Art Talk with NEA Lit Fellow Meg Day
"I like to think we’re all striving for that moment when we’ve gotten it right enough that we, as artists, stop working and the art, itself, starts instead.” --- Meg Day
A 2013 NEA Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry, Meg Day is not only a talented poet, but a fiery arts educator and an activist. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from Omnidawn Online, Kore Press: Best of 2012, Southern Humanities Review, and The Atlas Review, among others. Day is also the recipient of numerous literary awards, including a Hedgebrook Fellowship for Women Authoring Change (2011) and a Squaw Valley Writers Fellowship (2012). She spoke with us about her research on Deaf poetics, her fierce commitment to teaching, and how The Lion King movie helps her remember Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
NEA: What's your 10-word bio?
MEG DAY: I frequently ask my students to write six-word bios as an exercise in concision and restraint. Ten words instead of six now seems luxurious and impossible. Meg Day is a poet, activist, and veteran arts educator? Meg Day is regretting giving assignments she herself cannot complete?
NEA: What do you remember as your first arts experience?
DAY: You’re not the first to ask me this question since the NEA announced its current Fellows and I’m surprised every time it happens. The question stumps me a little, not just because I lack a single, snap-shot memory of first encountering the arts---as one might remember a first date or later recall the details of an afternoon in which an unexpected historical event took place---but because there are so many different starting lines to a life in which art is a primary focus. When are we not experiencing the violence and joy of beginning? I can very clearly remember reading as a child; my sister recently had a baby and the nostalgia and tenderness and gratitude I felt for my very young reading self was overwhelming when Rosemary Garland’s My Bedtime Book of Two-Minute Stories and Janet Quin-Harkin’s Septimus Bean and His Amazing Machine were unearthed for my niece, Josie.
Books always played a huge role in my life growing up because I looked up to my older sister who was a complete bookworm; she was praised for her imagination and her ability to write well, and I always felt as if her engagement with books was also the reason she could draw well and had cool friends and did well in school. I think I grew up thinking that reading was this secret portal to wholesale happiness---and to an extent, and sometimes with great regret in regards to the misplaced power the word “illiterate” holds today, I don’t think I was wrong. Were books the beginning or was it something else? If that was the beginning, then what was Mr. Ryerson’s encouraging comment on a poem in my creative writing class in high school, or listening to baseball announcers and A Prairie Home Companion on the radio, or Ms. Cota’s insistence that I go to a college with a good writing program despite my insistence that I’d never make a living that way and needed to pursue the sciences, or the way Tupac and Biggie Smalls could carry the eleven-beat line, or Craig and Kathy Morey’s decision to put me on stage as a lead in a musical?
More important than the actual beginning was the continuation that built in me a foundation upon which to expect art. Both of my parents are craftspeople to an extent, as my pops is a clocksmith with expert hands for carpentry and calligraphy, and my momma is a wildly talented seamstress who everybody is gonna wanna know in the zombie apocalypse because good god, talk about a resourceful woman. I was frequently surrounded by art, but I don’t think I recognized it as such at the time---and I certainly wasn’t surrounded by writing (outside of reading). I was really fortunate in that my parents allowed and encouraged a particular kind of engagement with the arts when I was young, though, despite my profound anxiety and resistance to beginning anything new. I think this eventually gave me the confidence I needed to pursue writing. As a kid, I desperately wanted to sing (or paint, or dance, or perform) but felt a pressure beyond my years to arrive already fluent in those things I had yet to even encounter; the first day of every class, or workshop, or rehearsal, for example, was frequently spent in tears. It was only after participating in larger groups designed to engender confidence via some kind of community engagement with the arts---building puppet theaters with my Girl Scout troop, singing with my church choir, sewing quilts in 4H---that I understood the value and great importance in not-knowing, in trying-anyway, and in having the utmost confidence in one’s ability to show up, work hard, and figure it out. That in itself was a crucial first. I’d encountered lots of poetry and I’d had no problem thriving under the instruction of Bob Ross during (now-extinct) art classes in school, but coming to know arts in the world and as part of a larger community of people was a process altogether different and wildly paramount in setting me on this particular path.
