We asked the poets from our Witness issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 10 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about poets D Donna, author of “The God of Extinctions,” Hanna Maria Zagulska, the poet behind the visual art series “Self-Care Muse,” Maggie Rue Hess, author of “Duplex with Lung Cancer,” henry 7. reneau, jr., author of “The Horror Found in Every Inexpressive System / Something Vile and Dangerous Slithering in the Dirt,” Kelly Gray, author of “How the World Still Dearly Loves a Cage,” and Sunshine Meyers, author of “When I say God is a Woman, I Mean.” And make sure to check out their work in Vol 10: WITNESS!
Kelly Gray: This issue is Witness, who are the poets and/or poems that inspire your witnessing?
D Donna: Geoffrey Hill's "Ovid in the Third Reich" is an awful, exquisite little poem about art, and being an artist, and witness, and failure to witness. It's sharp as a jewel. It's nauseous with unprocessed survivor's guilt. The speaker rejects horror until they become horrific, tries to set themself apart from their society and ends up beneath it, all without letting the mask slip. Absolutely wretched, 10/10.
And for all that, it's not enough, right? Not even the most elegantly self-deprecating gesture at one's own gilded complicity can actually drag a single human being out of hell. But inspiration can be seeing a perfect portrait of a total jerk and thinking, "Okay, guess I'll need to both be and write about someone else." If this poem didn't exist, I'd spend years trying to write it. And I might still do that, but at least I don't have to worry.
KG: What was left out of this poem and how did you know to leave it out?
DD: There is no impact in my poem. The god of extinctions has kind of a bullshit job—extinctions occur, and they show up, or not, and the world keeps turning. This is a quiet, static piece because sometimes that's where we start, and it's a difficult starting point. We do our job and our job does nothing. And in coming to terms with that, we're free to think about what else to do.
KG: Do you ever have personas take shape in your poems that allow you to explore unknown parts of yourself, and if so, how does that process affect your relationship with your poetry?
DD: My self is really not that interesting! The characters I write are of course limited by my imagination, and they all resemble me in one way or another, but they're not there for me. They're there for themselves, and for the little moments they inhabit. I just do my best to give them each the space to live for that moment.
KG: What advice do you have for young poets?
DD: Here's what I wish someone had told me: do something else. Do anything else, and pay attention to it. We make art from experience the way bees make honey from nectar. Without that, without something gathered from the world, a poem is just so much dried spit.
Also, though, it's fine. You'll be fine.
Maggie Rue Hess: What obsessions make their way into your work?
Hanna Maria Zagulska: My work often mirrors a tapestry woven from the intricate threads of everyday conversations, the ambient symphony of radio waves that fill the air, and the vivid, stereo-like scenes that play out in my mind's theater. These elements, blended seamlessly together, form the core obsessions in my writing. I find myself captivated by the spontaneity and serendipity of capturing fragments of dialogue, the ebb and flow of music and news that the radio provides, and the way my imagination interprets and reshapes the world around me. This fusion creates a unique narrative rhythm, reflecting both the randomness and the interconnectedness of life's moments.
MRH: Is your writing earth, fire, wind, or water? Why?
HMZ: Like fire, I sometimes dive too intensely into topics, burning with a passion that can be both consuming and exhilarating. This intensity mirrors my approach to writing, where the need to express myself through words simmers within me like an eternal flame, always ready to ignite. My writing is a dynamic dance with fire – unpredictable, spirited, and always brimming with the transformative energy of creation.
MRH: When and/or where does your best writing happen?
HMZ: My best writing tends to unfold not in the moments of spontaneous inspiration commonly referred to as "muses," but rather in the calm that follows rest and fulfillment of basic needs. It's when I'm well-rested, nourished, and free from the pressing weight of obligations that my words flow most freely and my craft truly takes shape. This is the essence of my writing workshop, where the deliberate and considered assembly of thoughts happens. On the other hand, the notes I scribble down amidst the whirlwind of emotions—be it anxiety, elation, or turmoil—are seeds for future texts. These snippets, captured in the heat of the moment, are raw materials waiting to be refined during those serene, unburdened hours when my best writing comes to life.
Hanna Maria Zagulska: What does taking care of yourself mean to you?
Maggie Rue Hess: Speaking from my current moment - I love a good To Do List, but I’ve realized that actually just naming The Best Thing(s) To Do Today helps me take care of my time, energy, and peace. The To Do List is always there, but it doesn’t bully me when I set realistic priorities.
HMZ: Which global events stand out in your memory?
MRH: The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics & when the reporter threw his shoes at Bush.
HMZ: How do you deal with experiencing difficult emotions?
