Interview: Award-winning Raleigh poet Dorianne Laux on the unique writing community in North Carolina | Arts
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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Interview: Award-winning Raleigh poet Dorianne Laux on the unique writing community in North Carolina

Posted by on Thu, Jan 21, 2016 at 2:29 PM

click to enlarge Dorianne Laux - PHOTO BY JOHN CAMPBELL
  • photo by John Campbell
  • Dorianne Laux
Raleigh’s Dorianne Laux is the author of five books of poetry. Her most recent collection, The Book of Men, won the Paterson Prize. She has also won or been a finalist for the Best American Poetry Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Oregon Book Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, among many other recognitions and fellowships.

Born in Augusta, Maine, in 1952, Laux worked as a sanatorium cook, a gas-station manager, a maid and a donut-holer before receiving a BA in English from Mills College. After living and teaching in Oregon, Laux now lives with her husband, poet Joseph Millar, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University.

Laux invited me to her beautiful home in the Five Points area for this interview about the importance of community for poets and the unique, robust one she found—and helped build—here in North Carolina. Laux works closely with local literary magazine Raleigh Review, courtesy of which you can take her advanced poetry workshop in April.

INDY: What do you immediately think of when you hear “writing communities in North Carolina?”

DORIANNE LAUX:The North Carolina Poetry Society and the Weymouth Center. They invited me and John Balaban to come read when I first moved to North Carolina, and then I started receiving their newsletter. They send this great list every month of events around the state. And then, of course, Quail Ridge Books, which has so many important readings. Recently, QRB has hooked up with Raleigh Review to do readings there as well. Flyleaf and The Regulator in Chapel Hill and Durham are great resources, too.

One of our former MFA poetry students, Rob Greene, started Raleigh Review, and that has grown into a fairly well-read magazine as well as a community center. We have readings and a poetry on the buses program. We give community writing workshops a few times a year; one is going on right now with two N.C. State MFAs as teachers. It’s in conjunction with the Hope Center, which serves foster youth who are transitioning out of the system and into adulthood.

Since I’ve been here, the past seven years, I’ve seen a lot of growth. The South is famous for its literary history, but not so much with poets. We have so many amazing poets right here: Alan Shapiro, John Balaban, Betty Adcock. Oh, too many to mention, the list just keeps growing. Tony Hoagland was born in Fort Bragg. And I think a lot of people who come to N.C. State’s MFA program end up staying here, so that creates more community.

Were you conscious of creating a network of writers or did this happen organically?

Yes, somewhat conscious, but also organically. With poetry, especially, it’s such a small community that you want to do anything you can to help another poet out. When we lived in Oregon, we were stockholders in the local bookstore there, Tsumani Books. We had a lot to do with the writers they brought to read and the poetry books they ordered. Every year there would be some financial crisis, as with so many independent bookstores, and we would help fundraise to keep it going another year. People come to depend on these community resources. While I was there, the graduates started having their yearly reading at Tsunami Books. I started sending my textbook orders there. My husband and I got all our friends and cohorts to start ordering from Tsunami. It quickly became our friendly neighborhood place. And this same investment and sense of community is happening for us with Raleigh Review.

What is the North Carolina writing community like compared to other places you’ve lived?

It’s more spread out, for one thing. You really have to make plans if you’re going to attend some literary events. Everything isn’t happening in one central place. There’s Asheville and the Triangle and so many small towns in between that are engaged. We just got back from Sylva, where they have a really fine little independent bookstore and community center.

One of the great things about the South is that wonderful Southern charm—so friendly, so open, so welcoming. It’s not so much that people aren’t friendly in other places, but it isn’t built into the culture like it is here. People have it on their list of things to do, to call someone or send an invitation or a thank-you note. It’s so kind and sweet, and really supportive. It can be hard to get people to come out for a reading, but people show up here, especially for young writers—those who don’t necessarily have a built-in audience. People come. People participate.

It’s more a state of mind, this real attention to people: “How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?” There’s a sense of graciousness. And then, we are in the Triangle, which brings amazing people from all over the world. It’s very cosmopolitan yet there’s a rural feeling to it, living even in the middle of Raleigh. It feels homey yet you can go to any show or concert—any event you can get in New York, you can get in Raleigh. Beautiful museums and art and music and food.

Also, Joe and I say that people who grew up in the South and moved anywhere else in the United States must think other people don’t know how to eat. There is something about Southern food. No other place in the United States knows how to fry food like you do. You order fried catfish, and it is so light and crispy. It’s delicious! And that comes with a sense of tradition. There’s a sense of history here that you don’t have on the West Coast. I grew up in houses that were thrown up in two days. Here, I live in a house that’s over 80 years old.

What’s passed down also weighs heavily on the people and place. The Civil War still looms large in people’s minds and imaginations. To be honest, I couldn’t have told you much about the Civil War before moving here, though I could have told you anything you might like to know about the Miwok Indians. It’s been an education, moving to the South.

What do you teach or show your students about making a writing community?

I tell students that when they come to an MFA program, their fellow students are the ones they will form lifelong relationships with, who will become your best readers and confidants. The MFA program is such a hothouse environment. They’re never going to replicate that, ever. The program becomes such a huge part of their literary life that they feel at sea without it. So the more they can create a community locally and learn how to build those communities for themselves, it’s not as difficult to transition. Many of our former students work at Quail Ridge Books and Raleigh Review. I work to create community on a more national level by letting students know what’s available in terms of publications, jobs and fellowships. Hopefully, by modeling, I’m showing them how they can create a community. Start a webpage. Start exchanging information. Get together and share your poetry. Start a reading series. They are already good at helping each other, and we encourage that.

What people and poets who you didn’t know before moving to North Carolina have begun to fuel your writing life?

Betty Adcock, Joe Bathanti—who I had met briefly but hadn’t yet read—and Kevin Boyle, who teaches at Elon University. Richard Krawiec is also a great community-maker. One of my favorite poets of all time is Nazim Hikmet. I was introduced to his poetry in community college by my teacher, Steve Kowit. I loved Hikmet, but every time I’d ask one of my poet friends about him, they always said, “Who is that?" I began to think of him as my secret poet love. When I moved to Raleigh, I got an email asking if I would judge the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition and attend this annual literary festival in his honor. The contest is worldwide. They make a great yearly anthology of the prizewinning poems. At the festival there is Turkish music and handmade Turkish food, and we always have a guest speaker. Finally, I was in a room filled with people who loved Hikmet as much as I did!

How has North Carolina influenced your writing?

I think a lot of what shapes your writing is the environment. Even if it’s not conscious, it seeps in. The landscape here is similar to Oregon: pine trees, creeks and rivers, the ocean, the mountains. One big difference to me is cardinals in the snow. I’d only seen cardinals on Christmas cards. When I first saw that, my jaw dropped. Here were these little miracles flying around my house!

Also, my colleagues have influenced my work. What I really love about N.C. State is that we have real working writers there. Jill McCorkle publishes a new book every year; she barely pauses to take a breath. Wilton Barnhardt is always writing, and he is totally immersed in anything literary, including poetry. We have a strong community of writers, all giving each other feedback on our work, exchanging books we’ve fallen in love with and want to share and discuss, and giving readings together.

When I worked at the University of Oregon, I didn’t feel such a community with my colleagues. Everybody kept their work a little closer to their chests, more competitive. At N.C. State, it’s not like that at all. Everybody is so supportive of each other. I feel lucky to have this hive of writers buzzing around me, busy doing the good, hard work.

Read several of Laux's poems at The Poetry Foundation website. 

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