Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jona Colson

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jona Colson, whose poem, “The Orange Speaks,” we published in our Winter 2014: Science issue. This poem will be included in Said Through Glass, a poetry collection released on October 15 which won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from the Washington Writers Publishing House.

Jona is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Maryland, and he lives in Washington, DC. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. His interviews and translations can be seen in The Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly.

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Here’s a line from “The Orange Speaks” spoken in the voice of an orange: “I did not know what would become of me.” Did you ever feel that way on your journey to this debut poetry collection? 

Absolutely. I have been writing poems since high school, then seriously in undergrad. I worked and reworked these poems, trying to place them in manuscript form, and there have been many doubts.

Q: How does a poet go from having a bunch of poems to having a collection? I suppose there’s two questions there. First is in terms of the work itself, second in terms of the logistics of publication.

For me, getting the collection together in a form that honored the poems and made sense was the biggest challenge. I, literally, as many writers do, placed all the poems on the floor and fit them together into bunches, into narrative threads, spacing and creating tension and surprise—with the help of many friends. A collection starts poem by poem, and it took a long time to get them all in sequence.

Publication wise, I sent the manuscript out for about a year to a few places, and, luckily, it was selected by the Washington Writers Publishing House. However, the collection has been about fifteen years in the making. A writer is ushered into a whole different world through the process of publication. Knowing that a whole body of your work will be available is a bit terrifying—like being exposed on a high ledge in full light. It’s a strange, but exhilarating experience.

Q: Do you think the experience of “The Orange Speaks” might be different when read in your collection versus as it appeared in our issue?

There are a few different engines that drive Said Through Glass. “The Orange Speaks” is the imaginative engine, the engine of play and language. I have a few persona poems like this one in the book that are spaced to provide a rhythm of delight and surprise. What is the orange’s perspective? This view seemed curious to me as a poet.

Q: Under the “Pedagogy” section of your website, you state that “students must be active learners.” How do you maintain this quality within yourself?

Be an active writer. I try to never stop writing—even if it is a line a day, or an image, or a metaphor. Also, I keep reading poetry. One cannot write without reading. I think that being an active writer also means reflecting on your writing and your process. I’m always trying to decide what is good for the poem and what is the truth is for the poem.

Q: On your website, you’re pretty blunt about your influences: “I return to Anne Sexton.” Can you elaborate?

Sexton is a direct and indirect influence. She is one of the few writers that I have read everything by, even letters, diaries, biographies, etc. Her direct language and honesty I can’t capture, but her metaphors are powerful and have shaped many of my own. Sexton’s diction seems effortless, yet form is solidly there, which is something I try to do. Specifically in her early work, the reader is never quite sure whether the center is in motion and the periphery still, or the periphery in motion and the center still—this astounds me! This is something I tried to do in my series of dialogue poems in Said Through Glass.

Q: You earned a MFA from American University. What can a poet learn from workshops?

Courage and community, I think. Those are the most important to me. What I learn most from workshops, and from my MFA program, is not what to put in, but what to leave out.

Q: What new projects are you working on?

Trying to generate new poems. Writing one at a time and hoping another one comes. I’m much more conscious of how poems talk to each other and how they can be a part of the same world and live together.

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