A Virtual Interview with Michelle Iskra

Michelle Iskra will be the featured reader Thursday, January 9. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Michelle Iskra earned an M. A. in English Literature from Texas State University and has taught English at both Austin Community College and Cedar Park High school for sixteen years. She’s a writer, painter, educational consultant, researcher, and lover of cats.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

MI: The first original story I remember writing down was about a stegosaurus named Tego in second grade, but I was always making up stories and annoying adults with them. Four wonderful, encouraging teachers were instrumental in my becoming a writer.

Reading was an important part of my daily life as a child. My first chapter book was Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince; I identified with the prince’s being marooned and alone in a foreign place. The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was also an early favorite. I wanted to write like these novelists, but had no idea how to go about it.

CH: What do you remember about your earliest encounters with poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a poet? 

MI: My grandmother on my mother’s side was very kind and attentive to me. She taught me to play the piano, to develop my own style, to appreciate the arts, and to take care of myself. She and I would write letters back and forth, and in mine I included poems from Wordsworth and Keats, T.S. Eliot, and many others. I loved their vivid imaginings and facility with language, fascinated by meter and rhyme and the beautiful economy of it all. I didn’t actually write any poetry until I was in high school. It was a shaky thing to actually call yourself a poet except to people who wouldn’t betray your confidence.

CH: How has your work as a painter influenced your perspective as a poet? Is that influence bidirectional?

MI: I learned to paint as a result of my efforts to grow closer to my elder son, who was 10 and taking art lessons at the time. I loved to draw, but when I tried painting, I was very disappointed with the result. I kept practicing because of him and eventually discovered that I could transcend my own ideas about what I was supposed to make. As I became what I think of as a receiver of the work I was doing, emptying my mind as I went about it, the work became exponentially better. This simultaneous detachment and connection through painting, and the simple practice of making art, improved my writing. Writing sends me back to the canvas. I can paint when I can’t write, and the opposite is also true. The experience is strange and wonderful.

CH: I imagine your schedule as an instructor at both Cedar Park High School and Austin Community College must be a hectic one. How do you balance your professional and creative lives?

MI: This is the fundamental challenge of creative people: how do you make a living while developing work? There have been semesters in which I’ve taught 9 classes between the two positions (a full time position is five). I was grumpy because I was tired all the time and wasn’t making any art. Even without the extra stress of such a semester, it’s a constant challenge to restrict the planning, reading, and paper marking to a particular number of hours per week so that I’m making art weekly, as well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but the necessary discipline is still a work in progress. 

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?

MI: I’m an introvert and need alone time every day to stay sane. I try to get outside as often as possible, seeking to avoid thinking about anything for a little while. Being in nature inspires me, as does reading and being around calm, intelligent, inquisitive people. I also love cooking and other creative processes. I’ve kept a journal for over twenty years, writing each morning as meditative practice. Working through thoughts, ideas, and feelings on the page helps make sense of them and provides material for poetry and other work.

CH: How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

MI: When you work with other people, especially in areas (like writing) where they naturally feel exposed and vulnerable, your own flaws also emerge. People are both complex and simple; all of us are revealing and hiding ourselves by turns. My students and mentees have influenced how and what I think, feel, and write about, gradually shaping my ideas about what needs to be said or implied, and what needs no mention. Compassion and empathy are important each time I write anything, but they can be hard to summon if I’m not making art and listening to myself.

CH: Who are three of your favorite poets to teach?

MI: Pablo Neruda, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Claude McKay are three of my favorites because they are so skilled, yet many students find them accessible. All of them have something important to say that needs to be heard, but each of them approach poetry in stylistically distinct ways. Students are constantly amazed that you can say so much, so beautifully and sometimes painfully, in so few words.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet?

MI: Rainer Maria Rilke broke the mold with what became Letters to a Young Poet, and his advice still rings true: be kind to all you meet for we are all fighting a hard battle, never stop practicing, and be courageous in facing your life. 

CH: What are you working on now?

MI: I’m working on two projects: the first (and most pressing) is a book on teaching poetry and poetic language in middle and high schools. The creation of poetry at those levels is regularly discussed, but analysis and interpretation is not. My students struggle to learn these skills in the one year I have them and I feel qualified to address the problem. I have plans to start a blog and podcast in support of it.

The second is a novel about family secrets and the problem of traditional Western power based on gender and race. 

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

MI: My writing group recently read aloud Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy, which was marvelously inventive; Robert Pinsky’s compilation, Essential Pleasures, has been a recent choice for classroom work, and I frequently reference poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, and the Library of Congress Poetry 180 project website.

A Virtual Interview with Natalia Trevino

ire’ne lara silva and Natalia Treviño will be the featured readers Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño is the author of the chapbook, VirginX, which was a finalist for the open chapbook contest with Finishing Line press. A professor of English at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, she was raised in a Spanish speaking household and learned English from Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. Her awards include the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the San Antonio Arts Foundation Literary Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for Poetry, the Menada Literary Award at the Ditet E Naimit (Dee-tet EH Nah-ee-mit) Poetry Festival in Macedonia, and several others. Her first book, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was a national and international awards finalist. Natalia’s poems appear in BordersensesBorderlandsThe Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and other journals and anthologies.

The Interview

CH: It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since we’ve shared this space. So I’d like to start by asking your thoughts about your writing life during this interval. What pieces have remained constant? What has changed, or ebbed and flowed?

NT: I also cannot believe it has been five years. So much has happened—to both of us. Since the last time I came to share this space, I’ve lost a parent, my father. It’s been a very difficult time. My writing sort of halted as I felt very deflated even though I know my work with the Virgin was spiritual preparation for something big. I didn’t think it would be that big or that close, but I knew I was on the verge of a loss of some sort. I imagined it was the loss of my beloved Tia Licha who I write about in my first book. She’d been such an inspiration to me and was a living connection to my grandmother, her big sister. That could be the only explanation for so much miracle, so much direct and divine intervention as I was diving into my study of her.

The loss of my father was completely unexpected. I was had lunch with him in my home on that last day of his. I had just come home from a trip abroad to study and write about the Virgin. I am just now getting back on track with my work with her and with my other projects. Grief is most definitely best understood through creativity. It has been a reflective time. Thankfully, my poetry group meets consistently, which means I churned out several new poems since then, but they are all over the place, about teaching, about my cat, about the chasm that is in my consciousness now in the world without my father. It has been a challenge.

