The Poet's Story: Interview with Le Hinton
I’m honored that Le Hinton agreed to my interview. I think of him as a Poet’s Poet. I believe we all look up to him, both for his beautiful and powerful poetry and his disarmingly gracious personality. At least, I’ve never heard anyone say anything less than laudatory about Le. He writes important, even essential poems, and uplifts the poetry community through workshops, lectures, and his work on Fledgling Rag. And I’m not sure that I know the half of it but am very curious to find out. For some context to the range and scope of Le’s body of work, I’m including his bio here at the beginning of this interview.
Poet, lecturer, Le Hinton is the author of six poetry collections including, most recently, Sing Silence (Iris G. Press, 2018) and The Language of Moisture and Light (Iris G. Press, 2014). His work has been widely published and can be found in The Best American Poetry 2014, The Progressive Magazine, The Baltimore Review, the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, the Summerset Review, the Skinny Poetry Journal, and in many other publications. His poem “Epidemic” was honored by The Pennsylvania Center for the Book and “Our Ballpark” can be found outside Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread.
His current collection, Sing Silence (formerly A Chorus for Cotton), was a finalist for "The Best Prize for People of Color" from Big Lucks and an honorable mention for the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize.
He has read his work at the Library of Congress for Grace Cavalieri's long-running series, The Poet and the Poem; Penn State University for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book's Public Poetry Project; in Charleston, South Carolina, for the Capital BookFest; and in New York City at the New School for The Best American Poetry 2014 release reading.
And now let’s get to know Le a bit better.
Hi Le, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. How are you today?
Hi Kristin. Thank you so very much for asking me to do this interview. I am well. Today I have a certain equanimity, so I feel balanced.
Great! That’s a good way to be. So tell us, you’re a gifted, insightful writer with six gorgeous and powerful poetry collections out, what started you writing poetry?
I was fortunate. My mother read the Bible (King James Version) and other poetry to us when we were very young, before we could read. Later, after she taught us to read, each of us read to the family. She was a fan of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes and read their poems to us. The earliest poem I remember hearing is Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” Mom also wrote poetry from the time that she was a little girl until she was in her 90s.
With her as a model I still didn’t write my first poem until I was 16. In our humanities class our assignment was to write a cinquain, a five-line poem with a specific syllable count. The teacher divided us into groups of about five or six and asked us to choose one of our poems to present to the class. The group I was in chose mine. That small affirmation pushed me to continue to write poems. As a kid with a cleft palate and a speech impediment, I treasured any positives that entered my life. I still do.
I’m grateful for that teacher who taught poetry and that small group of students. I do have a follow-up question to that. But first, a nod to your mom. She sounds wonderful and I wish I met her. To an extent, I feel I have through you and through your poetry. I was especially touched by “A Poet’s Mother Dies of Covid,” that came out in One Art: a journal of poetry in June. Here’s the link for our readers: https://oneartpoetry.com/2021/05/31/a-poets-mother-dies-from-covid-by-le-hinton/
Thank you so much. I don’t always write about my personal life, however, this poem needed to surface. The good parts of who I am are due to my mom and dad. I’ll remain forever grateful for their gifts.
As a lecturer and teacher, I imagine you’ve thought about the role that poetry can play in education. I have a lot of thoughts on weaving poetry into content to illuminate things in a more acute way than I think some essays or articles might. I don’t think I do that well yet. Might you speak to that a bit? It’s a broad thought and you can tackle whatever piece of it might interest you — How poetry may effectively be used in education; how to get students interested in poetry; how to extend the dialogue of poetry beyond the poets; or even if poetry should have a role in education or what the role of poetry may be.
My graduate work was in American Studies, a discipline that incorporates other disciplines. It meshes with my understanding of the world as a place of interconnectedness. As a poet, I believe that poetry can and should be part of almost everything in our world, certainly in education. Whether the subject is history, chemistry, sociology, or psychology, the poetic light can illuminate. Recently I dove into the Great Migration by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, listening to Derek Bermel’s composition, Migrations, viewing Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, and reading the poems that accompanied the paintings for its last showings in 2015 and 2016. The poems provided additional texture, richness and emotion that would have been lacking without them.
Let’s talk about Sing Silence, a brilliant collection. I’ve shared it with colleagues, students and friends and always personally benefit from another reading. Might you describe the evolution of the collection?
Thank you so much for your kind words. The first poem that I wrote for the book was “Fabric.” I didn’t expect that I’d write any more poems related to cotton, however, I found that cotton kept raising its puffy head in many of the other poems I wrote or tried to write back in 2014. I realized that I had a need to explore the subject, so I leaned into the concept. I researched and experimented with voice, point of view, and forms to finally emerge with Sing Silence.
