In Their Words... with Irene Latham

by Patty Jameson


My Tuesday night Poetry class met one muggy, January night at Satori Coffee, a few skips away from the University of South Alabama campus, for an evening reading by a traveling poet. We squeezed close together on couches, our shoulders nudged our neighbors’, and we listened as Irene Latham charmed us with The Color of Lost Rooms, her latest collection of poetry.

Each poem is a painting—of someone you know or someone you might have been—and each painting is in a room, and you’re invited in. The Color of Lost Rooms (Blue Rooster Press) is a captivating look at the real and the imagined, a moment from history stolen and pinned inside of a page.

Irene is the kind of poet that all aspiring poets should talk to—she has published over 170 poems in various journals and anthologies, as well as two poetry books and one novel. Her new novel, Don’t Feed the Boy (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan), will be available later this year. Her first poetry collection, What Came Before (Negative Capability Press), was awarded the Alabama State Poetry Society’s Book of the Year, her first novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend (G.P. Putnam's Sons), won the Alabama Library Association’s 2011 Children’s Book Award, and The Color of Lost Rooms holds the distinction of winning the 19th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Prize for Poetry. Irene also serves as the Poetry Editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal.

I had the opportunity to chat with Irene before and after her reading, and she was kind enough to share some wonderful insights about writing and publishing, from both sides of the submission deadline.


I read on your website that even as a young girl you wanted to be a writer, yet you never took a writing class while you were in college. Instead, you pursued an education in social work. What led you on that path, and how has that knowledge helped you as a writer? 

While my parents were very encouraging of my writing, they also encouraged me to be practical. I’ll never forget my father saying, “you need to have a job in your back pocket.” So I chose the oh so lucrative field of social work. And even though I don’t currently practice social work, what I learned in those classes still informs my writing today – family dynamics! communication! dysfunctional relationships! It’s what great stories are made of.


Have you since taken any courses on craft and writing?

I was a closet writer for many years, just writing for my own pleasure, and didn’t really feel the urge to publish until I was the busy mom of three boys. I loved being a mom, but I craved something that was just mine. And when I looked around my house, all I saw were stacks of paper overflowing my counters and spilling out of my drawers. So I enrolled in a community education class at UAB on Freelance Writing for Magazines. And so my self-education began.

I tend to be a private writer – I’m protective of my process, so a lot of feedback, especially early in a project, is not good for me – and I never considered pursuing an MFA. I’ve always been kind of stubborn and wanted to do it my own way. But I have found writing conferences – particularly ones sponsored by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – to be of tremendous value both in terms of teaching craft and for learning the publishing end. I’ve also attended writing conferences sponsored by Alabama Writers Conclave, Mississippi Writers Guild and others. I adore books on craft, and love how the internet has all sorts of suggested remedies, whether I’m struggling with character development or plotting or how (and where) to submit a collection of poems.

The key for me has been to write and write and write. I know a number of writers who attend all the best writing classes and conferences, yet don’t invest the same amount of time actually practicing what they’ve been taught. For me, the most important learning has happened when it’s just me and my computer in a room.


You traveled a lot as a child and also as an adult. Which of your destinations has spoken the loudest to your inner muse?

The thing about having a vagabond heart is that you can’t possibly choose one destination over another. They all speak to me. In fact, it’s one of the things I struggle with. I feel pulled in a lot of different directions. I’ve had to train myself to stay put, to see one journey through before embarking on another. Right now I am exploring the weeks during my childhood that were spent at my grandparent’s orange grove in Polk County, Florida. My muse, in general, seems to be a nature-loving gal who enjoys romantic, rural landscapes.


Your book, The Color of Lost Rooms, features several ekphrastic poems. Is there a particular genre of art that you find inspires you more than others, and how do you approach the process of turning a visual object into a poem on a page?

I really enjoy the interaction of the arts and am constantly inspired by other media – film, visual art, textiles, nonfiction, nature. If it makes me feel something, I want to write about it, must write about it. I actually give a whole lecture on how this process works for me. It involves moving beyond simple description and often requires research. Then it becomes an exercise in empathy, and finally an imaginative leap. It’s about putting oneself inside the painting or film or whatever and making those very personal connections.


How did you come to be poetry editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal? How do you think the experience has made you a better poet?

A poem of mine appeared in the inaugural issue of Birmingham Arts Journal, and I was so thrilled with the publication and the folks running it – especially editor Jim Reed. I started hanging around, volunteering to promote the magazine, and eventually, when the first poetry editor moved on to other things, Jim invited me to take over the position. I’ve been there ever since and love meeting and working with the poets who submit their work for publication. The job helps me better evaluate my own work, and I am often inspired by the poems that find their way to me.

Sometimes you have hundreds of submissions to read through for the journal. How would you characterize what makes one poem stand out from all the others, and what is the greatest weakness you've noticed in the poems that aren't selected?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was this: It’s more important to be different than better. This is certainly true when one is selecting poems to fill such limited space. I will choose a less polished piece over a heavily worked one any day, if the poem is fresh and gives me something unexpected. I really want to be surprised, and I really want to feel something when I read a poem. The biggest weakness I see in submissions is when poets settle for the early images that come to their minds (and everyone else’s mind) and not digging deeper for that astonishing observation or analogy.


Do you ever stop revising your poems?

Perfectionism is the enemy of any creative pursuit. It’s important to understand that work can only be done in stages. It takes time. So I revise long enough to get a poem in shape to submit for publication – and then later, often after publication, find ways to improve it.  Sometimes I stop revising and abandon poems not because they can’t be any better -- simply because I can’t make them any better yet. At which point I move on to the next poem, and the next. Growth requires movement. Each writer has to find her own balance.


Can you tell us a bit about your new novel, Don't Feed the Boy? How did you research the zoo setting? 

I’m so excited about this book! I remember the moment I got the idea: I was in a bookstore with my father (an avid reader – he reads a book a day!) over the Christmas holidays. I had been thinking about how we adults have these passions, but what happens when our children don’t share them? So I said out loud to my father, “how ‘bout a story about a boy whose parents are zoo people, and he feels like he was born the wrong species, and he wants to escape the zoo?”  My dad laughed, which was a very encouraging sign!

Soon after, Whit was born. The book is really about finding the place where you belong in the world, finding your very own passion and being strong and brave enough to go after that thing, whatever it may be.

Research included a lot of reading zoo veterinarian and zoo director biographies, interviews and trips to the zoo as well as drawing upon my own experience training as a teen zoo volunteer at the Birmingham Zoo.


Where to go from here:

For more information on Irene Latham or to order one of her books, visit her website at http://www.irenelatham.com/index.html.

Intersted in submitting to the Birmingham Arts Journal? Visit http://www.birminghamartsjournal.com/index.html.