Sean Hill's first book Blood Ties & Brown Liquor was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Mandala Journal from 1998-2000, and he spoke with current Editor-in-Chief, Ashley David, via email in early 2011.
Ashley David: Mandala Journal is thrilled that you're joining the conversation this issue. Perhaps I should say rejoining it. You were the editor-in-chief for Mandala Journal in its early days as a print journal (Vol. 2, 1998-1999 and Vol. 3, 1999-2000). Vol. 3, a black and white perfect bound volume, is chock full of work exclusively by students of African descent at UGA. It's a current staff favorite. We love the physical object for its design and heft, and we love that life at UGA ten years ago included such strong African American voices. Tell us about the early days...your vision, the students, the work...
Sean Hill: To get ready for this conversation, I went down into the basement to look for my old copies of the first three issues of Mandala. I could find only the two I worked on, volumes 2 and 3. I think the first Mandala was produced a couple of years or so before those, and then the journal went in to hiatus. I'm glad to hear volume 3 is a favorite of the current staff. At the time it felt pretty ambitious with its range of voices and concerns and inclusion of visual art. It's my favorite, too. David Taylor's vision guided the process of revamping the design from the saddle-stitched newsletter format of the first two. Our stated mission was to be a medium for creative expression by students of African descent at the University of Georgia. The graduate and undergraduate student staff that came together for that purpose were mostly from the English, Journalism, and Comparative Literature departments, but I think we had folks from all over campus. And we came to the task of publishing a literary magazine from a variety of backgrounds. We were simply a group of students who saw a need and with the guidance of people like Seretha Williams, Dr. Barbara McCaskill, and Dr. Ron Baxter Miller and the generous financial support of the Office of Minority Services and Programs and the Institute for African American Studies we brought Mandala back. We felt empowered by the opportunity to publish and support a range of creative work produced by Black students. That was our vision - to showcase and encourage the variety of voices among the Black students, and we were excited to publish in volume 3 not only poetry but also visual art by artists like Jerushia Graham, as well as nonfiction pieces like "What's in a Name" by Brian Williams and Akinloye Ojo's "Why Are You Not 'talking black': I Ain't Black Enough Fo You?" As Marvin Gladney, the assistant editor of volume two, wrote in his prefatory statement, "Mandala is an attempt at encouraging the development of our creative selves." As a staff, that was what we believed our hard work would do for the Black students on that campus.
AD: Wow. It sounds like you had a wonderful groundswell of support and enthusiasm in, and for, the black community on campus when you were here in the late 1990s. The scene at UGA has shifted some since then, and the journal has gone through several changes in vision, scope, and format. Today, we're publishing an online journal that is international and that defines multicultural in broad terms. In addition, the UGA student voices represented in the journal are primarily editorial rather than contributor voices. [See the About Us section of the site and the Editor's Welcome to the Cosmopolitanism issue for more details.] What do you make of all these changes and do you think they reflect larger trends in thinking about concepts like race, identity, multicultural, and Africana Studies?
SH: I think you all have taken Mandala in a wonderful direction. The writers and artists you're exposing the editorial staff to and putting them in contact with are fantastic. And your inclusion of works from the elementary school students in the Cosmopolitanism issue is a terrific way to engage the Athens community. I think the inclusiveness of your range and your international scope will serve the students who work on the journal and the rest of those on campus in a different way than Mandala did in the early days, but this way is just as important. Exposure to great creative work can be just as important as having one's own creative work showcased. And moving to an online format you have a chance to reach a larger audience. It also seems to me that these moves do reflect the trend of inclusiveness and a broadening of definitions of race, identity, multicultural. Inclusiveness and challenging and broadening definitions were part of our mission; we set out to "publish work that rethinks, interrogates, and celebrates unity and diversity of the Diaspora and the voices within it."
AD: You're from Milledgeville, Georgia, and your travels post-UGA have taken you to, among other places, the University of Houston, where you completed your MFA, Stanford University, where you held a Stegner Fellowship, and now, Minnesota. How have your wanderings across the U.S. collaborated (and/or collided) with your experiences growing up to shape your writing process and the poems you create?
SH: Flannery O'Connor wrote, "My standard is: When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville." It took leaving Milledgeville for me to understand that standard. My travels show me more how much my experiences growing framed the way I look at the world, which is what I'm doing when I write. Going to the University of Georgia just 70 miles up the road from Milledgeville gave me a completely new perspective from which to look at the world. And writing Blood Ties & Brown Liquor while in Houston showed me how Milledgeville is in some ways the bedrock of my imagination. It's one of my main points of reference. In my writing I'm currently exploring my evolving definitions of "home" and "self" and "the world." The poems are about the speaker's initial culture shock and the alienation of moving from one place to another, from the temporary alienation of traveling in this country and abroad to the more permanent culture shock of moving from the Deep South to northern Minnesota. The philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran wrote, "One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland - and no other." In moving to Bemidji, Minnesota, I've found that to be true in little ways. Not only are the weather and landscape different but the people and their culture and cuisine and the way they speak also. The small choices in diction I occasionally have to make when speaking to Minnesotans don't necessarily show up in my poems, but they do remind me that I come from a distinct "fatherland" - a certain section of this country. The poems also explore my complicated relationship with the South, the place I'm native to, one of the places I call home. And I hope is that by looking at my "immigration narrative" I will enlarge the space for conversations about home in a time when, continuing that 20th century trend, many Americans are moving away from the places we first called home.
AD: This year's theme for the Mandala Journal is Reconciliation. We figured it would raise some interesting questions and issues on its own and following on the heels of last year's issue, Cosmopolitanism, in which we explored ideas about rooted cosmopolitanism a la Appiah...the idea that one can be both connected to roots and have an eye on the global picture. Would you tell us a bit about what the term "reconciliation" evokes for you...its promises and pitfalls?
