Today is the start of National Poetry Month, a chance to increase our appreciation of the art form.
Aimee Noel of Dayton is a recipient of this year’s Ohio Arts Council’s 2020 Individual Excellence Award for poetry.
She is compelled to write about her experiences “so that people can feel it rather than merely comprehend it.”
In this moment of constant uncertainty, poetry can be a needed meditation, an expression of anger and loss, or one of gratitude and hope – for the reader and the writer.
Noel, our Daytonian of the Week, shares her take on writing.
How long have you been writing poetry? What inspires your work?
Not very long, comparatively. Twelve years? As a teacher, I need professional development hours to keep my licenses current, so one summer I took a creative writing class at Wright State. I had signed up for fiction, but the first day they needed to balance out the numbers and asked some of us to move to the poetry class. I wasn’t a writer of any genre, so it didn’t matter to me which class I took. I worked with Professor (now dear friend) Adrienne Cassel, and I was hooked. Because I came to writing so late in life, I work hard to fight off imposter syndrome. I remain intimidated by those who can pull out their third-grade journals with fully-formed ghazals.
I tend to write to reveal. Poetry does not have the burden of truth, so when there is something bothering me or an experience I want to heighten so that people can feel it rather than merely comprehend it, I turn to poetry. With poetry you can sneak up on the truth sideways and deliver it in a way that resonates beneath the skin. Richard Hugo wrote, “You owe the truth nothing, you owe the poem everything.” I continually remind myself that. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how it happened; it matters how it felt. My poem “All Together Now” about the vigil for the victims of the Oregon District shooting (forthcoming in Belt Publishing’s Dayton Anthology) combines many experiences, not just my own, to bring that scene alive for those who weren’t there and to resonate truthfully for those who were. If people are nodding their heads in recognition of a shared human experience when reading or listening to my work, then the poem has succeeded.
You are a recipient of this year’s Ohio Arts Council’s 2020 Individual Excellence Award for poetry. What does this honor mean to you?
The mere existence of this award is such a gift of optimism. To know that art and creativity and the value of both is recognized at the state level of funding has a buoying effect. This award is a significant honor because it recognizes work I’ve already done. A panel of accomplished poets read my entry and essentially said that my voice and talent are worth funding. It gives me the freedom to take on more varied projects, connect with others in the creative communities, promote the arts throughout the region, hone my skill, and pass it along to my students. You’re never too old to be proud of getting a gold star from those you respect in your field.
Writing can be a formidable task. What advice do you give someone struggling to be creative? (Asking for a friend)
I should be asking your friend because, honestly, writing is a slog. You’d be amazed at the things I find to do rather than sit down and write. If, while I was at my desk trying to wrestle a poem onto the page, you happened to call for help cleaning your cat litter boxes, I’d probably say, “Be right there.” So here’s the advice I’d give myself: don’t be afraid to write badly. In all honesty, you can’t be afraid of, as Anne Lamott so deftly put it, “sh...y first drafts.” Shut off the editor in your mind and just explore. If you try to manipulate your poem on the page, it’ll show. Let it have the lead first and then rein it in when you’re ready to give it defined shape. And read. A lot.
What are you reading to keep you sane right now?
Ross Gay’s essays, The Book of Delights, or a collection by poet Paul Guest, Because Everything is Terrible, depending on the day. I’ve also had my eye on a number of new books coming out by friends and poets I admire, so I’m ordering a number of those to keep me company during this “stay at home” order and pretending they’re all coming over for an old-fashioned salon-style reading. Except it will just be me. In my pandemi-pants and sweatshirt. Looking forward to having former Daytonian, Noah Falck, July Westhale, Ruth Awad, and others’ books over to the house since we can’t be together in person.
How does poetry impact your life?