CH: I read on your website (http://www.nataliatrevino.com) that you are working on a new collection of poems about Mary, and it was lovely to be able to read one of the poems (“Between Wings”). And contemporaneous with the 2nd Thursday reading in December, BookWoman will be having its annual Virgin Day Celebration in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.  Please tell us a little about how Mary resonates for you, and about the inspiration for this new project.

NT: Thank you for the kind words and the research, Cindy! And I’m thrilled the reading fits in with Virgin Day at BookWoman. It is such an honor to bring my poems about the Virgin to any audience because she is more than the mom of a really nice man who was crucified for being a really good guy, a spiritual coffee cup, waking people up about their inner lives and their socio-spiritual responsibilities. Among other things, Jesus told us we are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters, and he liked peace and humility, and a rule of law that was based on compromise and respect. He did not want us lusting after wealth or prizes or power. The realm within is what he was helping us to understand, but He also cared for the poor and for children, for marginalized people. Sadly, he’s been twisted into someone who represents the homophobic jerks who hoard wealth and funds illegal materialistic wars. He can’t be happy with his characterization and how he’s been pimped out by corrupt leaders because this claiming of him to justify war and pompous self-righteousness so contradicts the very simple sentences that he emphasized: live without sin. Sin is dicking over your friends, family, and community: dicking them is doing the same thing to God, and that’s not good. It is the worst form of self-harm.

The Virgin is a much bigger being than a saint or relative to Jesus, and not only because she was used to replace Tonantzin by the Catholics, and not only because she’s the symbol of Catholic purity, the Mother of Jesus, Blessed among women, but also because, like all women, she’s linked to us all genetically and is a reminder that yes, we actually are brothers and sisters. She is linked genetically to Mitochondrial Eve, the maternal ancestor to all living humans, and so are all of us.

There is a common factor in our shared genetic being, and all woman are the sacred portal to life through this ancestral communion with life, original human life. This is true especially for women, not only if we become mothers, to send that genetic message forward, but because we are from mothers, connected to the source no matter what our reproductive choices are. Being aware of our cosmic ancestry going back to Mitochondrial Eve is a portal to Life, and with the big L, I mean Spiritual Life: the awareness that we are all deeply connected to one another through one actual mother. How is the Virgin mixed in with this? That is the miracle. She is a once-human-body that has transcended humanity, as all of our ancestors have, and who I believe is aware of us and her own connection to the Spirit Mother-Father, what some will God, the Creator.

We all have the DNA from Mitochondrial Eve, and we would not be alive without it. This is passed only through the mother line. Our ancestral mother, the mother of all mothers lived 200,000 years ago according to a study from Rice University, and she’s alive in each of us, literally in our spit, semen, and eggs. She’s in our tear ducts! She’s in Mary’s DNA too, and the Creator Goddess (who else) built this system of people.

Our indigenous ancestors and family members already know this. The goddess, Mother of God, is the Origin of Life, and science says all life begins in the ocean, in water, which has almost the same rich saline solution as the salt in our first nest, the amniotic sac, which was at 2% saline. The ocean is 3%, but this is so interesting. Salt water is necessary for life, for birth, and somehow also necessary for all foods to grow so that plants, humans, and animals can survive. Fresh water is absolutely essential for all of these life forms too. How can we not pay attention to that when we talk about the Mother of God? She’s liquid. She’s in our many ducts, aware of us and calling for self-care and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is the message of the Son, right? The Santeria religion, which is a blend of Catholicism and West African Yoruba practices call have syncretized their water goddess Yemaya/ Yemoja with the Virgin as well.

Mary, La Virgen is, like all women, tapped into that enormous power, and represents that power so beautifully, as she’s the one who was chosen to be named the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. It’s in our DNA to connect to one another to assemble as a group, and many can do it through the idea of a Mother Goddess. This is why she was accepted by the indigenous people of the land that is now called Mexico. They said, “Oh, that’s how you see HER? OK!” And we have the matachines devoted to her every December  8th, the day she appeared to Juan Diego.

The thing is that all mothers are linked like a constellation, or better yet, a power grid to this great source, and so are all of their children. I know this sounds wildly heretical, but it’s also exactly what John said in John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and we have not yet been shown what we will be in the future.” There is a lot of debate about whether this means we are automatically saved just because we are God’s kids. The line about the future evokes that question. The Second Coming is what most scholars say this future is about and yes, this is a factor in the Bible, judging those who lived in Christ— but to live in Christ meant be a good person. Believe that you must be a good person to reach spiritual feast and glory, and good means some basic things: do not hurt one another is number 1.

But who wrote the parts that said Jesus locks you out if you do this or that? Men. Men who wanted power. Jesus wanted us to love one another and His Mom. He wasn’t after power on Earth, was he? He was saying Heaven is for all of us if we are KIND to one another and look INWARD at our own sacred potential, sharing our material wealth with others so we can stop worrying about bread and begin worrying about our spiritual nourishment instead.

While dying on the cross, he looked at John; “Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” This is John 19. What a great son to know his mother so well, to see her real power and place in the world. I honor that.

Our Mother “es muy milagrosa,” my grandmother once told me. I see it now. My project is attempting to understand her better, and in so many traditions. There are over twenty two thousand Virgins who are all the same spirit, and each of those names, or identities are specific manifestations of her miracles. I understand there are many ways to access her, and I hope to understand this more by examining her representations created by humans in their inspired creative works. They looked to her miracles in their world, felt her resonance with all people as the Mother of God and all of us too, and found women around them who could represent her to model as her. They see her in their own mothers or lovers or muses. Looking at how artists adorn her and tell her story inspires me with a lifelong project of deepening my faith, taking in art, and tapping into the eternal thing I’ve always loved about literature: the complex, sometimes broken, but everlasting human spirit— in all of us!

CH: I understand you are teaching at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. How do your students surprise you? How does teaching inform your own work?

NT: My students are so much smarter than they think they are. Once I build an atmosphere of trust, they tell me what they know. If they do not trust me, they will stay shy and not reveal their knowledge to me. If they do not trust me, they will never tell me what they need and what they don’t really know, and so with trust-building, we begin, and I also use trust move them forward with so much excitement.

They already receive a mass of information. They read all day long, not textbooks, but yes Twitter feeds and status updates. They are reading, communicating, connecting, making meaning, making new words, working out what ethos they will follow, working out who they will believe. My job is to show they how they can do it on a different scale, an academic one, so they can be degreed.

