In-Tune with Poetry [Q&A]

This is an interview with Nicholas Damion Alexander.

Nicholas Damion Alexander is a Jamaican teacher of English and Philosophy. His poems and stories have been published in online and print journals and anthologies through the Caribbean,North America, the UK and the Pacific. He has also published several online reviews and interviews. In 2008, he became a fellow of the Calabash International Writers’ Workshop and in 2015 he served as Red Bones Blues Cafe Poet of the Year.

How did you get into writing?

I started loving writing from an early age(about 8) through my initial love for reading. The love for reading itself was inspired partly by my mother and two female neighbors who were all avid readers. Soon after, I developed a fascination with emulating these stories I was reading (children stories, then adult adventure series). One of my earliest and greatest inspirations was Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan series. So I was writing stories first, for a long time. Poetry came in my late teens-first, as a requirement for an amateur writing workshop I was selected to attend at age 15 then a few years later when a friend asked me to edit a poem he wrote for a girl. I became jealous of this use of a powerful but shorter art form and decide to try it.

Why the decision to teach English and Philosophy?

English developed naturally as a possible professional interest. In fact, it was probably the first profession I truly considered (writing) but living in Jamaica there were/are no real avenues to make a living off creative writing. My mother highlighted that to me near the end of my high school life so I decided to pursue journalism or teaching (English).
After flunking the entrance test for Mass Communication, a former teacher of mine suggested “just studying literature” since I was more of the artistic type. She advised that I would probably dislike the technicalities of mass communication anyhow. She said I should then do freelance writing on the side and build my reputation. So I went that way instead. Philosophy came in after reading the prose poems of Kahlil Gibran and the philosophical poetry of William Blake, in my late teens (the poetry years).
You see, my writing is always tied up with my reading. I started reading poetry a lot then and the writing of it followed. In fact, to this day, if I’m reading a particular writer I tend to draw inspiration from him/her in one way or another. I decided to add philosophy as a double major and, for a time, started loving the ‘newness’ of it more. Actually it was in a philosophy class at college that someone asked if I was a teacher already. That person then told me to “try that field. You are a natural at it (teaching)”. You see, I was talking so much in class that I was being called “assistant professor” from my freshman year! One day, a young lady even revealed that many students thought I was a post-grad student in the class doing further research. It was one of those lecturers who gave me my first part time post teaching philosophy (I teach English full time).

Where did you get your technical training for writing poetry (if any)? If not technical, where did you learn to write?

The love for writing and poetry in particular developed as I said earlier, sort of naturally or circumstantially, but I have had formal training that has helped me a lot.
First was the amateur writing workshop at age 15; then, at college, I did a Creative writing course with the famed minimalist Prof. Mervyn Morris, Jamaica’s first poet laureate since Independence, who taught me to ‘strip the poem down to its basic images’.
Years later, I did workshops with the late Wayne Vincent Brown, the first great writer/teacher to take my work seriously, who taught me that the poem ‘should read like normal prose’. He started publishing my work regularly in The Sunday Observer and Gleaner which he was editing at different intervals. Then, in 2008, I won a fellowship with Calabash International Writers’ Workshop; there I met Kwame Dawes who taught me to edit my work for ‘excess and high language’ which I tend to do at times. I must be honest that without these ‘technical training’ I don’t think that my work would be where it’s at today.

How do you balance poetry and teaching?

Quite easily though sometimes (when I teach part time also) I ‘forget’ to write and have to remind myself. Anyhow, I try not to make too many days past without even attempting to write something.
Then, I don’t worry about the quality just the ‘activity’ of writing and not slipping into a “rut”. Kwame Dawes’s influence helps here. He showed me to “see the world in a poetic way”. Therefore, there is always something to write about-it doesn’t always have to be a ‘great’ inspiration.
In fact, some of the greatest poems are about simple observations: “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “The Raven”, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” etc. So it is quite easy for me to balance poetry and teaching because the poems write themselves for the most part through observation and reflection. Just set aside quality time (even in the night) to record them.

How do you go about submitting work? What’s your process for finding a publication location for something?

