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Interview with a Poet: Cocoa-Michelle Williams, John Lewis Grant Poetry Recipient

I am heading to the Red Clay Writers Conference on April 20, and I was over the moon to discover that the poet Cocoa-Michelle Williams would be in attendance because she is the 2023 John Lewis Grant Poetry Recipient. I first met Cocoa when we shared an office space while we completed our graduate programs at Florida State University. I reached out to her and she was kind enough to grant me an interview.

Photo of poet Cocoa-Michelle Williams
Cocoa-Michelle Williams

You are the 2023 John Lewis Grant Poetry Recipient. Congratulations!!

Why did you apply for this grant and what does receiving this type of grant allow you to be able to accomplish?

Thank you! It is an honor to receive the John Lewis Writing Grant in Poetry. Having been raised in Atlanta, John Lewis's work and legacy has always been ever-present throughout my childhood, so it feels like a full circle moment to be named a winner of this prize and have my name associated with such a giant of civil rights activism. It is also a somber moment thinking about how his hard-won victories in Civil Rights legislation are being threatened today, but I also see this political moment as a call to create work that is confrontational and unflinching in its examination of injustice. I also applied for this grant because I wanted to connect with networks of writers in Georgia that the Georgia Writers Association brings together through its programming via the Red Clay Conference and John Lewis Writing Grants, among others.

You’ve been a recipient of other grants and prizes as well. Would you run down some of your past prizes and awards for me?

Sure. Last year I was the recipient of the Courage to Write Writer of Note grant awarded by the DeGroot Foundation. I've been a finalist for several poetry contests, including The Tennessee Williams Prize, The Jeff Marks Memorial Prize, and The Dogwood Poetry Prize, as well as being nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

I’d also like to highlight some of my academic grants and awards because the work that I do in my academic scholarship continues to inform my poetry practice. I’ve also been accepted to participate in the Black Book Interactive Project Scholars Program and the Andrew W. Mellon Digital Monograph Writers Workshop at Emory University.

How important are grants and awards for poets?

These opportunities are extremely important because many writers, especially poets who have yet to publish their first book, are not full-time writers and thus need financial support to maintain their writing practices. These grants and awards also give writers exposure to larger audiences, build confidence, and encourage creativity.

And you are an educator – which means you have a full-time job and a vocation of being a poet.

Many people struggle with finding the time to write. You not only write and teach, but you seek other opportunities. How much time do you think you log each week researching and looking for opportunities?

I dedicate 1-2 hours several days a week seeking opportunities to support my poetry practice and find places to send out my work. I also use this time to set goals and reassess existing goals to ensure that I am investing my energy where it will have the most impact in supporting and nurturing my work.

I am someone who is NOT confident applying for grants or prizes. And from what I have observed the few times I have done it – it’s a little bit of work: writing application letters, gathering the appropriate materials, navigating different submission portals. What is the mindset that you have cultivated that bursts through some of these barriers?

You’re right. Navigating letters, submissions and application materials can be challenging. What has helped me break through some of those barriers is having a writing partner who is invested in seeking out those opportunities as well. I often meet up with other friends who are writers, and we set aside time to look for and apply for opportunities together. We also help each other demystify some of these processes. Because, we might have previously applied for different contests, conferences, or residencies or similar ones, and we can share what we’ve learned with each other from those experiences.

I read the poem, “Playing in the Johnny Plug” that was published in Ninth Letter, and that poem was written based on a photo you found. The photographer saw something in the kids – your mother playing in the water – because they were not allowed to go to the public pool.

For me, it’s a poem talking about being seen – can you speak to what it means to be seen.

Being seen is an acknowledgement of one’s personhood and humanity. This is the center of the poem’s argument. Young black children are denied the right to be seen in certain public recreational spaces and so they quite naturally create their own spaces of visibility where they can acknowledge and affirm each other. The camera in this poem represents the egalitarian function of photography, where everyone gets to control their own image and capture their own moment. Poetry, itself, can serve a similar function.

Can you speak to the challenges of being seen as a poet?

I think it’s less about me being seen per se and more about others being able to see themselves reflected in the work.

I want my poetry to illuminate what the audience already knows about themselves and the world that they may have forgotten. I want my readers to know that they are beautiful and creative and resilient.

There is a romantic idea of poets: what poets do and what poets look like. Do you think there are assumptions people make when you tell them you are a poet?

Certainly, I think there is a long-standing tradition of poetry being thought of as the domain of old white men. Being a black women poet is inherently a challenge to the racist ideologies that underpin ideas about literacy and so-called high art forms, such as poetry. The most famous example being that of Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet who published the first book of poetry by an African American writer. Her inquisition at the hands of a group of white slave-owning “dignitaries” speaks to a long history of this conflict between the Black woman poet and the page. It’s wild to think about. That a group of men who have to attest to Wheatley being the author of her own work. There are some that would not only devalue the work of Black women poet but also challenge its very existence.

There are multiple layers to being a poet – you teach, you write, you submit, you might provide feedback to other poets, or perform your poetry in live or online readings. Of all the many tasks a modern poet has to do, what is your favorite and what is your least favorite?

My favorite activity as a poet is reading. Those public readings are so important in getting real time feedback on how audiences are responding to your work. I often do some editing before and after readings, and sometimes during. I don’t really have least favorite task. I enjoy the business of poetry as much as I enjoy the creative processes that manifest the work.

What advice would you give young writers who are enamored by poetry?

Continue to read vociferously. We are what we read. If there is a great poet whose work inspires you to write, read them, and you’ll begin to pick up their cadence and style mixed with your own unique sensibilities, of course. Also, find a writing group or create one. It’s so much easier to write when someone is writing alongside you.

Would you please list two or three poets whom you admire right now?

That’s a long list. But I’m always reading Lucille Clifton’s "Blessing the Boats". I love Clifton’s persona poems. This is a poetic form that I often write in. I’m also always reading Natasha Trethewey’s work, particularly Thrall. Tretheway’s ekphrastic work is a study in how to stretch this form into multiple articulations. I feel the same way about Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. I learn so much from this work about how scholarship, poetry, and experiential knowledge can work together in a collection.

What are you reading/watching/listening that is fueling your writing fire right now?

I’m currently doing research for a collection of poems on the iconography surrounding the fictionalized character of Aunt Jemima. I’m listening to recordings of the Aunt Jemima Radio Show, which was broadcasted in the 1930s and the titular character was sometimes voiced by both black and white voice actors. It’s fascinating to listen to a kind of racial window-dressing on both sides of the so-called color-line.

Look for Cocoa-Michelle Williams on Instagram @teacakeswoman.

I am so grateful to be allowed to interview poet Cocoa-Michelle Williams. I would like to thank her for taking the time to answer my questions and I am looking forward to hearing her read at Red Clay Writers on April 20.

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