Why do most of them want a degree? It is not to discover mysticism or realism or humanism or even Chicano power. Most want to move along on the socioeconomic ladder that they feel is holding them back. I know I did when I was their age. How would I own a home one day? How could I be wealthy? I wanted to hoard and save like my father did, so I could one day take great vacations, travel, and of course, own a swimming pool. My students want these things too. They think things will bring them happiness and they have lost their faith in teachers. What surprises me is when they do trust me because I work on this every semester. Being in their lives is sacred work.

They are all multi-lingual and mostly bicultural like me. Most community college students are nepantleros, between two worlds: culturally. Once we talk about this idea of Gloria Anzaldua’s, they know we are being real and that they can be free to share their world in the classroom.

What surprises me most is when they trust me with their story, when they volunteer to share a personal worry or story. One of my students lost his father this year. He announced this during our Dia de los Muertos event. It has been less than two weeks. I started getting teary and shakey as I responded to him, but thankfully we were all talking about our dead, and we had a positive, communal Die de los Muertos altar that they had voluntarily built in front of us, a ceremonial space which made it beautiful. He added a picture of his dad to it. He wanted us to all know it had just happened the week before. I am doing the most important work I can do, helping my students gain confidence to share their voice. Their voice is their super-power.

CH: You have many roles in life: professor, writer, mother. How are you creating balance? How do you make time for your own writing amid the demands and commitments of work and family?

NT: This is always a struggle. It’s midnight as I type this interview and I need to be at work tomorrow at 9 a.m. There is a ton of grading waiting for me on my desk. It’s 4 a.m. when I do my best prose writing —sometimes on a Sunday morning when an idea wakes me up— or a hot flash!. Sometimes I tell my husband, “Don’t talk to me until I come out of our room” or “Don’t talk to me until Sunday.” He is fantastic and extremely generous about these requests. He understands how important it is to me to have time to write. I would not be the writer I am if it were not for his generosity and faith in my work, which has been there from the beginning. We met writing letters to one another. He is a writer too, but he is so selfless that he makes the space for me to create what I want to create. He will make dinner, clean up, and even give me alone time to write when we have a short vacation or a weekend together.

It’s just the two of us now, and we are learning it together since my son has always been a part of the package. I am in a new stage of motherhood now, which kind of feels like a break up, but not the angry kind, the I know you need to go kind. It’s nature. He’s moved out. He’s 21. It is so hard to miss him as much as I do, but it is also a wonderful time in our relationship as we are honest with each other and support each other as artists.

He’s a musician, rapper, and college student. I can fall asleep without knowing where he is finally. It used to keep me awake! I don’t have ulcers from worry, but I do send regular texts telling him to quit smoking. Mexican moms hang on tight, too tight. I’m trying to resist making him dread his oppressive Mexican mother who is a ball of worry and doubt and fear. Yes, I have all that, but the other day I sang the 12 Days of Christmas to him in full opera style at dinner. He and my husband loved me enough to let me do this. I need singing lessons. We have fun, and I can enjoy a glass of wine with him now as I tread into this new space of motherhood that is about encouraging and guidance and not rules and mandates.

I find that through attention to my body, which has been so generous with me so far, that I am able to balance and remember why I am here. I am running three times a week and dedicated to walking long distances with my best friend at work every day. I am taking care of  health in numerous ways, not forgetting about my body as often as I used to. These active measures punctuate my week and my life now. My exercise routine is a keystone habit reminding me each day of my priorities: goals, work, family, not in that order.

Family is first, work is second, writing is third except for when it is first, and family does understand that sometimes writing is first.

CH: In a section labeled, “finding purpose,” your website has an intriguing discussion of the term mutualism. along with the statement, “Mutualism describes the relationship between my writing and my life.” How did you come to your understanding of mutualism? How has adopting this concept made a difference in how you approach your own work, and working with others?

NT: I love the wisdom in the physical world. If a tree creates and gives me oxygen, I want some of that wisdom so I can survive like a tree does, giving something written to the world in return for its favors of light and air, Earth and water. I am happy to be a place for nests, a place that provides shelter for my students, friends, and loved ones, and perhaps also provide good fruit for my readers, if I am lucky enough to be that kind of tree. This can happen when I receive the gift of consciousness, calm, reasoning, and love, so can put forth more branches and perhaps be close to winged creatures that inspire me. My student just posted this wonderful line in his research paper where Chelley Seibert, a 25-year police veteran giving a TED talk, quotes Jana Stansfield saying, “I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do” (“Behind The Badge”). Yep.

CH: Tell us a little about your novel-in-progress, Drinking the Bee Water.

Oh, that is the marathon for me! I was so fortunate to have it accepted with the press of my dreams a few years ago, and then my agent advised me to pull it because she did not approve of the contract. It was the bravest thing I have ever done because I have been working on this novel for a long time and this was my desired press, the press that changed my life and introduced me to Chicano letters. The truth is the novel was not done, and pulling it was a good idea in the long run. I am reworking it after others have read it and said, “Hey, this is not done yet. Try this. Work on that.” Ok. I always tell my students to sacrifice the words for the work. The work is not done, and I am so excited about how it is going now, which is a sacrifice of words, a lot of them, thousands of them that need to be unstitched, reconsidered. Luckily, I have many new words inside of me, and I have some new possibilities for publication, but I have to see it through, which gets back to the work/life balance thing. The story about this woman, Berta, is too important to muck up.

CH: When we last spoke, Lavando La Dirty Laundry had just come out, and you were focusing on its launch and promotion in the world. Looking back, were there any surprises along the way? Was there anything you would have done differently?

NT: I am so pleased with how it went. Who can complain about a dream come true? My first book of poetry. I would gladly revise it now because I have grown as a writer, and some of the poems could use some nurturing and pruning, and this is also true for VirginX. My Macondo network helped me immensely with this book, and I have limited time to travel and promote it.

The next book will get more attention on this front. The more you plan before the book release the better the launch will go. I had no idea how to get the word out, and so I said yes to everything and everyone. There is no small audience, only a small performer. This is what a former music professor friend used to say. And with each encounter I have in sharing this book with others, I notice it has its own life, how it resonates with certain people who are navigating nepantla, the world in between cultures, languages, between heritage shame versus heritage pride.

CH: What are you reading now?  

