Catching Up with 2020 Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize Winner Daniel Schonning

November 2, 2020 | blog, interviews, news

Daniel Schonning is the poetry winner of the 2020 Crazyhorse Prizes contest. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Puerto del Sol, Guesthouse, and elsewhere. He studies and teaches in Colorado, where he is currently working on a book of abecedarians.

CH: How would you describe yourself as both a person and a writer?

DS: Like the rest of us, I think I’m still in the process of figuring out what kind of writing I want to do. One of the lovely things about poetry—in my experience—is the way it exceeds the person at work with it, and so new and untested modes and methods of writing continue to feel like the most fertile ground. I’ve been delighting lately in forms both inherited and innovated—”Aleph with all, all with Aleph” mixing both.

CH: What first drew you to writing poetry? What writers have most influenced your work?

DS: I’ve read and written poetry since I was young. More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to work closely and for longer periods of time with some extraordinary writers. In particular, the poets Geoffrey Babbitt, Dan Beachy-Quick, Kathryn Cowles, Camille T. Dungy, and Mary Ruefle gave so generously of their time and showed me what it means to live and work as an artist. Each is that rare affecting kind of influence both personal and professional. Of other contemporary poets, I’ve lately been especially enamored with Kazim Ali, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Claudia Rankine, Donald Revell, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Diane Seuss—to name a few.

CH: What did the writing process for “Aleph with all, all with Aleph” look like? What were your goals in writing it?

DS: I spent more time writing “Aleph with all, all with Aleph” than any poem before. The manuscript from which it’s taken is concerned foremost with the alphabet. Twenty-six of the project’s poems are abecedarians, wherein the left margin advances through the alphabet—one poem beginning each line with “a” through “z,” the next “b” through “a,” etc.—while the pieces themselves otherwise vary in form and focus. This gesture owes its metaphysical spine to such texts as the Sefer Yetzirah, which offers—in a Jewish mystic framework—a precise and profound relationship between the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and world that they inhabit. It’s in this thinking that “Aleph with all, all with Aleph”—despite operating outside of the abecedarian form—proceeds in terza rima through twenty-two iterations of rhyme. In this and all the pieces on which I’ve been working lately, my goal is for the poem to apprentice itself to the essential medium of letters, to listen to and learn from the systems and symmetries found therein.

CH: This poem is brimming with stunning and memorable imagery. Are there any moments or images that you wanted to include but that didn’t quite fit?

DS: After first completing “Aleph with all, all with Aleph,” I did have a lot of material left over. As the work operates within some tight syllabic and formal constraints, there were lots of images and lines that didn’t quite fit, or worked against the momentum that I tried to put together here. Most of those excess moments went back into the compost pile, then grew into a sibling poem called “Proteus of Egypt” that closes the manuscript—which I hope will be in the world soon.

CH: What project are you working on next?

DS: Having just finished my MFA, I think I’ll be tinkering with this manuscript—built out from my final thesis—for the foreseeable future. The more time I study at the feet of the letter, it feels, the more it has to say.

CH: Have you read anything recently that you just can’t stop thinking about?

DS: I just attended an online reading for, among other brilliant poets and projects, Kathryn Cowles’ Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World—out this year from Milkweed Editions—and it’s put a whole new lens over the world. The book is delightfully multimedia—with visual collages and lots of variation within the lyric—and so calls on its reader to rethink the relationship between word and image, signifier and thing signified. It’s a transfixing read, and its movements through space and time continue to let me feel less cooped up during these claustrophobic days.

Submissions for the 2021 Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize open on January 1st 2021.

Submit your poems here:

Poets may submit 1-3 poems. Winners receive $2,000 and publication. All entries will be considered for publication, and more than one manuscript may be entered. Before you submit, please remove your name and any other identifying information from your manuscript. Simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you contact us should the work be accepted elsewhere. The $20 entry fee includes a one-year subscription to Crazyhorse.