Habiba Warren: When did you first start writing? Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
Michele Randall: I wrote really awful poetry as a kid—I think because I was trying to process my world and because I was a reader. I was the student with a novel inside the math book, the history book. The student who procrastinated on all other homework just to read. After high school, I charmed my way into working for a lawyer. Transcribing his dictation taught me how to argue, how to structure sentences for power and effect. I had no idea what I was learning at the time; I was just trying to make rent. He was a gifted orator and writer, and after a few years his dictation shortened to, “Write up a demand letter on such-and-such case.” I was so used to his style, his syntax, and how to transfer the details of each case into persuasion, that I no longer needed him to spell out every word. Almost like immersion language learning. By the time I went to college, an argument paper was easy.
Initially, I declared Psychology as my major, but Intro to Psych changed my mind. I walked into the English Department and asked, “What English Degree can I get where I can actually earn a living?” They introduced me to Technical Writing. Obviously, there are many careers that are enriched by a degree in English (Technical Writing, Creative Writing, Literature) —think about how much critical thought is required to analyze and competently discuss literature and poetry, how the contextual environment can change the value of a sentence or line, how history or one event changes the current interpretation of a given phrase. Think about how all of that weighs in with what we write, too. What job doesn’t need those skills? What surprises me now, sometimes, are moments that show me nothing is wasted: the Psychology class, the years as a legal secretary, the high school Creative Writing class. All of it folds into the writers we become.
HW: You currently teach Poetry, Fairy Tales, & Personal Essay at Stetson University. Describe your personal journey to this role, including any tips you have for aspiring writers who want to teach their craft.
MR: Be willing to work for almost nothing, just because you love it. Ask, even if what you want doesn’t exist yet. Be courageous. Volunteer for community workshops. Learn from every class or teaching opportunity.
I would not have chosen academia, but I was offered a GTA position to teach Composition & Rhetoric in exchange for a full tuition waiver and enough pay to cover books and childcare. Of course I said yes, and fell into a career I now can’t imagine leaving. Something I wasn’t expecting when I got the job at Stetson was the freedom to design my own classes. They encourage innovation in the classroom, and I can focus classes on literature I love: Fairy Tales, Poetry, Personal Essay, & Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction. Any time I am asked to consider putting together a new class, it will have some connection to these genres because there are still things I want to explore and discover within each of them. When I become bored with texts, I change books or add a new direction of questioning.
Students pick up on your curiosity and passion for learning something new. Most writers I know can name the professors who brought their own curiosity into the classroom as an invitation to co-create knowledge. One of my favorite examples of this is from a Fairy Tales class a few years ago. I assigned a story that included three colors of wine: red, white, and yellow. We had a brief discussion about the symbolism of those particular colors in class. The next day, a student came in with a full history of the region in which the story was set. Its flag? Red, white, and yellow. The crest even included animals mentioned elsewhere in the story that we had not thought to question. I share that moment with students every semester. That’s why I’m fully invested in teaching.
HW: Who are your favorite authors and why?
MR: So many! My first serious study focused on Marie Howe, Li-Young Lee, and Yusef Komunyakaa, and they continue to influence my work. Howe’s long-lined couplets give a bit more narrative room in a line. Lee’s style of storytelling blends family lore with vivid imagery. Komunyakaa’s way of moving the reader physically through space during a poem is amazing and I love teaching “Facing It” every year for that very reason. We’re in front of the memorial, then on the surface of the granite, then inside, looking out, and he never once leaves us behind.
This year the two books I keep picking back up are Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith and Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey by Hayden Carruth. Smith is a master of unspooling a story. She starts with the title (the title!) and by the time I am into the poem, I cannot leave until the end. Sometimes I cannot breathe until I am done. My copy of Carruth’s work is marked up; I’ve read this book countless times with a pencil in hand. His poems access all of history and seamlessly blend things like taking a dog for a walk with Odysseus. I read the end and think, of course. HW: Talk about your background and how it has impacted your writing.
MR: I am a Navy brat raised in Jacksonville, FL, and honestly did not think I would ever attend college, much less be afforded the opportunity to study something I love. Growing up, I looked forward to trips to the library, bringing home stacks of books. I read for escape and I read for joy.
We moved from the west side of Jacksonville across town to Mandarin when I was in seventh grade. It took a long time to figure out what felt so cold and alien about the new place, where neighbors pulled into their garages in the evening, and out again in the morning. Our windows were always open in the old neighborhood, but everyone had A/C in Mandarin. Oddly enough, I feel the strongest sense of community where I currently live during hurricane cleanups. Everyone catches up wedding-funeral style—“Wow the kids have grown!” and “You’re a grandpa now?” Those moments remind me of what living with the windows open was like.
HW: Discuss any ways that being a woman/femininity/the female experience has informed what you write about/how you write about it/your personal writing journey.
MR: I am so excited about some of the opportunities afforded women today. I was part of a generation of women who had to take Home Economics instead of Woodshop. I lost count of the number of times I was taught how to host a wedding reception, but my heart was never in it.
People have told me that I’m selfish to pursue writing. One person asked me if I knew how lucky I was to spend so much time and money studying something “for fun.” Thankfully, a few mentors and friends kept step with me and encouraged me to keep going. I’m so grateful to them.
There is no way to separate my journey as a woman from my journey as a poet. My voice is tightly woven through my work—as a mom, spouse, caregiver, sister, daughter, teacher, friend, and writer.