Friday, January 13, 2023

Q&A with Carol Alexander and Stephen Massimilla





Carol Alexander and Stephen Massimilla are the editors of the poetry anthology Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice. They are both poets and educators. Massimilla teaches at The New School and Columbia University, and his other books include the poetry collection Frank Dark. Alexander works on the creation of instructional materials, and her other books include the poetry collection Fever and Bone.


Q: What inspired the two of you to collaborate on this anthology?


A: About six years ago, before Stephen joined the team, Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson approached Carol about collaborating on a poetry book focusing on the empowerment of girls through education.


Carol suggested that proceeds from the planned anthology should go to the Malala Fund since that is the main objective of an organization dedicated to this cause. At the same time, Doug was interested in connecting peace and art more generally as part of a multifaceted venture. 


When Stephen Massimilla agreed to coedit the anthology, there was a broader discussion about what this book might encompass. Considering the crises brought about by Covid, enforced remote learning, police violence, and the clashes around political and gender orientation, we decided to go beyond our initial idea to include poems with various social, political, and personal concerns.


Stephen suggested the phrase “Stronger Than Fear”—from the Malala quotation that became the book’s epigraph—as an anthology title that honored the original idea while encompassing the broader thematic range of the volume.


Q. How did you select the poems--including your own contributions--and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear in the book?


A: As we were choosing work from a wide range of perspectives, the poems seemed to group themselves organically. Some were concerned overtly with education and/or social justice, while others were more personal or even mythological. You’ll notice from the table of contents that the section titles suggest the concerns of the poems included in each subdivision.


For example, “Not a Small Voice,” a phrase from a Sonia Sanchez poem in the anthology, became the header for a group of social justice poems, while “A Lesson in Remembering,” a phrase from Lauren Camp’s “Adult Basic Education,” is the title for a subsection on poetry involving education. 


It’s true that we did also include a few of our own poems, in part as a way of informing readers about our own perspectives and stylistic ranges. And Stephen’s additional poem adaptations after Montale and Neruda enabled linking contemporary sociopolitical themes to the work of earlier international modernists, while still assuring that all the poems in the book reflected the input of living writers.


Q: The poet Donald Revell said of the book, “There is a thrill of humanity in these poems—something to refresh our hopes and to renew our courage.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: That’s a wonderful comment by Donald. It really speaks to the honesty and authenticity of these poets, who do not suppress the ugliness and pain out of which an understanding of self and culture, and even beauty, emerge. Given the range of contexts and perspectives represented here, there are many voices that resonate for many readers.  


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A:  We played around with various titles. In the end, Stronger Than Fear seemed to represent the overarching concerns of the collection.


As we mentioned, the phrase comes from the Malala quotation that became the book’s epigraph: “I am stronger than fear… At night our fear is strong, but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.” Stephen’s cover art accordingly represents the sunburst of light in the morning.


Empowerment, compassion, and social justice all require courage, and with so many devastating events continuing to unfold, we very much wanted to offer something positive to readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Together, we are trying to bring the anthology to the widest possible audience. Stephen also has a new poetry collection, Frank Dark, just out from Barrow Street Press. Carol, whose recent book from Dos Madres Press is entitled Fever and Bone, is working on new poems. And Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson continues to bring out volumes of socially conscious poetry and prose by various authors.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Well, here are a couple of other questions we’ve attempted to answer:


How could this book impact education? What are the main issues in education today that it addresses?


The anthology offers educators some pointers about particular poets to study and how to navigate “difficult” subjects when venturing outside the literary canon. Many of the poems are about or grow out of a sense of discomfort or disjuncture with assumptions pertaining to mainstream social mores and explore this feeling in diverse and original ways. 


In fact, a number of the contributors are both poets and teachers, and they write about the challenges their students face—in prison settings, in special-education classes, in public-school classrooms where race and ethnicity can make them stand out in ways they do not always welcome. There is the issue of feeling too visible, yet invisible in the most important sense.


What’s more, we know from experience that this book is highly inspirational in the classroom. Students tend to find poems that really speak to them, as well as, in almost any poem under discussion, meanings that they can apply to their everyday lives. When students relate deeply to a poem, they also tend to discover organically the importance of the roles that form, diction, figuration, music, tone, and so on play in how that poem works, how that poem means.


How do we think a book like this can make an important statement (or statements) that could have an impact?


Both in and out of the classroom, this anthology, which offers a selection of some extremely powerful poems, contributes to ongoing discussions about literature and social responsibility, helping to foster positive identifications and healthy self-concepts.


After all, many of the pieces we included address the challenges of bridging identity and culture, of inhabiting the self fully in the face of obstacles and opposition.


Poems by Ellen Bass, Toi Derricotte, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Ross Gay, for instance, enable self-empowerment by helping readers to no longer feel as alone or isolated as they did before. And even just by conveying what it’s like to be marginalized, these poems enable protest.


Shared concerns addressed throughout the book include legacies of oppression, intolerance, and dehumanization: specific examples include racial prejudice, gender bias, homophobia and transphobia, bias toward those with physical and psychological disabilities, and xenophobia toward refugees and undocumented immigrants—and the struggle to gain rights and acceptance.


In response, the pieces included in the anthology show how poetry can articulate complex positions, provoke productive thought, and redefine our engagement with the role that language plays in our lives.


Thank you for reading and helping to bring this volume into the public forum. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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