Friday, March 31, 2017


JAMES CUSHING, born 1953 in Palo Alto, CA, holds a doctorate in English from UC Irvine. In the early 1980s, he hosted a live poetry radio program on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles which gave early exposure to Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Amy Gerstler, Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, and many others. Since 1989, he has taught literature and creative writing at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and served as the community’s Poet Laureate for 2008 – 2010. His poems have appeared in many journals, and Cahuenga Press has published five collections: You and the Night and the Music (1991), The Length of an Afternoon (1999), Undercurrent Blues (2004), Pinocchio’s Revolution (2010), and The Magicians’ Union (2014). Cushing currently hosts weekly a jazz program on KEBF-FM, 97.3 “The Rock” in Morro Bay ( His daughter is the New York-based poet Iris Cushing.

Jazz at its height was a cultural movement influencing in particular the language, dress and attitude of youth, and it originated among immigrants, the lower classes, and African Americans. What if any possibilities do you see for it as a tool of resistance today?

The description of jazz in the question actually fits hip-hop very well today, and I would point to that genre as one that has the most immediate leverage in terms of Fighting the Powers that Be. Hip-hop gives immigrants, workers, and African Americans a public voice literally and figuratively. The relation of jazz to hip-hop is complex and evolving, and there will be more and more fruitful blends of hip-hop (a producers medium) and jazz (an improvisors) as the century goes on. Kamasi Washington is doing interesting things along these lines.

Poets like jazz musicians have often improvised on the spot. Poet Andrew Levy views improvisation as less an act of spontaneity and more a form of hearing and thinking, making measure in the familiarity of ones attention. Do you agree? And perhaps in counterpoint to the previous question, how important is the cultivation of silence to the poet? To poetry?

As far as what improvisation is and does, Im not sure I understand what Andrew Levy means by 'the familiarity of ones attention,' although its a lovely phrase! Improvisation in music is most definitely a matter of hearing and thinking; another way to say that is, active listening. I find painting offers useful metaphors: when I played improvised music with my trio (20 years ago), I felt as though the notes or phrases I played were a kind of color I was adding to a canvas the other two were creating. But that experience was the opposite of 'familiarity,' so Im not totally on board with Levys idea, unless I just dont get it.
As for the importance of silence and the cultivation of it to the poet, again, I feel some disconnection involving familiar words meaning different things to different people. Silence, like the color black, is complex; it can be negative ('silence = death'), positive ('ECMthe most beautiful sound next to silence'), calming ('lets begin the service with a moment of silence'), controversial (John Cages '4:33'), or any of those things at once. Sometimes I find silence helpful in my writing, but sometimes I find it oppressive, and need to put on some music to give shape to the atmosphere (Im shuffling a 5CD deck of Charles Lloyd with Bobo Stenson on ECM as I write this, and I wrote two poems earlier with the music on). Ive written in quiet and noisy environments over the years, and have found no master pattern.

How important is silence to poetry? For Emily Dickinson, silence was a crucial element in the gestation of her work; for Walt Whitman, it was the opposite of important, as he sounded his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the hectic world.      

Collaboration can expand possibilities for poets, musicians and artists while enriching the arts. What can you say about it from your own experience/perspective?

Jazz musicians are lucky in that collaboration is essentially a requirement for their art. The solitude of the literary artist, a great theme in Beckett, is to me a mixed blessing, given that I was an only child with an extraverted nature. My consolation for much of my life has been that reading is itself an abstract but nonetheless real collaboration between an author and a (usually unknown) reader who gives life and breath to the sentences. Since meeting poet/painter Celeste Goyer in 2014, I have been writing poems in collaboration with her, and the experience has been uniquely pleasing, both as an unprecedented experience of mental and (if I may speak so) spiritual intimacy with a partner, and as a creative thrill that allows me to participate in the building of poems that take genuinely surprising directions. In this way, I feel that Im freeing my poetry from the limitations of my own ego and personal identity without giving up any place in the fabric of the whole.  

                                                      James Cushing

Friday, March 24, 2017


Barbara Hay is an award-winning children’s author, journalist, and haiku poet who lives in Oklahoma. Widowed, with four children, she has worn many hats. When she is not writing or reading, she enjoys traveling, riding horses, and the beach. Check out her books at

What inspired you to start writing for children?

