We are three and a half months into this series at this point and I can hardly even believe it! I have had the distinct honor of interviewing 32 poets from three countries so far. You can catch up on the latest articles here.Todd Gleason, casually the editor-in-chief of (one of my personal favorite literary magazines) Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and former manager of Backspace, a lively coffee shop in Portland. They talked this week about their art, their experiences with writing, and the future.
Q: Tell us about your art. What sorts of artistic endeavors do you undertake regularly?
Raven McGill: I write poetry that tends to be about love and (lately/the past couple years) about navigating the world as a mixed-race woman of color and how that's pretty messed up a lot of the time. I am also a visual artist and mostly do more surreal faux-portraits of ladies. I'm trying to focus all my visual work currently on radical softness, especially for folks of color because we have to posture and be so strong all the time to survive, we deserve more opportunities to be safe enough to let our guard down.
Todd Gleason: Anything and everything, really. I write and record and perform music. Paint, draw, take photographs, make all kinds of visual art. I write poetry, fiction, essays, screenplays, plays, letters. I edit Drunk in a Midnight Choir. Sometimes I wish there were 8 days in a week, and 37 hours in a day so that I could do all of it (also maybe get more sleep). For instance, I've really been considering focusing on visual art for a long period, but there never seems to be any time. It usually comes last. I've always primarily considered myself a writer above all else. Though if I were somehow forced to choose only one, it would probably be music. I love the craft and the work of writing, and it feels like it might have the most heft, but music is so immediate and cathartic and necessary. Strangely though, since visual art is the genre I take the least seriously, it probably ends up being the most fun, and may even be what I am best at, in spite of myself.
I used to joke that I was a Renaissance Man with no practical skills. (Not that it was ever very funny, but it's even less so now that it appears to be true.) Although I can usually whip up something pretty decent out of scraps and leftovers in the fridge, like my own poor man's version of “Chopped.” (My secret weapon is pickled items.) That may be the extent of my practical skills.
Q: What is your most popular poem, either on YouTube or in slams or features or lit mags?
Todd Gleason: I think about four people total have read my poems, but I did write a remembrance of Robin Williams for DMC that was pretty widely read. The most popular suite of poems that we have published on the site are Three Musical Poems by Anis Mojgani, meant to be read while listening to specific songs, which are linked to each poem.
Q: Why is poetry important and why should people listen?
Raven McGill: I think poetry forces you to have conversations with yourself and your peers that you generally wouldn't be able to have. It's all these necessary punches from people who you maybe wouldn't be willing to hear out if they didn't have a platform that forced you to listen and learn. Poetry taught me, first and foremost, that I wasn't alone and how to feel stronger and more capable. I've seen it do this for almost everyone I know who writes. I think everyone should try it at least once.
Todd Gleason: Of course, one could write volumes on this subject, but my short(ish) answer would be that there are certain ideas, certain emotions and experiences, certain ways of being, certain concepts that can only be communicated through poetry. The deepest, most complex, most important parts of what it means to be human and to live in this world. The collision of certain words arranged in a unique way has the power to create a spark of meaning, something electric and jarring – emotional and abstract like music, but with the sharpness and specificity of language – in a way that nothing else can.
I try to read poetry most mornings, with my coffee. It is part of a ritual and while it may sound a bit cheesy, also a form of spiritual practice. There is a certain flavor of poem I'm seeking at that time, a way of centering myself and entering the day – anything from Ikkyu to Jane Hirshfield to Kabir to Rilke, though it's not always so obvious. But it is my form of morning prayer, I guess, a way of connecting with a certain energy and balance. The rest of the day, I'll dig into all different kinds of poetry, from what comes to DMC's Inbox to the countless amazing journals that are out there.
When I write poetry, I'm usually attempting to understand and explore certain moments or memories or emotions. I start out trying to capture or evoke something familiar, something I'm grasping at that's just beyond my reach, but I usually end up discovering all kinds of elements I never expected to find, and in much different territory than where I began. Usually, language on its own brings a lot more to the poem than any intentions I started out with.