NEA: How have you used or plan to use your NEA Creative Writing Fellowship?
DAY: This is such a tricky question to answer and also a tediously simple one. Folks in my life who were not necessarily aware of the NEA or its history are shocked that the government would “just give away” thousands of dollars to a poet when writing, in their eyes, requires everyday materials one can find for free in a variety of settings including, but not limited to, the public library, the DMV, the wash-n-fold, most restaurants, or even on the ground: pen and paper. Those folks will not be pleased to hear that this generous award does not buy pens and paper, but instead puts gas in my car, food on the table, and the need to teach every summer on hold. In essence, the NEA has already begun to sustain me as a human being in the world so that I can focus just a little bit less on surviving and concentrate a little bit more on writing. Maybe that’s the boring answer, or the unpopular one, or maybe I’m not supposed to talk about how artists have a tough time making a living in this country or about how the poems that will most benefit from this award are years from being written, but this kind of support is so exciting and such a relief. It’s opened up opportunities for me to travel to readings and festivals this coming year in order to share my work and be in non-virtual communication with other poets. Most exciting, though, is that research trips for the manuscript I’m working on have become possible; instead of grading quite so many student papers, I’m directing my attention toward what archival access, conversations, and travel might be most useful in finishing this book. I’m impossibly grateful.
NEA: You mentioned travel to the American Sign Language Archives in your NEA application---is that research trip still on the docket, and how might that visit inform your work?
DAY: Yes, absolutely. Martha’s Vineyard has a rich history of American Sign Language (or, more accurately, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language [MVSL]) due to over two hundred years of an unusually high occurrence of hereditary deafness; as Nora Ellen Groce discovered in preparation for her book (of the same name) that came out in the mid-eighties, everyone there spoke sign language. There are archives in DC and through Gallaudet to which I’ve had limited access, but what I’m much more interested in is actually visiting the towns of West Tisbury and Chilmark as a way to encounter that lineage (of deafness, Deafness, and ASL/MVSL) from a different perspective. Martha’s Vineyard is no longer the bilingual hive it once was and I’m excited to observe what remnants of that time remain. Descendants of many of the original families are still in residence on the island, yes, but I’m more curious about what the geography of the place, the infrastructure, and the intuitive history holds. Martha’s Vineyard is one of the few sites in American history that I know of where the community modified itself to adapt to the needs of a linguistic minority instead of demanding that minority assimilate; I’m interested not only in how a physical location participates in making this possible ([Martha’s Vineyard] is an island, for example, but also shaped by affluence), but also in how these factors contribute to the eventual extinction of MVSL. I’m planning to make the trip late next summer and hope to spend a significant chunk of time before then continuing the correspondences I’ve begun and finishing all the necessary footwork so that when I arrive I can look and observe and converse and question through the lens of the research I’ve already completed.
NEA: What is your take on the importance of arts education?
DAY: There are days when I think nothing could be more important. I spent a significant part of my twenties working with young folks in the arts outside of the academic industrial complex and some days it’s difficult to rationalize the teaching I do in university classrooms as a better use of my time. It’s been bizarre, as I approach thirty, to think that my entire career thus far as an adult writer and artist has been cultivated in the wreckage of arts programming across the country, but especially in my native California. I hadn’t yet graduated from college in 2003 when the California Arts Council had its budget cut by something like 95 percent---foreshadowed by the cuts in 2001, yes, but a terrifying indication of the devastation that was to come in public schools and with arts nonprofits---and I started teaching community writing workshops and working in after-school writing and performing programs in 2004. I can’t believe so many of the organizations that helped me become not just simply a writer but a person are now defunct; it’s hard for me to imagine having kids of my own and feeling good about sending them to a public school with no arts funding and no contracts with after-school arts enrichment like Youth Speaks or WritersCorps.