MRH: Gotta talk about it, gotta write about it, gotta forget about it for a little bit. At my worst, I fixate on big feelings, so I’ve been working on a mode of processing that doesn’t lead to obsessing.
HMZ: Do you think it's possible to separate art from the artist?
MRH: Realistically, no. If a person wants to love something/someone that has done harm, they need to recognize and reckon with that.
HMZ: What actions make women more active socially and their voices heard?
MRH: Community! There’s radical potential in communities of women, especially those who are unlearning the problematic ways we’ve been socialized.
Sunshine Meyers: What do you hope others will feel when they see your work?
henry 7. reneau, jr.: I want readers of my work to realize that each person is a catalyst for positive change. Government tyranny, patriarchal religiosity, and mo’ dollars be damned!! I want my writing to be a wakeup call to Amerikkka. I hope those who read my work will be inspired to maximize their innate inner potential and to find the courage, morality, and commonsense to fight for real change conducive to a collective co-existence in this country. Since most of what I write is based in, and on, the atrocities of Amerikkka, I would hope that anyone reading my work would be driven to burn the hate and greed that is Amerikkka to the ground and create something entirely different that actually worked for the full, diverse diaspora of We The People . . .
We have to change the racist, patriarchal status quo of death and destruction, purely for self-serving profit, that we export under the euphemisms of Global-I-zation, free trade zones of outsourced slavery, and our arrogant, non-inclusive version of democracy fostered through arms deals to dictators, drone strikes on conveniently designated “terrorists” and taking without asking through military occupation of designated “third world countries.” We can be a true “shining light” of freedom and equality instead of the greedy, racist, deceitful, murderous, white supremacist nation that We The People have created. Art as Radical Activism, instead of art for commercial art’s sake.
SM: What does your creative process look like?
h7r: My writing process resembles a quest into conflagration where the hero dies, and is resurrected in the end as an indomitable idea. It begins with bits and pieces I see or hear in my immediate environment, the words that follow me up from the depths of my dreams, my imagination, and intuition; the ideas and images that filter in from overheard conversations, personal insights gleaned from the thoughts and ideas of others, and the undeniable actions of others, that are then screened through my personal beliefs, experiences, opinions, and worldview. Most times I am able to winnow out the essence of whatever is rumbling around Helter Skelter in my mind. I do sometimes use prompts and I have journal pages filled with thoughts, analysis, rebuttals, and ideas, as well as scribbled notations on everything from toilet paper to coasters to pieces of cardboard that I revisit from time to time.
My writing process is a chaotic claustrophobia, a roundabout and confrontational road that requires that I give my all, mentally and physically. When I enter moments of what can best be described as lucid dreaming, when time and space seem to melt away to a spiritual plane of existence—just me, a pen, and a blank sheet of paper—the words seem to take on a life of their own, inked tendrils of authenticity that grasp the root of a thing and hold it in my open palm for the whole world to see, and be moved by. It is most often in these moments that my writing process takes me into an uncharted frontier where dragons eat heroes and heroines for lunch, where my pen always proves to be truly mightier than the sword.
SM: When (and why) did you decide you wanted to share your art rather than keeping it to yourself?
h7r: Writing is like treasure. It only shines when it is shared. I have always been an extrovert by nature and I realized at a young age that writing kept to oneself makes a person a diarist, but it doesn’t mean they are a writer in the collectively shared sense of the term. Plus, I have never been the type of person to shy from confrontation, critique, or sometimes, praise. I seek to share my work, to teach and entertain others, as well as to be entertained and enlightened by the alternative stories of others.
SM: What’s been the hardest part of your creative journey?
h7r: Getting paid for my work!! I feel that every poem is as commercially valuable as any other medium of art. One of the primary goals of every poetry journal, magazine, or anthology should be to devise a means of paying their poets, instead of asking their contributors for donations, or reading fees. Use that creative imagination to create a viable revenue stream that isn’t solely dependent upon your artists.
SM: What work(s) are you most proud of?
h7r: That would be every poem, hybrid story, book review, or flash fiction piece that has been published. I guess what I am most proud of is that many people, all over the world, find my writing interesting enough to read and well written enough to be published. Hellfire and save the matches!!! Hallelujah, Amen!!!
henry 7. reneau, jr.: As a poet I have always felt that writing a poem is equivalent to writing a novella, with a beginning, a middle and an end. What criteria, or imaginative artistry, do you employ in writing and structuring the form and sequential linearity of your poems?
