TO ANYONE IN any of her writing workshops, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish would say the phrase “bundle of contradictions” is a cliché, but it’s an apt description of the woman herself. Born in Hobart and raised in Wewoka, she’s a PhD who speaks with a twang; she’s got small town roots but works in the city. Reading her work is like driving from Guymon to Idabel: It’s a journey through plains, forests, and mountains both physical and spiritual. Through its depiction of overlooked people, moments, and feelings, her poetry brims with understanding and compassion. She’s as varied as the Oklahoma terrain that raised and inspired her, and that’s one of the many reasons she’s the state’s Poet Laureate for 2017 and 2018. She also is the author of several volumes of poetry and essays, owns the independent publishing company Mongrel Empire Press, and directs the Red Earth Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Oklahoma City University. For more information about the Red Earth MFA program, visit okcu.edu. Mongrel Empire Press, mongrelempire.org.
CR: When and why did you start writing poetry, and what keeps you at it today?
JCM: I wrote my first poem in second grade; it was about seeing a pack of feral dogs attack and kill my dog. I knew it should be a poem, because my mother loved poetry and read it to me from the time I was born. Because she read to me and taught me “genre”—“this is a poem, this is a story”—I recognized poetry was often about difficult subjects and powerful emotions. I took the poem to school, where Mrs. Carolina, who was 1974 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, read it to the class and posted it on the classroom bulletin board. My mother hung it on the refrigerator door. I felt I had accomplished something that made my teacher and my mother proud of me—applause of a sort—and that early encouragement kept me writing throughout my life. Why keep at it today? Because it is a large part of who I am. Because it saved my life. Because many events, emotions, and ideas are best expressed in poetry. Because it’s the best method I have of examining my life.
CR: What can a poem do? What should it do?
JCM: Each poem has its own genesis and structure which establishes the emotional, intellectual, and linguistic foundations it should respond to. What can a poem do? Make us think, lead us to feel, to question, to offer answers, to celebrate, to mourn, to find common ground with one another, to explore our differences from one another, to comfort, to agitate, to guide, to help us get fruitfully lost. In short, poetry can help us lead fuller lives.
CR: Many of your poems feature hard-working men and women who make difficult sacrifices for their loved ones. You seem to sing about the unsung. Are your poems an effort to set the record straight? What makes poetry a good way—or the best way—to record the truth of a matter?
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