The lyrical beauty of RVA poets

Warning, this piece will make you feel like you have accomplished nothing beautiful in your life.

Photo by: Steve A Johnson

There are a few lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem “Adam’s Curse” that have remained with me since I first heard them read aloud, and now I will subject you to them:

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’

Richmond is a city that treasures the arts and celebrates good work. It has been my privilege to spend some time over the past couple of months speaking with a few of the many poets doing the hard work of stitching and unstitching their poems together right here in the city. I’d like for you to meet (and read) them.

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Brynne Rebele-Henry

Brynne Rebele-Henry is somewhat of an anomaly. She is not only an accomplished writer (poetry, fiction, essay, criticism), but also a visual artist. She researches obscure physical maladies and tells fortunes. She supports other writers in the submission process through a website that she devised. Brynne is a creative force to be reckoned with, and she is fifteen years old.1

“Seeing something I had written set down in print made me feel really good,” Brynne explains when I ask why she first considered pursuing a literary career. She got a taste of that feeling quite early–age four– but only began seriously pursuing the route of publication two summers ago, when she published her first piece in The Volta. In addition to editing collections of both poems and essays, she is currently finishing a novel, as well as shopping another finished novel (!) around to agents.

Brynne’s writing is distinctively embodied. She writes about bodies transfigured and disfigured, interpreted and misread, often bringing her considerable reading in critical theory to bear in the flesh. “Bodies are the link between us, a way that we’re all connected. Everyone has a body, and we feel similar things in them.” Brynne approaches universal experience with a great deal of care for marginalized groups; her work frequently engages with queerness and girlhood, and she is particularly focused on bringing these issues to the fore in her fiction. Hopefully we’ll be seeing her novel The Glass House in print very soon. Until then, be sure to check out her work in The Volta, Revolver, Adroit, and The Offending Adam.

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Joshua Poteat

Joshua Poteat read Moby-Dick for the first time when he was eight years old. He laughs as he remembers, and is swift to mention that he didn’t understand it back then.2 He says that reading as a kid planted the seed of his love for language; punk music brought it to maturity. “I started writing bad punk lyrics. I would write things, and my cousin Gabe would turn them into these fast songs about like, my great-grandmother.” The songwriting process gave him some faith in the written word, and his ability to use it–an ability he has refined considerably since those beginnings.

Joshua is humble about his work–self-deprecating, nearly. When I ask him about how he writes, he is patient with the (rather loaded) question. He describes a collage-like process that comes through very directly in his writing. Borrowing from history and science, lived and imagined experience, Joshua creates complex, richly layered poems that blend the environment and the speaker’s thoughts. Historical sites and other landmarks from the city crop up in many of his poems in his most recent collection, The Regret Histories, and observant Richmonders will likely enjoy encountering parts of their city in the writing. One of the strongest pieces in the book, and my personal favorite, is the wandering “Letter to Gabriel Written in the Margins of Murder Ballads.” The piece drifts between thought and place, but feels both crystalline and spacious. In this most recent collection, Poteat leverages his talents in the service of coming to terms–processing loss, grief, and, yes, regret, in beautiful, resonant ways. When we talk about prestige in the workplace (and in writing), Joshua tells me that he thinks it wise to remain humble in all forms. After seeing the way his work speaks for itself, I’m inclined to agree.

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Allison Titus

Allison Titus didn’t plan on earning MFA degrees in both poetry and fiction; but if she had constructed a plan at all, that would have been it. “Short fiction courses taught me more about poetry than nearly any other class I’ve taken,” she tells me. Allison talks about the fluid line between poetry and prose; this all seems quite distant from theory when reading her writing. Her poetry flirts with narrative on occasion, and her fiction carries on in the focused, attentive manner of good poetry. Her work reflects not only the diversity of her studies but also the breadth of her reading, itself a small token of her considerable curiosity. She is a keen observer of small details, and has a great affection for subtlety. Images are rendered with great care in Titus’s writing. After speaking with her at length, I begin to understand why.

“I don’t have a process that is separated from living,” Allison tells me. As things stand, she has set aside one morning per week for the purpose of reading and writing–the rest of her work writing looks a little bit different. “A large part of things for me doesn’t look like working or sitting down to write. I imagine it may seem like laziness sometimes, laying down and closing my eyes. You might think I was just napping!” She grins. “But there’s a settling that takes place. Allowing the things that I’ve observed and thought about to fit together somehow–sometimes in these unexpected ways.”

Beautiful things are frequently unexpected, it seems. Allison perceives that a great deal of her focus as a poet is creating the opportunity for readers to engage–whether it be an image, an experience, a turn of phrase. Sometimes, the reader connects with more than just the language. Allison describes a friendship that began in light of her poetry–one of her collections so comforted a woman in a difficult season, that she reached out to Allison directly. “I still remember what she was wearing when she introduced herself: this little dress with bicycles all over it. Things like that really make an impression. Lovely, unexpected things.” Lovely and unexpected, indeed.

Allison’s newest work will deal in some way with the history of tears–be on the lookout for new poems over at her website. She also has a book of poems called The True Book of Animal Homes that is forthcoming from Etruscan Press. You can pick up a copy of Allison’s book of poems, Sum of Every Lost Ship, and her novel The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire at Chop Suey in Carytown.

