Iris Jamahl Dunkle, author of “Interrupted Geographies”

In Your Next Beach Read, we want to introduce you to a new author every day in June in the hopes that you’ll find the next book you want to take with you to the beach, the pool, or the comforts of air conditioning.

Today’s author is Iris Jamahl Dunkle, author of Interrupted Geographies.

What’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Iris Jamahl Dunkle and I am from a small town in Northern California called Sebastopol.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

18 - Iris Jamahl Dunkle author photoI’ve been writing as long as I can remember. It’s all I would do in school (instead of the school work I was supposed to be doing), but I never knew that what I was doing was anything but weird until I visited Jack London State Park on a school field trip in 6th grade and saw that you could have a life as a writer.

Who are some of your influences?

The collected works of Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin and Jean Valentine. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, Susan Briante’s Utopia Minus, Gertrude Stein’s Bee Time Vine and Tender Buttons.

What is your book about?

Interrupted Geographies is a book that asks what it costs to build a community without a foundation. It explores the forgotten history of Pithole, Pennsylvania from 1865-67. Pithole was America’s first oil boom town that legend has it survived only 500 days before it burned to the ground. With wells grossing $1,000,000 a day, Pithole was a place of great wealth and great destitution, a place where girls, some as young as eleven, were forced into sexual slavery. The poems of this collection also explore the interrupted geography of becoming a mother, and the displacement one feels living in a community built on beliefs one can’t understand.

Where did you get the idea?

I got the idea when I started working at Clarion University, in a small town called Oil City. The winters were cold and as a Californian it was rough, so I spent a lot of time in the library’s special collections. One day I stumbled upon a book called, The History of Pithole and I couldn’t resist. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find out more about a town called Pithole? It’s history was fascinating: young boys sleeping in the derricks trying to strike it rich, millionaires making as much money as fast as possible, a strong madame and her sidekick who was a six foot four strongman and the young girls who got tricked into becoming prostitutes. Once I read about them I just really needed to tell their story.

How long did it take you to finish it?

The book took a three years to write and edit.

Is this your first book, or have you written more than one?

18 - Iris Jamahl Dunkle book coverThis is my third book of poetry. My first two, Gold Passage (2013) and There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (2015) focused much more on exploring (and disrupting the accepted narrative) of the history of where I am from (Sonoma County).

We all like to write about people we know, even if we never name them. Who are some people who inspired characters or situations?

This book is inspired by the real people who lived in Pithole between 1865-67.

What’s your favorite scene in the book?

My favorite scene is “The Ballad of Widow Rickets” which tells the story of how the town’s washerwoman discovered oil in her well the night after she used all of her water to put out a fire at a nearby brothel. She and the former prostitutes turned her washing business into an oil business and found enough oil to buy their way out of Pithole.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

Denise Duhamel once told me that the best way to make it as a writer was to just keep writing. She said that many people from her MFA program were incredibly talented, but they stopped writing after a while and that she never stopped. What she said didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but as the years passed and I kept writing, and others that I got my MFA with did not, I started to understand what she meant. If you are committed to your writing and open to the long game you’ll find your way in the writing world.

What’s the worst?

The worst advice I ever got was from one of my first writing instructors. She told me that it wasn’t worth it to write poetry and that it was almost impossible to become a professor. Of course, her advice just made me want to prove her wrong.

Where can we buy your book?

You can buy my book on Amazon.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Interrupted Geographies, published by Trio House Press, is her third collection of poetry. It was featured as the Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection for July 2017. Her other books include: Gold Passage (2013) and There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (2015). Her work has been published in Tin House, San Francisco Examiner, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet’s Market, Women’s Studies and Chicago Quarterly Review.

Her biography on Charmian London, Jack London’s wife will be published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2020.  Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. You can learn more about her at IrisJamahlDunkle.com.

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