On Poetry and Publishing
By Rachael Moore
Sharon Coleman is sitting in her office on the third floor of Berkeley City College, drinking tea out of a steaming mug when I arrive. She’s a petite woman with long flowing hair and a quiet but resolute voice, a woman who is confident in her words. This is no surprise, as words are Coleman’s forte. She’s an avid reader, writer, poet, and teacher, and if that isn’t enough, she also runs the “Milvia Street Art and Literary Journal” at Berkeley City College. Yet for someone so accomplished, Coleman has a serene and welcoming presence as she sits down to share her story with me.
“I did a master’s degree at New College, an MFA, and I knew I wanted to work in a community college, so that’s what I did,” she begins. “I started teaching at College of Alameda and Merritt College. About a week after classes had started— I had already been teaching, but I didn’t have any classes that semester–I came over to BCC and was given an English 1B class to teach and also what was called English 101. So that was in the fall of 2002 and I’ve been here ever since.”
The “Milvia Street Journal,” arriving at BCC around 11 years before Coleman in 1989, is a project she’s been able to cultivate and grow as much as the students that participate. “Seeing students gain a good sense of themselves, of doing something they never thought they could do and really growing emotionally and in terms of community,” is how Coleman describes her favorite part of teaching.
“Finding community and participating in community in which there’s a lot of cohesion, a lot of giving, a lot of creation. A lot of looking out for each other.”
This sense of community building and participation inspires not only the students, but her work as well. “The individual writers have inspired my work sometimes, have influenced it and changed it. But I would say…it’s really given me the skill of sequencing. When I went to make my own chapbook of work back in 2011, I just took out the poems that I wanted to be in there. And I knew which poem I wanted to open with and which poem I wanted to close with—it took me literally 20 minutes to sequence it,” she laughs lightly. “And everybody who I showed it to said the sequencing was very good. And that’s what I love the most about [the journal]. If there’s one activity that we do, it’s the sequencing meeting that I find the most fascinating and rewarding.”
Her chapbook, “Half Circle,” is only part of her publishing successes. She’s had her poetry published in a slew of renowned places, including “Rivet” and the “Berkeley Poetry Review.” So I ask her how she encourages her students to submit and share their own work.
“I bring in calls for submission for ‘Milvia Street’ but also for other journals. I have a, where is it…” she trails off, looking around her desk momentarily. “Somewhere, I actually have a worksheet: ‘How to Submit Work.’ So it pretty much tells them inside out what they’re facing when they decide to start publishing. Think like an editor, and think about the work that you choose to submit. Is it something that the publication would want? Is the publication publishing other similar stuff? All sorts of other points—how to follow submission guidelines, how to keep a log of every place you’ve sent something, explaining what simultaneous submissions are, explaining copyright and how copyright is handled. A list of 13 or 14 pointers and I give it to the students. I also encourage that publications aren’t the only thing, the only way, to share it—-some people might choose not to share their work. Another thing I do is I show the students my submission log and the number of rejections I’ve had. When they see that number they’re like ‘woah.’ And you know I also have a good number of places that have published my work too, but they have to understand that sending out, it’s tough. You’re going to start getting rejection letters and that’s okay. And I encourage them to resubmit to the same journal if they’re really interested in it and send different work, to try a couple of times and if they still don’t take any of your work,” she says. “Keep writing, you never know. Start becoming a better writer. That’s what I did– I thought ‘Hm I’m getting a lot of rejections, I get some acceptances. I want to become a better writer, how do I do that?’ I start looking at the kind of writing I really love and finding ways to hit that level.”
What kind of writing does Coleman love? Her voracious reading covers a wide range of writers and genres. When she was younger Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, and Voltaire were a few of her favorites. And now, “Almost anything could influence me,” she says. “I’m interested in alternative voices in literature. I’m interested in experimental poetics, but not a work that distances the reader with its abstractions. I really want [something] that will bring in the reader through it. Which means not abandoning narrative completely, but re-examining the elements and what lies outside. So those are the different kinds of things I’m interested in. Also I really like to slow down people’s reading. You could read a book, a hundred page book, in a few hours and just go right on through it. There are poems that are very well written, but you could read them and get a lot out of them fairly quickly. I like to create a poem that you want keep reading and keep getting things out of. Not so abstruse that it’s a huge chore to try to read say, riding on BART, but poetry for one poem per BART ride. You know or get more out of it through discussion with other people, but still remain captivated. I think one writer that influenced me, and I don’t read her very much anymore, but I did at one time, is Marguerite Duras. Her novels were certainly very experimental, but I realized that somebody who wasn’t very into experimental literature could read them and get a lot out of them. And somebody who was could still read them and still get a lot out of them, so it could meet people at different places.” Her face lights up. “And I thought that was really fascinating, I really like that.”
