Instead of a regular blog post this week, we invite you to check out our Faculty Spotlight. Here, we ask one of our MFA faculty members questions concerning their career, craft, and quirks.
For this edition, we chatted with Dr. Ephraim Scott Sommers about his writing and future works. Author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, Ephraim is a recent and welcome addition to UCF’s graduate faculty, as well as a talented singer, songwriter, and poet.
Where can we find your work?
My first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, is out this month from Tebot Bach Press, and you can order a signed copy of that here: www.ephraimscottsommers.com/contact.
Or you can get a copy from my press directly here: www.tebotbach.org.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I came to poetry by way of music. I grew up listening to my mother singing in church and my father singing in rock bands at festivals. As a singer-songwriter myself in addition to being a poet, I’ve always been moved by the sound of words as much as I’ve been moved by their meaning, by music’s ability to literally move the bodies of the people in the room, and by poetry’s ability to move people emotionally and imaginatively. When I watch a wonderful poet like Ilya Kaminsky read/sing, there is a way in which I like to float around in the scene the words on the page are creating as much as I enjoy floating around in the sonic quality of the words as Ilya sings them. Maybe that space he creates is somehow outside of time and outside of body, and that’s why it’s so alluring? I’m still uncertain, but I write poems and songs because I want to spend as much time in that space as possible.
How does teaching influence your writing process?
At all times, in a poem, in my teaching, and in my life, I seek to be a constant engine of energy. I want to keep the students engaged just as I want to keep the reader bounding actively through a poem. At the same time, UCF creative writing students are brilliant, diverse, energetic, and fierce, and I so hope I am influencing them in their writing lives half as much as they are inspiring mine.
In addition, on my reading list, I try to teach mostly work by People of Color, work by writers from the LGBTQ community, and work by women all published in the last five years. These are the writers that are pushing the art forward in the most interesting ways. Their work pushes students and myself to be at the forefront both in our art and in our thinking about the world and our place in it.
If you could only share one piece of writing advice to our readers, what would it be?
Writing, if you are serious about doing it well, is not a hobby. It is a nine-to-five job, and you must treat it that way. My father worked as a big-rig auto mechanic six days a week for about forty years. He was never able to wake up and say, “I’m not feeling inspired to change truck tires today. I think I’ll watch Netflix.” If he did, my family wouldn’t have been able to eat. The same goes for my mother who worked six days a week as a small business owner and three nights a week as an accountant on the side. In the same way, as a writer, you have to get up and go to work whether or not you “feel” like it. My parents worked damn hard so that I could pursue higher education, and I’m doing them a disservice if I don’t push myself to be better at my craft the same way they did. I guess what I’m saying is this: find a way to stay diligent and motivated.
What has been your favorite piece you’ve read in the last month?
I’ll list a few. Karankawa by Iliana Rocha. Energy Corridor by Glenn Shaheen. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman. On Not Screaming by Eloisa Amezcua. Two-Headed Boy by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee. Recombinant by Ching-In Chen. Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last by Justin Boening. All the Proud Fathers by Dan Mancilla. The New Testament by Jericho Brown. The Dead Wrestler Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko. Island Folks by Dustin Hyman. And my good buddy Franklin KR Cline, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, is working on a polyphonic audio poem that is going to blow some minds when it’s released. I can’t wait!
What projects are you currently working on?
When asked this question, I often side with Bob Dylan who said, “When you tell somebody your hopes and dreams, you better make sure they love you like a brother or your dreams and hopes probably won’t come true.” The idea, I think, as I interpret it, is that if you speak a piece of art to life too soon (as in, before its finished, when it’s still a dream), you run the risk of killing it. What I am working on currently isn’t really ready for the light yet.
Can we find you in the world of social media and do you have an author website?
Author Website: www.ephraimscottsommers.com
Musician Website: www.reverbnation.com/ephraimscottsommers
Who do you trust to read your work before submitting?
Dustin Hyman, Franklin KR Cline, Glenn Shaheen, Nancy Eimers, Ann Reilly, and Michael Marberry are people I trust and refer to when I feel that a poem isn’t certain about what it wants to be yet, or if I’m taking a new risk in a poem that for some reason isn’t paying off, or a poem deals with a subject matter I don’t know enough about. My blind spots are vast and deep, and I need good friends/critics to slap me in the face when I’m acting like a fool. Rachel Kincaid, a writer and activist from the LGBTQ community always reminds me, “We don’t need allies, we need accomplices!” Writing aside, I need people in my life like Rachel and the people I’ve listed above because they inspire me to be a better human than I am.
If you could be anywhere in the world and write, where would it be?
My perfect writing space would be a library full of poetry books and jazz/soul/funk records with a 24-hour, all-you-can eat buffet in the center. There would certainly be dancing. There would certainly be an open mic event like the one we’ve recently started monthly at the campus bookstore on Wednesdays at UCF with the Cypress Dome Society.
What writer would you want to chat with (alive or dead)?
I would love to take shots of vodka with the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s wife. Because Osip was an enemy of the state under the Stalin regime and was constantly on the run, he never wrote any of his poems down. He composed by memory and memorized them all. That the poems survived for us to read today is a testament to the strength of Nadezhda, who also memorized his poems and later wrote them all down from memory for the world to read. Perhaps she is the real hero in this story? Despite he and his wife’s terrifying situation (Osip was killed in a labor camp), Osip found a way to be joyful in his poems. While it should be noted that fascism killed a brilliant poet, I still believe kindness and joy are the best weapons we have against fascism as long as you pair them with direct action that makes a lot of noise.
A singer-songwriter and poet from Atascadero, California, Ephraim Scott Sommers is the author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (February 2017), winner of the 2016 Patricia Bibby First Book Award from Tebot Bach Press. Recent poems have been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. Ephraim currently lectures full time on the graduate creative writing faculty at University of Central Florida and lives with his fiancé in Orlando.