Research papers. HAHA! Yes, I do read a lot of student work, revisions, revisions, and reflections and drafts. But for my own work, at the moment I am reading ire’ne lara silva’s  Cuicacalli (Saddle Road Press 2019) and an early copy of Wendy Barker’s Gloss (Saint Julian Press, out in January 2020). These are my two favorite poets, and it is an honor to also call them my friends. They are a huge factor in the mutualism idea I mention in my website. They are great trees who bear important fruit and nutrients for me. I can honestly say that they have had a deep influence on my work.

In fiction, I am reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, who I met at Gemini Ink last summer, and this book, which is so out of my normal reading range, it is shedding light on all kinds of things, showing me something lyrical in the structure of a contemporary short story collection about how dirty love can get. I recently finished another book about love called Love by Hanne Ørstavik and translated by Martin Aitken from Norwegian (Archipelago Books, February 2018). It is about the limits of motherhood, a very powerful book gifted to me by my amazing friend, Gregg Barrios. It haunts me, but this is a good thing.

A Virtual Interview with ire’ne lara silva

ire’ne lara silva and Natalia Treviño will be the featured readers Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

ire’ne lara silva is the author of three poetry collections, furia, Blood Sugar Canto, and CUICACALLI/House of Song, and a short story collection, flesh to bone which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands, a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire’ne is currently working on her first novel, Naci. Website: irenelarasilva.wordpress.com

The Interview

CH: It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since we’ve shared this space. So I’d like to start by asking your thoughts about your writing life during this interval. What pieces have remained constant? What has changed, or ebbed and flowed?

ILS: This is such a big question–I barely know where to start. Everything has changed. My vision and my feeling for what writing is and what it is in my life. How I approach it. What I feel like it does in my life.

A few things that stand out:

Before I published my first book in 2010, I had a vague sense of wanting to write/publish more books beyond that, but I think I had the impression that the sense of urgency I felt would fade. Instead, after four books and an anthology, the urgency to create is a pulsing thing. Every year it seems easier and easier to push away distraction. It seems more necessary to dedicate time and energy. More urgent to shape my life so that it’s aligned with my desire.

This year, I broke all previous records for readings, workshops, class visits, and traveling. There have been so many days where I’ve felt almost stupid with gratitude for these opportunities—and for the richness of sharing and discussing my work with so many people.

I talk all the time about how the most important thing for writing poetry—or anything for that matter—is telling yourself the truth. Over and over again. Always trying to get at deeper truths. I think sometimes I might have reached the point where I’ve told myself the truth so much that the writing comes to me in a way that it never did before. Because I don’t have to fight myself anymore to get to the truth.

CH: In 2017, IMANIMAN—Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands came out from Aunt Lute Press, edited by you and Dan Vera. Tell us about your experience as an editor for this anthology. What did you learn from working on this project?

ILS: It was an amazing experience—18 months from conception to a book in my hands. We had 225+ submissions and ended up including the work of 54 poets. It all began as a panel I proposed for the 2015 Mundo Zurdo Conference (hosted by the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldua). Joan Pinkvoss, founder and editor for Aunt Lute Books suggested expanding upon the idea of the panel, and voila, I recruited poet Dan Vera and we were on our way!

The most important thing I learned from that experience is that it’s very easy to be too strict, too restrained, too methodical as an editor. At a certain point, you have to trust your gut, trust your instincts, trust everything you’ve already learned, and use that to make your decisions about what to include and how to shape an anthology manuscript. There’s a point in the process where you have to trust the process itself and allow the space for it to breathe and become what it envisions, what it wants to be.

CH: And now, your third book of poetry, Cuicacalli/House of Song is out from Saddle Road Press. Tell us a little about this new book.

ILS: It poured itself out of me in a near-ecstatic rush, but it’s the culmination of more than twenty five years of thinking about identity, specifically Indigeneity and how it is fundamental to my Latinx/Texan identity. It’s also a meditation on history and survival, on language and how what some might call ‘myth’ still resonates in daily, psychological, and spiritual ways.

Poems about desire and heartbreak and the reawakened soul/heart/body are woven throughout because the soul/heart/body are what connect our lives to history. These poems aren’t purely intellectual exercises—my intention is for them to speak to the urgent question of how we endure and heal ourselves even through oppressive histories and times.

CH: Tell us a little about your experience in publishing this collection with Saddle Road Press (which also published Blood Sugar Canto).

ILS: Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson at Saddle Road Press are just a dream to work with—they work so hard and do such beautiful work. More than that, they’re excellent communicators, and they support their books and writers in a very caring way. I knew that they would take care of Cuicacalli/House of Song in the same way they took care of Blood Sugar Canto.

CH: You have supported yourself in non-academic jobs and have had significant caregiving responsibilities, yet continue to find space in your life to write and to publish deep, nuanced work. How do you make time for your writing? What systems of support have made a difference for you?

ILS: It’s been twenty plus years of non-academic jobs, and more than one for most of that time…and almost that long as a caregiver. For many years, I talked about ‘stealing’ time and ‘making’ time, but somewhere in the last few years, I decided that I wanted to stop using the language of scarcity around writing. ‘Stealing’ time implies that I’m taking it from someone else. ‘Making’ time means that I’m focused on creating time and opportunity rather than focusing on writing itself. I want to focus on ‘giving’ myself time, ‘giving’ my writing time, and ‘giving’ myself the space and energy to write. I want to be clear-eyed and direct about this—about choosing my writing, about deciding what to say yes to and what to say no to in order to have that choice, and about shaping my life around the desire to create, publish, and travel to promote my work.

As for support systems—there’s my brother, who endlessly believes in me and who is my best editor, my friends, who enrich my life in every way, and most recently, my job, which in the past couple years has given me the flexibility and opportunity to do more traveling.

CH: What are you working on now?

ILS: Lots of prose! My first novel, Naci, which is so painfully close to being completed. About environmental pollution and South Texas and the life and loves of an indigenous/Mexican/American intersexed person. I’m also a few stories into my second short story collection, tentatively titled, the light of your body. Mostly, the stories are focusing on repercussions of the Conquest, the body and desire, and the necessity of art and art-making.

CH: Please tell us about a book you’ve read in the last 4 years that surprised you.

ILS: I could go on about this forever but I’ll resist mightily and confine myself to saying that both the film and the novel, Call Me By Your Name, kicked off a cascade of epiphanies and discoveries and aesthetic explorations that were both surprising and life-changing.

