Helen Losse is a poet and editor. Her new collection Seriously Dangerous was recently released from Main Street Rag.
Me: What’s the significance of the title of your new collection “Seriously Dangerous?”
Helen: Wow! Let’s jump right in the deep end and hope to swim. The title Seriously Dangerous and the book cover, a fiery cross on a black background, are intended to make a bold statement: Something is seriously wrong with our nation and our world and that something is dangerous. And yes, “the cross without a savior” refers to the KKK. Racism is alive and well in America today. Cowards hide behind our founding fathers and Martin Luther King Jr. but seem to understand neither. I suppose I should tell you that I wrote my master’s thesis on the value of unmerited suffering in the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr., who became far more radical than “I Have a Dream” in the years from 1963 until his death in 1968, and that my study of King helped mold my world view. The study of African American history continues to inform my work.
Me: Spirituality seems to play a key role in your writing. What is the connection, for you, between spirituality and poetry?
Helen: I am a Christian with a message to tell. Poetry is often the medium by which I speak. Good news not only deals with heaven but also with creating a world free of racism, poverty, and war.
Me: Do you feel that your writing has changed since your previous collection, Better with Friends, and if so, how?
Helen: No, not a bit. Better With Friends is a book of poetry that explores the intersections of memory (factual and embellished), dreams (daydreams and night dreams), reverie, and prayer, so that all of one’s thoughts can be envisioned as prayer—so that “pray without ceasing” makes sense even when we sleep. Both books were produced by gathering (collecting) poems rather than writing them “to be a book.” My writing has not changed, but Seriously Dangerous was professionally edited; it is a more coherent book, but individual poems in both are equally strong.
Me: How did teaching influence your writing?
Helen: Actually, I’m not sure it did. I loved teaching and left, not because I was a bad teacher but because I was a very good one, who used up a lot of energy teaching. I felt it was unfair for my family to get what was left, especially when my children were small. I approach writing with the same fervency as I did teaching; I considered both a ministry.
Me: You’re an editor for the Dead Mule; how does that affect your writing? Does it help/hurt?
Helen: Yes, I’m the Poetry Editor. That means I do about 99.9% of the work concerning poetry without checking with anyone. It also means I have a system to speed up the work. I have received countless opportunities due to my work (and exposure) on the Mule. My second chapbook and first book were both published by people I met as a direct result of my position there. In fact, that’s where I met you, Cort. Valerie MacEwan, Editor and Publisher of the Dead Mule, has allowed me the privilege of editing without the responsibilities of establishing a web site. At the Mule, we say “we’re a big ole southern family.” Val is like a sister to me; I love her dearly. She and her husband Rob do the technical stuff; all I do is have fun. All, I say—except writing the occasional rejection letter. Writing rejections makes me consider how close we writers are to our words, how we grow to love poems, sometimes even the bad ones.
Me: The Dead Mule focuses on Southern Writing. Do you consider yourself a Southern Poet? If so, what exactly does that mean?
Helen: This is an answer I’m going to have to make up as I go—you know, like we used to do on essay tests when we didn’t know the answer but knew three facts and had to make it work. I know, we require a Southern Legitimacy Statement from all of our writers (poets and prose writers) as a way to avoid the long lists of accomplishments in a standard bio, that some writers take the SLS too seriously, and others have a lot of fun writing them. I publish all kinds of poems—narrative and lyric, formal and free verse, prose poems, poems by poets from our April Southern Poet Laureates to first timers, and one or two now and again that really aren’t quite up to snuff—in an attempt to make the Mule as diverse as the south. I even accept a few haiku. I’m a poet, who lives in the south and loves it, but I don’t really know what a southern poem is. Does anyone?
Me: Who are your biggest literary influences and how have they influenced you?
Helen: I studied poetry at Wake Forest University with Jane Mead (The Usable Field) who influenced my writing more than any other poet. She encouraged students to “find their own voice,” and I think I have. Dennis Sampson (Within the Shadow of a Man) also influenced me greatly when I was beginning to write by advising me to write clear grammatical sentences. I would say Eve Hanninen, editor of The Centrifugal Eye, and Scott Owens, editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review challenge me to revise more and to eliminate unnecessary words. They both work me hard.
Me: What have you read recently that really blew you away?
Helen: When I read Jessie Carty’s chapbook Fat Girl (now in pre-order) to write a blurb, I was blown away by her bravery and transparency. I was totally convinced that “less is more” by JS Absher’s Night Weather. And I’m always in awe of Tim Peeler’s command of the English language—completely unassuming, then he lets it fly! I wonder what that man’s IQ is. But one totally unexpected ah ha! came as I read Yehoshua November’s God’s Optimism.
Me: Will you tell me a little about your writing schedule? Do you write every day? Do you have any rituals that help bring inspiration?
Helen: Now you’re putting me to shame. I only wish I were organized enough to write daily. And it’s hard to promote a book and write that much. Usually, I read poetry by other people before I write. I do actually read more than I write. I have a muse named Helena.
Me: What are you working on now?
Helen: Okay. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. I’m working on a re-release of a chapbook that will be used to raise funds for re-building my home town Joplin, MO, after the May 22 tornado destroyed much of the city. My husband and I had left Joplin, where we had been to celebrate my Mother’s 90th birthday, just four days before the tornado hit. My immediate family suffered no losses, but our high school, a hospital, and countless businesses and homes were destroyed. The response to help rebuild Joplin has been huge, but, of course, it’s an on-going process. A group called Joplin Expats made up of people who no longer live in Joplin but consider it their hometown have pledged to help in various ways for the next three years. Profits from this chapbook, Paper Snowflakes 2011, will be my contribution. I’ll be working through a group called Joplin Bright Futures that helps poor children in the public schools. Paper Snowflakes, first published by Southern Hum Press, has been out of print for a while. The chapbook is mostly about growing up in Joplin. I have reworked a few poems and included a few new ones. Paper Snowflakes 2011 will be released from Rank Stranger Press later this year.