Jeanann Verlee, Sandy Crimmins Poetry Prize Winner

How will you be celebrating National Poetry Month this year?

I am taking part in National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) 30 poems in 30 days challenge. This is my fifth year participating and I find it to be an excellent motivator. It pushes me to take ever-greater risks as the month progresses; I find myself trying new things, testing alternative entries into poems, discovering startling new voices. Additionally, on April 22nd at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, photographer Jonathan Weiskopf and I (as editor) released the portrait and poem anthology, For Some Time Now: Performance Poets of New York City.

Your poem "Hereditary" just won the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Please explain the creative process you went through in writing it, why you chose to submit it, and what inspired you to write it?

Yes, I’m thrilled about the prize. 

In writing the piece, I wanted to show variable manifestations of manic rage, and to blur the lines between the I, we, and she, so that landing on the mother-daughter relationship would be amplified. Titling came last, though its concept clearly drove the poem. Formatting this piece on the page took substantially more work than is typical for me. Most of my poems settle in to their form during initial drafts, but "Hereditary" underwent many shapes prior to landing at Philadelphia Stories

Friend and colleague, Syreeta McFadden, notified me about the contest but my newer work (I had just finished compiling my second full-length manuscript) was locked up in submissions. While I make it a rule to never simultaneously submit poems, Syreeta convinced me to do so expressly for this competition. When "Hereditary" won, I had to scramble to pull the piece from another publication. I’m incredibly excited, and still in a fair amount of shock. 

A longstanding theme in my work is the shame behind manic rage within manic depression – particularly its manifestation in women. Women are not allotted much forgiveness in violence; often expected to show quieter emotions. As such, shame is a pervasive function of the illness. I wanted to try to explore feminine rage without apology.

In an interview for HTML Giant by Roxanne Gay, you wrote that you enjoy the fact that your writing is never finished. What are the creative steps to feeling like one of your poems is ready to be shared with other people?

I try to come at each piece with the same careful attention. From conception to first draft, I work and rework: omissions and rewrites, rearranging lines and words, pushing toward risk, fine-tuning. I talk myself through each line, focus on how the reader’s eye is guided. Once I’ve worked a piece to the point I can no longer see the poem clearly/objectively, I ask for feedback from close friends and editors. Then I might dip the poem’s toes at an open mic, then more editors, then submissions, etc. I come back to the poem at each interval, working and tightening, looking for every loose cog, missed opportunity. Even still, after publication, I invariably find things I’d like to change or rework. Thus the concept, "never finished." 

What ranges of political engagement and modes of resistance does writing/reading poetry offer you?

As both a liberal and a feminist, there is often a social/political undercurrent in my own work – regardless of each poem’s content. However, much of my newer work addresses a limited set of social issues, and as such, speaks to a rather finite audience (e.g., women facing the close of childbearing years, or individuals with manic depression). In that, I don’t know if my work can be perceived as "politically relevant" as it may have previously been. 

Still, I’ve often asserted that to some extent all poems are both love poems and political poems. Poetry allows more (artistically) political freedom than, say, journalism. Meaning, poets can address a given politician without the rigmarole of trying to schedule a dialogue, or arguing fact-checkers, or navigating backlash counter-reports from the "other" guys (though response poems are fairly popular). Further, poets are not bound to journalistic rules of truth. If I want to stir Rush Limbaugh into a pot of vegetable stew, I can. I can relieve tortured baby Afreen Farooq’s suffering by turning her into a field of daffodils. I can imagine my way through anything and still keep my job. This (to me) means a wider scope of engagement and more fierce modes of resistance. Even if they are untrue in real-world terms, consumers of poetry recognize the intent. 

In your experience, what are the pros and cons of getting published online versus in print?

Online publications are increasingly more popular as a matter of immediate gratification. Writers can post links to their poetry on websites/social media sites and get instant reaction from readers. I imagine there is also greater readership online-if for no other reason than the internet is vast and free. Print, however, still holds a certain esteem. Somewhere in all of us, we long for acceptance to that one special journal we’ve always coveted. There is no denying the excitement and pride of such an acceptance-and the later joy holding the issue in our own hands. 

What drew you to live in New York City and how has it shaped you as a poet /person?

I wanted to live in New York City after my first visit at 5 years old. I was in awe of the vibrancy-a city so wholly alive. I finally arrived years later, primarily in pursuit of theatre, which I eventually abandoned. Coming out of the dark side of a divorce, among other things, I landed back in the lap of poetry. Only then did I realize it had been nearly a decade since working on my own writing. I immersed myself in various writing communities across the city, participating in workshops and open mics, and (though I originally resisted the game) poetry slams. I’ve been lucky in my involvement with the poetry community in this city; I have access to a broad network of artists and am continually challenged by incredibly talented writers and editors. New York makes me work harder. 

What was your favorite band in seventh grade?

GBH. (

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