CH: What are you reading now?

ILS: In fiction, Daniel Chacon’s Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall, which I’m enjoying as much as I did his 2012 short story collection, Hotel Juarez. Thoughtful and thought-provoking author. His narrators are both comfortingly familiar and yet unpredictable.

In poetry, I’m reading or re-reading all of Barbara Jane Reyes’ full length collections: Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, Diwata, To Love as Aswang, Invocation to Daughters, and the forthcoming Letters to a Young Brown Girl. Reyes is a ferocious and lyrical poet, speaking always to the truths of intersecting identities, and of my contemporaries, the poet I most admire.

A Virtual Interview with Nicole Cortichiato

Nicole Cortichiato will be the featured reader Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Nicole Cortichiato is a writer with narcolepsy who resides on the edge of consciousness. You’ll find her napping in unusual places and making a creative life of joy and service despite her disability. She’s published numerous poems, plays, and children’s stories that blend fiction with reality and dark humor with optimism. Her short play “Fries” was featured in TILT Performance Group’s production of “Flip Side Redux.” She also won 2nd place in Austin Film Festival’s First Three Pages Live competition for her TV script “How to Grow a Man.” If you attend an open mic in Austin, chances are you will see Nicole perform. She’s been featured at Malvern Books’ I Scream Social and Writer’s Roulette, NeWorlDeli’s Poetry Night, and the One Page Salon with Owen Egerton. On the side she is also a member of the band Nicole and Eric’s Guide to a Meaningful Life in which she plays theremin and gives life advice. She lives in Austin with her partner and two demanding corgis.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

NC: Children’s books. I loved the humor, simplicity and illustrations.

I wrote a few short stories in 2nd grade about a dachshund named Boodie. But honestly, I mostly read during my early years or tried to. Often, I would fall asleep because of my undiagnosed narcolepsy.  I wrote in journals and such but it was mostly therapy. I didn’t start writing seriously until about 2012.

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

NC: Only in the last few years. But honestly, sometimes I cringe when people compliment my writing or even call me a writer. Not because I don’t think I am one, but probably because I’m still learning to take a compliment.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve also published plays and children’s stories, and you’ve written a TV script. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

NC: Easy going. I’m not hard on myself regarding what I write or don’t write– and I’m not a perfectionist. I edit of course but I don’t make myself crazy doing it. I do make sure I come back around and finish poems or stories that I’ve started. But once I’ve read them out loud at an open mic a couple of times then I’m kind of done with editing. I’m also a meditative writer.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

NC: No, I’m just a perpetual learner. If there is a class that makes me uncomfortable, then I will make myself take it. For example, the very thought of memoir made me ill so I took a class on it. I’m probably still trying to figure out my identity but I prefer to dip in as many genre pools as I can.

CH: What excites you about theatrical writing? How do you see the intersection between your theatrical writing and poetry?

NC: Figuring out what is funny and what is not. And of course seeing your play performed and watching how the audience reacts. I like discovering what kind of dialogue keeps an audience’s attention. I feel blessed I can even keep people from getting bored.

When I write theatrically it is mostly dialogue and relationships. My poetry often has a bit of humor. What interests me most about the two intersecting is my connection with the audience. I like to surprise people.

CH: What is your writing life like?

NC: I don’t write everyday. I write mainly in the morning. I don’t care what I write about and I don’t think about it too much before hand. I just write. And then later I’ll read it — sometimes weeks or years later. Sometimes I’ll take a line from it and make a poem or a story. Sometimes I’ll make my list of things to do for the day and I’m inspired. Or I’ll take notes of conversations.

My favorite thing to do is to take a writing class or workshop because then you know you are producing and learning. And the great thing about a class is you can apply almost any idea to the assignments in class. I love the creative writing classes at Austin Community College. I highly recommend them. If I do have a specific goal with my writing— I will meditate before or during the process.

CH: You’ve been public about having narcolepsy. How does your experience with this disability shape your writing?

NC: In the beginning my writing was internal. It was mainly in journals and my therapy. One thing that helped me take my internal to the external was getting a reaction to my poetry. I remember the first piece I read in front of an audience. One woman gasped after my reading and said, “Wow.” It was her reaction that probably encouraged me to get started.

CH: Tell us a little about your experience with the Imagine Art studio.

NC: Imagine Art is a wonderful art studio in Austin for adults with disabilities. When I first came to Austin, it was Imagine Art and Art Spark Texas that first nurtured my creative side regarding visual art and writing. I wrote and directed my first two plays at an Imagine Art artist retreat. And at Art Spark Texas I assisted with a storytelling class called “Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD).” It was OMOD that helped me be a more succinct and impactful writer.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?

NC: I keep taking classes in anything and everything related to writing and performing. My most recent class was “Stand Up for Mental Health” through Art Spark Texas. In that class I learned how to be a stand up comic. I also constantly make myself perform at open mics. Reading poetry in front of a group is infectious and you learn a lot about how to edit your work. In addition to that, I study other people’s work. For example, every few months I go to BookPeople, (the children’s section) to review their newest books. I’ll grab a huge stack of them and then go back downstairs to the coffee shop and spend a couple of hours reviewing them in a notebook.

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

NC: I like finding writers that are also good at performing their poetry. Right now I’m inspired by poetry with unique analogies. I prefer short poetry. And I like poems that tell stories.

My favorites are always changing. Maya Angelou (I love listening to her), John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Arnold Lobel, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anthony de Mello, Tracy Oliver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Dina El Dessouky.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

NC: The Arrow” by Lauren Ireland. She has lines that stay with you.

