles Davis, for his use of space and his lyricism. Poetically speaking, I would say William Carlos Williams. I love nearly everything he has written, but I am especially drawn to a late volume entitled Journey To Love.
WCP: What poem was the most vulnerable work to include in the collection?
RJ: The “Amir” and “Khadijah” poems reflect an unfettered tenderness I will probably never be able to recapture again. Amir would say they are testaments to the human heart in love.
WCP: How is your writing process different now than when you first wrote Fingering the Keys?
RJ: I would say I’m goofier, more profane, a tad ornery, and more emotional. I’d say my writing is less bashful. It doesn’t defect to the wallflower’s corner quite as much as before.
WCP: As an artist and teacher known throughout D.C., what local poets and authors in the should we be reading and listening to?
RJ: D.C. is blessed with tons of gifted wordsmiths. I especially love spoken word geniuses Tarica June, Head-Roc, Priest Da Nomad, and poets Alan King, Silvana Straw, Maritza Rivera, Sami Miranda, Kenneth Carroll. I could go on and on.
Seema Reza is known throughout the D.C. area for both her poetry and her work with Community Building Art Works. Her collection A Constellation of Half-Lives came out this April, and it’s a stunner, with Reza sharing a deeply personal series of poems that leave readers aching.
WCP: How did you go about writing such a personal collection?
SR: To write these poems I had to look directly at things I actively avert my gaze from in order to live an ordinary life—school shootings, the conflicts our country is involved in, the incessant passage of time. I was working full time, so I lowered myself into that darkness each weekend and then I’d lift my head out and put on the mask and go make small talk. A very wobbly time.
WCP: What poetry collections inspire your writing?
SR: I come back to Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and the Cloud all the time. I keep buying copies and giving them away and buying new copies. And A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. They’re the same spirit. The celebration, the nod to grief.
WCP: What poem is the most personal for you to perform?
SR: Every single time I perform “Belemnite” I have a brief moment of “What have I done?” when I am approaching the line that mentions masturbation. So, I guess that might be it! But honestly, there’s a part of me that truly believes no one reads anything I write, and that keeps me writing and publishing the hardest truest things.
WCP: You write so tangibly about your son as a little boy, but he’s older now. How did you reconnect to that time as a mother?
SR: I was gathering these poems while my son was preparing to leave for college, and feeling nostalgic not for the big moments, but the many ordinary humdrum moments that blur together and are the real meat of who we are. I kept examining the ordinary objects in our household, the ones we barely see anymore, and imagining what they’ve seen. That’s our life.
WCP: Your poems paint a vivid picture of war. What connection do you have to violence that is geographically so far away?
SR: For the past decade, I’ve taught art and poetry to active duty service members receiving care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, first through a DoD contract and now through the nonprofit Community Building Art Works. I’ve had the privilege of helping people find the words for these visceral, unsweetened stories. When someone tells you a real honest story, you feel it in your body. And of course, no human being is untouched by war. I come from a family that has experienced a great deal of it; it’s why we immigrated to America. I am of the first generation in four to not have lived in a war zone (so far).
The 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize-winning A Short History of Monsters is Jose Padua’s first full-length collection, but Padua is no new-comer to poetry. He has also been a featured reader at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival and won the New Guard Review’s 2014 Knightville Poetry Prize. This latest work incorporates pop culture throughout, setting the stage for both the time periods of the pieces and Padua’s state of mind while writing them.
WCP: What went into writing this first full-length collection?
JP: Well, this collection comprises my earliest published work, including poems I wrote when I was living in New York in the early ’90s. I lived on Avenue B in one of those buildings where you’d see people shooting up in the foyer, and where the heat would go out in the winter on occasion. And the East Village/Lower East Side, in those days when a poet without a regular job could still manage to scrape by, was always a fascinating place. I couldn’t have written this collection—and perhaps even a lot of what I’ve written since then—without having lived there.
WCP: Who and what has influenced you most as a poet?
JP:My first lengthy exposure to poetry was probably this slim anthology we had as one of our textbooks when I was a freshman in high school. It was called On City Streets and had a nice mix of poets like Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams. It’s where I first read Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem, “We Real Cool,” which had me thinking, ‘Oh, this is something I’d like to do.’ I was focused more on math and science in high school and that’s what I was better at then. When it came time for college, I applied to two places: Caltech and Catholic University in D.C. At this point I’d read poets like Frank O’Hara, and had gotten into Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, etc. I turned down Caltech and went to Catholic, where I majored in English. People thought I was crazy for turning down Caltech. They were right. But, like a lot of people, I feel much more among the living when I allow myself to be crazy in some regard.
WCP: These poems take place at different times, with pop culture references grounding us in many of them. Can you speak to the process of sharing moments through time and creating such an overarching collection?
JP: All the various cultural references are a way of placing within, specifically, the culture of America from the ’60s on up to the end of the 20th century. As the child of immigrant parents, who travelled here by boat from the Philippines circa 1950, I wasn’t quite sure who I was. Early on, I wished I could fit in better as the sort of American you’d see portrayed on television, for example. A lot of that experience was my experience as well, and I wanted to show that. Of course, there were numerous points where my immigrant culture clashed with the predominant American culture. When I was a kid, I would have loved to be an actor, but even then, I knew that for an Asian American to make it as an actor was an incredibly rough undertaking. As it was, I had to write, go into detail about all this, connect the dots in my poems and say, this is America, this is me, this is where we intersect, this is where we don’t. But isn’t that interesting too?
WCP: Your poetry speaks to people who aren’t usually interested in the medium. How do you respond to that and what do you want to achieve with your work?
JP: I do hear that. People will tell me that they don’t usually like poetry, but they like my work. Often, the people who have to be convinced of its merits are those in the regular poetry establishment, which I think is why it took so long to get my first full book published. And also my love of avant garde jazz, which doesn’t create some smooth, soothing atmosphere where the cigarette smoke wafts gently up from the bar. Not that there isn’t smoke in my work, but it’s most likely because you’ve held the cigarette for too long and it’s starting to singe your fingers. I’d like my work to show that you can enjoy, for instance, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” as well as an avant garde masterpiece like Sun Ra’s “Magic City.” As I note in the last poem in the book, “On These Days Driving,” I’m not particularly enamored of perfection or anything that might be described as being slick. Of course, I have Tourette syndrome, ADD, OCD, and who knows what else, so slickness is beyond me. I’ll take an awkward, uncomfortable exchange over fully-lubricated small talk any day.