A conversation with 2017 AWC Writing Contest winner, Chervis Isom.
1. What led you to write your first place winning nonfiction piece, “The Stray Cat?”
“I think a lot about memory, not because I have a lot of memory to think about but because my memory bank is so shallow, as shallow as a pond on the pavement after a spring shower. I was trying to remember my earliest memories, and I think my earliest memories were of my age four. This story is perhaps the only memory that stood out as something more than a moment, something that might support a story. So I wrote it recently and I liked it, I liked how I could tell the story and express what I learned from the story, how I grew from what I learned, and to me that is the beauty of the memoir as a form of writing art.”
2. Are you inspired by a particular nonfiction writers or essayists?
“I love the memoirs of Patricia Hampl. She wrote at least four memoirs, each following a different arc or theme of her life. She proved to me that a non-fiction writer could have an impact in creative writing even more than a writer of fiction, and could be just as effective.”
3. How do you balance the need to protect the privacy of loved ones against the passion for telling a good story?
“In my memoir, The Newspaper Boy, I put a note or disclaimer in the front of the book indicating that I had changed some names for obvious reasons. I think that’s all you can do if you want to write about those characters.”
4. What inspired you to write your beautiful first-place-winning poem (which is also, uniquely, a prose poem)? Is poetry a new medium for you? What do you like about it? Why?
“Maybe I’ve spent too many years focused on my work and never opened up my trunk of memories until now… When I lift the lid all I find are scraps of thread scattered here and there, the fabric of the memory having long before dissolved. I have only skeletal memories and I’ve tried to write about a few of those things. Poetry is an ideal medium for skeletal memories, particularly if there is a lesson to be learned or a question to be explored.”
5. What poets have freed or inspired you to write in earnest, or, borrowing Emily Dickinson’s expression, to “tell it slant”?
“My friend Barry Marks is a fine poet and his poems come in all forms and styles and cover a broad range of topics, both mundane and philosophical. I’ve learned a lot from him and his discipline in writing about every conceivable experience. As for a historical poet, I think Emily Dickinson is most impressive. She wrote for years with no publicity and, so far as I know, no encouragement or social contact with other poets for support. Yet her poetry is fresh and original and uniquely inspiring.”
6. Why does poetry matter in our modern commercial culture?
“Poetry is the medium for expressing the truth in a few well selected words designed to please the hearer’s ear, to seize the hearer’s heart, to squeeze tears from the hearer’s eyes. The truth, the emotional truth, that is what matters, and poetry is the medium to achieve it.”