In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Erica Hunt discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. And I’m here today with our Guest Editor for July, Erica Hunt. Erica is the author of Veronica: A Suite in X Parts and Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems. Thank you for joining me today, Erica.
Erica Hunt: It’s a pleasure.
Hunt: It’s been fun.
Poets.org: Yes. A fun month to curate, as our audience will see. Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Hunt: Well, I think we’re living during an exciting time for contemporary poetry. There’s a great flourishing of types of poetry. Certainly, there are people who are inventing new forms of poetic expression. It’s cross-disciplinary, which is interesting to me. I love translation. I love what happens to American English because we have access to different kinds of poetry across the world. I was interested also in being inclusive of the varieties of poetic expression. And, by that, I meant people from different racial backgrounds, ethnicities, gender expression and, of course, across generations. I do a lot of curation and I don’t want us to lose from the past. And I also want us to be future- and forward-looking. One of my goals was to have both poets who are in their eighties and poets who are in their twenties be part of July Poem-a-Day.
Poets.org: I’m so glad that you discussed your curation of works by numerous well-known African American poets from different generations, as well as works in translation. Recently, in publishing, I think there’s been an expansion of access to translated poetry, both in print and online. I’m thinking, particularly, of the recent launches of Astra magazine and Words Without Borders’s launch of an online magazine. What are your hopes, if any, in light of this expansion of access to global poetry, particularly in light of the more, arguably, nativist impulses that have become such a part of popular discourse in the United States?
Hunt: Sure. I’ve been lately thinking about influences in my own development as a poet. And I’m writing an essay right now, finishing an essay on that topic. And I think about how long it took for me to find any expression that correlated to my life in poetry and in literature. And I connect that to this thing. William [Carlos Williams] says that people die every day for the lack of what is to be found in poetry. And I think about that. There is something very important and vital in poetic expression. The way that language is used to just connect us to parts of our experience, that can’t be captured in the linear, prosaic sense, and the instructional register, the command register. Poetry doesn’t do that. Poetry invites us to question, to discover, to delight, to be odd, to be frightened—all of these wonderful emotions that actually open doors inside us and to the world.
This trend to explore or translate poems from other languages, from experiences that are, in Elizabeth Alexander’s words, under-explored, in terms of Black experience, means that we can find our lives; we can make our lives. What I want to have happen when someone opens up a Poem-a-Day is to find either a poem, or even a line, that draws them in, that turns on the light bulb, in some part of their own experience. In some part of their day they go, “Ah! There it is. I see myself; I see the world a little bit more clearly.”
Poets.org: So, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Hunt: Yeah, just one poem? Well, there are many poems. There are really many poems.
Poets.org: A handful would be fine. Yeah.
Hunt: And also, I feel like I use Poem-a-Day often to teach poetry. And, so, it’s been a really wonderful resource. I was thinking about Rajiv Mohabir, who I’ve become acquainted with through Poem-a-Day, through the poems that appear there, the “Vestigial Bones” and “Kabira”… I also think about Sawako Nakayasu, who’s a colleague, whose poem appears in Poem-a-Day, I think, in this past year. But this is a wonderful way for people to just taste a poet—one poem, one poet, and then to follow their curiosity to the rest of that poet’s works. And the variety is, again, that’s the sauce. That’s the secret of the sauce—it’s the variety. And remove some of our some of our socialization, our ideas or stereotypes about poetry as only occurring in one form, with one register, and with one voice; when, in fact, it’s so multiple, and it’s so various. You realize that you can find something there for your life.
Poets.org: I just want to note to our listeners that Sawako Nakayasu’s poem “Pink Waves” was just published in this past month as part of Jos Charles’s curation, if anyone is curious about going back and finding Nakayasu’s contribution to Poem-a-Day. So, aside from Poem-a-Day, which you read daily, and thank you for that, who or what are you reading right now?