A Virtual Interview with Viktoria Valenzuela

Viktoria Valenzuela was the featured reader Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Viktoria Valenzuela is a creative nonfiction poet human rights activist whose work appears in such publications as Poetry Bay, Mutha Magazine, AMP (Hofstra University), The MALCS Journal, and A Prince Tribute Anthology: I Only Wanted One Time to See You Laughing. Valenzuela is an educator, a Macondista and the organizer of 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. Her writing keeps keen focus on Chicana mothering as decolonization and political action. Valenzuela and poet Vincent Cooper have six children and live on the Westside of San Antonio.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
VV: My first interest in writing was a natural desire for me. I was a very inquisitive child. I remember sitting on the carpet in kindergarten learning how to spell the word “zip”…. There was a cartoon drawing of a St. Bernard dog who was zipping up his jacket and my old teacher was really putting emphasis on the Z sound to pronounce the word as she read it, “Zzzzip!” I was taken by how easy it was to create sound with these funky lines and squiggles. It was a monumental moment where art met sound in these things called letters… I wrote Zs and Ss everywhere. Later, when I learned to write down words then sentences, I wrote poetry (or songs) about beautiful things like flowers, rocks, or love poems for my dad…
I was always a writer. Dad saved some of those poems in an old suitcase for 30+ years. I didn’t realize I was always a writer and poet until recently when my old high school buddies reminded me that they have journals and yearbook entries with poems I wrote for them. I don’t remember writing these at all but apparently I’ve been a poetry-tagger.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
VV: I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was in my late 20s. I’d always considered myself an artist. I double-majored in Studio Art and English for a creative writing degree at community college when I went back to college as a single mom. While there, I took to hosting a bimonthly open mic event in 2003. Poetry just took over. I stopped pursuing art to be a creative writing major when I made it to university.
I began to think of myself as a “real writer” when I was featured at The Sterling Nature Center by my good friend, the poet Charles Itzin, who also asked me to speak at his college class as a poet. Before then, poetry had been just a fun hobby but these moments .
CH: I know that you write creative non-fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?
VV: I don’t believe I have a primary identity as a poet or CNF writer but I think most folks know me as a poet. I have two books of memoir that I’ve been writing. One deals with my hazy teen years and claiming Chicana identity, while the other is more recent and is a hybrid work that centers on my experiences as a mother of nearly nine children. These are both personal narratives and include the political awareness of their times. I maintain that all my work is politically charged.
CH: How has your life as a mother and human rights activist shaped your writing?
VV: There is no divide. I chose to become a mother at 21 years old. I knew having children would affect my work as an activist and scholar but I also knew that if I didn’t have children when I did, I might have no children at all. Writing and activism requires that you give your whole self to it. I have not maintained balance but I have tried my very best even if I fall short I do not quit. I write because, in a hundred years, I refuse to go unread. I exist, I care about other humans, and I have some stories to weave into the fabric of America.
CH: What is your writing life like?
VV: If everyone in my house goes to sleep at 9pm then I have 3 hours to write by myself. If not, I wait until they go to school. I have to be a mom and wife before I am a writer at my desk or agree to do a reading or event. My daylight hours are for the children and at night I might have a reading. I write between tasks or I carve out space where I can. There are times when I wish for more hours in the day but then I remind myself that Andre Dubus III wrote House of Sand and Fog in his truck parked at the job site. He gave himself only 20 minutes a day on his way to work to write as much as he could. The books want to be written.
CH: Tell us a little about the Macondo Writers Workshop. How did you become involved with this program? How has it influenced your writing?
VV: I was always interested in writing for mainstream culture. I remember reading House on Mango Street in my high school English class and then an article about Sandra Cisneros that talked about her moments leading up to creating Macondo Writers Workshop. I had already resolved that I must become a writer “for those who cannot out” but further, I knew I wanted to become a Macondista someday.
I would have applied to be a Macondista in 2015 but I was pregnant and the labor date was within two days of the start date of the workshop. I applied the next year and was accepted. It was a very validating moment for me as a writer. I now serve on the ad-hoc board and am so proud of the work I am doing there. I helped plan last summer’s workshop and this year will do the same.
My writing has grown in craft due to the amazing master writers that lead the workshops I have participated in. Also, being able to workshop with other Macondistas about our work has been key to publishing well.
CH: Tell us a little about 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. What motivated you to become an organizer with this group? What gifts and challenges did you find from your involvement?
VV: The BP Oil Spill of 2011 was the sole reason I became an activist poet organizer. I had been following certain poets on Facebook when it was new to me and I was struck by another poet, Michael Rothenberg, making comments about how atrocious it was to allow the oil spill to continue the way it was. I found a kindred spirit in him and when he said that we should write poems about this I was ready. When he said we should march in the streets and demand they repair the oil spill I was all for it. The more we chatted on these comment threads, we came to debate if having one large poetry event will make a difference. He was able to secure Stanford University to host an archive database of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Cities from all over the planet contribute photos and poetry to the site and it is considered as one poetry reading even if 800+ cities around the globe participate. I submitted one poem in 2011, in the next few years since I have created poetry reading events and zines of the works read there.
The gifts of these readings is in the amazing networking that can happen. My readings have helped others in many ways, such as when I hosted deportable Vietnam veterans and gained some national attention for them.
CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?
VV: Time for nurturing myself as a writer is not easy to come by but I am blessed that my family understands the need for alone time. I stay up later than everyone else. When we have time and money, I sign up for writing workshops nearby. This summer I was thrilled to take workshop with the amazing poet, Sherwin Bitsui at Poetry at Round Top and I recently went back to university for my masters in English. When I am actually writing, I tend to sip coffee or ginger root tea while listening to John Coltraine on Pandora radio.
CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?
VV: My favorite writers are Dorothy Parker for her clever skill and wit. Li-Young Lee is a master writer and I aspire to his level. I also like Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, Jane Hirshfield, Deborah Landau, Sherwin Bitsui, Claudia Rankine and Ada Limón… and more… there are thousands of poets I love.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
VV: I am just started reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid.

A Virtual Interview with Gabrielle Langley

Gabrielle Langley will be the featured reader Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Poet Gabrielle Langley will be our feature. Langley has been featured in the Huffington Post and the Houston Chronicle as one of Houston’s important emerging poets. With work appearing in a variety of literary journals in the United States, and in Europe, she was the featured poet for Houston Poetry Fest 2017, a recipient of the Lorene Pouncey Award, the Vivian Nellis Memorial Award for Creative Writing, and an ARTlines national poetry finalist. Ms. Langley works during the day as a licensed mental health professional. To safeguard her own mental health, she writes poetry and dances Argentine tango at night. Her first book of poetry, Azaleas on Fire, was released in March of this year.

The Interview

CH: When do you first become interested in writing? What drew you to it?

GL: My mother gave me my first book of children’s poetry when I was about four years old. It was Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Collection of Poetry. With that anthology, my mother started reading me a poem every night before bedtime. I was always captivated by the rhythms of the poems. But perhaps even more than that, I loved all the magical imagery that started dancing in my head whenever I heard the poems being read aloud.

