The Poet as Activist: A conversation with northwest poet Jeremy Voigt

March 23, 2012

Jeremy Voigt is a northwest poet and his first chapbook Neither Rising Nor Falling was published by Finishing line Press in 2009. I was able to catch up with Jeremy Voigt at Village Books in Bellingham on a Friday evening to talk about his exciting new project– the non-profit Conversations Across Borders.

Conversations Across Borders was born out of an afternoon conversation with former WWU classmate Jordan Hartt in Port Townsend about the current state of literature and elitism. An idea was hatched to start an online journal that would make literature more accessible while supporting charitable work that advances literacy in areas that needed it most. As stated on the website, “The project has a mission to connect and support readers and writers around the world through the CAB Literary Journal and the Conversations Across Borders (CAB) project that pairs writers from around the world on collaborative writing experiences.”

Both creators invested their own time and money into the website and journal creation and have sought out project partners. Subsequently, a private donor has made a substantial contribution to infrastructure that will help with e-publishing, website organization and journal distribution. “It is growing faster than we imagined, it is so exciting.” They now have an official advisory board and will be donating quarterly to four project sites, ranging from an alternative school for impoverished children in Haiti to an Indigenous bilingual/bicultural school in Australia.

The CAB project will begin publishing their work from the first round of writing pairs this spring. Currently, Hartt is writing a short story with a writer from Ghana while Voigt is co-creating a poem with a New Zealand poet. The next round of this project will be starting soon and is open to anyone eager to participate in this dynamic project.

In the future they hope to develop writer-in-school opportunities in the regions that they are funding. On the website, readers can buy individual pieces, journal editions or year-long subscriptions. Submissions are ongoing, open to all subject matters and genres and Voigt says that they are receiving on average three submissions a day.

In addition to being a poet Voigt is also an upper-level English teacher at Burlington-Edison High School where he teaches a range of classes from Creative Writing to AP English to Heroic and Epic Literature. He is also an English faculty member at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham.

When asked when he started writing he quoted William Stafford, “Why did the other people stop?” Voigt was fortunate to have three published poets on staff at Gig Harbor High School and they encouraged his writing. Voigt received his undergraduate degree from Western Washington University with a focus in creative writing and went on to complete his MFA in Poetry from Bennington College in Vermont. At WWU he had many great teachers, such as Kathleen Halme, and was engaged in writing and actively involved in the Bellingham Review as a reader and web designer.

While in the Bennington MFA program, he made five pilgrimages out to Vermont for the residency workshops and found the intensity, immersion and direct experience with faculty (1:5 ratio of teachers to students) and fellow students invaluable. He stays in touch with many of his peers from this program who are also published poets. “We had an amazing group and I feel like I am constantly hearing news about someone’s new poem or book.”

When he is not engaging his students or reviewing pieces for CAB, Voigt has his hands full with family–he lives in Bellingham with his wife, a former English teacher, and their children (ages 2, 4 and 6).

I had to ask him how he finds time to write a midst the family life, teaching and community organizing. He says he writes early, before most people are awake and his dedication to this writing time helps him to keep it all in perspective. He has several manuscripts in progress and is actively submitting his work.

Read Jeremy’s poem “One Night”, which was featured on the Writer’s Almanac. We are excited to have him at the festival this year.