Aspiring poets and writers convened to share their love for the art form and learn from the renowned poet Joy Priest last Thursday night. The Writers from the Edge event brought together a supportive crowd of students, faculty and local community members to hear from Priest as well as two Otters who shared their own poems with the audience.
Priest shared the quote “Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in the best order,” by author T.S. Elliot. This became the theme of the night as the featured speakers shared their talent with the roughly 30 people in attendance.
The second Writers from the Edge event of the 2022-23 school year was held during National Poetry Month. Daniel Summerhill, an assistant professor of poetry/social composition studies at California State University, Monterey Bay and the County of Monterey’s poet laureate, hosted the event. He guided the speakers and audience through a night filled with vulnerable poetry, insightful questions and helpful tips for aspiring poets.
Creative writing students Zitlali Macias and Aubrey Amila participated in the event by sharing their original work. Both students were met with booming applause at the end of each poem.
Macias began the night with a rendition of her poem “Playing Hide and Seek,” that tells the story of her personal and educational journeys as a Latina first-generation student growing up in nearby Salinas.
Macias’ love and commitment to her hometown echoed through the Tanimura and Antle Family Memorial Library as she recited a poem called “Burning Bowl.” This gripping piece of poetry honored the vital migrant farm workers of the Salinas Valley who provide the United States with a large majority of its fresh produce.
Second-year Aubrey Amila read her piece “Poet at Gunpoint,” the story of a former peer who had died. Amila shared that she started writing poetry in middle school and fell in love with the escape it provided her.
“Writing poems soothed me. It turned me into a person truthful to myself,” she explained. “It made me see the overlooked.”
Amila continued with a poem called “Parenting Gameplay.” Through this emotional work of art, Amila let the audience peek into her childhood filled with solitaire, mancala and poker – the games that unwittingly raised her at times when she needed it most.
Joy Priest, the featured poet of the night, has been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, Kenyon Review and many more publications. She is the winner of the Donald Hall prize for poetry from the American Poetry Review and a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
She has been commissioned for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Priest is currently working toward a doctorate degree from the University of Houston’s creative writing program.
Priest shared several poems, many of which were from her debut collection “Horsepower,” published in 2020. This collection explores pivotal themes of gender, race and identity. “Horsepower” was recognized as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle.
She explained that much of her work, including “Horsepower,” starts off with a recurring memory that she can’t seem to shake until she puts it to paper. In order to get to the root of a memory or emotion, she said “you have to be honest with yourself about what’s going on with you.”
Following a question raised by Amila, Priest mentioned a question that many poets often ask each other: “What hurt you into poetry?”
Priest explained pain can often drive people into writing poetry, even though it can feel daunting to go back and revisit painful memories, “as a poet, you have to write about all of it,” in order to produce as authentic a poem as possible.
The last portion of the event consisted of an open dialogue for Macias, Amila and the audience to ask questions and learn more about Priest’s creative process.
Priest explained that as a young girl, “I worked on jigsaw puzzles with my grandfather and (poetry) became like a puzzle for me. Each craft element needs to be considered. The music of the poem, the imagery, the lines and if it’s a specific form. You need to work on those things individually and then make sure they all fit into place together.”
She shared that even for her, it is sometimes difficult to know when a poem is finished. “I read the poem out loud and stop anywhere that makes me uncomfortable and work on that. Until I can read the poem all the way through without feeling bothered by something, I’ll just keep drafting it over and over again,” she explained.
Priest advised that the most important thing to keep in mind as a writer and specifically as a poet, is to read. “There’s a kind of fluency that you pick up when you read and when it comes to writing. (Not reading) is like learning a new language but not speaking it with other people, you’re not going to get it. You have to read in order to become fluent in writing,” she advised.
Your mind is like a muscle and while it’s vital to keep it well-trained and active, it’s also important to know when to take a break.
“Take some time after undergrad to go and live your life, don’t go straight to grad school… that way you’ll have something to write about,” Priest advised. “There’s always that pressure that time is running out, but that’s an illusion.”