We frequently think of arts education as something only for young people and, with growing visibility, elder populations (where nonprofits and private establishments can support it). In all honesty, I wish arts education were not just required in schools, but in workplaces, too. I think arts education (and training and supporting arts educators) is crucial because of how successfully art permeates a participant without their knowing. As a young person, I loved creating things for a variety of reasons: it gave me a sense of autonomy and agency outside of my parents or teachers, it offered me a sense of personal empowerment, I used my imagination in ways I got in trouble for at school, I got to hang out with other kids like me, and more often than not, I got to be a little bit transgressive by way of content or form (I cussed on stage long before I cussed in my every day life and I never passed up an opportunity to get my clothes filthy with art supplies).
Scientific studies showing the cognitive and behavioral benefits of arts and humanities in both the young and old (of which there are many) aside, arts education has an immediacy and a longevity that is unrivaled by anything else I’ve experienced. While there are muscles in my body that still remember, at nearly thirty years old, how to plié or throw-down to second, the learning of those skills via repetition did little for my integrity or my understanding of my privilege as a white kid with access to ballet lessons and softball practices, and the corporeal memory does little for my ability to articulate my feelings to my partner or participate proactively with colleagues as an adult. Arts education integrated into my classroom in junior high made it possible for me to find points of interest in subjects I had no skill in or taste for; I can remember everything about Andrew Jackson’s presidency because I helped write and perform a musical about his life to the soundtrack of Disney’s The Lion King. How many people know the fifty states and their capitals because they learned them via song? How many people know about the (ongoing) AIDS crisis because their school put on a musical of RENT or Angels in America? How many young folks in Oakland channeled their grief and anger about Oscar Grant (or Alan Blueford or Gary King Jr. or Brandy Martell or Mario Romero or Kenneth Harding Jr or Trayvon Martin) into poetry or spoken word or rap that could be heard and held and witnessed by their community, instead of responding with violence? These are not things you forget. Many Youth Speaks workshops begin with two rules that I have carried into my teaching at the university level and are, I think, the reason arts education is so crucial to the development of people (of any age) as they become better, fuller, more aware versions of themselves: 1. There are no wrong answers and 2. The standard is yourself. Is there a better way for anyone to begin?
NEA: In what ways does working with students influence your writing and research?
DAY: As most folks in my life are abundantly aware, my students are a fierce priority. I spend a fair number of hours with them every week in the classroom, but far more time responding to their work, fielding their questions via email, worrying about them, consulting with other teachers about them, sharing their anecdotes, and generally musing over how to better reach them, both individually and as a group. And that’s not counting a few students I left in San Diego, Oakland, and San Francisco, with whom I’m still in contact. I love teaching; and more important than my penchant for it is its importance in my writing life. Teaching sharpens my receptivity to the world and my ability to respond in ways that are significantly more articulate and attentive than would otherwise be possible for me. Students are not an easy crowd; every day is a strange kind of reciprocal rite of passage, to put it lightly, and they keep me on my toes. I find that the conversations I have with my students are thought-provoking and probing in ways that require my full attention. What’s more, their learning differences necessitate my flexibility in teaching styles and demand that I am prepared to approach a topic or problem from a variety of angles without notice. These skills, I think, are vital to poems that are at once accessible and also stirred full of quiet surprise. Both teaching and poetry necessitate a lot of work; the payout of each is altogether different but riotously worthy of the labor required. In the same way I sometimes say things my students don’t understand, my students say plenty that I don’t understand; we are frequently researching one another’s worlds, despite our cohabitation. If there is anything else more like poetry, I don’t know what it is.
NEA: How do you balance your life as a teacher with your life as a poet?