Could you talk a little bit about how you decide on the use of form in your poetry? Do you decide on a form and then begin drafting or do you draft on a theme or image and then decide to shape it into a form?
I think of form in the way that I imagine a composer thinks of key signatures or a painter uses color. I ponder what I think the poem needs. I usually focus on what I’m writing about first. Sometime later, a particular form may insist that it’s the best way to convey the mood, emotion, or thought. It’s as if I’m an architect reciting the mantra “form follows function.” Sometimes repetition is needed to convey the proper subtext, so I’ll use a form such as the gigan. Other times a more open visual or emotional form may be needed, so a question-and-answer format may help. The poem will tell me what it needs in order to come to life.
Tell us a little bit about your poetry journal, Fledgling Rag. I’ve dreamed of starting a literary journal since high school; I mean, in addition to countless other things that have so far won out. So I’m always impressed with those who actuate that goal, but particularly you because it’s such a quality journal! When did you first have the idea to begin the journal and how did you fuel the passion to do all the work it necessitates?
I remember exactly when the idea struck me. In 2004, I did a reading from my first book at a
dearly-departed Borders with a wondrous poet and person, Emily Rice Larbaoui. During the reading she told the poets in the audience that she wished that she could publish a book for all of them so that they could experience the joy of having their work in print, even those who had already experienced it. I decided at that moment that I wanted to do that, to create a journal. So, two years later Fledgling Rag was born. My parents instilled in us a sense of duty and responsibility. If we are able to help others, then we should. Now as a Buddhist, I try to internalize the precept that my purpose in life is for the benefit all sentient beings.
I’ve learned so much from so many people along the way about how to publish a journal. Initially, I wasn’t very good at being an editor or layout person, but with help from generous souls such as Alexandra Hartman at the beginning, and Jeff Rath, Deb Smith, J.M. Servansky later, Fledgling Rag has grown and matured. So very much of the quality of content has to do with my co-editor, Lisa Munson.
If you don’t mind, a follow-up — Poetry strikes me as spiritual and sacred, other things too, but mostly that for me, and the relationship between poetry, religion, and spirituality intrigues me. Might you talk a little bit about your journey that led you to Buddhism and the interaction between your faith and poetry?
In many ways, I’ve always been a Buddhist. I’ve always spent much of my time, even as a kid,
pondering and meditating about almost everything. Although it wasn’t considered Buddhist, I
grew up with the idea that our purpose in life is for the benefit of other sentient beings. The focus on Buddhism that I now have manifests itself in poetry mostly in in the subject matter that I’ve been exploring and in my spending time and resources on publishing others. I’ve written more poems in the past five years about race, social justice, and kindness, areas of narcissism and compassion that prompt me to forge new poems.
You mentioned Lisa Muson. If you don’t mind another personal question, I had the good fortune of meeting her and hearing her wonderful poetry at the DiVerse Reading two years ago. I think you’re a lovely couple and I find writing couples fascinating. Might you share a bit about places where your writing time and space or themes overlap and if there are any particular challenges in both being Poets?
Lisa is such a wondrous poet. She is modest and humble about her work, so she doesn’t talk about it often. She is special. We tend not to be too involved with each other’s poems until we’re finished, or nearly finished. We read each other’s poems then, and offer feedback. Our subjects don’t overlap very often. We are most involved when we are working on Fledgling Rag. She has such a great ear for sound and sense. Most of the poems that end up in an issue of Fledgling Rag are there because of her brilliance.
Your poetry is lyrical and musical and you use music as a theme in some of your work. Might you tell us some of your favorite artists across genres? Maybe give us a top ten for a Le Hinton mixtape.
Only ten? (Smile) At this moment these are the ten I’d mention, but if you ask me next week, six of the ten would be different.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
What projects are you currently working on or planning for the future?
In 2022, we hope to publish new collections by Iris G. Press/I. Giraffe Press poets Jeff Rath and Daina Savage. We expect to publish a collection of astonishing poems by a new poet whose work has already appeared in Fledgling Rag. We don’t have details as of yet, but we are thrilled to have her in our family. We will probably have another poetry contest with prize money offered to three poets. We haven’t finalized our plans but the contest will honor a Fledgling Rag poet who is no longer with us. Stay tuned.
I’ll keep writing and hopefully write something of value, something worthy of publication somewhere. It’s been a good year for a few of my poems. They’re happy. Maybe next year a few more of them will be smiling, too.
I expect that’ll happen and I’ll look forward to reading them. Thank you so much for your thoughts and time, Le, as well as all you do to support poetry and poets.
You can learn more about Le Hinton and check out his books on his website: https://www.lehinton.com/