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Q&A with Poetry Contributor Shavahn Dorris-Jefferson

Shavahn Dorris-Jefferson’s poetry has appeared in Salamander, The Baltimore Review, Río Grande Review, and Sugar House Review, among others. She’s an English instructor and lives in Joliet, IL.

Shavahn’s poem “Summer in Chicago” will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Tuesday, October 2, for special savings and discounts.

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Chicago sets the scene for “Summer in Chicago.” What is the importance of Chicago in your life and in your craft?

My husband grew up in the projects of Chicago while I grew up on “the bad side of town” in the suburbs. His inner-city ghetto, however, was far more dangerous and traumatizing than my suburban ghetto—so much so that his memory of growing up in the projects is full of holes. For instance, he can remember shootings but not what his apartment looked like. These gaps in his memory puzzle and intrigue me, and many of my poems seek to imagine what he cannot remember.

In addition, having family that live and work in the city and being a frequent visitor myself, I’m very concerned about the devastating violence in Chicago. My husband works in and around Hyde Park, and I do worry about his safety. But there’s another part to the city that isn’t shown on the news. Chicago is full of regular people trying to make a good life in the middle of what probably feels like a warzone sometimes. They go to work, love their families, and grieve their losses just like everyone else. So my work seeks to challenge the prevailing negative narrative and explore that other reality as well.

Which writers would you say most influenced your craft?

Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split has been one of the most influential books I’ve read in the last few years. Finney’s work is the perfect blend of personal and public, narrative and social commentary, accessibility and inventiveness.

I also admire Natasha Tretheway, Patricia Smith, Sharon Olds, and Yusef Komunyakaa. I’m very interested in writing in form as well, and I love the work of A.E. Stallings, who does some very modern things with traditional forms.

What would you like your audience to know of you?

I want my audience to know that I don’t think of myself as a poet’s poet. I want to write poetry that speaks to a broad audience—people who like poetry and people who think they don’t. I’m less worried about whether my poetry will be read in 100 or 200 years and more concerned with people reading it now.

If you were to publish a collection of every poem you’ve ever written, what would it be titled and what narratives would be found within?

I’d probably never publish a collection of every poem I’ve ever written. Much of what I’ve written in the past is not what I’m writing now, which is much less self-focused. When I first started writing I did what many writers do and talked about my feelings and myself most of the time. A lot of navel-gazing. I’m trying to get away from that. I think we all write from our personal experiences, but there is a way to do so that also acknowledges that we are shaped by social, political, cultural, religious, and economic forces outside of ourselves.

Which themes do you commonly explore within your writing? Which voices do you strive to embolden and/or hush?

Family, race, and religion are themes that show up again and again in my work. Those are the things I think about the most. It’s important to me to embolden marginalized voices in my work. I’m especially interested in elevating women’s voices, people of color, and those who might not normally read poetry or be the subject of a poem.