"Required reading" for today's smart writer.

"Required reading" for today's smart writer.
Information & inspiration to hone your craft and increase your cash...Since 2009

Friday, April 30, 2021

Meet Highland Park Poetry's Founder Jennifer Dotson


Hi, Jennifer.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Happy National Poetry Month.

Q. Can you tell readers a little about who you are and your professional background?

A. I earned a B.A. in English Literature/Theatre Arts from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an M.F.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia. I moved from the DC area to Chicago expressly for the vibrant storefront theatre scene. My trajectory in my youth was clear – I wanted to perform on the stage. It wasn’t until marriage and family that my creative direction detoured to writing and poetry.

Q. How long have you been penning poetry?

A. I credit my visual artist friend, Cathi Schwalbe, for nudging me towards poetry in the late 90’s. She was organizing an outdoor art exhibit in the small park across from her home and was inviting poets to write responses to the art work. She contacted me because she knew that I wrote plays. When I explained that I’d never written poetry before, she said, “That’s alright, it’s just word art.” Her invitation and permission to play were just the push I needed. Not long after, there was a horrifying case in the news about a mother who smothered her children. I was a new mother at the time and was very upset by this story. Writing a poem about it helped me process this painful narrative.

Q. How would you describe your writing style?

A. My friend Arlyn Miller is the founder of Poetic License Press and she says that she looks for work that is accessible, honest and engaging. I’ve always liked that statement and hope that my work is all those things with a tendency towards humor.

Q. What prompted you to launch HIGHLAND PARK POETRY? Do you publish the works of non-residents as well?

A. Writing poetry can be a very personal and isolating experience. I started Highland Park Poetry as a way of creating a poetry community.  I launched the website in January 2007 and invited poets I found published in a local journal and by word of mouth to a small series of readings and events for April’s Poetry Month. Since then, it has grown and expanded to a year-round endeavor with events, contests, workshop, publication opportunities and more. Writers from all over the United States and the world are welcome to share poetry. Our recent 2021 Poetry Challenge included many submissions from the United Kingdom, even Australia and Korea.

Q. How would you define good poetry?

A. Someone close to me once took a graduate course in poetry where the professor said that some of the best poetry is when you read it, you feel as though you could have written it yourself. I like that idea that the reader so strongly connects to the words and images that the experience is as if the poem emerged from reader’s own brain. 

Q. What inspires you to write? Do you tend to be more prolific in times of grief or joy?

A. I’m not a particularly prolific poet – I don’t wake up every morning and write a poem. Prompts and deadlines are my biggest motivators. I facilitate poetry writing workshops through the Highland Park Public Library’s Library U! program. I choose exercises, forms and sparks that I would like to try myself. This on-the-spot writing with others and a timer is good generator for me. Later after the session, typing out my handwritten notes is where my work gets polished or set aside.

I know many writers found inspiration during the pandemic – that writing poetry about the experience was enormously helpful and cathartic for them. Oddly enough, I felt rather blocked. Perhaps the fear and anxiety felt too large and too close.  I couldn’t wrap my arms around it.

Q. Do you have a favorite piece or collection of your work thus far? 

A. I have two collections of poetry – Clever Gretel received the Journal of Modern Poetry Book Award and was published by Chicago Poetry Press in 2013. Late Night Talk Show Fantasy and Other Poems was published by Kelsay Books in 2020 – not a very good year to launch a book.  There are pieces in both collections that I feel strongly about but no favorites. I’ve also got poems that are telling me they need their own book, too.

Q. How do you know when a poem is really “finished”?

A. At some point, it feels right. And you take a chance and send it off to a literary journal or online zine.  Even then, you might look at it many months (or more) later and see something that you want to fix or change to make it better.

Q. Who are some of your literary influences?

A. I’m a big fan of Denise Duhamel’s work. I think first stumbling onto her book Kinky Barbie opened my eyes to what was permissible in poetry. Also, I’ve long been an admirer of Kay Ryan. She is definitely the master of creating impact in a compact package. Her poems are like Faberge eggs.

Q. Anything else you’d like to share?

A. Highland Park Poetry is currently accepting poems for our Summer Muses’ Gallery on Shoes. The deadline is May 17. Poems should not exceed 30 lines; previously published is okay with acknowledgment. Send up to 5 poems in an email text to Jennifer @highlandparkpoetry.org. 


With the pandemic, Highland Park Poetry publishes daily poem posts on our Facebook page – these later appear on the website as well. Since last March, we’ve posted poems about the pandemic or poems about endurance or that inspire calm or joy. Send up to 5 poems in an email text to Jennifer @highlandparkpoetry.org. Shorter poems preferred.

Lastly, Highland Park Poetry is always seeking volunteers to read and review poetry books. Reviews are short, 500 – 750 words. Likewise, if you have a collection published within the past two years, I will add your title to my list of books in search of a volunteer reviewer.

Be sure to check out www.HighlandParkPoetry.org. We typically announce our annual poetry challenge contest in October.

It‘s been a pleasure.

Image credit: 

Author photo/Martha Abelson Photography

Book cover: 

Sue Cargill



  1. Great interview. It's nice to meet Jennifer D.! Thanks for the introduction, Jen B. :) Thought this line was particularly interesting:

    "...that some of the best poetry is when you read it, you feel as though you could have written it yourself."

    Even though I don't fancy myself a poet, it rings true. Wishing both Jennifers much success!

  2. Thanks so much, Karen. We appreciate your time and thoughtful comment here.

  3. Thanks for the "introduction" to Highland Park Poetry. Looking forward to your next post.

  4. Thank you for the feedback. Much appreciated.