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Interviews with Poets Hilary Dobel and Anna Ralls

Anna Ralls is an emerging poet from Columbia, Missouri who lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana, where  she is active in the poetry scene and regularly competes in poetry-slam competitions.

Shaindel Beers: The three poems you published in Contrary‘s Autumn 2015 issue were your first poetry publication. Had you been sending out long before this?

Anna Ralls: I think these poems were in the first batch I sent out. I submitted the same poems to about twenty different places— that seems to be my m.o.! About every three months, I seem to send a new batch of poems out to a ton of places.

Shaindel: What was your path as a poet like before Contrary?

Anna: When Contrary published these poems, I was a very young poet. I entered my undergraduate work bent on becoming a fiction writer, and it was around the time that these poems appeared in Contrary that I started to identify myself as a poet instead of a fiction writer. I’d written a lot of angsty teenage poetry, so the form was familiar to me, but I needed to write and study a lot more poetry in order to get better. My undergraduate creative writing professors, Peter Monacell and Christina Ingoglia, did just that— they got me to read a lot of poetry and encouraged me to use poetry as a way to experiment with exciting new language. To my surprise, I felt much more at home as a poet than I’d ever felt as a fiction writer.

Shaindel: Where has life taken you in the last three years? From what I’ve read, it sounds exciting! Can you elaborate?

Anna: I’d love to! I finished my BA in English at Columbia College, and some highlights of my last year there include serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia College Literary Review, and performing in the world premiere of my first play, “When I Open My Mouth.” After graduation, I spent a month in Iceland as a poet-in-residence at Gullkistan, a residency for creative people, where I hiked up and down mountains, visited geysers and waterfalls, and wrote a lot about Star Trek. Then, I got married, moved to Indiana, moved back to Missouri, and started grad school at Oxford University, where I will graduate in 2020 with my MSt in Creative Writing!

Shaindel: How has working as an editor changed your sensibilities as a poet?

Anna: Editorial work has given me a new perspective on what readers look for. Editors don’t often get to look at a piece more than once before deciding whether or not to pass on it, and so it’s important to make the first few sentences of the piece some of the most arresting. Also, it taught me best practices for submitting, writing a cover letter, etc.— things that many writers mess up on because they don’t know any better.

Shaindel: How would you describe your writing process? How does the average poem “come” to you? I ask this because as I reread your work, I’m always amazed by the attention to the sounds of words, the musicality. I wonder how much of that happens in the first draft, and how much in revision.

Anna: I usually start out with one line or concept, and build my first draft around that snippet. If I’m working in a form, like a series of odes I wrote recently, I’ll start with a title— for example, “Ode to the Word ‘Moist.’” And I’ll go from there until I feel like I’ve got a solid poem.  In revision, I look for the sentence, line, or stanza that is the “heart” of the poem, that says what I really want to say, and often I’ll entirely rewrite the poem around it. If I’m feeling particularly stuck, I’ll delete all my line breaks, leaving me with a block of text, and relineate the entire poem. Often, in doing this, I’ll find something that infuses the text with new energy. My final edits are done as I read the poem aloud to myself. I’m really excited about performance and slam poetry, so I want to make sure that my poems are as readable as possible. I think that attention to how each poem will eventually be read aloud is a good motivator for trying to be as musical as possible!

Shaindel: You get to give a good-sized literary dinner party — and invite ten guests dead or alive. Who do you invite? Why? Also, where would this party be held? What would you serve?

Anna: My first invite goes to my mentor, Dr. Peter Monacell, because he would understand much more of the conversation than I ever would. Then, Virginia Woolf and Roxane Gay, because they are amazing feminist theorists. Terry Crews, because his work in dismantling toxic masculinity and homophobia is incredibly important. Jamaal May and Lin-Manuel Miranda, because I want to geek out about poetry and pop culture with them. Gene Roddenberry and Ray Bradbury, because I want to talk about science fiction and the possibilities and pitfalls of technology. Amanda Brennan, the “meme librarian” at Tumblr, and Thomas Sanders, because I really want to talk about memes, queer and LGBTQ+ experiences, and the front lines of the internet. Tom Hiddleston shows up uninvited and unannounced, because his literary senses were tingling and he wants to talk about Shakespeare. We let him.

The meal would be held in a library, any library— and we would start with a ton of different types of tea, followed by my mom’s famous egg, sausage, and cheese casserole. Afterwards, we would gorge ourselves on gummy fruit snacks and more tea, working ourselves into a sugar frenzy. We use the sugary energy to run all around the library, finding our favorite books and sharing them with each other. Then we reenact all the most iconic memes and vines and sing show tunes until we all slowly fall asleep between the stacks.

Shaindel: Tell us about your non-profit that you’ve founded. How can we support you?

Anna: My husband, our roommate Nix, and I are founding a nonprofit called Live Proud, which exists to serve LGBTQ+ people in the religious fundamentalist, homeschooling, and “Quiverfull” movements. Queer people in these communities are at a heightened risk, and are often forced to live in near isolation. We started when Nix came to live with Jordan and I due to an unsafe family situation, and we began to realize the need for widespread activism in these communities. Nix and I are both members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we have experienced firsthand the devastation that religious fundamentalism can have on a Queer person’s life.

Our multifaceted action plan is to offer encouragement and solidarity to people both before and after they are ready or able to leave; provide a safe exit and host home when people are ready to leave; coordinate with local and national resource groups to make sure the people have as many resources as possible; and engage in ongoing activism in the hopes that we will eventually be no longer needed.

Right now, we’re still getting all our paperwork in order— for three semi-adults with no legal expertise, that’s quite difficult! We are also compiling a list of people who are willing to serve as hosts or grassroots resources, centering around the Missouri area, to be able to offer a wide range of assistance. I’ve created an interest survey for people who would like to help here.

Poetry Editor Shaindel Beers is the author of three full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009), The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (2018), from White Pine Press. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, where she lives with her son Liam.