SH: The first examples that came to mind were on one hand Truth and Reconciliation Commissions - oppression, strife, war, and genocide - and on the other romantic break-ups and reconciliations. Honestly I'm intrigued by the theme of Reconciliation. And I'm eager to see how the idea of bringing persons back together - a restoration of relations, and possibly friendships - is explored in this issue of Mandala. I think reconciliation promises future conversation and possible growth and cooperation as a way to proceed from an estrangement or impasse. I see as its pitfalls facile and false reconciliations, which will inevitably lead to further strife. Reconciliation should be entered into honestly with the goal of bringing the two parties back together.
AD: How does this play out in your work? Perhaps you could discuss this question both generally speaking and in relation to the poems that we've published in this issue of Mandala Journal...
SH: The idea of reconciliation as a theme made me think about how it comes up in my work. And I believe in the poems you've accepted I'm trying to make connections to reconcile my understanding, my view, or my belief about the world with what I observe in the world or in others. I think that is what I'm doing in the manuscript I'm working on now - exploring the successes and failures of trying to make my views and beliefs about the world compatible with the realities that I encounter, particularly the realities of Bemidji, Minnesota. The announcement of your theme prompted me to write a poem specifically about "reconciliation." It's not quite right yet; I'm still working on it. Thank you for the inspiration.
AD: Cave Canem. The organization positions itself as "a home for the many voices of African American poetry, [an organization] committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets." Tell us a bit about the role Cave Canem plays/has played in your life and work?
SH: I was accepted to Cave Canem in 1999, and I went on the weeklong summer retreat/workshop in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady had created exactly what I needed at that time, a space where I could meet other Black poets from other places and backgrounds and walks of life and stages in their careers and be affirmed not necessarily in what I was doing with my poetry but simply in the fact that I was trying to make poetry. Simply reminding myself of the existence of the poets I met there has often kept and still keeps me going. I mean, going to the workshop was at times like going to a family reunion for a family I had but didn't know I had. In the years I went, we were all working on poems and maybe thinking about manuscripts. Since then, many of the fellows I'd met have gone on to publish award winning books, edit journals, and do big things in poetry and the literary world. And of course the faculty I came into contact with were great! I suppose because Cave Canem was still sort of young when I was accepted I didn't know what to expect beyond fellowship. I've made good friends in Cave Canem, and I've found and continue to find it to be an encouraging and supportive community. When I meet new Cave Canem fellows at AWP or other events it's like meeting new cousins. Cave Canem is a home.
AD: What would you say is at stake for poetry/art and poetry/art-making in the US today? I'm not just after abstractions here. This question is another way of steering you toward the dreaded mentorship question...What sort of advice or guidance would you offer up to folks about making their way, navigating and negotiating the world, and being authentically themselves within, and in resistance to, the power matrix?"
SH: I could answer this question by saying truth and beauty - honesty - are at stake for art and more narrowly poetry. Funding is also at stake for the making of art and more narrowly poetry in this country today, but I feel funding has always been a concern, it is particularly threatened in our current political and economic environment. But I think poetry-making itself is in a good place; the world is wide open for poetry making. Technology is such today that publishing is available to almost anyone. The rise of online journals and blogs and other spaces that have been created for poetry to live in the world are evidence of this. A few years ago my friend, poet Elizabeth Bradfield, felt a need to put literature and art out on the streets, so she founded Broadsided Press. It is a virtual press that each month publishes a letter-sized pdf of a broadside combining pieces selected by the Broadsided editors with art crafted by a Broadsided artist responding to the piece. I'm a Broadsided editor, and I also work on another online collaborative literary project, The Owls. The fact that you all have expanded the scope and reach of Mandala by taking it to the Internet is another example of how one can create one's own path. Poems and presses are created by people with visions. The advice I would give someone is to read and study and write and find the poets that can teach you, and here I mean the poems and essays and lectures and books that can lead you on your path to being poet. And I don't mean that going to conferences or getting into a writing program isn't beneficial, because it is, but those are not the only ways. Follow your obsessions, and persevere. I'm interested in your framing of this question in terms of travel and obstacles and transaction with the words "navigating" and "negotiating" and the idea of the "power matrix." I've had to think about or face the "power matrix" at various times: is there support for what I am doing? And will my words find a place in the world? And I believe those were some of the concerns that originally engendered Mandala as a response to the "power matrix." It was a sort of creative act of resistance and an attempt to build a space to authentically be ourselves.
AD: What's on the horizon for you? Plans? Goals? Wild hares?
SH: On my horizon are lines that reach all the way across the page - essays. I'm beginning a foray into nonfiction. I think this interest has always been there, but writing long poems in the past few years has reinvigorated it. And similarly my interest in prose poems has piqued my interest in short-short fiction. I guess I'm interested in the boundaries of the genres. Maybe it has something to do with living so close to the Canadian border.
AD: Anything you wish that I'd asked but didn't?
SH: I think your questions covered quite a lot of ground.
AD: Sean, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. As I indicated when we began, all of us at Mandala Journal are really happy that you've rejoined the conversation, and we are honored by your contribution to the issue. Cheers!
Ashley David is a doctoral student in English. Poems, essays, and multimedia have appeared in Alimentum, Center, The Greensboro Review, Hanging Loose, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, The Offending Adam, The Southern Review, Toad, Verse, and Women's Studies Quarterly. Op-ed features on education, the environment, and social justice have appeared in The Flagpole, and scholarship on Toni Cade Bambara is forthcoming in several anthologies. She is the blog editor for the Michigan Quarterly Review.