Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I A I Discusses Poetry With Michelle Sewell

Michelle Sewell is an award-winning screenwriter, poet, and founder of GirlChild Press. Throughout her work as a poet and a social worker, she has maintained that there must be a place for women and girls to develop and express their truest selves. With that in mind she has created open mics, workshops, and writing circles to foster that "sacred space" environment for women. The Jamaican-born artist/activist work has appeared on NPR, in Sinister Wisdom, Other Countries: Voices Rising, Campaign to End AIDS Anthology, Port of Harlem Magazine, and With the tremendous success of GirlChild's most recent book, Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, the press is attracting more projects and writers. Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta! is also doing well. A parenting handbook, centered on girls, is also in the works and will be released in September 2009. * To book Michelle for lectures, workshops, keynote addresses at your college, university, high school or conference please email

IAI: In the Fall-Winter Issue of The Birmingham Review, writer Andrew Glaze is interviewed and he states that "Our best poets today aren't nearly as interesting … as cummings [or] Marianne Moore." Them's fighting words?

Michelle Sewell: I think it depends on how you like your poetry: hard and impenetrable or accessible to the public at large. I think it has been difficult for some “traditionalist” to embrace the fact that poetry has evolved, like all forms of art. Every time a new artist comes on the scene and shares with us their interpretations, their thoughts, we owe it to them to hear them out and consider the merits of what she is brings. Recently, I heard someone say that there is a caste system in the poetry world: academic poets, slam poets, lay poets. I don’t think it serves any of us to have these distinctions. I think the doors on the halls of poetry should be swung wide open, invite everyone in.

IAI: Who would you say is "our best poet(s) today"?

Sewell: For me it depends on the day of the week. What mood I am in. Sometimes I am totally moved by a 14 year old poet from Thurgood Marshall Charter School, another day I can’t stop worshipping at the altar of Staceyann Chin or Sonya Renee Taylor. I recently heard a poem from Billy Collins (former Poet Laureate) and I was left breathless. I appreciate innovation, but also poets that do their homework. Poets that understand that when it is done well it really impacts hearts and minds.

IAI: You do a lot to keep poetry relevant today. Why do you do it? How did you get started?

Sewell: I try to do my part. I do it through GirlChild Press because I believe that girls and women need a place to have their say. The more I learn about the publishing world, the clearer it is to me that there is a gender gap that needs to be filled in the publishing world -- what the publishing industry is willing to publish and how they promote women writers in general. I can’t say that my initial foray into publishing was intentional. During 2004, I took a year off to explore my writing life. During that time I started teaching writing workshops to women and girls in marginalized spaces (detention centers, alternative schools, domestic violence shelters, and recovery programs) and was really surprised by the level of talent and the need to write among the girls and women, not only write their stories, but write in general. In 2005, I received a small artist grant and decided to start the press as an attempt to continue to validate these writings by publishing little known women writers, and introducing them to a larger audience. Ultimately, the press strives to be a champion of women’s literature. GirlChild Press is in its third year and currently promoting the most recent anthology Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta!

IAI: What would the world be like without poets, poetry?

Sewell: I think poetry is a way to record what is going on in the larger world. Poetry in many ways can be seen as a time capsule to inform those who come after what was important during that time period. I think the absence of poetry, like all art, leaves us lacking, wanting.

IAI: GirlChild Press just recently published Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta! And also published Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces. What makes a woman poet special?

Sewell: I don’t know if a woman writer/poet is any more special, but I do think they see the world from a different perspective and that perspective should be fully explored and considered.

IAI: On your blog, in the entry "Bailouts and Book Buying," you write: "… Uncle Sam will not be coming by GirlChild Press anytime soon, and writing me a bailout check to keep it afloat…" Do you think poetry publications have staying power in times like these?

Sewell: Books are definitely a leisure items for many, so in this chaotic financial time I think we will see a decrease in sales as people focus on their Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (food, shelter, and clothing). I think all businesses will have to become innovative to stay alive and prosper.

Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta! and Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces can be purchased at and

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