DAY: To be truthful, I don’t know that I do. Or, at the very least, I don’t know that I do so very well. Do I write during the semester while I’m teaching? Yes. This, in itself, is a feat for me. It often requires a lot of chocolate and sometimes very little sleep. It gets smashed into the hour I have between classes, or involves writing against my knee while sitting at stoplights on my commute home, or talking into my own voicemail while in line at the post office, pretending the person on the other end wants to hear about how I can make the connection between stanza three and stanza four in the sestina about Icarus and breast cancer. Lots of times it doesn’t happen at all and the poem I’ve started in my head eventually gets swallowed by other everyday joys, or because I accidentally started a poem on the back of a student paper and then returned it. But do I write more when I’m not teaching? No---because I’m spending even more time doing the prep work for the coming semester. This is part of the great gift that is the NEA, I think; it has the potential to shift the time spent teaching and the time spent writing into a little bit more of a balance.
NEA: Your PhD is focused on Poetry and Disability Poetics, particularly poetry in the Deaf community. When did your interest in Deaf poetics begin and how has it shaped your own poems?
DAY: I owe my tenure in spoken word, slam, and the performing arts, in large part, to Deaf poets. At the time that I was encountering hip hop and spoken word for the first time---and therefore witnessing not only the political importance of call and response, but also the playfulness that language allows---I had already come to know poetry as a young person through Deaf poets and ASL storytelling. Patrick Graybill, Ella Mae Lentz, Clayton Valli, Dorothy Miles, and Debbie Rennie were some of the first poets to whom I paid much attention; their poems remain for me some of the most complicated, expressive, compact, and demanding I’ve encountered. Learning their poems (not altogether unlike the way I memorized Emily Dickinson as a young person) opened up a physical engagement with my own work that made creating poems in ASL, as well as writing poems in English, a much more visceral process. Above and beyond what a page poem in English contains, ASL poetry has the added dynamics of embodiment and performance to multiply its meanings and problematize possibilities for interpretation and analysis. What happens when a poem is performed by someone read as a woman instead of someone read as a man? How does the ephemeral quality of a performed poem become altered when that poem is recorded and archived as a video? How should we talk about ASL literature if it does not ever appear on the page?
It goes without saying that creating a poem in ASL can be an altogether different process than generating one in English; when I started performing regularly, though, and writing poems specifically to be read aloud, I had an opportunity to combine both of my fluencies without worrying about which one fit on the page and which could be heard on a mic---spoken word, performance poetry, and slam poetry each had space for my bilingual, bimodal poems. What I didn’t like, especially as a hard-of-hearing person working in both English and ASL, was that I didn’t have the language in English to talk about ASL poems and Deaf poetics without borrowing terms (like “literature”) that are not only ill-fitted to the poetry they signify, but also feel restrictive in definition and therefore further oppressive of an already beleaguered, albeit beautiful, language. When I started working more with the page and less with performance poetry, it felt imperative that I figure out first, how to expand the conversation of contemporary (English) poetics to include ASL poetry, and second, how to participate in creating and archiving ASL poetry without further contributing to the repression of a language many still think of as crude gestures or some kind of organized charades. Obviously those are things I’m still working on in my critical work and am anxious to have conversations with other folks who are also working through these issues by borrowing theory and literature from different disciplines. My relationship to sound continues to affect my own creative work, too. I have always written with sound in mind and am mildly obsessed with whether or not the sound in any given poem succeeds. I was recently fitted with a hearing aid, though, and suddenly everything changed: I say words differently, I hear ambient sound differently, older poems sound different in my own mouth. It’s exciting, but it’s also a little terrifying.
NEA: If you could invite any poets---or other artists---living or dead to your fantasy dinner party, who would you invite and why?