Kelly Gray: Fascinating to think about it this way, because in my own novella writing, I tend to veer away from beginnings, middles, and ends. When writing poetry, I try to approach it intuitively, as if the poem is teaching me what I need to know. The experience mirrors a climax, I am building towards a higher (and sometimes lower) ground – all I can guarantee is that movement is afoot. After the images, nitpicking to evoke the exact emotions, and the quest to reach an epiphany through the act of writing, the nuts and bolts of form tend to come last.
h7r: Have you ever written a poem that gives you that same heart-swelled-to-bursting feeling that you have when you walk out of a movie where good has triumphed over evil, and you realize, in that moment, that this level of nobility actually lies dormant within you?
KG: That sounds really lovely, but no, I don’t think that’s the feeling for me. It’s more of a release, which can feel exhausting or liberating, but I always want more, and I always think the poem can show me more, although it’s more of an immersion than any form of battle.
h7r: Who, or what, has been the greatest influence on your writing, and why?
KG: I don’t know how to honestly measure this, but something about cinematic spans and receding light and cracked windows and backroads and the minutiae of being alone, it's a feeling that I am trying to get to that shows up in everything I do, writing included.
h7r: What was the spark that ignited your passion for poetry? Is this still the main reason for your writing poetry at present?
KG: I started writing poetry because I needed to understand myself and prove to myself that I had a voice, because having a voice meant I could be alive. I was talking to my future self, assuring her it would be ok. Now I write to be understood by others while existing within layers and nuance, and a part of me is writing backwards to that kid, saying yeah babe, it’s all ok, here we are.
h7r: Is your passion to write motivated mostly by discipline, tenacity, or perseverance?
h7r: What is the most challenging aspect of your artistic process?
KG: All in equal measure: Inner critic//reaching flow state//finding time//being dyslexic and dealing with cover letters//becoming irritable when a poem is stuck//doing right by the poem not by my trauma//answering the question what do you write about.
h7r: I have always felt that my writing has a strong connection to place—both spatially and psychologically—and it is reflective in my writing. Tell me where you are and how your place fits into, and influences your writing.
KG: I am inside my body which is curled up on my couch a few feet away from the wood stove which empties smoke from oak trees into the redwood forest that is intersected with roaring creeks which will, in about nine miles time, reach the Pacific ocean. The space between my body and yours, or the pressing of my body against a rock, or the space of a burrow underground, or the sense of time passing through these spaces, interior and exterior, or something decaying or having an abortion or watching a cow get born, all of this is all I write about because it is the closest thing I can think of to effectively mess with (as in fuck with) the notion of linear time and human constructs which I fully believe should be unravelled immediately.
h7r: What is your biggest pet peeve with writers, trends, publishing, etc. today?
KG: Agh! Good question. Honestly, when folks post acceptance/rejection letters on social media. Sorry, everyone. It bothers me because I love you and you are more than acceptances and you are more than rejections. And can we come up with better names for these letters? Jeesh, so damaging. I try not to feed the validation hole, but man, I get it, it’s tough.
hr7: Tell me about your fondest memory of cake.
KG: Is there a memory of cake that is not the fondest? The frozen wedding cake in the back of the freezer that I hollowed out with a fork when no one was home knowing I was risking a good beating. The three-tiered white cake at my senior graduation that my little brother dipped his hand into when he thought no one was looking but everyone clapped when they saw his full mouth (me, the loudest). The little mini cupcakes from Safeway that I buy just to suck the frosting off in the parking lot. The 9 layer pink cake I baked for my friends who came to visit when I moved to the backwoods of Southern Oregon, after an embarrassing breakup, that was so tall I had to keep it in place with skewers. The lemon cake my daughter baked for her birthday party and then declined to eat, explaining, I don’t like cake mama, I just want to see everyone smile.
D Donna: What, if anything, do your poems try to do?
Sunshine Meyers: I imagine a successful poem to have a similar effect as tapping sap from a tree. The same way trees harbor sap, I believe every reader carries deeply felt yet unexpressed emotions in their body. It’s probably why they seek out poetry in the first place! I want my poetry to pierce straight to the reader’s emotion and become the valve that finally lets it out.
Sometimes my poetry is the product of me performing this practice on myself. But even then, I share it because I want the reader to experience a pierce-and-release of their own.
DD: What does writing a poem feel like? Is there more or less pressure on you while writing?
SM: I think every poet can relate to the experience of sitting in front of a screen with their hands dead on the keyboard. My best poems don’t tend to be conceived from those passionless sessions.
Most of the time, writing a poem feels sudden, exciting, and inspired. It almost feels invasive, how inspiration can strike me so somatically at a stoplight, the grocery store, or even in the middle of a conversation. I try to write a bit every day, but those are the electric waves I wait for.