That book became a treasure to me. In fact, that same book is still a part of my library to this day; it has always remained with me wherever I have lived. No doubt, this was my first initiation into the magic of poetry.

CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? As a poet?

GL: I started writing poetry when I was an undergraduate at George Washington University. I was incredibly fortunate to have mentorship from the creative writing staff there. Washington DC also had – and I believe still has – an incredible community of poets and poetry lovers. I think the true game-changer for me was being placed in an advanced workshop with Lucille Clifton who was a visiting professor there at the time. (I was even invited to open for her at one of her readings in D.C. So that was just an incredible honor for me as a young writer.) Even so, I was not majoring in literature or creative writing–I was an Art History major. So I got into the poetry world through the backdoor, so to speak.

I didn’t really start identifying myself as a poet until about eight years ago. It was when I had two different poems published in Europe (Algebra of Owls in England and The Wild Word in Berlin); somehow those international publications gave me the courage and confidence to identify myself  as “a poet.”

CH: I have read that you describe yourself a “devout minimalist” in your sense of aesthetics. How does minimalism appeal to you as a writer? How would you describe its effects on your poetry?

GL: I am laughing here because for as long as I can remember, I have always felt claustrophobic in highly cluttered environments. My mother was actually something of a hoarder, so I can remember feeling really overwhelmed by all of the stuff everywhere in the home where I grew up. As an adult, I have never enjoyed owning lots of things; I don’t like feeling responsible for too many things. If hoarding can be considered a psychopathology, then I think of it on a spectrum. That would put me at the extreme – and perhaps equally neurotic – end we could call “anti-hoarding,” or maybe we could call it “hyper-editing.”

Having said all that, I do love the idea of having a few well-chosen pieces. Editing things down to a few exquisite essentials comes naturally to me, and isn’t that what poetry is really all about? For me, it is the ultimate goal, how we can say the most using the fewest, most exquisitely chosen words and images.

CH: I have also read of your interest in exploring romantic themes in your work. What do you see as the influences of Romantic poetry on your own work? What divergences do you see?

GL: Well to begin with, I have always been a Keats fan. His work has an exuberance to it that I cannot find matched by any other poet. (Ok, I will admit, Neruda is a possible exception).  Keats’ poems are, for me at least, like spiritual epiphanies. The Romantics, in general, invite us to celebrate our own inner worlds.

At the same time, I love the spare aesthetics of the Imagists. I am a big fan of T.S. Eliot, HD and Amy Lowell. I love their ability to create abstract meditations. I also love their ability to fracture symbols and images. This almost surreal ability to fracture images is one of the greatest gifts that Modernism brought to poetry.

Safe to say, it is the Imagists’ fearless free verse, combined with their riveting images, that brought us into the 20th century, and into Modern poetry as we know it today.

CH: Tell us a little about Azaleas on Fire. Over what period of time were the poems in this book written?

GL: Azaleas on Fire is a collection of works written in an on-and-off again time frame over the past twenty years. While studying with poet Justine Post (author of Beast, which is an exceptional collection of poems), she began working with me on culling through my existing poems, identifying recurring themes in the work. Learning how to identify the themes and obsession that emerged organically in my own work really helped bring clarity for me. From there the collection transformed into its own narrative arc.

CH: What was your process of selecting the poems for Azaleas on Fire? What strategies did you employ in ordering the poems?

GL: I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value a good editor. Azaleas on Fire benefitted tremendously from Melissa Hassard’s (Sable Books) expert eye. Melissa really perfected the narrative arc so that the book, when read in sequence, reads almost like a novella, even though the poems were written separately as stand-alone pieces; I was not thinking about a book when I wrote them.

I also had Stacy Nigliazzo go over the book once the narrative arc was set. Stacy was working on her most recent book, Sky the Oar, at the same time, so I recall that we spent one entire rainy day at my house together making last-minute final touches on our manuscripts.  If you are familiar with Stacy’s work, you know that she brings a surgeon’s precision to the page, demanding that every syllable earn its right to appear on the page. Of course, I had also worked with both of these amazing women, Stacy and Melissa, when we co-edited Red Sky: poetry on violence against women, so I was over-the-moon with delight to have them provide editing support for Azaleas on Fire.

CH: You have written about your eclectic background in terms of place (e.g. Europe and the American South). How does place figure in your work? 

GL: Having a sense of place in my work has always been a priority. I love travel, and have been fortunate enough to travel extensively. At the same time, I also love being at home (which for me is the Southeastern United States).

I am really sensitive not only to sights, but also to shifts in scents, weather patterns, light, taste, and sound. I find myself even more acutely aware of these things when I travel, and also again when I return home, as if I am experiencing the signature elements of home for the very first time. There is always some part of me that wants to share these experiences on the page. Sometimes it almost feels like writing a love letter where you want to tell your beloved all about the place where you are, and you hope, if you can write well enough, that the page you send can bring them to that exact place from where you are writing.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

GL: Ark by Ed Madden. He is a really gifted poet from rural Arkansas. His work is really mysterious, like nothing else I’ve ever read, but it also has this instantly recognizable rural Southern United States setting.

The poetry of Ark deals with the ambivalence experienced by a family whose father is on hospice care. Madden’s work brings this wonderfully eerie sense of things that seems to accompany so many deaths. His work has a way of making you see the ghost before that person actually becomes a ghost. He brings you into that twilight space which is the very transition between life and death.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

Robin Carstensen will be the featured reader Thursday, August 8, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Robin Carstensen’s chapbook, In the Temple of Shining Mercy received the annual first-place award by Iron Horse Literary Press in 2016, and published in 2017.  Poems are also published in BorderSenses, Southern Humanities Review, Voices de La Luna, Demeter Press’s anthology, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, and many more. She directs the creative writing program at Texas A&M University-CC where she is the senior editor for The Windward Review: literary journal of the South Texas Coastal Bend, and is co-founding, senior editor of the Switchgrass Review: literary journal of health and transformation in partnership with the Coastal Bend Wellness Medical Center.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? As a young person, what about poetry engaged you? 

RC: Cat in the Hat books, nursery rhymes, jumping-rope rhymes, school yard rhymes, and songs.  I think the pleasure in sumptuous language engaged me.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? A poet?