Well, initially I found it difficult and, in a sense, still do. At first, when I was only published locally, I decided to search for myself on the internet, knowing that “that’s the way to go now”, so to speak.
I found out that there is a New Zealand poet with my name who has a journal. He decided to publish me as “Jamaica youth” (one of my email addresses) to avoid confusion.
From then it just ‘took off’. In fact, this why I now use my middle name also-“Damion”. I believe the Power of the Calabash Fellowship, plus being published in other journals, helped to promote my work whenever I send them out.

From then on, I started searching out online journals thematically or just randomly, sending to as much as I could until some respond positively. In fact, one of my most published poems, “In the trenches” was written after I discovered online ‘war poetry journals’. I also, especially now, judge if the journal would fit my style, in particular as a Caribbean writer though my poems are not distinctly Caribbean, I feel. I see myself more as a ‘personal poet’.

What is your poetic voice like?

I don’t know if I would say I have one poetic voice. As I said earlier, I draw inspiration from what I read; so I can go into places I would not normally go.
But, to answer the question-it has been said that my poems are ‘narrative’. That could be coming from my background as a story writer and the training to just ‘stick to the literal’.
Concerning other inspirations, as I said- Blake and Gibran were also early influences so I may go philosophical at times. In more recent years, I’ve been drawn to the style of Derek Walcott and Wayne Brown, that tend to be highly metaphoric; but these days I try to temper this with some minimalism and imagism. Of course, as I also said, I am a personal poet so I write a lot from personal observation and memory. I know I also use a lot of dark images and religious allusions.

How do you get over the hump of writer’s block?

As I said before, I hardly ever have writer’s block. I may be too busy but the ideas are usually there or they come if I sit down and search(observe and reflect). As it pertains to other forms, I have many ideas to write short stories, plays and novels but it is the time that defeats me there-being so busy. In fact, I’ve written two plays and a children’s novel already (all in editing/manuscript phase) and have at least two other novels half-done. If anything I might say I have too many ideas all at once.

How do you keep motivation for writing poetry?

-As I said before, the poems seem to write themselves for the most part. the initial inspiration often just ‘hits’ in the way of an observation or memory. The struggle, if any, is to shape it into “perfection” (if there’s really such a word) which, if you love to write, is a positive challenge more than anything else. So, in a nutshell, Life keeps me motivated to write poetry and to see where else poetry can go.

You’ve won several awards for poetry, how did that feel?

My ‘awards’ are merely local right now so I don’t know if this applies; but it does feel good to be recognized for one’s work and even though I pretend to be non-competitive, it feels good to be numbered equal to your peers in anything you do.
For instance, as said earlier, receiving a Calabash fellowship and being published in their 10th anniversary anthology has promoted my work. I won Red Bones Poetry Award and I basically approached them initially with the idea of winning the award eventually, having seen that several past winners went on to international recognition.

Would you have any advice for poets who are currently struggling to find time to write?

What I’d say to that are the things I’ve previously said: the poem, for me, writes itself or, at least, starts itself. Just find time to record it and ‘perfect’ it.
In fact, don’t be too hung up on perfection. It’s a lie anyway; plus it is probably one of the main reasons why many writers don’t actually write.
Also, don’t compare yourself to others-this may discourage you. But do draw inspiration from the best.
Be humble too- to admit a piece or writer is good, maybe better than you and emulate. Find a poet or poets that match your style or that you just simply like and ‘model’ without it being obvious.
Even though I said the poems write themselves for the most part, the most important part of that is “the most part”. That means, sometimes you need to force it, especially if you haven’t written for a while and you really need to. Write something silly and/or simple. Don’t worry about the quality-just write. One of my favorite poem, “September 1, 1939” by Auden, is said to be one of his own most hated because it was ‘forced’. It is so obvious and trite but it is so truth, that’s why it has lasted. If all else fails, read Write Poetry And Get It Published (Teach Yourself)  by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams.

What’s your writing schedule, if you have one? When do you tend to write?

Any time but I find that nights and weekends are good, also holidays; but ironically, some of the best stuff comes at the most inopportune moments (in a meeting, jogging, etc) so I try to always have writing material. If not, I use my phone or memory until I can get time and space to record.

Is there a specific place you find inspiration or focus comes?

As said before, any time and place but, for spite, inspiration likes to also come while in a meeting or jogging (perhaps the boredom and the activity). So, I have to have my mind ‘in tune’ with the poem at all times (or as much as possible).

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