A Conversation With Sean Hill: WSR Contributing Poetry Editor
Water~Stone Review has always been a collaborative project of students, faculty, and staff at Hamline University Creative Writing. In addition to working with our faculty, and to fulfill a larger initiative of providing a place for new/emerging and underrepresented voices at Water~Stone Review, we now have rotating contributing editor
In this post we introduce Vol. 24 Contributing Poetry Editor, Sean Hill.
Hi Sean! We’re excited to welcome you back to Water~Stone Review (Sean’s poem “Above It All” was published in Volume 15). I’m curious if you have an early memory or experience in which you knew you wanted to be a writer? And more specifically, what has brought you to the form of poetry, or what brought poetry to you?
When I was a kid and could read and was old enough to safely wander off on my own, whenever my family went to the mall, I would always head for the Walden Books or the pet shop that was two doors down. My parents knew where to find me—either sitting on the floor in the Sci-fi & Fantasy section reading some adventure or in the little pet store looking at some animal from somewhere else. When I was twelve I came up with a life plan; I wanted to become a veterinarian. This was before the internet, so I looked up “veterinarian” in the encyclopedia and found out what I needed to do to go into that field. And I’d also found James Herriot and thought I could do that: Be a vet and write books too. In high school, I wrote fantasy vignettes. I hadn’t taken a creative writing class yet, and I wasn’t quite sure how to craft an actual story. I didn’t come to poetry until my first year of college. One of the guys in my dorm wrote poems, and when I expressed how that impressed me, he said something like, “I bet you could write a poem.” And knowing almost nothing of contemporary poetry, I gave it a shot and wrote something that felt like a cohesive whole thing. It felt done, finished, complete in a way that my previous efforts never did, and I got hooked.
Who are some writers you admire? What specific pieces of work do you find yourself drawn to for inspiration?
Judith Ortíz Cofer, my first creative writing teacher, told us to find our tribes—those writers who felt like our people—on the page and out in the world among the poets practicing in our time. These are the folks whose work speaks to us and inspires us to strive in our own work. Through her and other undergraduate and graduate professors I found Grace Nichols, Jean Toomer, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, James Baldwin, Marilyn Hacker, Ernest Gaines, and Toni Morrison, not necessarily in that order. The writing of my first collection, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, was made possible by my reading [Rita] Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, [Seamus] Heaney’s Bog poems from his early works, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, [Yusef] Komunyakaa’s Magic City and Neon Vernacular, [Marilyn] Nelson’s The Homeplace and The Fields of Praise, The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown edited by Michael S. Harper and C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. The things these writers’ works taught me about the craft of poetry and how to render the scope and scale of history and represent community and the individual and so much more gave me a way to write my poems and books.
Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded the Cave Canem Foundation, a home for Black poetry, in 1996, and I was a fellow and went to three of the annual weeklong summer workshops from 1999 to 2001. There are so many poets, both faculty and fellows, from that community I’m inspired by. Some of my fellow fellows—folks I met back then—were Camille T. Dungy, Douglas Kearney, Honorée Fannone Jeffers, Tyehimba Jess, Tracie Morris, Amaud Johnson, Cherene Sherrard, G.E. Patterson, Evie Shockley, Gregory Pardlo, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Joel Wayne Dias-Porter, Duriel E. Harris, Ronaldo V. Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin, John Keene, giovanni singleton, and Jericho Brown. Most of us didn’t have books when we were fellows twenty or so years ago, and now most of us do. Cave Canem is just one of several inspiring communities of writers I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of over the years.
What are some trends in poetry that you find exciting to read? What turns you away from reading?
I’m interested in ambitious poems, audacious poems. I’m interested in surprising poems.
I’m excited by poems that are in conversations with other poets and artists—the after poem. There’s a poem by Amanda Johnston, “Facing US,” that is after and in conversation with Yusef Konmuyakaa’s “Facing It.” I’m excited by poems that are in conversation with the present moment (when I typed “moment” a moment ago, it came out “movement”). The present moment is dynamic, so those poems often are too. I’m excited by poems that are in conversation with the past. The past is very present in shaping where we are, and so those poems illuminate that shaping either directly or indirectly. I’m excited by poems that recast relationships that have been understood as doctrine, poems that raise questions relevant to today and the future. I’m excited by poems that thoughtfully engage with the technology of writing through the technology available to us; I’m thinking about a poem like “EGGSHELLS” by Michael Kleber-Diggs from the current issue of Water~Stone Review, Vol. 23. I’m excited by poems that ruminate. I’m excited by poems that celebrate. I’m excited by the various ways of engaging the human condition as experienced through our various human bodies as it’s rendered on the page.
I lose interest in a poem when the poem seems to have lost its own logic, when the moves it’s making don’t seem to make sense or seem unnecessary. I’m cautious of poetic gimmicks, apparatuses designed to draw attention but don’t seem essential to the existence of the poem.
I like to hike, and when I’m on an out-and-back trail and should turn back before the end for one reason or another, I always hike up to the next bend in the trail to see what I can further down before turning back. Though a poem is a path, it’s not a hiking trail, so I’ll stay with a poem through its turns even when I begin to doubt it’s leading anywhere. I seldom turn away before the end of a poem, but I don’t always feel I’m rewarded by the end.
How do you see your position as contributing poetry editor leaving an imprint on Vol. 24? What will you look for in submissions?
Hmmm… I don’t want to make predictions, but I can speak about my desire. Your website says, “Water~Stone connotes the dynamic, transformative power of literature…” and I want to honor Water~Stone’s mission and showcase that dynamic and transformative power. This past summer at the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference, Scott Russell Sanders talked about the ways cultural change happens. He gave examples of how it can happen by force or coercion. But he also presented another avenue—making cultural expressions, art & literature—and advocating for those expressions. As contributing poetry editor, I want Vol. 24 to be a display of the culture I want to see in the world at this moment. This is some of the small work toward cultural change. And toward that end, what I’ll be looking for in submissions is what I look for in poems in general—transformation and surprise. And I’ll be looking for poems that relish sound and poems that engage my senses and poems that engage my need for pattern and variation and poems that display an apt love of language. I’ll be looking for loud and ambitious poems and quiet and ruminative poems and audacious poems of all stripes. I think of poetry as practice of attentiveness, and so I’ll be looking for poems that display attentiveness to whatever world the poet is exploring and whatever craft she brings to bear in that exploration.
What projects or pieces are you working on now?
I’m working on my next collection of poetry and a book of prose. I consider these manuscripts to be the two parts of a project titled The Negroes Send Their Love. The project is a further exploration of the history of African Americans looking for and making a home in America. It also incorporates some of my experiences as an African American exploring the American West in the twenty-first century where I now live. I think of The Negroes Send Their Love as being a continuation of the trains of thought and threads conversation started in my previous poetry collections, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and Dangerous Goods.
Sean Hill is the author of two poetry collections, Dangerous Goods, awarded the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the Ten Books All Georgians Should Read in 2015 by the Georgia Center for the Book, (UGA Press, 2008). He’s received numerous awards including fellowships from Cave Canem, the Region 2 Arts Council, the Bush Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, The Jerome Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the University of Wisconsin, a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hill’s poems and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, New England Review, Orion, Oxford American, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals, and in over a dozen anthologies including Black Nature and Villanelles. He has served as the director of the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference at Bemidji State University since 2012. Hill is a consulting editor at Broadsided Press, a monthly broadside publisher. He has taught at several universities, including at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks and Georgia Southern University as an Assistant Professor. Hill lives in Montana with his family and is the Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana for the 2020-2021 academic year. You can learn more about Hill at his website.