Uncategorized | May 16, 2006

Our forthcoming issue (29:1) features the winners of our annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. As part of the celebration, we were able to bring two of the three winners to Columbia for a reading and reception in late April. Our poetry editor, Jason Koo, spoke with Derek Mong, our winner in poetry. Mong, a native of Cleveland, as is Koo, recently completed his MFA at the University of Michigan. The following is a brief portion of their conversation.

JK: When did you begin writing poems?

DM: Well, my earliest “poems” probably date back to a high school creative writing assignment. I composed some garish ode to my pet dachshund (Rudy) or the NASA space shuttle. I was always more of a visual kid (the class artist, later the photographer) who wrote well enough to get by in class or do a little student journalism. Occasionally I’d combine the two in cartoons, and even did a little work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Still, it wasn’t until a summer writing camp at Denison University, The Jonathan Reynolds Young Writers’ Workshop, that I realized just what a poem really was and was simply swept off my feet. It was there that I met David Baker, Ann Townsend, and Alison Stine. I distinctly remember how difficult it was to write a poem, and my own stubbornness compelled me to keep at it till there was some music in the lines. There’s probably a lot of that pig-headedness in my approach today.

JK: What were those cartoons like that you drew for The Plain Dealer?

DM: My comic strip for The Plain Dealer was called “The Armpit Epiphany,” a name that captured both my burgeoning misuse of literary terms and my continued fondness for scatological and/or bodily humor. There were no characters per se, save an adolescent kid who wore a bowler hat and looked a lot like me. Targets of the satire included Carl Monday (local Cleveland exposé reporter/parasite), homophobia, and the kids who egged my house over Christmas.

JK: What was it like growing up in Cleveland?

DM: Well, I should state both my fondness for the town and my comfortable distance from it (which very well might account for the fondness). Like many folks “from” Cleveland, I in fact grew up in a suburb called Brecksville, due south of I-77. Frequent trips were made into the city for concerts, the art museum, theatre, Little Italy, etc., but my parents lived (until recently) in a very tame, very cloistered suburb. Still, after leaving Northeast Ohio I found myself claiming something of Cleveland’s mopey defeatism, its hunched-shoulders and lazy gait. This was the city where the river burned—I suppose I want some of that tragicomedy to background my life, whether my right to it is authentic or not.

JK: Who have been your most influential teachers?

DM: There are probably too many to name, and I’ll feel awful slighting someone if I don’t, but certainly Ann Townsend, David Baker, and Ben Doyle at Denison University, where I took my undergraduate degree. I also met with a poet named John Miller, an emeritus professor living in Granville who had been Ann’s teacher and essentially built the DU writing program with his colleague (and fellow poet), Paul Bennett. The whole writing community there was (and is!) rich and supportive—I consider myself very lucky to have been a part of it for those four years. I try to contribute my small share by working at the Reynolds Writing Workshop in the summer. Here at Michigan I’ve been blessed to work with folks like Khaled Mattawa, Lorna Goodison, Larry Goldstein, and Linda Gregerson as well as the English Department’s gifted scholars: Yopie Prins, John Whittier-Ferguson. If there’s one thing I’ve taken from all these folks (different as they are) it’s the nobility and necessity of writing poems…a fact one needs reminding of on a daily basis.

JK: I like that you use the word “nobility” to describe the work of the poet. Could you say a little more about what you mean by that? Do you think there exists a certain anxiety about the “nobility” of the poet’s calling within a democratic society?

DM: I do believe poetry’s a noble calling, though I feel little right (again) to claim such distinction for either myself or my work. I’ve been lucky; for the past few years I’ve had great teachers, amazing funding, and an environment so very conducive to a writer. I suppose real nobility, or at least the nobility of poetry in our society today, involves a certain sacrifice, financial or otherwise. God knows, those of us still glowing from MFA-land know little of that world. There is, though, the role poets play in discussing issues the country’s disinclined to address: mortality, language, the influence of the past. In this way, all can be called noble.