DAY: First of all, this sounds like a nightmare. Any poets or artists, living or dead, at a dinner party for which I am responsible for inviting (and entertaining) them? No way. Nightmare city. If I could instead simply overhear their conversations or creepily witness their interactions through two-way mirrors, or maybe even talk with them one-on-one… Rilke, Celan, Lorca, absolutely---Hughes, Niedecker, [Patricia] Smith, and Carson, yes. If they’re coming, I’d like to invite poets Rebekah Edwards and Genine Lentine, and my friend, artist Marie Duffin, because all three of them ask the most interesting and provocative questions (and I’d like to simply sit and listen). In addition to Kapil, McDonough, and Calvocoressi, I’d invite Claudia Rankine and Kiki Petrosino, Keetje Kuipers, Harryette Mullen, and Sadie Benning; we’d probably talk about performance studies and the book as a body, or about the relationship between content and form, and how they go about teaching curiosity and the pursuit of possibility through different mediums. I’d like Judith Jack Halberstam to attend, also, if they’re available, and probably Plato and June Jordan because there’s a conversation about the importance of art and embodiment that I’d like to witness. I’d probably invite Stanley Kunitz because I have some questions about translation and, of course, Patrick Graybill, whose own work I’d like permission to translate. I don’t know that Paulo Freire is necessarily an artist, but he’s for sure an arts educator; I’d like him to sit near LeVar Burton and WritersCorps’ Judith Tannenbaum. It’s getting kind of crowded. Maybe at some point when everyone feels really self-conscious and confused about why they decided to RSVP we could all watch Vittorio deSica’s film Ladri di Biciclette (or Howard Zieff’s ‘90s cult classic My Girl ?) and Pasolini could Skype in to give a little talk.
NEA: What is on your listening playlist right now? And what are you reading?
DAY: Folks I’m listening to right now include the following: Ella Fitzgerald, b.steady of The Lost Bois, The Be Good Tanyas, Adele, Patsy Cline, Annah Anti-Palindrome, Lauryn Hill, Dolly Parton, Efrat Gosh, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers, Melody Gardot, Kiersten Holine, Lauren O’Connell, Biz Markie, Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Beyonce, Gillian Welch, Sarah Siskind, Etta James, and Basia Bulat.
I’m just beginning the reading year of my PhD, so I’m mostly reading things from my list of 120+ texts in preparation for exams next spring. My focus is on gender and embodiment as it relates to queerness (and the queered body of disability); I recently finished Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and now I’m reading Homer’s The Iliad for the second time in six months. I’m doing a lot of research about boyhoods right now, too, as I’m teaching a course in the Gender Studies department on masculinity in the fall, and I’m frequently reading Jill McDonough’s newest book, Where You Live, out loud, trying to pinpoint the moves she makes that will help my fall semester poetry students avoid sentimentality in love poems as well as she does. I just discovered Leon Stokesbury’s poem “Unsent Letter to My Brother in His Pain,” and I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of Rachel McKibben’s new book. At a march for Trayvon Martin, a group of young folks read Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise,” so I’ve been revisiting that this week, too.
NEA: At the NEA we say “Art Works,” meaning the work of art itself, the transformative way arts work on individuals and communities, and the fact that artists are indeed workers. What does this phrase mean to you?
DAY: Sometimes when I talk about a poem in a workshop, I like to talk about what’s working hard for the poet. Usually this is something the poet has obviously put in time trying to master, such as the industriousness of the line breaks or the subtle fit of the rhyme. Whatever it is, the aspect that’s working hard (but not too hard) contributes to the poem’s ability to move seamlessly, as a well-oiled machine; you don’t know to notice how well the wheels and gears fit unless you, yourself, have spent years trying to master the gentle loop of that central metal cog. I like to think of art working in this way---that art works hard for us after we have worked hard for it. I like to think that artists know the transformative, permeating potential of their work when it is grasped and embodied in a masterful way, and so they put in the hours, eager for the moment when evidence of their labor slips away, paling in comparison to the brilliance of the revolution its endurance makes possible. I like to think we’re all striving for that moment when we’ve gotten it right enough that we, as artists, stop working and the art, itself, starts instead.