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Gregory Donovan and Michele Poulos

Gregory Donovan and Michele Poulos like to argue about who between them has worked more jobs. Combined, their experience spans the worlds of academia, manual labor, music, and filmmaking, among other things. Both Gregory and Michele are remarkably talented poets, and as I sit with them, I recognize writing as one of many threads that binds them together–not only in friendship, but also in marriage. The paths that they have taken to where they are now have been meandering, as Michele would say. Their stories are all the more beautiful for it.

When he was an undergraduate, Gregory accidentally missed a date while finishing a poem. He chuckles when he tells the story. “Before that, I thought that if I wanted to write for a living, journalism was the only option. After I finished that poem, I really understood what I wanted to do with language. It doesn’t hurt that that wound up being the first poem that I ever published.” Greg approached writing from an early age as a respite. In his childhood, amid economic uncertainty and emotional upheaval, books provided a place of rationality and beauty. He immersed himself in his reading as a child, a practice that he continues today. Greg works his reading and research work into his poems fluidly and enjoyably alongside his thoughts, using these materials to create new spaces of reason and beauty. See his poem, “Night Train for the Bardo of Auvers.” Let it be known that Greg has a Vincent van Gogh action figure in his office, a detail that, for some reason, makes me enjoy this poem even more.

Greg is a Professor at VCU, where he teaches students in the MFA, MA, and undergraduate programs. He is also the editor of Blackbird, VCU’s impressive, highly curated, online journal. He talks excitedly about the ways that a digital format brings poetry before the largest public possible. “When we first began Blackbird, some writers accused us of trying to kill the book. I’m not trying to kill the book; I’m trying to save it!”

One of the greatest benefits to working as an editor, Greg says, is the exposure to new work and the culture of serious creativity around the journal. “Reading such wonderful new work from younger poets has emboldened me to try different things in my own poetry,” he says. Greg’s most recent book of poems, Torn From the Sun, came out earlier this year from Red Hen Press. The collection deals with the theme of the labyrinth–reckoning with imprisonment and freedom in exciting ways–and adopts a wonderfully considered structure that you can read more about in this interview. You can (and should) buy a copy at Chop Suey. 3

Michele Poulos has always loved the visual arts, and studied both photography and film at NYU. While in New York, she became enamored with the music scene and spent her time playing in bands and writing music. “I had the opportunity to play all of these iconic places when I was playing out in New York. I was hooked.” She moved around the country pursuing music–New York, Chapel Hill, New Orleans, Richmond. I first heard Michele’s name in connection with one of her former bands, Tanakh (whose record Saunders Hollow is more than worthy of your attention).

After years of extensive touring and travel, Michele was ready to settle into a place. “I started asking myself what I could do that would give me the same feeling as songwriting. That was always my favorite part of playing in bands–I was always so anxious about playing out.” Michele was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. When she relocated to Richmond in the wake of the storm, she began taking fiction workshops at VCU. While earning her MFA in Fiction, Michele took a poetry course with David Wojahn. “That course was a watershed event for me,” Poulos says. “It really changed the way that I thought about poetry.” Michele would go on to earn a second MFA degree, this time in poetry. Her chapbook, A Disturbance in the Air won the Slapering Hol Press Chapbook competition, and her newest collection of poems, Black Laurel, is forthcoming from Iris Press. Michele also won the Virginia Screenplay Competition for Mule Bone Blues, a striking screenplay dealing with the artistic and personal relationship between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

In addition to writing, Michele continues to make films. In many ways, her most recent project layers a few of the artistic mediums that she has been investing herself in all along. A Late Style of Fire is her forthcoming full-length documentary about the life and writing of Larry Levis–the remarkable poet who passed away here in Richmond when he was 49. “This film is years in the making,” Poulos says, and understandably so. As director and producer, Michele has been able to wear many hats in the process–synthesizing her talents in writing and directing, and her discerning ear for music. 4 Levis’s story hits very close to home. Gregory (who is helping to produce the film) was a friend and colleague to Levis during his time here at VCU, and some other faculty (current and former) will make appearances in the film.

A Late Style of Fire is only one example of the ways that Gregory and Michele compliment one another in their creative projects. “Our romantic relationship developed out of a very honest intellectual friendship,” Greg tells me. I get to observe this firsthand as they bounce names of poets and artists back and forth. I ask them about competition–especially in the narrow field of poetry. Neither feels as if they are competing against the other. “It feels more like mutual support,” Michele says, “a mutual sort of respect.” They acknowledge, praise, and champion each others’ work–serving as a source of affirmation and clarity for each other when rejection slips are delivered or frustration arise.

When we talk about the place of discipline and inspiration in writing, Greg quotes Randall Jarrell to me; “A poet is a person who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.”

It is good to stand with company.

  1. When I was fifteen, I discovered how to change the color of Captain Falcon’s costume in Super Smash Brothers. This seems a great deal less impressive now. 
  2. I like to believe that he did, and didn’t want to make the rest of us feel dumb. 
  3. As is the case with pretty much everything I’m going to list here. You should just go there already. I know that street parking stresses you out a little bit, but you can’t just be a shut-in forever. 
  4. The film will feature music from Sam Beam, perhaps better known as Iron and Wine. 
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Brett Stonecipher

Brett lives in Carver with his darling wife. He loves Richmond as much as he loves putting on clothes straight out of the dryer.

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