Questions For A Poet, An Interview with Sharon Wright Mitchell

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Q&A with Georgia Poet, Sharon Wright Mitchell

Sharon and I were roomies for two weeks during Reinhardt University’s MFA summer residency in 2019. As part of the program, each student reads in the evening and I was blown away listening to Sharon. Her poems were both accessible and poignant.

Recently, I was writing a radio script for melodically challenged (a poetry-themed radio show that broadcasts from Georgia State University’s Album 88 FM), and I thought about one of Sharon’s poems I heard her read last summer, “Rooting for the Wildling.” Yes! A Game of Throne’s inspired poem! The show is called “Bad to the Bone” and features villains–a topic Sharon often writes about whether due to her choices in men or past love interests, poems forged with equal amounts of  humor and melancholy. We’ve all had those bad boys in our lives.

I also got a chance to ask Sharon about her craft and goals, what inspires her, who she gravitates to and more. Whether you are a poet or not, these are thought-provoking responses for all writers.

To hear Sharon Wright Mitchell live, tune into melodically challenged Sunday, March 8th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online, go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via Tunein: Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

How long have you been writing poetry and when did you realize you were a poet? 

 The first poems I remember writing were in the 8th grade, and I felt like I had a knack for it, even if I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I still have them, awful as they are! So, I won’t admit exactly how long, but decades.

Is there a common thread or theme, structure, style, or tone you find yourself gravitating to in your poetry? 

I like direct, bold expression, especially of difficult emotions. Some of my poems are about tough subjects like cancer and family conflict. I also have a lighter, more humorous voice. Those are the types of poems I prefer to read out loud. I’d rather make people laugh in person. I write mostly free verse but will experiment with form if it suits the subject. I love organic forms that embody the meaning of the poem somehow, from the strictly concrete to the less obvious. One poem I wrote about the nature of mother-daughter love mentions the Fibonacci sequence, so that’s how I spaced the lines. A little inside joke for the observant reader. I am fascinated by water and all its symbolism and metaphors. So yes and no. I am a person with many sides to my personality, so my poetry reflects that.

What makes a poem a success? 

If I feel that I have said what I want to say in the best words I can find to say it, then it is successful. After that, it comes down to rhythm and flow. While I value the input and feedback of others, I write ultimately to satisfy myself, and I am a hard taskmaster. My goal with every poem is to express how I see the world, what strange things come together in my mind that give me insight and understanding.

Who are your favorite poets, your tried and true that you go back to for inspiration? Favorite collections?

Sharon Olds is my favorite right now. She has so many “truth-telling” poems that just make you say, “Damn!” at the end. I recently read Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, which I loved as a collection. I skim current journals to see what’s out there that I like. My mentor Rosemary Daniell has published several collections I love and has a new one coming out in April. I enjoy Emily Dickinson for her vivid interior world. I am an introvert and feel some kinship with her vision. I fell in love with the Romantics as a teenager and still have my ancient Romantic Poetry and Prose college textbook. I enjoy the wonder the Romantics felt for the natural world even though it isn’t popular now. I’m a promiscuous reader. I love the one I’m with in the moment.

Are all your poems meant to be shared, meaning are there some you keep to yourself or some that you would publish but never read out loud in public? 

Ultimately, I intend them to be shared once I get them polished. I do write some drivel now and then, but I revisit older poems regularly to try and shape them up. When I read, I try to choose mostly lighter poems. I feel that when you read a poem in front of a group, you are asking them to take a journey with you, and that journey needs to be worth it. Some poems just don’t lend themselves as well for reading out loud. Even though I am a poet, I have a hard time sitting through pages and pages of cryptic abstraction or ten haiku in a row. I wrote a very long poem, which I like, for a class project, but I’d probably never expect an audience to hang on with me for eight pages. It’s based on sonata form, so there’s a lot of repetition of themes and images.

A few of my poems are difficult to read out loud, such as the ones about breast cancer, but I didn’t write them to keep them to myself. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. In every audience, there will be someone who has it, or someone they love has it or will have it. It is a cancer that has particular emotional complications, and my giving voice to those emotions may help someone who hears me read.

How do you choose the perfect poem to read to the public?

I usually have a tentative list planned based on the expected audience, but once I get to a venue, I might change my mind really just based on intuition or the size and demographics of the audience. I have Google docs on my phone so all my poems are accessible, and I can make last minute changes. As I said earlier, I usually prefer humor over more serious poetry for readings. I have heard some experienced poets say you should save the poem that has the most impact for last, but I’d rather people leave with a smile. If I had to choose just one poem, that would be tough. At most open mics, there’s time to read maybe three poems, so there’s less pressure. I have planned lighter poems and then switched to more serious ones just for practice if there aren’t many people.

What is next for you? Do you make goals for your craft? If so, can you tell us some of them? 

I always have goals for everything…so many goals. I have some specific topics I’d like to write about. I’m working on a set of three poems about breast cancer based on photos from Hiroshima after the bombings during WWII. There is a historic area close to my house I’d like to write a series of poems about. It’s an abandoned mill village and was also the site of the Creek territorial border in the late 1700s. It’s very rich in history. I do best on those kinds of projects when I can completely immerse myself in research and writing. Since I’m a teacher, I’m able to do that in the summer.

Some generic craft goals are to work more on deliberate lineation. I think I can improve my line breaks to build more tension. Also, my grad school mentor is having me work on openings and closings. I would like to incorporate more visual art into my poetry. I am always submitting and sending out conference proposals. I could easily write full time or more, but there’s work, school, parenting, and maintaining sanity to be dealt with, too.

About Sharon Mitchell: 

Sharon Wright Mitchell is a neurodivergent poet and teacher living in Athens, Georgia. She studied English, comparative literature, and education at the University of Georgia. She contributed to the anthology I AM STRENGTH: True Stories of Everyday Superwomen from Blind Faith Books and has had work published in The Wild Word, Independent Variable, Inquietudes Literary Journal, Blue Collar Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Dream Pop Journal. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. Find her on Instagram: @apoetseyeview

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