I was first inspired to write for teens and children in 1993 after moving to Ponca City, Oklahoma. At the time, the town was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Land Run, a period in our history when the America West was opening up to settlers, many of them immigrants from European countries such as Poland, Ireland, Germany, and Italy.

The centennial celebration found the people of Ponca City (whose relatives had arrived during the Land Run) and six local Native American tribes (the Ponca, Kaw, Tonkawa, Osage, Otoe-Missouria, and Pawnee) in conflict. A statue had been commissioned and erected in front of City Hall of a settler on horseback, staking his claim to a piece of free land. Now that in itself had caused the tribes no concern. But when it was proposed the statue be named, This Land is Mine, well, it hit a nerve with the tribes, as they had arrived on this land first — before white settlement, moved in on their own Trail of Tears from ancestral homelands like Nebraska and Missouri.

The events that took place between the townspeople and the tribal members inspired my first YA novel, Lesson of the White Eagle. Chief White Eagle, a Ponca chief, was known as a peacemaker, and he plays a significant role in the novel. The story is told by a 15-year-old white boy that is betrayed by his best friend. Over the course of a series of events, Dusty discovers what true friendship means. I am not Native American, but I was able to incorporate racism and bullying from a perspective with which I was familiar as I had two young sons at the time. Racism and bullying was and remains a challenge in our country.

The books I read growing up influenced me as an individual and 'broadened my horizons.' Reading books such as The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss; Curious George, by H.A. Rey; Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary; Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huck Finn, by Mark Twain; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White; A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle; The Call of the Wild, by Jack London and so many more helped inform me and the kind of person I would grow up to be.  It is my hope that the stories I tell will in some way do the same for young people, that they will be inspired in kind to stay curious; to read, read, read.

How has your legacy and heritage and the place where you live, Oklahoma, helped to shape you, your work and its focus?

When my second son, Peter, was in third grade he had a terrible teacher who taught him to hate school and to hate reading. It took a lot of work to overcome the disdain he felt about the classroom. He preferred to be outdoors. During our weekly family trips to the library, I would help him find books that interested him, but as you might imagine, we went through the children’s section fairly quickly. I decided to try finding books about specific topics that interested him. Since he loved the outdoors, I would ask him what he wanted to learn about this week. If he said spiders, we would start in the children’s section, but we fairly quickly migrated to the adult section, where we hunted down books on spiders or bow-making or wild cats with lots of illustrations and photographs. At home, Pete would start by looking at the illustrations and the photos. Pretty soon, he was reading the captions, and then lo and behold, he began to read the whole book. He became our resident expert on everything nature-related.

I still felt it was important for him to read fiction, and that is how my contemporary children’s series, The Bulldoggers Club, published by Roadrunner Press in Oklahoma City, was born.
The series is about kids who love rodeo and the great outdoors. I have tried to incorporate everything that Peter loved about nature and wilderness, and coupled it with my locale--Oklahoma.

As I mentioned before, our little town is surrounded by six Native American tribes, as well as a lot of cattle ranches. The title of the series is meant to honor Bill Pickett, a famous African-American cowboy who performed with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show back in the 1920s, again, a place not far from where we lived in Kay County. Bill Pickett is the only individual credited with a rodeo event—steer wrestling. He was known for biting the cattle on the bottom lip until they went down, the way bulldogs would do, or what was commonly called bulldogging. Of course, cowboys no longer bite cattle during the event, but the name stuck.

The series is multi-cultural and multi-generational. The kids get into all sorts of scrapes in their outdoor adventures, but by the time the story ends, they have learned a life lesson or two. The first book, The Tale of the Ill-gotten Catfish, won an IPPY Gold Medal for Best Book of the Year. The third book in the series is due on shelves, August, 2017.

As far as my reluctant reader, Peter, I’m happy to report that he now holds a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in Studio Painting and works as an exhibit director at an art center in Colorado. He is a bow hunter and fisherman, as well as a hiker and trail runner. His art is focused on—as you might have guessed—nature. His large paintings and prints are referred to as environmental realism, and have been shown nationally and internationally. I am proud to say, RoadRunner Press also had Peter do the cover art and interior illustrations for Lesson of the White Eagle.

What do you see as upcoming challenges for yourself in this current political milieu as a writer of books for children and as a poet? Are there any advantages?

