As we go into the final weekend of The Metromaniacs and the Poets Are Present poetry residency, we have asked one more poet to be “virtually” present. In this final poet interview, Courtney Sexton, who co-founded the reading series The Inner Loop, shares her thoughts on collaboration, what words should be present and the D.C. poetry scene (we completely agree, by the way).
Courtney Sexton is a native of New Jersey where she grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., though she is just as likely to be found in any other state in the northeast. Except Connecticut. She writes about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Courtney is the co-founder of D.C.-based The Inner Loop: A Literary Reading Series.
STC: What is the story that started you on your poetry career?
Courtney Sexton: My father gave me a Christmas card this year that contained a poem that I had hand-written at about age eight after coming in from the ski slopes. He saved it all that time. I didn’t know that, or remember writing it, but I guess it’s just something I’ve been doing for a long time.
STC: What poems or poets inspire you?
CS: Some of my always-favorites are W.S. Merwin, Yusef Komunyakaa (his rhythms!), John Ashbery, and Marilyn Chin. But I am also regularly inspired by the teachers I have had, and by the new, or “everyday,” poets – especially those who I have met through the reading series that I run… there is a lot of literary talent in D.C.!
STC: Can you tell us a bit about your process: where do you write your poems (in a notebook, on your phone, etc), How long does it take you to write a poem, and once a poem is written, what is your preferred way of reflecting on the poem?
CS: I have tried very hard in recent years to make myself be able to write at any moment, but the truth is, that doesn’t usually work. Sure, I do set aside times when I make myself sit down and get into a “writing mode” for a dictated period, but for me, generally it is very much about flashes of inspiration – these may come at any time, in any place, and I usually end up scribbling notes on whatever I have available (or on my smartphone, but I hate doing that). I do make point to keep a notebook on me – both to jot things down and to “match” pieces of poems. For example, sometimes a thought or an image or a line will come to me and when I have the notebook on hand I’m able to flip back through it to find something I’ve been working on that was missing that very line. I’m very much about keeping snippets of things that ultimately get woven together. My poems usually percolate for a while. I have tons of files of pieces of poems. Sometimes they build readily and I feel like they are complete; other times they may be in my rolodex for years until I am able to pull the whole of the poem together.
STC: What do you strive to do with your poetry? Do you have specific goals when you begin a poem, or do you write and see where it goes?
CS: This is pretty situational. Sometimes I learn or come across something, or someone says something that really stays with me, or an event occurs – be it in my personal life or in the world around me – and I want to reflect on and learn more about what it means. In these cases, I will often attempt to do so by writing through it. Other times the writing itself is the discovery. The words start to take on a life of their own and it becomes about sound and rhythm and a very primitive connecting of one symbol to another and it’s kind of magical to just go along that journey and see where you end up.
STC: What are your favorite themes or key influences?
CS: I write a lot about places – geographies, landscapes (and cityscapes). I think that places (on both the micro and macro scale) have incredible stories to tell, and also make some of the most underrated characters. I am very immediately affected by the “feel” of a place.
STC: What words matter to you?
CS: Hah! This is a trick question… all signs and signifiers, right? But in regard to poetry? There shouldn’t be words present in a poem that don’t matter. That’s the whole point.
STC: What, if anything, have we inherited from the poets of the past? What, if anything, should we abandon?
CS: Wow. I think we’ve inherited everything. At the risk of sounding cheesy, but in complete seriousness, (P)oetry is like a living, breathing thing of its own. We are part of it. It is part of us. Everything that poets before have contributed flows through us; just like the good and bad genes from our ancestors, we inherit it all. What we do with it is where the magic happens. Abandon everything and nothing.
STC: What is the climate of poetry today? Where do you see in the future for poetry?
CS: You know, about six years ago when I was applying to MFA programs (don’t know where the time has gone!), I applied with a creative non-fiction concentration. I told myself that I could barely justify getting an MFA, let alone one in <gasp> poetry! I don’t regret the choice, because I learned a LOT, and ended up writing a lot of poetry anyway. I guess what I mean by this little tangent is that there are waves and trends of popularity for poetry. It’s like fashion. In recent years, nonfiction has come out as the “sexy” genre, the cool kid. But poetry is timeless. We will never not feel it, and so we will never not need it. I personally have seen a lot of younger poets very dedicated to the art and to the craft and to finding new ways to keep it alive in the mainstream. The channels through which poetry can reach us, and the places from which it can come just seem to keep expanding. And there are so many more outlets for people to share and publish. I think we’re lucky. I think we’re getting back into a good period for poetry, partially because poets can find each other more easily. Collaboration can be key… and if nothing else, it certainly is fun to nerd-out on words with other people who get as excited about them as you.
STC: What contemporary poets or poetry books would you consider mandatory reading?
CS: I think it takes a while to figure out what kind of poetry you like to read, and what kind of poetry you like to hear, and what kind of poetry you like to write. Obviously there may be overlap among these, but I think the best thing you can do is absorb as much as possible. Sit in a bookstore and just pick from the contemporary section at random. Go to local readings; hear people read their work. Subscribe to poetry feeds online… just get a feel for everything that is out there. You never know what or who is going to speak to you – and lord knows I certainly don’t!
STC: What do you do when someone asks you to write them a poem?
Depends who’s asking….
Well, we are. Below is “Unwintering” by Courtney Sexton.
Thank you to everyone who participated in Poets are Present‘s virtual residencies. Keep an eye out online and in our gift shop for the upcoming Poets Are Present chapbook featuring the poems from this residency.
By Courtney Sexton
Millie of the red hair I saw you,
unwintering. It was
at the train station
a little cyclone, all eyes,
to the pigeons swooping like a gash and
the pigeons fucking on top of a street lamp
lighting up the interstate—
a precarious way to procreate,
but probably worth it
in the end.
Because it is enough to feel
your heart pulsing
through your teeth,
to be comfortably aware of
what weighs on another,
the tiny tragedies that hinge
one day to the next—
mothers with minds with holes like moth-eaten sweaters,
and so forth and so on.