Joy Priest

Joy Priest is the author of HORSEPOWER (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Prize, and her poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, APR, The Atlantic, and Poetry Northwest, among others. Her essays have appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Poets & Writers, ESPN, and The Undefeated, and her work has been anthologized in Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, The Louisville Anthology, A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South, and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. Priest has been a journalist, theater attendant, waitress, and fast-food worker in Kentucky and has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women. She is currently a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Joy Priest will be virtually visiting as a featured author for In Print 2021: Festival of First Books. The following is an interview with Priest. 

Describe writing your first book in 5 words.

I trusted my own vision.

What is your latest inspiration (book or otherwise)? 

I have a thing about inspiration. Sometimes I teach a workshop called, “The Failure of Inspiration.” I try not to rely on it because what will you do as a writer when you’re not feeling inspired? When the inspiration isn’t present? I rely more on attention and try to cultivate my attention by going on walks and meditating and so forth and keeping a line notebook from those activities.

But I can usually be inspired by music. Right now, I’m inspired by my friend who’s a writer who just has beautifully philosophical things to say and who recites poetry to me often. We’re both PhD students and Black, so we meet and talk regularly about poems and the challenges of institutional -isms in academia.

Do you have an ideal reader? How do you imagine them? 

I’m my own ideal reader. I read my work to myself and work on it until it sounds good to me. But I suppose, if I’m prompted to think about it, the readers I imagine when I’m writing would be those who share a culture and mythos with me, those for whom what I write does not need to be explained, but sounds like a song they are already familiar with—the speech, the idioms, the music, the allusions, the experiences, the perspective.

My ideal reader—on the other hand, which I will distinguish from a reader I might imagine—is someone who isn’t familiar with my perspective, but who allows their self to enter and inhabit my perspective, and from it, see something they can’t from their own.

What made you fall in love with writing and/or reading?

Well, I grew up in the early ‘90s. We didn’t have the internet. You had to figure out ways to occupy yourself. The most advanced video game system at the time was like Sega Genesis or Nintendo. I think, just naturally, books were a bigger part of kids’ lives back then, but then, for me in particular, my caretaker was an elderly person, there were books in the house, and he took me to the library every week. 

The other thing was, kids played outside a lot back then, and, on top of it, I was an only child. So, perhaps there was more of an opportunity to cultivate that attention to one’s surroundings that’s important for a writer—the act of noticing, being aware of the world around you, and how small you are in it. But your question smartly implies this relationship that was crucial to my trajectory as a writer: I was first and always a reader. I love to read. Naturally, I began to imitate.

What song or album best captures the aesthetic of your writing? 

I could give you a mixtape of songs—which, that reminds me, I still want to make a mixtape of the book on Spotify, so thanks for this question—but like ONE song or artist would be hard. The book’s epigraph is a song lyric from Valerie June. Her first album is pretty close. She’s from Tennessee and I’m from Kentucky, but those are our neighbors, so I think the sound is close to Bluegrass and also holds history and also is very Black at the same time. Black and country.

There are references to trains and working and other symbols of industry that the book is sort of getting at with “Horsepower,” which is meant to encapsulate not just horses but also muscle cars, and vehicles of the working-class, a measurement of industrial power, and mental fortitude. I hear all of that in Valerie June.

Advice for a rainy day? 

Open the windows and listen to the rain.

You can register to attend In Print 2021: Festival of First Books to hear Joy Priest at the virtual reading (March 23, 2021 at 7 PM) and hear more about her publishing experience at the virtual publishing panel (March 24, 2021 at 7 PM).