Reading Coleman’s poetry, you can find those experimental influences and that desire to deepen the reader’s experience. Poems like “Wind Gusts” and “Frozen Cities” are deft and vivid, creating palpable emotional environments. Coleman sits thoughtfully, running her fingers through the ends of her hair. “When I first started writing in graduate school really seriously, my work was very non-autobiographical. And I wrote more like a cubist, looking at perception and looking at language as a three dimensional object. Teaching in a community college, I began writing autobiographical kinds of pieces. I started writing pieces that would really go into places in which I felt wounded quite often, and try to make that wound into a good poem– into a poem that would mean something to me and to somebody else, too. And that became sort of a challenge for me, a challenge that I liked quite a bit. In a way a lot of trauma that I had experienced began to dissipate. And I got some great poems out of that,” she says, letting out a laugh at the end. “It’s sort of interesting; sometimes your best poems are the ones that are about such taboo subjects or topics that you just wouldn’t want to share. And if you go back into those places, you can write some of the most vivid things because it means re-experiencing them. You can, you know, smell, touch— experiencing them again which is interesting. You have to be in a safe place to do that in a sense. It becomes even more emotionally difficult because you’re really reprocessing it and getting it out of your system, out of your body, out of your mind, and onto the page. I’ve been very interested in that kind of a process. I don’t know if I have anything more traumatic, I’ve probably addressed it all,” another small laugh. “But you always have things.”
Coleman’s poem “Year of the Horse,” has such striking form and presence, the repetition of a certain image, changed slightly in every stanza. It’s a perfect example of the sensory and emotional places Coleman has brought her writing. She smiles at the mention of it.
“That is a villanelle without rhymes—-that’s probably the only villanelle I’ve ever written. When I started it out, it was just the first stanza and,” she breaks off to chuckle, “a well known poet told me ‘That’s not going to work, just scrap it and write something else.’ And I didn’t, I wasn’t going to follow her advice, bless her heart. I love her writing, but you know, I just knew…it took me a few years to go back and finish, but I knew it was going to be something different.”
Form is a core component of Coleman’s poetry teaching. “When I put together a pack of poems I try to make sure they’re all using from differently. Because I want students to understand form, and I teach it as something that is not like, ‘Here’s the formula for a sonnet, go imitate it,’ no. Every sonneteer in England and the English renaissance recreated the form for themselves. And that’s why I try to teach students to enter the form and try and figure out what works for you, and then see about writing in it more and more and play with it. The content should somehow help to develop the form. If you’re using repeated lines like a villanelle or a pantoum, it often works well with a situation or theme in which there’s a repetition of things going on. Or sometimes memory, because memory has so much repetition, that kind of thing would work.”
Coleman herself was a student when she first got published. “The first piece I had published was in a little student journal at UC Berkeley when I was an undergraduate. And I hadn’t taken any creative writing classes, I studied literature and did writing at home. I sent in one piece and yeah, they liked it, so I went to the reading. I liked the affirmation of that. Seeing my name as a byline. “When you see your name in print, it gives you a whole different sense of self and it’s not just at school or at home, it has a public place.”
That’s what “Milvia Street” offers BCC and the surrounding writing community, it gives a public place to to new work. As I’m leaving, Coleman tells me that “Milvia” is often a first publication for emerging Bay Area writers. On writing, she says “I do it for myself but I also feel that it could have meaning for other people. And I hope that it brings something to people that they need to think about or bring deeper into. Or it affirms their experience.”
As I leave her to finish her tea, I’m awed and inspired by Sharon Coleman’s humble presence. Thoughtful, is the word I’m left with when ruminating on our conversation. Just read her poetry or take one of her classes to experience it yourself.