Losing My Mind With Joy: An interview with Okla Elliott, editor of New Poetry from the Midwest

Screenshot 2015-06-02 21.50.54New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 released on June 2, and I sincerely hope no booksellers are nervous to handsell it because they’re not big poetry readers. To my mind, poetry anthologies like this one are the perfect way to introduce yourself, or your customers, to non-prose writing. Not only are these all newer poems that serious poetry readers are unlikely to have at home, but no one style or subject is represented here, so the new or casual poetry reader will almost certainly find something to like. The contents are diverse, exciting, and (if you ask me) frequently delightful. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of the editors of the anthology, Okla Elliott, to learn more about it.

Betty Scott: What drew you to co-edit this series? Was there something in particular that excited you about this project?

Okla Elliott: I have often felt that most attention, culturally speaking, goes to NYC and Los Angeles, with a few nods toward places like Chicago and Seattle. The Midwest, the South, and the Southwest are largely overlooked, which is incredibly sad, given how rich these regions are in terms of literature specifically. The Midwest boasts over half of the top-ranked creative writing MFA and PhD programs in the country, and there are dozens of major presses and magazines in the region. And there are tons of great presses and book fairs or conferences in the Midwest. New American Press, for example, which I cofounded and help run still is located in the Midwest, so we decided to acquire New Stories from the Midwest, which had previously been published by Ohio University Press and then Indiana University Press, and we added a sibling anthology, New Poetry from the Midwest. The two will come out in alternating years and hopefully represent the vitality of the region’s literary talent.

BS: Do you think Midwestern poetry has a distinctive regional flavor? If so, what differentiates it from other American writing, say, Pacific Northwest poetry or Mid-Atlantic poetry?

OE: Part of my personal goal here was to show the wild diversity of work coming out of the Midwest, to prove that it’s not all cornfields and picket fences. The Polish neighborhood in Chicago is the Midwest. Amish country is the Midwest. University towns with international students from around the world are the Midwest. There are certainly some Midwest themes that we all know about, and those pop up in the anthology, but what interests me most is exploding and expanding people’s notions of the region and its writers.

BS: This collection features a number of poems dealing with reflecting on the past in general and childhood in particular. Do you think this is a trend in poetry that says something about our collective subconscious?

Required reading lists. Yes or no?

Earlier this week, the folks at New Hampshire Public Radio hosted Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Nick Ripatrazone for a debate on the High School Required English List. In addition to airing the debate, they also polled their staff and listed for each on their website 1) their high school, 2) their favorite and least favorite assigned books, and 3) what they felt should have been required.


I love this idea because it’s a way to introduce (or re-introduce) your staff to customers. Here’s how to accomplish this, in manageable steps:

  1. Poll your staff.
  2. Write a lead in (or steal the one above), and post on your webpage.
  3. Send a link to your piece through Twitter. Copy: “Are high schools stunting readers? [@bookstore] staff says… [shortlink]”
  4. Post a link on your Facebook page. Copy: “[bookstore] staff weighs in on required reading debate. What do you think?”

If you have the capability of posting staff images with their answers, that’s a great way to help customers put names with faces.

Books Matter: The Dream Was True

Last week, artist Randy Regier sent an email to a group of friends, explaining a recent visit to a bookstore in Columbia, MO. His story gave me more than a few goosebumps, and I immediately told him as much. His reply? “Books matter.”

I’m sharing the email as a Monday morning reinforcement. Books matter.

Hi All-

(Precedent: While returning to Wichita from Illinois this week with NuPenny in tow I had a major vehicle mechanical failure near Columbia, Missouri. For two days I stayed in a motel while a very decent group of local mechanics tried to get me back on the road. On day two, deeply dispirited by the extensive cost of repairs and seemingly never-ceasing uncertainty of the artistic path, I insisted of myself that I go for a long walk about the town of Columbia and open my mind and heart to the necessity of being open to receiving a sign that what I am doing is ‘right.’)

When I was about ten years old I read a novel about a young boy (Northern Europe, island) who, while exploring an oceanside cave during low-tide discovered the remains of a Viking ship, complete with a skeleton, helmet, sword, all that. That book—and the cover illustration—is my first memory of desire. If you are receiving this email it’s no mystery to you that the experience of that story is what I attempt to return to and manifest in my art, over and over again.

For that past 30 years I could not recall the title or author of that book, only the sensation, the cover illustration and the basic narrative conceit. As I have lived across the country, at each town I have visited the library or bookstore

Video Clip: An Event at {pages} a bookstore

When I was at Watermark, I was always amazed at how often I’d hear, while working the post-its in the signing line, “I’ve never been to a book reading before.” The natural response was, “Well, I’m glad you’re here now!” Or if they were grinning, “What did you think? Did you enjoy it?”

The market researcher in me wanted to ask, “Why not? What brought you here tonight? Was it the author? Was it a friend? Do you have a fear of the unknown? Do you have small children? Do you not leave the house because your kids have homework or activities?” (I hadn’t mastered the Quick & Dirty survey at that point.) I never asked, but my gut feeling is would-be attendees are reluctant because they do not know what to expect.

{pages} a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, CA found a solution. In their store newsletter, they have a section in the sidebar that reads, “If you have never attended one of {pages} events and wonder what to expect, take a look at this video clip…”

The video features an evening event with three local poets, and incorporates both video and still shots. It was shot by Erik Linthorst, a professional film maker whose wife, Jennie Linthorst, was reading at the event.

“He videotaped the night (a poetry night), edited it, and sent us the video,” said Margot Farris, who co-owns {pages} with Patty Gibson and Linda McLouglin Figel. ” When I looked at it, I knew right away that this was an excellent video and a great way to showcase one of our events. So I put it in our newsletter.”

Check it out:

Book Clubs for Kids

Storytime can be a valuable tool for parents for a variety of reasons. It introduces their little ones to new books. It helps children interact with other children. And it gets them out of the house. Once the kids reach a certain age, however, they stop attending. One way to keep them in the fold is to offer a variety of book clubs for kids. Mother-daughter, father-son, age specific; there are a variety of options I will touch on in the coming weeks. But today I want to focus on a Classics for Kids book club.

A Classics for Kids book club features classical pieces of literature abridged for appropriate age groups. For example, to introduce The Epic of Gilgamesh to a 9-year-old, a parent-child duo could begin with Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by David Parkins. Or instead of The Iliad, they can both read Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff. When my kids were young, I used The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer as a guide. But your booksellers are experts and can come up with an appropriate reading list for various ages.

The beautiful thing about this type of book club is that by offering different groups for different reading levels, you can base your selections on a calendar schedule and repeat the reading selections each year. Young readers move up a level as new readers join the group, giving the bookstore perpetual sales potential.

You can launch a new session with the beginning of each school year. Or participants can move up to the next level during the summer, as they prepare for a new grade level in school.

Promote a Classics for Kids book club to parents and grandparents, but also to teachers. If they see a student that needs to be challenged, you’re offering them a valuable tool. Teachers can also be a great resource for teaching the book clubs. Especially if they can receive a store discount in return.

Even though the books discussed at book club are classics, be sure to introduce the group members to new books they might enjoy. Take the time to prepare a handout with your list of recommended reading.

Young people who belong to a Classics for Kids book club not only benefit by building a library, but also by building a lifetime of reading.