NYWC hART beat: A look at the poets and writers of our community

April showers bring May flowers. So although last month was National Poetry Month, it is still in full bloom for us at the NY Writers Coalition. Therefore, here on The Narrator, we are giving another nod to one of the writers and poets growing in our own backyard. NYWC has been privileged to have a talented community of workshop leaders and we are putting the spotlight on one and delving deeper into what makes her so outstanding in her craft. Say hello to writer, poet, and workshop leader, Chelsea Lemon Fetzer.

Chelsea Lemon Fetzer received her MFA in fiction at Syracuse University in 2008. Her work has appeared in Stone Canoe, Callaloo, Tin House, and Mississippi Review. Currently she is also an instructor for the PEN American Center’s Readers and Writers Program. In 2009 she founded The Create Collective, Inc. a non-profit organization working to bring collaborative arts projects and workshops to community based organizations. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on her first novel, Rivermaps.

Q: When did you know you were a poet? 
A: It took me a while.  I wrote stories first, as a kid, and so considered myself a writer in that sense for as long as I can remember, a story writer.  As early as grade school I labored over my “books” very seriously, though no one outside of family or teachers read them. Any praise I received was more for the fact of my writing, than it being any good.  This set me up well. I’ve always come back to the belief that dedication to the act and process of writing is in itself success for a writer.  I think the idea of success can be dangerous when too wrapped up in the presence or absence of recognition.

I have been writing poems a long time too but…a poet?  I didn’t think I’d earned it.  I hadn’t studied it the way I studied fiction in school/college/grad school.  Sitting down with a poem felt like a selfish act. I didn’t know or care if I was doing it well.  I wrote poems when I needed a break, whether from the novel I’d been writing or the constantly unfinished narratives of life.  I wanted the satisfaction of endings and poems arrived at them so quickly.  I could end three in a month! For me that is amazing.  I also love the exercise in economy, creating a story or new kind of narrative in just a few lines.  I love how the form has so many possibilities, so many ways to break the rules of grammar.  I interloped in one of Michael Burkard’s open poetry classes at Syracuse.  This began a study.  Soon after, I had three poems selected for publication and I added “poet”, sort of tentatively to the bio the journal requested. I really began seeking mentors after that.  I had the great opportunity to study with Ruth Forman at VONA, as well as Linda Susan Jackson through Cave Canem.  I call myself a poet now, not for any accomplishments, but because I am on the path.  I’m studying.

Q: Tell us a story about your first poem.
A: I remember writing what felt poem-like in a diary when I was thirteen (like a lot of people, I know).  I had just moved to a new town and hadn’t made any friends yet and it was about that.  Wanting a friend.  I’m cringing at the thought of how it probably went- your typical sentimental, teenage angst.  Unlike my usual writing at that time it broke off into stanzas, had a music.  I stayed up late trying to perfect something about it.  The next day I meet Anne, a girl around my age who lived on the block.  We became friends instantly.  I mean best friends.  This would likely have happened anyway, but at the time I was sure the poem had done it.  I reread it a dozen times, totally astonished by the possibility that the words might have power.  That they could change things.  I continued for a while writing poems that called for something.  Poems like spells.  That shifted as I got older, became less literal.  But the idea that a strong poem might rearrange the cosmos never entirely left me. 
Q: If your writing/poetry was an instrument, what would it sound like?
A: Harmonica comes directly to mind.  Kazoo sometimes by accident.  Piano is the goal. 
Q: How/Where do you hear poetry?
A: Louder Arts “Open Mic Mondays” at Bar 13, as a young writer bartending on the weekends, that was my Saturday night.  More recently I’ve been interested in readings hosted in homes. I love how these gatherings cast light on poetry as community act, give it a more layered purpose.  Conversation integrated with performance.  I have an 8-month-old daughter now and am rarely able to get out past seven.  So I’ve begun plotting with other writer/poet parents interested in hosting or attending salons in the daytime where we can integrate our children.  
Q: When you get an idea for a poem, what do you get? An image? A line, etc.?
A: A haunting, a sweetness, a feeling so strange it can’t shake out any other way.  Every one comes from a different shape of seed.  Sometimes I get an idea for a fantastic title and I try to go from there.  It never works. 
Q: How do you think you take risks in your writing?
A: The risk I have come to terms with is not knowing where it will go.  If it will work.  Or if the effort, the traveling, will fail.  Another risk—getting there, at the truth of the piece… and what that might be.  If it might conflict with itself.  Or be multiple truths.  There is risk in consideration for what a successful poem calls for, some action.  Or what the effect might be on ones who read it.
Q: What is your least favorite poem? Why?
A: I can’t remember a single poem I don’t like.  They pass right out of mind, which is the problem.  I’d rather read a poem that’s breaking all the quality codes but finding the shape of a new idea than a trained one that doesn’t change anything.  Going back to that first awakening- if a poem doesn’t rearrange the cosmos I’d like it to at least rearrange my mind a little bit.
Q: What poem do you carry in your pocket (or in your head or heart)? Why?
A: Shortly after I moved to NYC, I found Leonard Cohen’s collection, The Energy of Slaves for free on the street.  I think it’s a first edition paperback, 1973.  It’s totally yellow and the bottom right hand corner prices it at $1.95.  Anyway, I kept it on the back of my toilet for about a decade.  Just about my entire twenties.  It always opens to the same page, poem number 25.  I must have read it over a thousand times.
I am dying
because you have not
died for me
and the world
still loves you
I write this because I know
that your kisses
are born blind
on the songs that touch you
I don’t want a purpose
in your life
I want to be lost among
your thoughts
the way you listen to New York City
when you fall asleep
I love the intense desire of the poem, combined with a diminishing self.  I think the feeling of this also had something to do with the yellowed pages, the age of the book, its unknown history, my being twenty something in New York and outrageously passionate, etc.  All the poems in the book are numbered, not titled, giving them a sort of frantic feeling.  Maybe a combination of tangible and intangible factors combine to make a poem really matter to a particular person at a particular time.  Poem 25 seems to stand ready in my mind even now, always, word for word, waiting for me to call it out. 
Q: Why does the world need poetry? 
A: Audrey Lorde’s essay, Poetry Is Not a Luxury – this is my compass needle. “…poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.  It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”  How incredible to understand poetry as a language, maybe the only language that can adequately express what has not yet been said, or thought.  Lorde’s essay is a perfect, timeless manifesto dedicated to black women poets.  I could never say it better, but I will dare to add- her words are relevant so far beyond us black women poets out here.  Especially now.  We all have a part to play when it comes to rearranging the cosmos, right?  If we accept it.