Hunt: My reading is a bit directed towards current projects. So, I am reading Bring Back Our Girls, which is the untold story of Nigeria’s missing school girls, the Chibok school girls, who did... This is really a journalistic retelling of the incidents over the years in which girls have been kidnapped by sort of an Islamic sect and returned… Different forms of misogyny, which is not just, of course, in Nigeria; it’s rampant here in this country, as well. And thinking about how it comes in waves, that there are waves of this. And it’s, of course, the more women assert themselves and are independent and move towards a kind of emancipated state, the more serious the backlash. And we can see that right now here in the States. I’m reading One Thousand and One Nights because, that’s because I’m really fascinated with the figure of Scheherazade. Scheherazade is the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights. And she begins to tell the unending story to the boss, as I call it, but really the caliph, because the caliph is intent on marrying a virgin and killing her in the morning because he wants to ensure fidelity. He wants to ensure faithfulness. He doesn’t want to be betrayed. And Scheherazade puts a stop to the slaughter by telling a story to her sister, she says. And, before morning comes, and the caliph says, “Well, what happens next?” And she said, “Well, in order to find out what happens to the rest, we have to, I guess, begin again in the evening.” So, thereby, saves her sister’s life and her own life by protracting the story on and on and on and on for nearly three years.
So, I love this idea of a story in which the stakes are high. The stakes are one’s very own life. And it restores, for me, the idea that literature matters. What are the stories that we tell to save our lives? And I’m reading a book of poems by a deceased British poet—Our Death by Sean Bonney, who, unfortunately, left us too soon, but left us with some very, very beautiful poems, strong poems that I’m reading as well. Again, my reading is very connected to current projects.
Poets.org: What are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Hunt: Well, I’m completing an essay right now that’s tentatively called “Other Influences for an Anthology.” That’s being edited by Marcella Duran and Jennifer Firestone for MIT Press. And it collects with, I think, twenty or thirty other women experimental writers. Essays that lay out what has been influential for them in their development as writers. And it’s been a great process for me. I had a wonderful discussion with Harryette Mullen, a dear friend, about our influences and how they converge, and also how they diverge. But one point of convergence has been this photo that I had sent Harryette some months ago, that I saw in the Toni Morrison exhibit that was in New York. It was an exhibit organized by Hilton Als to commemorate the publication of The Black Book, an important collocation of documents and archives and photos of Black life in America.
Anyway, one of the photos in this exhibit was a photo of the sisterhood. And that sisterhood, I think, photo dating from 1978 included Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Louise Meriwether, Vertamae Grosvenor... Trying to think… It’s three other women, and what was so striking to me [is] that you’d see all these women together in one photo, in an apartment—that snapshot. So, it got me to thinking with Harryette about how we influence each other, and had we ever had such a photo? So, that’s one essay, and it’s a rumination on that. That’s the starting point.
Other work that I’m writing right now… I’m writing about Scheherazade, as I also mentioned, and thinking about storytelling in that piece. It’s a hybrid work and the components of the story. It’s interesting when you start writing about misogyny, but also writing about storytelling, stories will come to you. The pieces come to you. Everywhere you look, in the newspaper, there’ll be another element to add. So, I’m trying to wrestle [with] that. It’s a good thing, and it can be also be kind of like, oh my goodness, how do I eat this elephant? And the answer is, a bite at a time. And then, the third thing I’m working on is I’m co-curating with Matthew Shenoda, a colleague, the Writers on Writing poetry series. We teach the book and the poet or writer comes and reads and answers questions. So, I’m working on the Writers on Writing series at Brown University, where I teach this fall. So, those are the three main titles.
Poets.org: All very exciting. I’m so glad that you brought up that exhibit by Hilton Als on Toni Morrison. Some may not know that when Morrison was an editor at Random House, prior to her career as a novelist, she was instrumental in publishing Black women writers. Of course, she worked with Angela Davis and there’s that famous photo of them walking through Manhattan. But lesser known, I think, is her work, or her efforts, to publish Gayl Jones, which I think is very important. We would not have Eva’s Man or Corregidora if it wasn’t for Morrison’s efforts to bring Jones to public attention.
Hunt: Indeed. Toni Cade Bambara and others, as well, [were] instrumental. Yeah.
Poets.org: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Erica, for this enriching and broad conversation.
Hunt: You’re certainly welcome. Again, it’s been my pleasure to be working with you on Poem-a-Day. So, thank you for the invitation.
Poets.org: Thank you. We’re looking forward.