My challenges as a writer and poet are intensified because, whereas I have always felt it was my calling to share my love of reading and the merits of being a life-long learner with young people, in the current environment, I feel a stronger conviction to reach out to kids to encourage them to question and be curious about the world around them. In June, I am setting out with my travel trailer in tow to mosey across this great country and speak with anyone who will listen about my love of reading and writing. From my experience, reading across genres and subjects is the best cure for racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and all of the other ills that come from ignorance.

Barbara Hay

Friday, March 17, 2017


Tim Suermondt is the author of three full-length books of poetry, the latest being Election Night And The Five Satins, from Glass Lyre Press, 2016. He has published widely in places such as Poetry, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Plume Poetry Journal and december magazine. He is a book reviewer for Cervena Barva Press and a poetry reviewer for Bellevue Literary Review. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.

How did you start out as a poet, and what has sustained you most on the path?

I wrote poems when I was a boy, which isn’t as strange as it sounds—there were no computers, no video games and the many devices children grow up with now (even the television was quite restricted in those days). So what better way for a shy kid to transport himself than by reading books and trying to write some words himself? I thought being a writer, particularly a poet, was the greatest thing in the world. I’m more jaded now, but I still think being a poet is an honorable devotion.

I started to send out poems with increasing frequently and purpose to magazines and journals at the old age of 28—and I’ve been doing so ever since. I had moved from Florida to NYC, with an eye toward an acting career, but writing continued to take center stage. I took David Ignatow’s poetry class at the 92nd St. Y and I was on my way. Later on, my business partner and I had our own headhunting firm for stockbrokers for 17 years. I can still hear Wallace Stevens’s assertion that “money is a kind of poetry.”

Friendship has been the sustainer during all these years of writing—friendship with writers, commiserating in disappointment and reveling in success, and friends who never wrote a word but are in my corner. And sweetest of all has been the last 11 years with my beautiful wife, Pui Ying Wong, who is a brilliant poet. The two of us writing our poems—well, I couldn’t have dreamed something better.  

Your poetry focuses on what is human and ordinary, with a tender emphasis. Your poem, "Everything Changes," is a particularly beautiful example of that. Is this a focus you maintain naturally, or do you see it changing?

Poetry is ordinary and extraordinary, and all I try to do is write each poem as best as I can. And if I do it well, the humanity will take care of itself. I’ve always tried to be aware of not sounding like I know it all—I’m fumbling around like we all are. I like poetry that has wisdom and gravitas and poetry that is oddball and not afraid of the seltzer down the pants. I could be rather dogmatic when I was younger and while I’m still a bulldog about certain things, I’ve surprised myself by being more tender, as you put it, towards poetics that at one time I might have given the back of my hand to. 

The poem you mentioned “Everything Changing” was written for a friend who fell in love with a woman who worked at a store my friend went to often. He wanted, but was unable to tell her how he felt, and he never did let her know. Of course, had he spoken up she might (as he feared) have rejected it. The agony and exultation of love! It keeps us alive—poets for sure, the occasional Werther aside.

In what ways do you see yourself changing as a poet? How affected are you in your everyday relationship to poetry by political and social crises?

I’d like to think that I’ve learned more about the art of poetry and am writing better than I ever have—at least better in the sense of making my younger poetry self proud. That younger self wrote poems that were much longer and narrative, a lyric touch showing up almost by accident. And despite my writing years later that “Lyricism has always escaped me,” I think I’ve been more decently lyrical than before--although as they say, history will judge.

I write shorter poems now—if I write a poem of two pages, that’s a long one for me. If it were possible, I’d desire to write a good poem under one line! In the meantime, I’ll keep exhorting the Muse to help me write to Anna Kamienska’s request, that my poems too “stand clear as a windowpane bumped by a bumblebee’s head.”

As for poetry in this political world of ours, well, it seems to me that poets and writers have expressed their concerns very well. It puts us on record and that’s important. Protest is part of a democracy—and injustice anywhere still bothers me deeply, but I don’t want to be just a political animal. Writing about the joys of this life is just as important as writing about its tragedies and how the world so damn often breaks your heart. I gladly leave the last words to Camus: “I have always thought that the maximum danger implied the maximum hope.”

                                                       Tim Suermondt