In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Sam Stokley
Your poem “Theories and Postulates” in Volume 23 is, as you wrote in your epigraph is, “an rdeb love poem”. You describe this painful scene in which you purposefully hot glue a skin wound shut in an art studio. What did it mean to you to write a love poem to your body?
It was years after I had written this piece that I started calling it a love poem. The idea of me calling it that was that some intimate things happen away from prying eyes, and then the “walk of shame” happens at first light.
Now, thinking about the poem, I keep returning in my mind to a scene in the movie Drumline, where Nick Cannon’s character is giving a life lesson to the white boy bass drummer who just had his spot taken by another line member. Cannon says with a sensual shiver, “you need to love the drum,” insinuating that his friend is too mechanical, thinking too hard about the next steps.
When I couldn’t stanch the blood in the sculpture studio, a life of living with RDEB made me act without thinking. There was blood I needed to stop, so I worked with what I had until I got it to stop. So, really, I would say this isn’t so much a love poem to my body as it is a love poem to the disease that I’ve cursed for so much of my life, and that disease allowing me to persevere, often foolishly, through pain and injury.
Now that I’ve said that, Drumline really has nothing to do with this but that scene is incredible.
One of the elements that most strikes me in your poem is how you engage with the double parentheses! I loved what felt like supplementary information given to me, and I see that double parens so rarely! I’m so curious—what was your intention with that? Is punctuation a craft technique you engage with a lot in your poetry?
Punctuation, like any other technique, is a tool in the box I must be comfortable wielding in order to craft the poems on the page that I see in my head. I think I shied away from punctuation early on in my poetry writing because I viewed it as an eyesore, something for prose writers. My teachers helped me see the utility of punctuation in verse, how I am able to guide the reader into a poetic rhythm that matches the one in my own head.
In this poem particularly, I had these two interjections I really liked but I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to fit in the piece. Putting them inside the (()) allows me to have my cake and eat it, too. The fragments exist within the poem but also exist out of space and time. The double parentheses mimic a hug, and the best hugs feel like home, echoing the poem.
You often write about your body and you’re very engaged and active in anti-racist work, including your work teaching poetry to incarcerated writers with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. How do you think creative work, like writing and art, can build toward dismantling systemic oppression?
Art is an equalizer. Consumed by everyone, created by anyone. Art is a window into the heart and mind of its creator, an acknowledgement of their humanity.
The very act of writing is a rebellion against annihilation, a way for so many people to tell the world “I’m here” when it tries to erase them at every turn. A poem is a prayer, each work of art is someone’s salvation.
You’ve worked with Katrina Vandenberg in the roles of student and editor [Stokley was the assistant poetry editor for Water~Stone Review for Volume 21, and has served as a reader and board member]. What was it like working with her in the role of contributor?
Because I’ve spent so much time discussing and appreciating poetry with Katrina, it was really easy being on this side of the process. With some editors and publications you aren’t sure what to expect, but with Katrina and WSR, I was able to be completely trusting. All I had to do was say, “yes,” and let y’all do the rest. As expected, the issue is stunning.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
I long to linger—in the candy aisle, during the movie credits, at the coffee shop where I’m pretending to write. I crave to remember why I don’t go to shows anymore when I can’t walk the next day. I hunger to avoid people at the grocery store because we went to high school together not because they might harbor a deadly pathogen. I miss the MPWW classroom.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I have one tattoo. It’s the word “skin”.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
James Baldwin‘s artistic, technical, and moral clarity are daily inspiration.
I’ve been blessed with the right teachers at the right times. Chad Simpson and Barbara Tannert-Smith believed in my earliest stories that I never ever finished. The late Robin Metz taught me to persevere and to embrace the process, lessons for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Deborah Keenan continues to be a bonfire in the terrifying writing arctic.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I’ll focus on that last question because I would ask what craft element doesn’t challenge me on some level? That might sound pretentious but it’s just a poetic way of lacking confidence.
I suppose there’s a couple ways I could answer my ‘quirk.’ I only buy and write in unlined notebooks because I like the freedom it provides. Before the pandemic, I almost wrote exclusively at coffee shops because I felt like all the ambient activity would occupy my attention deficits and I could just focus on writing. Now, I guess my biggest quirk as a writer is that I don’t write.
What projects are you working on right now?
Lately I’ve been working hard on getting the vaccine. Once that project is done, I might try going outside.
Sam Stokley is a disabled artist, educator, and editor from Peoria, Illinois, living in Minneapolis. He teaches poetry through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. A 2019 finalist for BOAAT Press’s and Driftwood Press’s chapbook prizes, and a 2020 semifinalist for the Tomaž Šalamun Prize, Stokley has had his writing featured in The Arkansas International, Brevity, Fairy Tale Review, Poetry City, and other publications. Stokley was born and lives with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. Follow him on Instagram @bovinii.