Why should people listen? I mean, you can either live a poetic life, or not. It's your choice. The poetry is there, in everything from quantum physics to baseball to your first kiss to what people call God. It's up to you to notice and to care, or try to get any meaning out of it. Or not. But there are a whole lot of brilliant and amazing poets out there trying to show you what what they've figured out and help you understand the this f*****-up crazy, beautiful universe. Why not listen? After all, what else are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?
Q: Where is your favorite spot to write?
Raven McGill: Anywhere that feels safe. I don't have a favorite spot to write, but I need it to be really quiet- I have a hard time focusing. I always try to write at Lake Merritt in Oakland, but I get too caught up in people-watching.
Todd Gleason: My favorite place to write is on my balcony in the sun. Though that is not always the most productive place. The most productive place tends to be my couch, with a bottomless cup of coffee next to me.
Q: If you were stranded on an island, what are 3 things you’d take with you and why?
Raven McGill: A headlamp, an axe or machete, maybe a pen. I hope this never happens. I wish I had a more fluffy answer.
Todd Gleason: My first thought is like a gun, matches, and disinfectant... or toilet paper. Or pliers, so I don't have to knock my bad tooth out with an ice skate like Tom Hanks in Castaway. (I have an overly pragmatic side, for sure.). But for realz... hmm... A guitar (don't break a string!), a notebook (I guess I'd write with charcoal or something? Blood?), and a single book... what would it be? My first thought is something like Finnegan's Wake. Maybe with all that time I could finally figure it out. But no, I'd probably just get bored and continually kick myself for having brought an inscrutable mess as my one book. So a hefty anthology of some sort, Norton maybe or the Greil Marcus-edited Literary History of America, which is chock full of amazing stuff, and never seems to get boring.
Q: What makes you and your experiences unique? What’s special about your story?
Raven McGill: I'm a Reptilian human and rule the Illuminati with an iron fist. Um. I'm from an extremely white place. Poetry made me understand how white supremacy raised me to hate myself and my blackness and has since made me a much more powerful, more radically self-loving person. I'm both the softest lamb on the pasture and the best mean mugger alive.
Todd Gleason: Gosh, I don't know. I'm earnest as hell, obviously, but I don't know if I take myself seriously enough to be able to answer that question well. I mean, I've been through some sh*t. Survived some terrible stuff, which gives me humility and gratitude and compassion and a little bit of wisdom. I've also had a few victories. I'm pretty lucky, in general. I listen pretty well, and I think I have a pretty good sense of people, of what they are capable of, that maybe they don't even realize they can do. I'm not going to say I nurture talent or anything like that, but I feel like I can recognize it pretty well, and try to encourage it when I can. I feel things pretty strongly, though I've learned some balance, which is a good thing. And I have a pretty good sense of the Zeitgeist – not necessarily in an opportunistic way, but I feel like things often coalesce in my mind in a timely or prescient fashion, and so I've tried to learn to recognize that and not let those things slip away.
Q: If you were a cliché, what would you be?
Raven McGill: I think I've always been kind of confused by what a cliché really is but have some very vague understanding. I guess I'm “a girl with natural hair that keeps up with her Tumblr,” which Childish Gambino says in one of his songs and makes me feel like I was come for in a very vicious way. Either that or “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” which I've been treated like a lot. This question gave me existential dread.
Todd Gleason: A Renaissance man with no practical skills? Is that a cliche?
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Raven McGill: Some of my friends and I are starting a multi-media collective that's a celebration of (gasp, you'll never guess) radical softness. I just wanna make art that can make anyone (but mostly black/brown people) feel seen, loved, and strong enough to make it out here. I wanna be able to support myself and others doing that for as long as I can or until the Earth explodes.
Todd Gleason: Gonna get married next summer. Keep building DMC. Maybe write a novel eventually, if I can concentrate on one thing for that long. Travel. Even just in the U.S., there are so many incredible places to see.
Q: Anything else (poems, links, comments, etc)?
I love you very much and I sincerely think you're worth it. Thank you for reading this.
Todd Gleason: Here is a poem that I really love by Joyce Sutphen that I happened to discover on my 40th birthday, and seemed about as profoundly apropos as it could be. I went on to write a poem that day, after this one. It was decent, I suppose, but nowhere good as its inspiration. I have many favorites, but this is the first one I thought of, so there it is...