RC: In my early memory scenes, I am writing short letters to my mother. With as much flair as I can conjure, I am asking for something, inviting some reconciliation. Early on, I felt the power of the written word on my livelihood, on gaining parental favor. I wrote stories, plays, and poems well into the night as my parents and little brother slept. That’s when I knew I was a writer. In middle school, I wrote stories by the light of a tall lamp post shining through the fourth story window of our brick quarters in Germany where my father was stationed. At various jobs in my young adult life, I felt compelled to write lyrical exposés of working conditions or real material lives of the people around me who needed better care, or poetic eulogies for the residents and cohorts at a residential care facility who had passed on. People seemed uplifted or comforted by my arrangement of words, and by my mid to late 20s my clear role as a poet was emerging.

CH: What role has your formal education played in your development as a poet?

RC: Very important role in appreciating and developing my craft, and embracing the depth, breadth, wisdom, and teachings of our diverse poetic roots and influences.  My formal education as an undergrad in the mid 90s, after five years in the Air Force and two years at Del Mar college, brought me a dear professor who would become my writing mentor for many years: Vanessa Jackson at Texas A&M University-CC. She introduced me to a luscious sensory world where I fell in love with the Romantics and Wordsworth’s riveting stories in verse in “The Ruined Cottage.” Through other wonderful professors who were expanding the literary canon, I studied poetry. Elizabeth Mermann introduced me to the mind-blowing heart-healing work of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, which resonated with my life on the borderlands of heteronormative society.  In another class, I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s poetry, essays, and biomythography, Zami, a New Spelling of my Name. Her lyric, sensual description of her childhood and her mother’s embodied force in her community held me from the beginning. I felt a kindred spirit with these writers and many others, and I felt their welcoming me and my unique voice and thoughts.

My doctoral program at Oklahoma State University where I concentrated in poetry was a rich, invaluable time in my life to study widely, deeply, intensely the history and traditions, theory, movements, and authors influencing our diverse contemporary poetry. I learned the joy in received forms, in reaching for and discovering pleasure in the unexpected through structure and pattern. The pantoum and ghazal in their use of recurring lines and refrain enchant me, as well the bending and fusing of received form with our 21st century concerns and expanded imaginations, consciousnesses.

CH: You teach a variety of topics at the college level, including environmental studies, borderland cultures, and gender and women’s studies. How does this work influence your writing life? How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

RC: Radical feminism intensely influenced my work before and during my studies in Oklahoma. A few in this long list include June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Chin, Lisa Lewis, Ai, and the lyric poetry in the novels of Jeanette Winterson. They teach me through their poetry, teaching, and lives to be daring and speak my truths. I learned that to create and expand knowledge is to demand and imagine better lives for everyone. It’s worth it to reach for the images, sounds, tone, the shape, pause, space, and breath of a poem to precisely convey our demands as well as our celebrations, to stand up for decency and create momentum that dissolves the rhetoric of fear. It’s worth our lives to know that if language can be used to breed the hate and violence that we see daily manifested in tragic forms, we also have language to imagine and manifest life-giving force. In the poetry of witness and resistance, especially in these borderland regions as we experience harmful political policy and rhetoric, I feel myself a part of a gathering force that is creating urgent change and that will not allow the pendulum to swing into full madness. In the meditative poems and poems of eros, in poems that soothe and poems that disturb, I also find love letters to humanity and am moved to write my own that might comfort, inform, shake someone up, help someone, including myself, connect to loving energy, community, and possibilities.

Teaching college courses and editing two journals especially brings me close to work from new, emerging, and established writers. I find much wisdom and inspiration in students, and am moved by their poems and narratives, which speak to our intersecting lives and complex challenges on a planet heaving through radical changes. I’m encouraged by their higher consciousness, daring affirmation in themselves and faith in better worlds to come, in the beauty they uncover and the love and fulfillment they envision and create.

CH: Tell us a little about In the Temple of Shining Mercy. Over what period of time were these poems written?

RC: These are semi-autobiographical poems that explore the landscape, culture, and history of Oklahoma and Texas. Intimate friendships and solitude help the speakers in these poems confront violence and embrace wild uncertainty. I’d been writing and publishing these poems in individual journals for over a decade, between 2004-2015. Since the full-length poetry manuscript had not found a publisher yet, I decided to try sending a much shorter version to two admirable chapbook series. The 30-page limit pushed me to discover a tighter shape of intertwining themes.

CH: What was your process in selecting and ordering the poems of In the Temple of Shining Mercy?

RC: Finding a story, a thread to pull them together, and which poems seem to speak to one another, and roll into the next pairing, unfolding a new conversation. (Really, sometimes it’s a mess trying to arrange, but in the end, after arranging and rearranging, something comes together that feels whole, and it’s a mystery and a relief!)

CH: What was your journey in getting this book published?

RC: Long journey over a decade. In sending the full length to many presses, I learned to embrace rejection, and to find strength and resolve from that space. I’m learning from wise poets, such as Ire’ne Lara Silva and Odilia Galván Rodriguez, who reminded me during one of her stirring workshops, to keep focused on our writing and not become preoccupied with the fame or status of publication or become disheartened by comparing ourselves with those winning the accolades. From wisdom, I’m encouraged to stay steady on my course. And I learned there are many ways to share our work, which is the whole point of “getting published.” We all want to share our thoughts and ideas, stories, and emotions. In the process, I have joined poets all over Texas and Oklahoma at writing conferences, readings, and festivals. I help coordinate the People’s Poetry Festival in Corpus, with our fearless leader and talented Tom Murphy. I enjoy helping writers find a place for their work in a journal that I co-founded, Switchgrass Review:  A Literary Journal of Health and Transformation.  I also enjoy leading a team of students to publish a journal of voices from South Texas and the Coastal Bend, the Windward Review. Along this community of energy and collaboration, I gathered the sustenance to continue working on and submitting my book, believing it would eventually speak to an editor who would want to help bring it to a wider audience.

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

RC: I’m fortunate to have a circle of close friends who are my family and who are each uniquely artistic, kind, and encouraging. I’m also nourished through road trips, reading, music, swimming, watching clouds, movies, meditating in many forms, being with my community of poets who are my extended family, and the beautiful island campus where I get to create new curriculum, and be inspired by students and colleagues.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet? 

RC: Remember to enjoy doing your art. Be fearless in your writing, leap across chasms. Read other poets and writers across the spectrum.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

RC: Michael + Josephine: A Novel in Verse by Jo Reyes-Boitel. An inventive, enthralling lyrical love story, gorgeously written, offering an expansive vision for the many shapes and possibilities of love.