The greatest impact has been the extension of community that writing affords. Through my MFA program at Lesley University, I have a world-wide network of fellow writers. Over the years we have collaborated on projects, critiqued each others’ work, and opened our homes for each other as writing retreats. Closer to home, I am honored to be a member of the Greenville Poets critique group. The group has been writing together for decades and has 17 books among them, so I was certainly flattered when asked to join. Having a group to whom I am accountable keeps me writing. (Mention that to your “friend.”) Here in Dayton, Bridget Flaherty’s Lore, the forthcoming Baldwin Cafe, and Dayton Poetry Slam at the Yellow Cab Tavern are rich, diverse extensions of the creative community Dayton has to offer. Check out Fred Marion’s DaytonLit.com for the most comprehensive listing of literary events around the region.
What would you say to someone who says that they don’t like poetry?
I know, I know, there is someone’s words out there that can make them nod their head in agreement or close their eyes, as they do when listening to a song that moves them. Saying you don’t like poetry is similar to saying you don’t like music. My answer: you just haven’t found the right artist yet.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
You wouldn’t think that’d be a difficult question, but things change daily based on the COVID-19 situation. Currently, I have a show opening at the (Jes) McMillian Gallery for First Friday in April with visual artist, Marsha Pippenger. The exhibit, “Meet Me Home,” features Marsha’s collages based on immigrant stories from here in Dayton and my poetry is an exploration of the work that Marsha created from those stories. That opening may change, of course, in light of the current situation. My students and I are working remotely to put together their campus literary journal. It will be a challenge this year, but the quarantine has inspired many young writers to write about their perspective through this crisis. Sadly, a number of public readings and workshops I had scheduled have been canceled, but I am heartened by all the ways artists are finding to reach out and stay connected. I’ll be one of 10 poets reading for Mock Turtle Zine’s first “Words from Home” live poetry event on April 1, for example. And, with all this extra writing time, I’ll finally be sending my manuscript out to prospective presses for publication. (I said it out loud, so now I have to do it, right?)
What inspires you about Dayton?
Daytonians are not the type to sit back and admire the problem. They take action when they see a need. Thriving community initiatives like community gardens across the region, Access to Excess, and The Unit are a few. The people with whom I work for the Gem City Market project (co-op grocery store planned for lower Salem) are some of the most committed people I’ve met. (Are you an owner-member yet?!?!) Daytonians are generous of spirit. That spirit has been tested time and again this past year. In the midst of the most recent crisis, I feel that social solidarity more than ever. And for the number of individuals, partnerships, and agencies working for the greater good of the community that I am aware of, there are dozens more at work which I am not. That is what makes me proud to live here and happy to commit my time and energy here.
What’s your favorite food (or foods)?
Dayton has no shortage of great food options. Lately, I’m all about the arepas and fried plantains at Bar Granada. Fresh and quick and right across the bridge from my neighborhood.
Ethnosh Dayton also has introduced me to some great immigrant-owned restaurants, most recently, the chicken stew and jollof rice at Eden Spice. Right now, we are making sure to keep locally-owned restaurants in mind for take-out during this “social-distancing” period.
Many of the owners and workers are our neighbors and friends.
What would your perfect day in Dayton be?
A perfect day is when I don’t have to get in my car. So, it would start with an impromptu coffee communing on someone’s porch in McPherson Town where neighbors would wander in and out. I’d walk up to the Dayton Art Institute for inspiration, and, if I am having a good writing day, pen a few brilliant lines. My wife, Carrie Scarff, and I would ride Link bikes over to Carillon to play bocce ball or Frisbee on the giant lawn with a picnic lunch from Culps Café. Or pull our kayaks up over the levee and paddle the River Run. In the evening we’d catch an improv show at Black Box Theater or a concert at the Levitt Pavilion, and stop for drinks at Lucky’s or the Van Buren Room. Then we’d hop on the Flyer home. And I’d shake everyone’s hand. Or hug them. I think I’m going to be a reformed non-hugger at the end of all of this.
More information about Aimee Noel’s work can be found on her website www.aimeenoel.net.