The most influential writers of our time aren’t working like hermits in the middle of nowhere. They are active in their communities, reading their work aloud in living rooms and at coffee houses, searching for voices to connect to and draw from. One of the highlights for Exposition Review in becoming a digital journal was realizing the opportunity that existed to create spaces for our writers to not only share their work, but to build a community. And no one knows the importance of a writing community better than Edwin Bodney.
Edwin Bodney is a Los Angeles-based poet and co-host of one of the largest poetry venues in the nation, Da Poetry Lounge. In 2016, he officially published his first book titled, A Study of Hands, with Not a Cult Press. Brian McGackin, Expo Poetry Editor, quickly jumped onboard the opportunity to talk to Bodney more about his passion for poetry and what it means to write with a community that offers so much support.
You can also check out Edwin Bodney’s poem Prominence here.
Brian McGackin: How did you get started writing poetry?
Edwin Bodney: I started writing poetry in eighth grade, when I was assigned to write an essay on the Holocaust for my English class. I decided to write about a specific concentration camp by the name of Terezín. To provide a bit of context, this camp primarily contained women and children, and these children devoted whatever time and resources they had to writing poetry. This poetry was eventually discovered postwar inside the remains of the camp. At the time, I was always drawn to other visual art forms like painting, but I never really thought to focus on poetry, and although I had always been a strong writer in school, I picked this particular topic because I thought it would justify me doing as little work as possible.
While the rest of the class received their graded essays and moved on, my teacher asked that I stay to speak with him afterward. This incredibly stoic, intimidating, old, white man—clearly over his life of teaching “inner city” kids of color—beamed at me as he handed my paper back with a perfect score. I had never before seen this man display any other expression outside of subtle annoyance, but it was on that day that Mr. Thompson suggested I strongly consider—and pursue—a career in writing, specifically journalism.
From then, I decided to explore what poetry meant to me, how to write it beyond the average school lesson, and what it would be like for me to live in that world. I discovered an open mic at a local Starbucks, and I haven’t put poetry down since.
BM: You have an excellent collection published by Not a Cult, A Study of Hands, with a recently released second edition.
EB: Thank you.
BM: What was your path from deciding that you were going to write and perform in earnest to publishing that book?
EB: My path from novice writer and performer to published author was one filled with uncertainty. I never really thought about my intentions with my work outside of doing it as a fun hobby. In hindsight, it’s also quite safe to say that I wrote absolute garbage, but of course we all start somewhere. I went to college for fashion design, so poetry was shelved for a few years until I regained some control on my life, towards the end of college. I then started to revisit writing and open mics with a friend during our free time. I started attending Da Poetry Lounge regularly, and had the opportunity to take a workshop on writing more vulnerably with several people who are still very much my family today.
This workshop provided my first real breakthrough when I finally confronted my experience with being sexually assaulted years prior. Everything began moving at light speed from that point and I no longer kept my mouth shut. I now felt that I truly had the power to tell anyone all of my story, and when people began to acknowledge that they resonated with my words, there was really no turning back.
Funny enough, though, I never saw myself having a full ass manuscript, let alone a real, published book! I first submitted A Study of Hands to a different book contest—a year prior to Not a Cult—and it was rejected. Of course this only validated my own insecurities as a writer, and I thought that would be the end of that. Fast forward to Not a Cult* asking for a manuscript from me, and yeah, it’s still quite surreal even a year-and-a-half later.
BM: Your relationship with your father plays a prominent role in both A Study of Hands and your piece in this issue, pun definitely intended. Many people assume that poetry is entirely autobiographical, but we do as poets often take liberties with the realities we’ve lived. Where do you feel your work tends to fall on that autobiography/creative nonfiction spectrum?
EB: Simple: my work is 101 percent autobiographical. That extra one percent is the metaphor so you all will read it! I’ll add this: most people underestimate the power of the truth. The real story is usually captivating, curious, whimsical, and heartbreaking as long as you aren’t hiding from it.
BM: You mentioned earlier that you’ve developed a kind of second family among the poets at Da Poetry Lounge here in Los Angeles. Could you tell me more about that community, as well as some of the other poetry events you frequent in Los Angeles?
EB: I met this family at a very necessary time in my life, and now I’d do just about anything I can for that group of fantastically complex people. It’s been almost a decade now and we’re locked in for life. We’ve all grown and changed so much, and it’s inspiring to have witnessed it. We all provide very distinct functions within our group, and that also translates to how we help run the DPL space on a weekly basis.
There aren’t many regularly running venues in L.A. specifically for poetry anymore, but at this point in my life, I just don’t have the energy or brain space to visit many others anyway. I’m very intentional about the spaces I do visit and how I allocate my energies, and even though I’m not present physically to many things, I am usually supporting from wherever I am. This community knows how deeply rooted I am and they know what to look to me for. I’m a good lighthouse.
BM: You also judge poetry contests, for example.
EB: I do judge poetry contests—more often than I realize, I think, at this point.
BM: What do you look for when you’re reading submissions?
EB: I usually step into someone else’s work with the brief assumption that they won’t be speaking about anything “new,” so for me it’s about how are they speaking about it? How beautiful is the language choice? Are they utilizing something in an exciting way? Do they understand brevity?!!! And most importantly, given my own philosophy, how closely have they rubbed that nerve without snapping it? Don’t bore me or make me always have to do backflips to get through it. They don’t have to always pull something out of me as the reader, but they do have to pull me in somehow.
BM: Is it the same when reading for your own pleasure? Who/what are some of your favorite poets/collections?
EB: When reading for my own pleasure, I’m usually just looking for beauty of language, new perspective, and the sense of ease. Again, I don’t want to be forced to backflip my way through it especially if it’s recreational.
I am fortunate enough to share a community with many of my favorite poets/peers and their work:
- Patricia Smith (the muthaaa)
- Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds is stupidly remarkable.
- Yesika Salgado
- Tonya Ingram
- Olivia Gatwood
- Sierra DeMulder
- Javon Johnson
- Mahogany L. Browne
- Julia Levine’s Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight
- Hanif Abdurraqib is an incredible storyteller.
This list could go on for an eternity!
BM: Finally, we’ve been lucky enough to have many repeat submitters over the years, and it’s always very interesting to see an artist grow and their work change. How do you feel work you’ve done recently is similar or dissimilar to your previous work, and what advice might you have for writers looking to grow their artistry?
EB: My recent work has definitely shown an evolution in both form and the ways in which I’m stretching myself around new concepts. I have been thinking a lot lately about magnetism and attraction and the ways in which these elements show up in my personal experiences. I think I’ve become even more unapologetic in how I navigate my world and public space because the rest of the world just doesn’t deserve a “quiet” version of me, and that’s not even what I want to give. So, in essence, I feel my work has become more crude. It is deeply and beautifully flawed, and I’ve taken full ownership of that, so the world gets nothing else from me now. I used to try and make things so much more pretty for the watching eyes. Never again.
I offer this to writers looking to grow: Live your life! Read more than poetry. Get off the internet. It makes a very convenient world for getting lost or stranded from your own voice, and plagiarism, gross.
Lastly, writing is a muscle—exercise it!
BM: Thank you so much for taking the time, Edwin.
EB: Okay whew! I did it!
*Full disclosure: Not a Cult will be publishing Brian McGackin’s second poetry collection, In Case Of Death, in late 2018. His manuscript was chosen via a yearly manuscript contest, of which Edwin Bodney was one of the four judges.