I don’t think most of “being a poet” is about writing poems. I think it’s about looking at the self and the world the way only a poet does. It’s about knowing when to write and when to wait. I don’t enjoy the experience of forcefully extruding a poem out of myself, but I know doing this occasionally is definitely purposeful and fruitful. I almost exclusively reserve this kind of writing for workshops, while in the company of other poets who challenge and invigorate me. Other times, I wait.
DD: Is there an image or phrase you can't let go of?
SM: My current poetic zeitgeist is deeply saturated in the divine feminine and feminism in general. But, if I were to jumble and toss all the words from my most recent poems into a pile, it wouldn’t be a very romantic or flowery compilation. There’d be nouns like “surgeon” and “insurance” and “silicone cup,” and verbs like “shedding” and “twisting” and “aching.”
I’m most inspired right now by the cyclical grief and time-keeping of the womb and all femmes in general. I’m comparing it to everything I can— pomegranates, winter, cigarettes, trees— and often with very direct and uncomfortable language, it seems. I think I want my poems to feel as frank as the pain they talk about.
While I’m excitedly searching for the right press to accept my first completed manuscript, it seems the theme for my second one is already taking shape!
DD: Who—poet or otherwise—do you wish you could write more like?
SM: I recently finished reading Brilliant Little Body by Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, published by Riot in Your Throat. And damn– so many of those poems made me say “oof” and wish I had written them myself.
Every poem in that collection delivers a feeling you already know, an image you can see, and language that cuts straight to the point. She surely seems to have a vast and deep inner world, but she expresses it tangibly. I think too many poets pursue a “riddly” elusiveness with their work, and this approach yields confusing and unapproachable poetry most of the time. But Jenkins said, “I know how to find the other shoe and drop it,” and I immediately know what she means by that.
Otherwise, Mary Oliver is my soul’s favorite writer. There’s acceptance, softness, and queerness to her work. It lives forever, and calls deeply to the acceptance, softness, and queerness that also lives forever in me.
DD: When did you write the poem(s) in this issue? Has your relationship with the writing or its themes changed since then?
SM: I wrote “When I say god is a woman, I mean” in 2022 as part of my first full-length collection, Lye.
Lye represents an arc of massive change in my relationship to writing! It first began as a trove of treasured poetry drafts on my phone, which then graduated to a cohesive, multi-page document in Microsoft Word. It went from being “a rewarding personal project” to “it would be cool if I wrote a book, but I won’t publish it or anything” to “I’m going to hire an editor and submit this to all the presses I love.”
This particular poem was written during my personal era of deciding my words, as anyone else’s, are worth sharing. Since then, I’ve injected many doses of dedication and belief into my relationship with writing. I can’t say I would have called myself a “poet” when this piece was first written, but I certainly do now.
D Donna's poems have appeared in Rust + Moth, The Rupture, Lily Poetry Review, and elsewhere. They live in eastern Massachusetts.
Hanna M. Zagulska, also known as HMZ, is a poet, writer, social activist, and PR and marketing advisor from Central Europe. Throughout the last 3 years, Hanna has showcased her passion for literature and activism, discussing topics such as her involvement in artistic projects, collaborations with other artists, and her aspirations as a writer. Hanna's commitment to social issues, creative expression, and community building shines through her work, whether it's crafting thought-provoking poetry or organizing artistic initiatives.
Maggie Rue Hess (she/her) is a graduate student living in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her partner and their two crusty white dogs. Her work has previously appeared in Rattle, Minnesota Review, Connecticut River Review, GASHER, The Shore, and other publications; her debut chapbook, The Bones That Map Us, is forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2024. She likes to share baked goods with friends and be over-involved in everything.
henry 7. reneau, jr. does not Twitter, Tik Tok, Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. It is not that he is scared of change, or stuck fast in the past; instead, he has learned from experience that the crack pipe kills. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Poets Reading the News, Prairie Schooner, Zone 3 and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
Kelly Gray’s collections include Instructions for an Animal Body (Moon Tide Press) and Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife (Quarter Press, Gold Medal winner from IPPY). Most recently, Gray won the Tusculum Review Chapbook Prize for her manuscript The Mating Calls of the Specter and her writing has been published by Southern Humanities Review, Northwest Review, Rust & Moth, and Permafrost, among other journals and anthologies.
Sunshine Meyers (she/they) is a queer Louisville-area poet who enjoyed a career as a Speech-Language Pathologist before pursuing poetry. Whether as a clinician or poet, Sunshine believes in the restorative and contagious powers of self-expression. They are dedicated to sharing that power with others through their writing and monthly writing workshop– Golden Hours. Sunshine’s first published work is found in the Louisville poets anthology, Once a City Said, by Sarabande Books and edited by Joy Priest.
We asked the poets from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about poets Kahlo Smith, James Champion, Harley Anastasia Chapman, Ariel Machell, and Moni Brar.