Ask a Poet: Ellen Hagan

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Ellen Hagan.

Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. Her latest collection of poetry, Hemisphere, was published by Northwestern University Press, Spring 2015. Ellen’s poems and essays can be found on, in the pages of Creative Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty (edited by Caroline Kennedy), Huizache, Small Batch, and Southern Sin. Her first collection of poetry, Crowned was published by Sawyer House Press in 2010. She is Director of Poetry & Theatre Programs at DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan and South Korea. Ellen is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, Conjure Women, and is co-founder of the girlstory collective. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City.

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Hagan_Headshot_BWWhat is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

There is a big misconception out there that you can’t make a living being a poet, or that you will go broke following the path of poetry. That’s simply not true. The poets I know curate their lives in beautiful and thrilling ways. They travel the world, they craft brilliant collections of poetry, they teach in community centers, colleges, they edit books, they jump genres and write novels, screenplays, young adult books. They have families, they have massive communities – they make their work. It is possible to do what you love and be both financially and creatively successful. You just have to create the best path for you – and figure out the kind of life you want – and how to build that vision. It’s all possible!

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?

I absolutely loved poetry in high school. I went to the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts – a summer arts intensive program, and was taught by my mentor, and now friend: Kelly Norman Ellis, who exposed all of us to poets such as: The Affrilachian Poets, Nikky Finney, June Jordan and Jayne Cortez, to name a few. We were exposed to poetry as a way to define our identity, a way to speak back to the world, confront injustices, write our hearts, craft what mattered most to us, and do the work. My high school experience was transformative because of poetry. I always say it saved me. It gave me a home to harness all of my feelings – it gave me the space to explore who I was and who I wanted to be in the world.

Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?

Read and travel and celebrate life. I think the best way to engage with poetry is to witness it all around us. Poetry is on our bus routes, on the train, in the cup of coffee we order at the diner. It’s hanging out after school, it follows us home. It dances and spins – poetry can be found everywhere, so it’s just finding new ways for young people to open their eyes – and finding ways to capture that spirit and energy – with words.

Do you have a favorite spot in Newark? A park, restaurant, open mic venue, etc.?

Lower Broadway! I did a Dodge Poet visit to Barringer STEAM High School in April, and walked from the train station. I ended up on Lower Broadway early in the morning, and was blown away by all of the brilliant murals on the gates covering the stores. There was so much joy and celebration – such color and expression. The whole city feels energized and alive to me. I love that Newark supports the arts – and they have a way to honor that in such a real and vivid way.

What are you currently reading?

I just re-read The Panther and the Lash by Langston Hughes. I used it years ago to find poems for a 2nd grade residency through The Community~Word Project, and saw it again. I wanted to revisit those poems. I also recently joined the board of the I, Too Arts Collective, a non-profit based in the home of Langston Hughes, founded by Renée Watson. I love being in Langston’s House – there is such brilliant creative energy there! It’s such a perfect home for poets and artists. I also recently read Beasts Behave in Foreign Land by Ruth Irupé Sanabría. She’s such a lyrical and socially engaged poet. Her collections stay with me – I can’t wait to teach some of the poems during the school year.

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