Hope Wabuke on the work of the poet

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The Sillerman First Book Prize closes soon! To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, UNL's own award-winning poet Hope Wabuke discusses finding her way into form, her enduring love for Sharon Olds, and what she's reading and teaching right now.

How many books have you published, and where?

I have published two books. The first collection, Movement No. 1: Trains, was published by Dancing Girl Press. The second collection, The Leaving, was published by Akashic Books as part of Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani’s New Generation African Poets Series.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

Movement No. 1: Trains is kind of a city symphony of New York, where I lived for many years–the daily rhythm of riding the subway and dancing between people walking the streets. Blurring the lines between past and the present, these prose poems explore the movement between love, loss and longing in a young woman’s memory. There was no real conscious deliberation towards organization: I thought of it like a collection of photographs, of bursts of imagistic prose—and juxtaposed the proses poems to weave together the elements of the piece.

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I would say that I have noticed myself writing in a specific consistent form: i.e, free verse that is a long column of text unbroken by stanzas. Perhaps this has more to do with my writing process at the time. Then, I would craft mostly in revision, allowing the poem to be found within, from the first rush of words. When I noticed that, I deliberately challenged myself to write in various forms—both traditional sonnet, ghazal, villanelle, and more modern stanza broken forms as well as visual poetry, etc.–that I would not normally use. Now, my writing has changed so that the first draft is both getting the words down on the page and listening for the line and stanza break—allowing that to rise up organically, naturally.

How did you decide which stories or poems to include in the collection?

Both collections are excerpts from larger manuscripts. In the case of Movement No. 1: Trains, it is from the first part of a three part series of interconnected prose poems from a longer poetry collection The Autobiography of Blue. The Leaving is also an excerpt from my poetry manuscript The Body Family, which explores my family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide and the aftermath of healing in America. I found a cluster of poems in the larger Body Family manuscript that I felt would work well as a chapbook and then The Leaving was the title that best encapsulated the themes from that cluster.

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I submitted Movement No.1: Trains to one place—Dancing Girl Press. It is a small, feminist independent press run by Kirsty Bowen in Chicago. She is doing amazing work publishing women authors. I had loved the books she had published; I knew my book would be in good hands with her. I didn’t actually submit The Leaving anywhere. I had been a finalist in a poetry contest and one of the judges shared my work with her colleague, Kwame Dawes, who then asked if I had a enough material for a chapbook that he could publish in his New Generation African Poets series which he co-edits with Chris Abani. I gathered some poems from The Body Family, and sent the collection to him under the title The Leaving.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Be patient. Trust yourself. Read everything. Practice discernment.

Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Not really. It is nice to have a tangible object to show in terms of your career development. But one is a writer whether one is published or not.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I told my baby, who was then toddler and he smiled and said “Good job mommy.” He then told me one of his poems. He was quite in love with Thomas the Train at the time so he said “My poem is called ‘Thomas rhymes with hummus.’ They should publish it too.”

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

That much of the work of publicity is on you with the smaller presses; with Movement No. 1: Trains, the first book, I sent the book out to reviewers and was instrumental in obtaining publicity and reviews. The press didn’t do that. I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of publicity Akashic Books did for the second book. With that one, I didn’t do much outreach; I would get occasional Google alerts and see that The Washington Post orThe New Inquiry had reviewed the book, which was quite lovely.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

In Movement No. 1: Trains it is the first page. I had an image—a feeling, an experience. I was waiting for the subway underground in New York City and I wanted to capture everything about that sensation of blurred movement, tinged with an undercurrent of sensuality—most likely because I had just been through my first break-up with the first person I was in love with. I got on the train and wrote it down. The rest of the poems followed. It was the first series of interconnected poems I wrote—and I daresay the only group of poems I have written that came out nearly all in final draft form from the beginning, with very little editing to follow. I think because I had been walking around with them in my head for years without knowing.

What are you writing now? Reading?

I am working on my third full-length collection, Brothers and Sisters, a kind of conversation between the African and African American experience in the understanding of the global African diaspora.

In terms of reading, I’m going through all of Dylan Thomas very slowly.

I just finished reading Ocean Vuong’s book and Solmaz Sharif’s book, which I used in my Intro to Creative Writing Poetry class this fall. Both of them are two of the most exciting poetry collections to come out this year, in my opinion. I just read Citizen again because I taught it this semester also; it is so important and necessary and exactly what it needs to be. I am very thankful for Claudia Rankine, in this time and always. I read Mahtem Shiferrew’s Fuschia and reread Jericho Brown last week, both of whom are so lovely, and I will be teaching them in my poetry class in a few weeks. I’m rereading Stacey Waite’s Butch Geography because it’s amazing and because I am going to teach it in my Women’s Lit class next semester. I’m rereading Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser to get closer to something I cannot quite articulate but revolves around a word that is something between audacity and courage—that exists in the space not of ego, desperation, or fear—but because it must be done. I am obsessed what Kaveh Akbar does with language and cannot wait for his collection to come out next year. And I come back to Sharon Olds’s The Father over and over because it is everything. Natalie Diaz is a poet I come back to over and over because her language is incendiary.

What are your foundational texts—poetry or otherwise—that you return to again and again?

The above-mentioned The Father, by Sharon Olds. Indeed—anything by her. She gives us imagery, metaphor, motif, and extended metaphor in such an incredible way. And then there is the intensity and discipline of the line and emotional resonance of her layered, deliberate construction. I love Anne Carson for so many things, and Shakespeare for many, many more than I can mention. His was the first book of poetry—the first book I ever read. My father, who did not read poetry, somehow had the Yale Collected Works of Shakespeare on the living room table. It was bigger than I was. I started reading it when I was five, and read it over and over. I didn’t understand much of it until I was a teenager. But I think it was interesting, how the child’s mind understands the poem, and remembers that understanding, even after one grows older and into a new way of understanding words and ideas. Every time I read Jane Hirschfield, Ladan Osman or Warsan Shire, a window opens into something new for me. Lucille Clifton, Kwame Dawes, Derek Westcott, Danez Smith are constants. I think Ocean’s book might become one. 

Hope Wabuke is a writer, essayist and poet. Her creative and scholarly work explores the literature of the global African diaspora as well as larger questions of immigration, the first-generation experience, the refugee experience, liminality, trauma, and inherited trauma. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a speciality in Creative Writing and African Poetics.

Hope is also a contributing editor for The Root and a contributing writer for the Kirkus Reviews. Her poetry has appeared in Border Crossing, Lit Hub, The North American Review, Potluck Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Fjords Literary Journal, Salamander Literary Journal, NonBinary Review, and others. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Guardian, Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Salon, Gawker, Guernica, Dame, The Root, Ozy, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine online, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Magazine and The Feminist Wire. HHer chapbook Movement No. 1: Trains was published in 2015 by dancing girl press. Her second chapbook, The Leaving, was published in 2016 by Akashic Press as part of Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani’s New Generation African Poets series.Hope has received fellowships and awards from Junot Diaz’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, The New York Times, the Awesome Foundation and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers. Her work has been performed at the Kumble Theatre, White Wave Dance Festival, and Stage Left Theatre. Hope was also a finalist for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize and is a founding board member of the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction.