A Virtual Interview with Jenny Qi

Background

Thursday, February 3, 2022 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. CST

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-presents-a-virtual-reading-with-jenny-qi-tickets-203251058387

Jenny Qi is the author of the debut poetry collection Focal Point, winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award. Her essays and poems have been published widely in newspapers and literary journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has received fellowships from Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and Nashville and now resides in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology and currently works in oncology consulting. At the end of graduate school, she co-founded and produced the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio, where she wrote and talked a lot about death. She is working on more essays and poems and translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What first drew you to it as a means of expression?

JQ: My very first exposure to poetry came early—my mother and grandmother taught me to recite Tang poems when I was a toddler, a practice supposedly common among Chinese school children. (I never went to school in China, so I can’t verify this.) A few years later, probably on the tail end of elementary school, I became introduced to English poetry by way of a YA novel that included William Blake’s “The Tyger” as an epigraph, and I was delighted by the sonic qualities and vivid imagery. And I enjoyed rap music, which can be a sort of poetry too. It was around that time that I was inspired to start writing and engaging in the kind of wordplay that I wasn’t seeing in prose, and through poetry I could start to connect and express ideas that I couldn’t fully articulate as a child on the cusp of adolescence.

CH: When did you begin to direct your energy toward writing? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

JQ: Hmm, there are many ways I could answer this question. In some ways, I’ve been directing energy towards writing of all genres since childhood, initially mostly as a hobby. As the only child of immigrants, I never really imagined that I could have a creative career because that seemed so risky and impractical. Only in the last few years, towards the end of and after graduating from my PhD program in Cancer Biology, have I allowed myself to place more weight on writing. (I wrote more about this for the New York Times here.) Although I’ve left the lab, I still work in STEM, and I don’t have an MFA, so sometimes I still feel like writing is my secret. So I don’t know, I guess I’m a writer teetering on the edge of many parallel lives. We all contain multitudes.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Focal Point. In the book’s acknowledgments section, you say the project “has been a decade or more in the making.” Please tell us a little about the journey that led to your creating and publishing the manuscript.

JQ: Thank you. I didn’t set out to create a manuscript, to be honest, and maybe that made it easier to create. I wrote a few of these poems in college, never dreaming I’d publish them in a collection. My mom passed in my last year of college, when I was only 19, and I stopped writing, and then a few months later I started my PhD program. A year into grad school, I started writing poems again and started attending a casual weekly workshop run by Dr. David Watts out of his office, and I guess I think of that point as another beginning of this project, the processing of grief and learning how to be a person in the wake of that loss. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after I’d written probably hundreds of poems and started to publish poems individually, that it even occurred to me to compile them into a manuscript. I walked into workshop one day, and David asked me, “So, where’s your book?” And then I started to think about it more seriously.

CH: It was a pleasure for me to encounter the variety of poems in Focal Point, both in terms of subject matter and in form. How did you approach knitting these poems together as a manuscript?

JQ: Thanks so much. When I started putting this book together, I knew nothing about how to put a book together. In my first attempt, I put poems together by category, which meant all the heavy grief poems were in one section. It wasn’t a good book, but I think it was actually a helpful exercise to see what themes recurred in this body of work. Based on feedback I received from friends and mentors, I started to put poems (which I physically printed out) next to each other based on these recurring themes and images, and often others saw connections that I didn’t. After I graduated and had some time away from the lab, I was also able to gain a different perspective. It was only then that I revisited the older “Biology Lesson” series of poems and some of the short “how-to” poems and thought about how those might serve as a manual for navigating loss and growth in tandem.

CH: I find in the poems of Focal Point a deeply engaged speaker, and I love that the gaze of the poems moves across many kinds of relationship, in love and grief and anger. How did the writing of these poems change you?

JQ: I love this question so much, because the writing of a poem absolutely does change you, in many ways. I think one of those ways is by teaching a kind of radical acceptance of the subject, the speaker of your poem, and even yourself. The speakers of these poems are often flawed, expressing “ugly” human emotions such as anger and resentment and envy, and in the writing of the poem, sometimes I learn about where that comes from. I’m thinking of the persona poems about Circe and Penelope, two figures from Greek mythology that I never particularly understood or liked as a recalcitrant youth because I felt they were compromising too much. The writing of those poems in their voices at that particular time in my life helped me arrive at a new understanding of these characters and the complex calculus of adulthood and specifically womanhood.

CH: In “Call and Response,” you’ve translated a poem by Su Shi (1037 – 1101) from the Chinese and written a companion poem in response. What inspired you to write in the voice of the departed?

JQ: This poem is one of my oldest in the collection and came out of a translation assignment in college. When I was choosing a poem to translate, I realized I’d learned all these old Chinese poems as a kid, and they were always written by men. So I wanted to write in that voice because I wanted to give voice to the woman in the poem, who’d likely had no voice even while she was alive. In retrospect, I guess a lot of my early poems were persona poems in the voice of women who had been written by men or otherwise muted. I think I was starting to grapple with my paradoxical upbringing—I’d grown up with a strong, ambitious female figure in my mother, but we came from a culture with deeply ingrained misogyny.

CH: I understand that after graduate school, you became co-founder, co-host, and producer of the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio. Tell us a little about the podcast and how you became involved in that project.

JQ: Actually, that was a project I did during grad school! Outside of my lab responsibilities, I did a lot of science communication and journalism work as a grad student, and Bone Lab Radio was the last of those before and immediately after I graduated. There were four of us who co-founded the podcast: three bone researchers and me. BLR was really my friend Kate’s baby—I reached out to Kate Woronowicz, who was in my year in a different grad program, because I’d just left the school newspaper and was looking for a new scicomm project. I’d never done audio before and wanted to learn something new and see if that might be or lead to a career option after graduating. I think what I brought to that project was my writing, editing, and interviewing experience and my obsession with death and the less technical aspects of bones. It actually helped that I wasn’t a bone researcher so I could tell them if things were getting too jargon-y. The rest of the team has remained in academic research, and I guess I’m still the weird one, ha!

CH: You hold a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, and work as an oncology consultant. How have you made space for your creative life amid the demands of your professional life?

JQ: It’s honestly really challenging. And there’s a difference, I think, between making space for the act of creating and making space for the tasks around putting that creation into the world. To actually create something, I need more mental space than I often have in daily life, and it’s been so valuable to attend workshops and conferences where I’ve set aside time (and gone to a different physical location) for that sort of creative thought. It’s been tougher during the pandemic, but it’s helped to be a part of various writing groups that meet regularly via Zoom. I think building community has been the single most important thing for my creative life, especially since I don’t have an MFA and am not necessarily trained as a writer. Beyond that, I use a bullet journal and heavily rely on Google Calendar to organize my time. That has been so important during my book tour, particularly since I haven’t been able to take time off of work for it.

CH: As a writer, what are you working on now?

JQ: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on book promo. But in terms of actual writing, I’ve been working more on prose, and that’s really exciting for me. I’ve been writing more personal essays, and I’m going to be doing a lot more translation work—translating some of my late grandfather’s poems and my late mother’s memoir—and writing essays in response to that work. In poetry (and prose), I’ve been exploring the reverberations of my parents’ experience of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the consequences of technological and climate instability. 

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

JQ: Of course, I love and read a lot of poetry, but I probably read more prose, honestly. I love a good historical fiction novel, and I find novels set in 1600s France to be weirdly comforting because of my childhood obsession with Alexandre Dumas. I generally enjoy fiction, historical or not, and I like outrageous business dramas (Bad Blood comes to mind as an example), the occasional memoir, and short story and essay collections.

A Virtual Interview with Kai Coggin

Background

Thursday, January 13, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-kai-coggin-tickets-206977474197

Kai Coggin (she/her) is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021) and INCANDESCENT (Sibling Rivalry Press 2019). She is a queer woman of color who thinks Black Lives Matter, a teaching artist in poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, and host of the longest running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country—Wednesday Night Poetry. Recently awarded the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award and named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times, her fierce and powerful poetry has been nominated four times for The Pushcart Prize, as well as Bettering American Poetry 2015, and Best of the Net 2016 and 2018. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRYCultural WeeklySOLSTICEBellevue Literary ReviewTABEntropySWWIMSplit This RockSinister WisdomLavender ReviewTupelo PressWest Trestle Review, and elsewhere. Coggin is Associate Editor at The Rise Up Review. She lives with her wife and their two adorable dogs in the valley of a small mountain in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of poetry?

KC: As a reader, I would describe myself as hungry, always searching for a voice, and image, a light that reflects mine, that speaks to the devastation and triumph of the human experience. I love language that gives hope, gives space to the trauma of living in these perilous human experiences, but also guides me to something higher within myself. I love Rumi, Harjo, Hirshfield. I open poetry books of my friends at random and let them speak to me in in the moment. I love humor and dry wit as well, and love Sedaris for that. 

My first memory of poetry is reading and re-reading Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I checked it out at the library with a stack of “choose your own adventure” books, and it was like the top of my head was suddenly opened up to a whole other world— poems.

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

KC: I hardly have memories of my life up until the age of 7. I know I lived in Bangkok, went to a British International private school, and took ballet lessons— all experiences I can glean from photographs. My parents divorced and my mom, little sister and I crossed the pacific and came to Houston TX to chase the American dream. It’s something inherent, perhaps, the writing. My American father was a writer, a journalist for the AP and TIME Magazine. He interviewed sheiks and kings, reported on global atrocities and wars, but I didn’t know that as a child, just knew that he left us. My Filipina mother grew up on a farm, in a village in the Philippines. She memorized and recited poems to perform in neighboring villages, and I can recall a sepia photo of her mid-recitation, atop a feebly-formed platform reciting with the drama and ache of a seasoned actor. So this storytelling, this language, this need to voice something deeper— inherent.

As my young adolescence continued, I questioned my attraction to girls, my inner conflict of being raised in the Catholic faith while, at the same time feeling i would be “cast to the fires of hell” or something because I thought Kelly, the blonde girl in homeroom, was so pretty. I was raped at 13 by a stranger who knocked on the door asking for a glass of water. Many things tried their hardest to break me, and I wrote. I wrote in a journal. I wrote unrequited love letters for the girls I liked, but could never tell. I wrote tragic love poems that would never be read. Words saved me from myself. Words were where i could be myself. Words were my safe space in a world that made me feel unsafe.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher Miss Sloan told me I could be a writer one day. It was the first time someone noticed something was good about me, that saw my real talent. I leaned in. I believed her.

CH: I understand you hold a Bachelor of Arts in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M, and that you were once a high school English teacher. I also understand you are currently a teaching artist with both the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning through the Arts. How did you become interested in the role of teacher? What have you learned from teaching?

KC: Yes–a BA in creative writing and poetry, and a masters from the school of hard knocks. When I graduated with the degree in poetry, I didn’t know how to actually BECOME a poet, how to make a life out of it. This is something you learn in an MFA, but I barely survived undergrad as a lesbian in the Corps of Cadets (another story), so wanted to just get started with my life, start a career somehow. I had been in a teaching role for many years, in many different capacities, working with youth and in leadership roles growing up. Teaching seemed like something I could sink my teeth into, and looking back on my life at that point, it had only been teachers who saw me, who gave me a hand in the dark. I wanted to be that hand to other kids.

I got my emergency teacher certification and was in a 9th grade classroom the very next fall after graduating from college, back teaching in Alief, the same school district of my personal education. Alief was/is a very diverse demographic, about 98% Black and Latinx, 1 % Asian, 1% white. I knew (from personal experience) that kids growing up here were predestined to live on the margins of life/society. I wanted to be someone they could see as a reflection of themselves, who was “making it,” who had gone to college, gotten a job, bought a home for their mama, all the things.

I could see what the kids needed because I needed the same things when I was in their shoes. They needed safety, relevance and connection to the curriculum, to be heard, seen, and valued. I brought in unconventional lessons, and “radical” literature. I took them outside for poetry and drum circles. We read Romeo and Juliet with meter-stick sword battles and a balcony scenes where boys played Juliet and girls played Romeo, and there was no bullying, there was just love and laughing. So much laughing. Teaching was like my whole heart was on fire, with purpose and passion. But poetry still burned in the background… waiting.

By my fifth year, I had a poetry unit that was so incredible it culminated with Sandra Cisneros flying in to see and visit with my students for a whole day, bringing them signed copies of her brand new hardcover novel, signing them, listening to their poetry. It was LIFE-CHANGING for my kids (students). I saw what poetry had the capacity to achieve. I won Teacher of the Year that year, then won for the whole school district, then was a top-5 finalist out of 85,000 teachers in the Region. Then you know what I did?

I quit.

To become a poet.

Fast forward ten or so years, and here I am in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, with four published books under my belt, named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times in 2020, and was just awarded the Governor’s Arts Award in Education from the Arts Council in 2021. I am a poet, now, yes. But I am also a Teaching Artist with Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, bringing the healing and emotionally freeing magic of poetry to thousands of kids across the state each school year.

My high school kids in Houston are all grown up now and are my friends on FB, but I still feel like I am an example for them, a reflection of someone who looks like them— someone who chased her dreams, and caught them.

CH: Tell us a little about your work as editor at Rise Up Review. How has this work shaped you as a writer?

KC: Being an Associate Editor is a humbling experience. Seeing how many types of poets there are, how many different voices out there trying to be heard, it’s just mind-boggling. I always read submissions hoping to feel, hoping to be struck by emotion, tension, action, hope. I want to learn and see perspectives of others when I read for RUR. Rise Up Review is a journal of resistance, born out of defiance to the acts against humanity of the last administration. I am honored to help facilitate more poems being pushed out into a greater sphere, that fight towards justice and light. I see myself as a warrior poet. I write the wrongs. I fight with the sword of my words. There is still much work for us to do.

CH: You published your first poetry collection, Periscope Heart (Swimming with Elephants Publications, 2014), and have since published Wingspan (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016), Incandescent (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), and now Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021). What do you see as the arc of your development as a writer?

KC: First of all, these are SUCH great questions, Cindy. Thank you for the opportunity to answer them. My arc as a writer has definitely shifted from book to book. PH was very inward facing, about my body image, love, spirit. Wingspan is laced with all of these inward facing poems as well, those reflections, but also I began to see the power of my platform (having a mic to read poems at each week, and naming injustices I see and felt, as a progressive blue flame in a very red state). My justice work began. My activism. My poetry as protest. Incandescent is almost all of that entirely, as we were in the hands of a cruel the of darkness.

Throughout all my books, I write with light, hoping to bring beauty and nature back into the consciousness of the reader, in such a troubling time. There are always love poems. Requited now. Queer and beautiful. But my work has gotten increasing more political, and as consciousness has evolved, I have evolved with it, adding my voice to the conversations on race and inclusion. Black Lives Matter, let me take the moment to say.

Mining for Stardust is all prismatic views of the previous facets of my work, plus the pandemic. It is my most intentional work. It was the hardest to write, to find the light in such unprecedented chaos and dark, such volatile upheaval. Here, let my book trailer try to convey what I hope this book does.

CH: Tell us a little about how Mining for Stardust came to be. What does it share with your earlier work? How does it differ?

KC: I wrote the first poem of the book after watching a viral video of a quarantined Italian opera star sing “Nessun Dorma” to his isolated comrades from his balcony– the future for all of us bleak and unknown. I cried, and I wrote. For all of 2020, I did this, leading a community of poets on Wednesday Night Poetry each week with pointed poems of emotion and light. The poems breathe and grieve, lose and love, heal and hope–they take you through and to the other side of this darkest time in our collective lived human experience. Mining for Stardust is memorial, grief, joy, beauty, truth, resistance, reflection, love, and balm for the aching human heart. It is the work of a scribe who earnestly engraves this moment into our human history. This collection is something you can hold in your hands, point to, and say, “I lived through all of this, too. I survived. I made it to the other side.”

CH: I found the breadth of poems in Mining for Stardust to be fascinating: from love poems to poems that rage against the pandemic and social injustice to poems that celebrate the way that land can be medicine. What guided you in the selection of the poems for this book, and in their sequencing?

KC: Chronological devastation and hope, loss and love. As I moved through the moments in earnest empathic feeling, the poems emerged.

CH: What sustains you in your writing practice? 

KC: Beauty. Being struck by beauty. Feeling that I am the only one on earth at a particular moment, seeing with the eyes of a poet, a minuscule precise sliver of existence. Naming it. Holding it on my tongue. Making it live forever.

CH: You’ve been hosting the monthly Wednesday Night Poetry series for quite some time. How was it for you to assume the role of continuing the unbroken streak of readings since February of 1989? How has it been for you to continue this practice through the pandemic?

KC: It has been the honor of my life holding space for poets all over the world to survive this pandemic.

CH: Now that Mining for Stardust is out, what are you working on?

KC: Resting. Breathing. Noticing. Writing. Being.

A Virtual Interview with Teresa Palomo Acosta

Background

Friday, December 10, 2021 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-presents-tejanaland-by-teresa-palomo-acosta-tickets-201325238207

BookWoman is delighted to present Teresa Palomo Acosta for the launch of her book, Tejanaland: A Writing Life in Four Acts (Texas A&M Press, 2021). Tejanaland collects three decades of Acosta’s work in poems, essays, drama, and children’s story that address the cultural, historical, political, and gender realities that have informed the author from childhood to the present.

Poet, historian, author, and activist Teresa Palomo Acosta grew up in McGregor, Texas, in a home approximately 100 human paces from the railroad tracks. She first learned about music and writing from her maternal grandfather Maximino and her mother Sabina. At 11, she decided to become a writer and spent the next four years cogitating before settling on poetry as her chosen form. Teresa’s degrees in Mexican American Studies from UT Austin and in Journalism from Columbia University reinforced her commitment to depict her Tejanaland life in equal measures of joy and pain.

In addition to Tejanaland, Acosta is the author of the poetry collections In the Season of Change (Eakin Press, 2003), Nile and Other Poems (Red Salmon Press, 1999), and Passing Time (Teresa Palomo Acosta, 1984). Acosta co-authored Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003) with Ruthe Winegarten.

The Interview

CH: First, tell us a little about the term “Tejanaland.” Where did it originate, and how does it resonate with you? Why did you select “Tejanaland” as the title of your book?

TPA: Tejanaland is my name for a powerful world that gave me life. I chose it as the book title because it is an emphatic grito that lays claim to “the land that became Texas,” a common phrase used to denote the present-day State of Texas. Mexican-origin people often possess both indigenous and Spanish-Mexican roots, making us a people who, for many generations, have lived our lives on both sides of the present-day border. Just as importantly, the title is a way to proclaim my creative literary landscape. The title Tejanaland is leaves no doubt that what I write is both deeply rooted in the Central Texas Blacklands, where I grew up, and is connected to all the other geographic landscapes my people occupy in this state.

CH: You’ve said you learned about music and writing from both your mother and your maternal grandfather. What was the role of music and writing in your home life?

TPA: My maternal grandfather Maximino Palomo had been taught to play the violin as a boy. His family, according to the stories I learned, worked and lived on an hacienda. He was apparently meant to become the manager of the hacienda in due time. His future called for him to have “cultured tastes,” which included playing a musical instrument. The 1910 Mexican Revolution changed this trajectory, forcing him to flee with his family across the US-Mexico border. He continued, however, to play violin. He insisted that I practice soprano clarinet every day. I took up the instrument as a sixth grader in my school’s music program. My grandfather had been an actor in traditional Mexican plays, and he would sometimes perform a favorite role for me. My mother had a lovely contralto. She sang at home in Spanish as she did housework.

My mother provided space and quiet for me to write in our home. She would tell visitors, “Teresa is writing, so we must be quiet.” I’m not sure how she surmised that writing was important to me, but she did. In our kitchen, the Velásquez Spanish Dictionary was prominently displayed on a small table. My parents never told me how they obtained the book. But its presence was significant to me. I used the dictionary for my Spanish language classes in high school and later in college. Perhaps its availability was a foretelling that Spanish was a natural occupant of my writing world.

CH: Your bio talks about your early interest in writing, and the decision you made to become a poet. What was it about writing that fascinated you? And what steered you in the direction of poetry?

TPA: As a child, I spent a good deal of time imagining events and places. I would stand on the railroad tracks in front of our home and wonder about what lay in the distance—what people and experiences could be found “out there.” At the same time, the people who surrounded me were my major interests: how they spoke as they visited with my mother, father, and grandfather; the funny jokes and play on words that my father used in describing a friend or a situation; and what my grandfather told me about his life, dramatizing it for me, as needed.

What steered me to poetry is partly what steered many dreamy-eyed teenagers, at least in my memory, to poetry: a desire to write about romance, about being rescued by a “knight in shining armor” and similar themes. As a young girl, I grew deeply intrigued with the way words reveal so much about ourselves and others. Between the ages of 11 and about 16, I simply decided that poetry was my genre. Also, in high school, I participated in poetry interpretation in the University Interscholastic League competition. As a result, I read a great deal of poetry from English and American literature. However, I later learned just how limited American literature was by race and ethnicity, which was the case during my school years. Growing up, I had no Mexican-origin writers to emulate, and poems by or about about Mexicans were unheard at my school. Those poems, in fact, had existed for generations, but they were not taught to me throughout much of my formal education.

Thus, the Mexican American literature I learned was a living being within my home and my community. It was delivered orally to me in stories told at home and in our community. When I was more mature, I decided to make my people’s experiences one of the chief basis of my work. Indeed, my poetry emerged from what I learned or witnessed at home. As a young woman, I asked my parents a great deal about our family’s history. They were happy to tell me what they could. We would take driving trips around McGregor and the surrounding towns. On these journeys, they would relate many experiences and point out specific sites where they had lived, worked, and socialized as young people during the Great Depression. Many of the experiences they related to me made their way into my work—many. I cannot emphasize this enough. I can still hear my parents’ voices as they spoke about our family history in the Central Texas Blacklands. They, along with my maternal grandfather, were my teachers for making the community’s hearth a world—a Tejanaland—about which to write.

CH: I understand that Tejanaland surveys three decades of your work, from poetry to essay to drama to children’s story. How do you see your development as a writer over your career?

TPA: My formal training as a writer began when I enrolled at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. There, I studied with Dr. Travis Looper, who was considered a fearsomely tough professor of Freshman English. He taught us to diagram sentences, in an effort to illustrate to us how words function in relation to one another. After returning to us our first essay for his class, Professor Looper told us that while we “had a lot to say, we didn’t know how to say it.” I was both dismayed at my C- on that essay and elated that his class offered the opportunity to learn how to write persuasively. I had ended up in Professor Looper’s class by asking a pertinent question during fall semester registration. When I arrived at the registration desk, I learned that his composition class was woefully lacking in students. I asked why. A member of the registration staff responded, with a gleam in her eye, that students, if they could, made every effort to avoid Professor Looper’s class because he was “hard.” Great, I thought. I wanted a hard teacher, so I immediately registered to study with Professor Looper. I made sufficient progress in his class to earn a semester grade of A-. At UT Austin, I enrolled in the only creative writing class I’ve ever taken. Dr. Carlota Cárdenas de Dwyer was my professor. I wrote “My Mother Pieced Quilts” as a classroom assignment. Professor Cárdenas de Dwyer and other colleagues of hers were in the process of assembling The United States in Literature, a secondary school literature textbook. She asked me for permission to publish my poem in the textbook and, of course, I agreed to her request. “My Mother Pieced Quilts” has remained the best known of my poems, and continues to appear in several secondary American literature textbooks. For one year, I served as the editor of El Despertador at UT Austin, which was the newspaper of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). I loved writing. I knew that I would pursue it in one way or another.

CH: As a writer, what has become more important to you over time? As a young writer, were there things you thought important that seemed less over time?

TPA: Writing directly, using a contemplative or meditative approach has become paramount. As a young writer, I likely tried to please others. However, it’s become more important for me to write about what moves me rather than to try to please an audience. My lyric poetry has, I think, been largely been overlooked by scholars and others who have followed me as a poet addressing political matters. I consider the lyric poems key to my work. In Tejanaland they, some tinged with humor, reign.

CH: I have known about you as a poet and historian for some time, but did not know of your background in journalism. What led you to Columbia University? How did this course of study there shape the direction of your writing life?

TPA: I fashioned myself, incorrectly, a reporter because I am a very curious person and thought that journalism would provide a great platform for exploring the world. So I applied and was accept to the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Studying at Columbia was a tough road for me to traverse. I faced constant challenges in figuring out how to move about the city to complete my assignments. The pace at Columbia was also quite demanding.

Yet, while it may seem odd, I think the study of journalism is a great education for a poet. It certainly was the case for me. I learned how to be quiet and let others talk. I learned to think on my feet, so to speak, and how to quickly devise the main point of a story. Importantly, I gained the ability to rapidly start a piece of writing with a phrase or one sentence—the so-called important “lead” of a newspaper story. Indeed, figuring out the “lead” is also important in writing poetry.

Almost from the first week of my journalism studies, I realized that I was not bound for a reporting career. Yet I am deeply grateful that studying journalism showed me how to explore the lives of people and situations that I thought needed bringing to light in poetry. Many of my poetry subjects live in the American Southwest, with many residing in my family history in McGregor and in my larger community in Texas.

CH: What do you see as the relationship between journalism and history? Tell us a bit about your experience with journalism. How did you become a historian?

TPA: I think journalism and history share a great deal in common. It has been proposed that journalism is the “first” history, as it reports on events as they occur, and history reports on the long aftermath of events. The two fields require keen observation; numerous sources; the ability to listen to others’ opinions, while refraining from judging their perspective; organizing an account of events that entices people to read it. Both rely on using the most intriguing of voices to tell a story. They also require writing precisely, although history allows for the fashioning of a longer narrative. I began to write history when I served for four years as a research associate for the New Handbook of Texas project at the Texas State Historical Association. I was hired to write about the history of Mexican Americans in Texas. My tenure at the Handbook allowed me to learn to use archival records and seek sources beyond the all-important interview that is of high importance in journalism. Before my experience at the NHOT, I would never have imagined myself as capable of writing history.

CH: When I see the term “Tejanaland,” I can’t help but think of Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003), which you authored with Ruthe Winegarten. How did your experience working on that project influence your writing life?

TPA: Writing Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History with Ruthe Winegarten had a deeply personal impact on how to write about women’s lives. What an uplifting journey she and I took in pursing the book. I have an essay in Tejanaland about our collaboration. As to how our work impacted my writing life: The experience confirmed my desire to write about Tejanas who are unknown or little appreciated such as Elena Zamora O’Shea, about whom I write in Tejanaland, or Daria Arredondo Vera, a labor activist in the Rio Grande Valley. In writing Las Tejanas, Ruthe and I went beyond focusing solely on major Tejana figures. Our commitment to depict the lives of extra-ordinary women continues to guide me. I find their stories deeply compelling and in need of an audience. Another outcome of our work was that I pledged myself to write honestly about women.

CH: Looking back on what you’ve learned, what might you tell your young writer self?

TPA: I would definitely tell her to be bold, to experiment with her ideas; to live outside of the United States for some time; to forgive herself for her writing errors; and to begin with anticipation and joy each time she faces the blank page. That blank page is an invitation to preserve human life in words. I would also tell her to be a generous writer, sharing what she knows and learning from others.

A Virtual Interview with Kelly Ann Ellis and Tina Cardona

Background

Thursday, December 9, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-letters-sent-inland-tickets-201375518597

BookWoman welcomes poets Tina Cardona and Kelly Ann Ellis, co-founders of the non-profit HotPoet, Inc., for an evening in celebration of Letters Sent Inland : Selected Poems of Glynn Monroe Irby.

In vivid poems that reflect Glynn Monroe Irby’s life-long connection with the Texas Gulf Coast, Letters Sent Inland explores Irby’s passionate relationship with both coastal ecology and industrial landscape. HotPoet, Inc. selected Letters Sent Inland for publication to honor Irby, who passed away in 2020. It is the first collection to be published by the organization.

hotpoet, Inc. is based in Houston, Texas. Its mission includes “creating literary arts events, publishing insightful literature, and building inclusive support networks that nurture joy as well as awareness of our obligation to care for each other and for our planet.” More information can be found at https://www.hotpoet.org/.

The Interview

CH: I know that you two (Kelly Ellis and Tina Cardona) have long known each other as part of Houston’s poetry community. Tell us a little bit about how HotPoet, Inc. came to be.

TC and KE: Before there was a hotpoet, Inc., we were just two friends who wanted to celebrate poetry, build community, and encourage passion in poetry. Our endeavors started with a conversation over cocktails at Leon’s, a bar in Houston, with a couple of other poets. Kelly said she wanted to publish an anthology of sultry poetry and call it “Is it Hot Enough For You?” and Tina thought that was a great idea, and that we should have a party with that theme.

Our first party was in the summer of 2013 and by winter, we had decided it would be a solstice celebration. We started building certain traditions around the event (a poetry game, a fire, an exquisite corpse poem, an instant anthology, a themed cocktail, etc.). The theme of these parties was always “heat” –however the poet chose to address this theme (as in passion, weather, food, energy, or politics). We acquired the name “Hot Poets” when we threw a benefit for Public Poetry and called it “Hot Poets and All that Jazz,” in which we featured several poets and an open mic backed up by a jazz band. The idea was that anyone could be a “hot poet”—and the name stuck.

We shortened it to “hotpoet” (all lower-case letters) when we established the nonprofit. Over the years, we continued to throw parties, but we felt a need to pair our own social awareness and advocacy with the events.  So, we hosted fundraisers for causes we supported as well as participating in 100,000 Poets for Change. Our themes took on a more serious tone as we attempted to address social and environmental issues that concern us all and to encourage fellow poets to use their voices to effect change. We decided that starting a nonprofit would enable us to further our efforts in this direction.

Since establishing hotpoet, Inc., we have had a big learning curve and it has been challenging in many ways, but it has also been a source of joy for us and, we hope, for others. Our mission is still the same as it was in the beginning: to build community, promote the arts, support artists and their work, and to help artists and others to use poetry and other self and/or body-based modalities (music, movement, visual arts) to increase their passion for life, and to write passionately about things they care deeply about.

CH: Founding a literary non-profit is an ambitious venture. How long did it take you to go from the idea of the non-profit to its implementation and first publication?

TC and KE: We got the idea for having a nonprofit some time ago, since we were already throwing events and fundraisers, trying to build community, and promoting artists and writers. It seems we had the idea for years before we had the impetus of Glynn’s book project to spur us into actually doing the groundwork for it.

KE: We began working on Glynn’s book in November 2020, started the nonprofit in December 2020, published the book in April 2021, and had the book launch event in June 2021. I think that this wouldn’t normally be a realistic timeline, but I had a lot of time on my hands due to the pandemic and did not have the constraints of working a full-time job. I think working full-time would have made the process a lot longer. Also, we had a lot of help from our Secretary, Jack Kendall, who did much of the paperwork, and my [Kelly’s] daughter Dominique, who put together the website.

CH: I remember Glyn Monroe Irby as a poet whose vision was so grounded in his life-long experience of the Gulf Coast, and as a warm and generous man who often spoke words of encouragement. Tell us a little about how you knew Glynn.

KE:  I knew Glynn through the poetry community, where we became close friends. When we first met, I used to joke that I was like Eliza Doolittle and he was Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady. Glynn was brilliant, with a wealth of information about poetry, philosophy, science, art, architecture, history, you name it. He was also a good conversationalist and listener with a subtle sense of humor and a strong appreciation for beauty. I admired him greatly and cared for him deeply.

We used to trade poems often and, although we had very different styles, we appreciated each other’s work. He helped me extensively over the years with organizing and formatting chapbooks, both for myself and my students, with whom I did a yearly anthology chapbook and a book release party, and he was always generous with his time and efforts. He also helped hotpoet with designing flyers and covers for our instant anthologies. He loved a good party and was an integral participant in our annual solstice celebrations.

TC: I met Glynn when I was 14 years old and he was dating my older sister.  I was an introverted bookworm with a stutter in a small town, and Glynn appeared worldly, wore bowler hats, cravats and carried an ornate walking cane (although he didn’t need a cane). 

While he waited interminably for my sister, I would ask him a million questions and tell him about the books I was reading.  He was the only person I knew who had the patience to hear me finish a sentence and who was genuinely interested in novels.  We remained friends throughout adulthood and were not surprised when we realized we were both writing poetry. 

CH: Letter Sent Inland: Selected Poems of Glynn Monroe Irby collects Glynn’s poetry in an individual volume for the first time. How did you come about engaging with this project?

KE: When Glynn passed away, several of his friends approached me and said that they would like to publish a volume of his poetry. Daniel Carrington and I both had PDF manuscripts of collections Glynn had put together and submitted to various presses, but they had gone unpublished. Dustin Pickering had worked with Glynn on covers and editing in the past, and he offered to help. Chuck Wemple and I discussed taking Glynn’s best work and creating a curated collection, and Chuck offered to facilitate the meetings.

Because Glynn had delegated funds to be given to organizations that promoted poetry and the arts, the executor of his estate decided to award some money to hotpoet for our projects, one of which was to include this book. We had been throwing events and benefits for years, and we felt it was time to become an official nonprofit and devote our resources and energies in a more focused way.

Glynn’s friend Jack Kendall, an accountant who has represented nonprofits over the years, agreed to be on the board as secretary/treasurer and graciously took on the bulk of paperwork needed to establish us as a nonprofit. Tina and I set up a bank account, my daughter Dominique helped to design our website where we advertised the book in advance, so that gave us a means to publicize the project. At that point we were underway. We began meeting weekly via ZOOM, and with each meeting would review what we had accomplished and then set up tasks to be finished before the next meeting.

CH: Book publication is always a collaborative process. Because this is a posthumous volume, I’m sure there were particular challenges, not the least of which was not having Glynn to consult. Tell us a little about the process and challenges in creating this collection.

KE: Glynn was a perfectionist, and it helped that the poems we had were complete and well crafted, but we still had some challenges with creating a cohesive manuscript from the extensive body of work he left behind. I think Daniel suggested the title “Letters Sent Inland,” which was a phrase from one of Glynn’s poems, and that sparked the concept of arranging four sections, beginning with coastal poems and working our way “inland” to more interior landscapes, moving even deeper with poems of memory, and ending with poems of the heart and spirit.

We decided together which poems were his strongest, and organized sections along these lines. Then we each chose the sections we were most interested in curating: Daniel took on the coastal poems, Chuck chose the inland landscapes, I chose the family and memory, poems, and Dustin took on the heart/spirit poems. We next sequenced our individual sections to create an arc within the section that complemented our overall arc. Daniel did the bulk of the formatting, using his skills and resources as a designer to create a new manuscript, which was challenging because he was working with PDFs.

After we had our manuscript, we began editing. This was challenging because, as you noted, Glynn was not present to consult. Still, we tried to stay as true to Glynn’s intentions as possible with each of the poems. Most of our edits dealt with punctuation, capitalization, word consistency, and we decided that we had to agree as a group before we made any changes. This involved some discussion, even though the changes were relatively few and minor. Occasionally Glynn had two versions of the same poem, and we had to figure out which was more recent (or which was the stronger version). I also had inherited his binder of hard-copy poems that he used when he did readings and we frequently referred to it. We did not always agree on everything, but we resolved our differences as friends, and we all viewed the project as a labor of love. The most important thing to all of us was to produce a collection that honored Glynn and of which he would have been proud.

CH: Since the publication of Letter Sent Inland, hotpoet, Inc. has also launched a bi-annual e-journal, Equinox, in which I had the pleasure of having my work published. What is your vision for the journal? How did you decide on the e-journal format?

TC and KE: The spirit of our solstice parties was always one of spontaneity, joy, and passion—but we decided that Equinox would be a bit different. We wanted a curated journal with emphasis on acquiring more crafted work and artistic balance. Madeleine Castator, our editor, conceived the idea of using the archetypal significance of the equinox as an aesthetic principal. The equinox is the beginning of change—a movement from light to dark in the fall (and dark to light in the spring)— and thus is poised on the cusp of transformation. This informed our theme: “A Change in the Weather.”

Compared to an in-print journal, we thought the e-journal would have less overhead expense and involve less labor, as in the physical work of storing books, keeping inventory, and mailing out orders. That way, we could use the reading fees for prize money and then make the journal free to the public, which we did. However, we did not figure on the cost of joining CLMP and subscribing to Submittable (both of which were expensive but necessary), so we did not exactly break even. But we are learning as we go and are quite proud of the finished product, which we think is beautiful. Kelly is old-school in that she still likes having a physical journal to hold in her hand, but there are so many possibilities with an e-journal that would be simply too expensive for us in a paper journal.

Having made the initial investment in CLMP and Submittable, our next issue will not be constrained by costs. That way, we can continue to have colorful images and beautiful elements of design without worrying about money, and thus we can keep it free to the public, feature both literary and visual arts, and stay true to our mission of supporting artists and their work.

CH: I understand Letters Sent Inland is the first publication of The Wildwood Project. Tell us a little about the mission of The Wildwood Project. Are additional titles currently in the works?

TC and KE: We formed The Wildwood Project to help us in our goal of publishing Glynn’s book, assembling a committee of editors and volunteers who gave generously of their time and efforts. We want to continue with our efforts as a small press and hope to publish future titles, but the committee of editors might change depending on the project and who wants to be involved.

Our next full-length book will probably be a collection of the poems submitted to our solstice celebrations over the past 8 years. We are also interested in publishing a heritage collection that features some of the poetry institutions that helped to found the Houston poetry scene (First Friday, Helios/the Mausoleum, NOTSUOH, etc.). We hope to honor the work of poets who paved the way for the thriving community we have today.

We haven’t yet started on any of these projects yet–these just some ideas that we have been discussing. Our next publication will probably be our traditional instant anthology, a spontaneous collection put together at our winter solstice celebration. This year our theme is “Still I Rise” (from the Maya Angelou poem by that name).

Beginning in December, we are also calling for submissions to the spring edition of Equinox. We don’t want to take on more than we can reasonably do well and we never want to get so overextended that it stops being fun. We think one publication per year might be a good beginning goal for us as a small press.

CH: Running a press, however small, is a huge undertaking. How do you balance your own writing lives with the work of hotpoet, Inc.?

KE: To be honest, that part is hard. My own writing has taken a back seat since starting the nonprofit. It is difficult to juggle the two different pursuits. I hope that as we get more grounded, I will have a better sense of how to stay balanced and keep up with my own writing.

I have heard this same concern voiced by other friends who have been involved in running nonprofits in the past and who quit for that very reason: the difficulty of pursuing their own writing while running the nonprofit. I think it is challenging to switch gears because the nonprofit requires the analytical side of brain and creative writing uses the other side. Hopefully I’ll get better at it, though, since both are important to me.

TC: I have a continuous reverberation of guilt because dedicated time for all endeavors remains a challenge.  I am also a committed clinical social worker in education and this too is draining on every level.  Add this to my own writing practice which requires cultivation of craft, mind and spirit and I find myself struggling to do all I value in a way that honors my love for it.  hotpoet is celebratory though and the solstice parties have become a festive tradition within our local poetry community.  I am honored to be a part of this community and to uplift local poets and our work.

A Virtual Interview with Lauren Berry

Background

Thursday, November 11, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. CST

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-lauren-berry-tickets-184367276487

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of reading poetry?

LB: I would describe myself as a fleetingly obsessive reader. I get hooked on a genre and submerge into it for a couple months and then the wind will shift and I am onto something else. In the past year, I’ve leapt from children’s literature to erotica to biographies to Russian literature and now Lauren Groff’s new historical fiction novel, Matrix, which has absorbed my imagination.  

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

LB: I knew even as a child that I wanted to write. For fourth grade career day, I dressed up like an author – black velour turtleneck, black leggings, black beret. Also, my elementary school had a “Young Authors” program and if you wrote a story by each Friday, you earned an orange button that said, “Young Author,” and had a drawing of a quill on it. Once you collected so many, they framed your school picture in the library. I remember when I made it to the library wall. It was my first real milestone as a writer.

But I didn’t think of myself as a poet until I was a teenager. I used to ride horses but when I got mono in tenth grade, I missed six weeks of school and was told it was too dangerous for me to ride, so I signed up for a poetry workshop at a fine arts center a few miles from my house. I loved it. Sitting there at sixteen, in the middle of a group of retired women, I felt a flicker inside me. My teacher, Timothy Juhl, saw that light and encouraged me to get a degree in Creative Writing. I still think about him often, and I’m so grateful for his influence in my life.

CH: What motivated you to pursue an MFA? What changed most about your writing practice as a result of the experience of the MFA?

LB: The MFA felt like a natural step for me. I loved being a student and I just felt hungry for more knowledge. There was never a point when I considered not getting an MFA.

My time in the MFA program at the University of Houston changed my discipline as a reader more than my practice as a writer. Since I was young, I wrote constantly, but I was not as dedicated of a reader. However, when I got my first apartment in Houston, I discovered a wonderful stillness in living alone for the first time. I would sit on my porch for hours, curled up with a book.

CH: I understand you held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. How did you become aware of the fellowship? How did the fellowship impact your writing?

LB: The fellowship at Madison was one of the best years of my life because I taught for two hours a week—and that’s it. The gift of time to write made it possible for me to really get lost in my writing and reading. As a Floridian, I had also never seen snow and the winter wonderland that is Wisconsin opened a new realm in my imagination.

CH: Your first book, The Lifting Dress (Penguin, 2011), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the National Poetry Series in 2010. Tell us a little about how that collection came together.

LB: One of my favorite quotes about art is Michelangelo’s “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” When I began The Lifting Dress, I started with a scene that features the Just-Bled Girl the day after she endures sexual assault– and then I started “carving” my way through her narrative journey until she found her power again.

CH: The poems of The Lifting Dress contain a strong sense of place, as well as the gendered impacts of that place on the poems’ speakers. Please tell us a little about the role of place in your work.

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: The use of epithets for characters (“Big Man,” “The Just-Bled Girl”) in The Lifting Dress felt to me as if it moved them into the realms of archetype and myth. How has myth influenced your writing?

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent collection, The Rented Altar (C&R Press, 2020). How does it compare thematically with The Lifting Dress?

LB: Both collections are invested in portraying the experience of a female speaker in conflict with her own body. In The Lifting Dress, the speaker struggles to find her own voice in the aftermath of sexual violence. In The Rented Altar, the speaker searches for validity as a new wife and stepmother who cannot conceive her own child. I find the female body endlessly fascinating, and this intrigue has carried me into my third collection which is a book of persona poems from the point of view of Typhoid Mary.

CH: Both The Lifting Dress and The Rented Altar came to publication on winning a contest. What advice would you give to poets preparing manuscripts for contests?

LB: After sending your book out into the world, be patient. Trust that your readers are out there, excited for your book to come along. Be kind to yourself while you wait.

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

LB: I undertook the Russian literature marathon that is Anna Karenina in August and September, and I am still digesting its lessons. Tolstoy’s ability to capture the emotional interior of a character and communicate their point of view in such a believable way was an absolute gift to me as a reader.  

A Virtual Interview with Bree A. Rolfe

Background

Thursday, October 14, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-bree-a-rolfe-tickets-168042019203

Bree A. Rolfe will be reading from her new collection, Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl (Unsolicited Press, release date September 30, 2021). 

Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always loveable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally form Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for 10 years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’s poetry anthology, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology, Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology, Mother is a Verb, and 5 AM Magazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl is her first chapbook. http://breerolfe.com

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

BAR: My earliest memory of poetry is probably in elementary school. I don’t know if I even remember what grade it was, but we read Shel Silverstein and I was completely in love. I think it’s interesting because I started with poetry from a place that was very funny and lighthearted, and I think, in a lot of ways, I ended up back there.  In the middle, there were a lot  of dark poems written, but I think now my work has a hint of the Silverstein I loved as a kid. I am not sure when I began to think of myself as a writer. I mean I am not even sure I even think that now, but I guess I became more serious, or rather too serious, about writing poetry in middle school. I had a wonderful teacher, Bonnie Staiger, who inspired me to write poems. In fact, I dedicated my book to her because it really was in her classroom that began a “writer’s life.” Since middle school, the poems have always been there for me. Obviously, not as a profession or anything like that, but as a practice or in the spiritual sense. Some people have religion. I have poems. 

CH: In addition to your poetry, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your non-fiction articles (“Imposter,” published in the journal Lunch Ticket), is just knock-out amazing, imho). How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a “primary” writer identity?

BAR: I’d say primarily I am a poet. Most of the writing I do that feels close to my soul is poetry. I don’t have the attention span required for writing essays on a regular basis. I have done journalism work in the past and I like that work, but it’s not part of my identity. For better or worse, I am a poet, which is frustrating at times because, let’s face it, poetry is not that lucrative or popular. 

CH: I understand you were a music journalist before you turned to poetry. How did that experience help shape the work you create as a poet?

BAR: Well, to be honest, music journalism sort of came to me after poetry. I wrote poetry first as a young person. I think I developed the passions for both simultaneously in high school. When I decided on a college major, I decided to major in journalism because I thought it was more practical, which is kind of hilarious as neither pursuit is actually all that practical. However, I took upper level poetry workshops all through college. I just so happened to get paid for writing about music and so that was more of a professional focus. However, my music writing and my love of music has always fed my poetry. My interest is mostly tied up in lyrics, which are a kind of poetry. I love how connected and comforted I have felt over the years by the artists I love. Music is kind of always in the background  of my life. I have a lot of musician friends and their work continually inspires me and my own poetry. I use music in writing exercises when I am stuck.  It’s shaped my work by being a point of access and a thread that I think reaches out to others who know and connect to the music I love. It creates a common ground. Also, it’s something that is integral in some of the relationships I write about. Growing up, the music of the sixties and seventies was like a religion in my house. My happiest childhood memories involve listening to music with my parents. I feel like when we couldn’t understand one another, we could always connect through music. That was deeply important to me and so it ends up in the poems. 

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

BAR: So, when I decided to go to Bennington, I was in a dark place mentally and professionally. After undergraduate school, I sort of just worked corporate jobs and wrote about music on the side and after doing that for like almost a decade, I was over it. I’d been working in the marketing department of a company that manufactured police uniforms and outerwear. It was awful and I worked with a lot of really conservative people and the job was just kind of soul crushing in many ways. I started taking poetry workshops at the Boston and Cambridge Centers for Adult Education. I just got more serious about poetry again to keep from going completely insane. I needed an outlet. Then I had, believe it or not, a LiveJournal friend who had applied to Bennington and gotten in. I didn’t even know what a low residency was at the time, but when I learned about it, graduate school became an option for me. I needed to work full time, so traditional grad school was not even feasible. I went to visit that friend during a summer residency. I met a lot of people in the program and I went to some faculty readings. I chose Bennington because I had experienced the program and I saw Jason Shinder read and he blew me away. I wanted to work with him and so I applied there.

CH: What has been the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?

BAR: The greatest gift of my MFA has been the friendships and connections I have made. Look, MFAs are not cheap and I am not sure if I can say it was “worth” the money in any practical sense. However, you can’t put a price tag on relationships. Also, without it, I wouldn’t still be writing and publishing and I am certain of that fact. I needed the structure. The major drawback for me is that apparently local community colleges don’t like my low residency transcript and won’t let me teach composition classes (even dual credit at the high school I taught at) despite the fact that I have a graduate degree and decades of experience publishing journalism. 

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl? Tell us a little about the book.

BAR: It’s a book that is grappling with, what at the time, was a life threatening illness. It is mostly about trying to figure out how to navigate life and relationships when faced with the possibility of dying. That sounds a bit more dark than I think the book is, but it’s essentially about these issues. I think, even more so, it’s about how you decide to carry on and how it changes you as a person. 

CH: What did you learn in the process of writing and sequencing the book? What was your process in finding a publisher?

BAR: I learned that I don’t like sequencing books and I have no idea how to do it. I did sequencing by taping it to my walls in my living room and physically moving poems all around. When I finally came up with an order, I decided I needed help. So, I then passed it on to my poetry sisters Judy Jensen & Tina Posner who were gracious and kind and more helpful than I deserved. So, they both gave me some orders. I had longer, full length versions of the book and they helped me cut it down to a chapbook size for a few contests that I, of course, didn’t win. But the “order” was largely their doing. So, I learned to get help from friends. As for a publisher, I sent it to a few contests, but being a high school teacher, fees are a barrier, so it wasn’t a ton. It got rejected. A lot. I was actually about to just give up on ever getting it published. So, I stopped sending it out for a while and then started actively looking again. And honestly, I have no idea how I found Unsolicited Press, but I clicked on their website and it said, “No bullshit. Just Books,” and I knew that was the home for my book. Their submission guidelines and how they presented them were just so much the way I write and think about poetry. I just felt like “these are my people.”  I am just so freaking grateful they saw something in my work. I am really proud to be alongside all of the other stellar work they’ve published. 

CH: I know your “day job” is as a high school teacher of English and creative writing. How has this work influenced your writing? What have you learned from your students?

BAR: I learn from my students every single day. Their resilience and their strength is often overwhelming. I have had students over the years who have had lives that have been filled with more challenges as teenagers than most people experience in a lifetime. They have reminded me to shut up and stop complaining and live the best life I possibly can even when it’s hard. I have also learned that processing through writing is so very important and so often vital. Working with my students and guiding them through their journeys has been the greatest gift of my life. Helping them find their voices has strengthened my own writing voice.  They also have helped remind me that writing should be collaborative and fun. It doesn’t always need to be serious. And to quote my former teacher Jason Shinder, “find what brings you joy.” My writing developed so much more humor and joy since I became a teacher. High school students are always good for making me laugh at myself. I appreciate them so freaking much.

CH: It often seems that by the time a book is published, other items are in the works. What are you working on now?

BAR: Well, I have a full length collection titled The Best Bad Idea You’ve Had in Months (a title stolen from a line from a poem by Jill Alexander Essbaum) that I’ve submitted to a few places. I am still waiting on collecting more rejections for that one. It has a lot of poems that again deal with my fumbling through life making mistakes and there’s an even more obvious thread of music throughout it. After it gets rejected from everywhere it’s currently out at, then I will rework it and just keep trying. I also want to do some found(ish) poems based on this How to be a Lady book by Candance Simpson-Giles. A friend of mine bought it from Brooks Brothers and showed it to me when I was visiting her and I was just so amused by it. So, that’s one of those fun projects that I think I need to get into soon because times are really hard right now for us teachers. I need something to bring me some lightness. 

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

Eileen G’Sell’s Portrait of My Ex with Giant Burrito (note: PDF access generously provided by BOAAT Press). And it is incredible. Everyone should go read it now.

A Virtual Interview with Rebecca A. Spears

Background

2nd Thursday Virtual Poetry Reading and Open Mic

Thursday, September 9, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register to attend this virtual event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-open-mic-w-rebecca-spears-tickets-165695089473

Rebecca A. Spears is the author of Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), and The Bright Obvious: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been included in TriQuarterlyCalyxCrazyhorseBarrow StreetVerse DailyArs MedicaField Notes, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and Dairy Hollow House. Brook the Divide was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry (Texas Institute of Letters). Spears is also a Pushcart nominee.

“The gorgeous poems in Brook the Divide reverberate with change, following the speaker through seasons of luck and loss. Along the way, Vincent van Gogh becomes an intimate mentor for the hard joy of making. We see how artists transform the world into pieces of art that then transform us: “you ablaze in my eye / and I in yours.” Throughout, Rebecca Spears’ memorable writing invites us into looking, then lingering…. What a beautifully written book.” — Sasha West

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? Did you write poetry during childhood?

RAS: My first memory of poetry is of my mother reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was three years old. She read to me and my siblings nearly every day when we were all quite young. I remember several of the poems even in adulthood—“The Cow,” “Happy Thought,” “The Swing,” and “Time to Rise.” Of course, many of the poems are dated and out of sync with my thinking now. But my mom reading these poems to me helped me to developed an “ear” for poetry at a pretty young age.

As a young kid, I was more interested in drawing, painting, making collages. I never wrote poetry unless prompted by a teacher for a very specific reason—like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. I did begin writing poems as a teenager—really angst-ridden stuff, yet there are also some poems where I look into the landscape and observe life with a close eye.

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

RSA: When I was in my 30s, I worked in educational publishing as a Language Arts editor. That’s when I began to think of myself as a both editor and writer. Not only did I recruit writers, but I worked closely with many of them, collaborating, writing, and editing. I used to remark to friends, “I get paid to read books and work with writers!”

Not until I was in my 40s, did I begin to think of myself as a poet. I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry for many years. A friend invited me to a reading by Naomi Shihab Nye, and I was so engaged in hearing Naomi’s poetry that I later read everything she had written. Shortly after, I began to practice poetry. For a while, I “just wrote poetry.” Then I began attending Creative Writing workshops at the University of Houston, and during that time, I started to think that I might be a poet.

CH: I understand you received your MFA from Bennington College. How did you end up deciding to pursue an MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

RSA: Working on an MFA became important to me when I realized, from those classes at UH, that I needed to undertake some serious study of other poets and learn some new techniques to become a better poet myself.

To get an MFA, I knew that I needed a low-residency program because I was raising adolescent children at the time. I checked out the top low-residency programs and applied to five of those. At the time, Jane Hirshfield was teaching at Bennington, so that ultimately drove my decision to go to Bennington. I worked with her during my second semester at Bennington. Curiously, while I treasure the time I spent in her workshop, I learned more from the faculty whose style was quite different from mine. I suppose that is because I was entirely challenged in my thinking and writing. Another important reason that I chose Bennington was because of their motto: Read 100 books. Write one. That made a lot of sense to me, that we need to read the writers who have given us our poetic background.

CH: How did your writing change as a result of participating in this program? How did your experience in the program align with your expectations prior to starting?

RAS: The program at Bennington exceeded my expectations. I loved the writerly friends I was making, the reading I was doing, the formal annotations I was submitting, the poems I was challenged to write every month. The faculty were varied in their thinking and writing—and that engaged me. Many top poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers read and lectured at every semester gathering. It was astonishing, really. The research I did for my graduating lecture on poetry of the Vietnam War still influences me as I continue to make connections between trauma and poetry. (And by the way, the creative manuscript that I wrote for the MFA, has not been published—though I still have aspirations for it.)

CH: Laurie Kutchins describes your chapbook, The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press, 2009), as constructing “narrative moments converging with a larger collective story.” Tell us a little about this chapbook, and about your process of composing it.

RAS: The larger collective story of The Bright Obvious (2009) is the basis for my full-length collection published in 2020. In the chapbook, I was attempting to link the art of Vincent van Gogh with the way that I view the landscapes around me. You’ll also see my fledgling explorations of his personality, as well as a writer’s personality. Some of the poems were composed specifically as a sequence of van Gogh poems. Others were revisions (and retitling) of some poems that I had already written.

CH: Your first full-length collection, Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), came out just last year, and was shortlisted by the Texas Institute of Letters for Best First Book of Poetry. Tell us a bit about the book and its journey to publication.   

RAS: By the time I put together Brook the Divide, I had thoroughly immersed myself in van Gogh’s letters to his friends and families. Many of those letters contain his thoughts about the way he saw landscapes and people and the methods he used to create his art. I tried to connect the poems I wrote about van Gogh with my own translations of the world around me. And I also, more closely linked the emotional landscapes of my world and van Gogh’s.

The poet Sasha West first helped me see that I might have a worthwhile project, and I worked with her advice to help me sequence a manuscript. I kept writing and adding poems where I saw “holes” in the manuscript. After a few years on my own and with critiques from my writing group friends, I felt I had a finished manuscript. I sent out the final version to maybe five publishers (during open submissions, not contests), and it was accepted in 2018 by Unsolicited Press in Portland, Oregon.

CH: The life of Vincent van Gogh is a through-line for both The Bright Obvious and Brook the Divide. When did you first encounter Van Gogh’s work? What do you see in your work that resonates with his?

RAS: I first encountered van Gogh’s work in high school art classes, and later at a large exhibition of the Impressionists (at the Kimball, I think). At the exhibit, my young son tried to touch a van Gogh painting, and I was panicked as I tried to stop him. Later, that incident made me think of how we can reach into and inhabit the work of artists.

My early experiments in the visual arts trained me to view still life paintings, portraits, urban and natural scenes as impressions of the larger world. This carried over into my writing. Good grief, it’s hard for me to not employ landscapes—fields, mountains, roads, woods, gardens—in my writing. I suppose looking at the scenes outside my head keep me anchored.

CH: You’ve received awards from the Taos Writer’s Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. How have these workshops / residencies informed your work?

RAS: At the Taos Writer’s Workshop, early in my creative writing life, I workshopped with Laurie Kutchins. She is a generous, energetic person, and she had many writing activities planned that really gave me more courage to keep doing what I was doing—and to try some new techniques. By the time I was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center, my life had changed drastically, and it was difficult to find the time to attend. So ultimately, I let that opportunity slip away. My stretch at Dairy Hollow was solitary but productive. The residency occurred at a time when I felt a little stagnant with my writing. The solitude helped me to rely on my instincts again and take on  the challenge to do more reading and writing.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing practice. How has that practice evolved over time?

RAS: When I first began writing poetry as an adult, I wrote nearly every morning. When my life changed, after the break-up of a long marriage, I only had the energy to write on weekends and in the summers when I wasn’t trying so hard to make a living teaching. I still seem to follow this second pattern, depending on summers and other breaks to come up with new ideas and drafts. When classes are in session, I typically spend a few hours on the weekends writing and revising the work I did in the summer.

CH: Are there books to which you find yourself returning from time to time? What are you reading now?

RAS: Yes, there are a number of books and poets that I keep returning to. Let me say, though, that I read a lot of popular novels and stories at the end of a work day. Currently, I am reading, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray, and I’m about to take up Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. Yet this past winter, I read the new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, and I was just immersed in her life and Ted Hughes’ life for quite a while. In fact, I ordered Plath’s letters and journals, along with Hughes’ Birthday Letters—I’m still working my way through those. The poets I keep returning to are Rose McLarney, Ada Limón, Katie Ford, Sasha West, Franz Wright, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

A Virtual Interview with Jeanne B. Guy

Background

Book Launch: You’ll Never Find Us by Jeanne B. Guy

Wednesday, August 25, 2021 at 7:00 p.m.

Register to attend via Zoom: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/book-launch-youll-never-find-us-a-memoir-by-jeanne-guy-tickets-164798790619

Jeanne B. Guy will read from her riveting new memoir, You’ll Never Find Us: The Story of How My Children Were Stolen From Me and How I Stole Them Back (She Writes Press, 2021).

The Interview

CH: I’m curious about your background as a writer. When did you first begin to be intrigued by the art of storytelling? Growing up, did you imagine yourself becoming a published author? If not, what ignited your interest in pursuing writing?

JBG: Ha! Published author? Nope. I do remember (as a young reader) thinking how fantastic Nancy Drew was and inhaled all those mysteries. And though I was the president of the “Inkpots” writers’ club in high school, I remember nothing (I mean nothing) about the group. There was one teacher, probably in my junior year, who said, “You should keep writing,” but I have no recollection of what I’d written. My loves in high school were drama and music, so I suppose that’s the storytelling link. I went off to college and majored in English Lit, minored in Drama, married, graduated and, what do I do? I went to work as a service rep at the phone company. Makes sense, right?

The world of writing took hold when a mentor encouraged me to consider teaching. So, in the ’90s, about the time Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was published. I started facilitating journal-writing workshops based on Cameron’s book, and later established Jeanne Guy Gatherings. The workshops and gatherings were very successful, some say because of my irreverent humor; I like to think it was my creative teaching style. I created a website and began blogging. The blogs, based on my own faux pas, were to help people rethink their lives. In 2015 I co-authored a book with photographer David Rackley, Seeing Me: A Guide for Reframing the Way You See Yourself Through Reflective Writing.

CH: Tell us a little about your journey to writing You’ll Never Find Us. When did you first begin thinking of writing it? What prompted you to begin that journey?

JBG: I love writing blogs; I did NOT want to write a memoir. After my ex-husband died in 2001, the idea to write the 1977 story of how my children were stolen from me began to percolate, but I wasn’t ready. In 2005, I attended a writers’ retreat conducted by author/teacher Christina Baldwin on Whidbey Island. It was there I wrote a fourteen-page synopsis and was roundly encouraged by Christina and classmates to write the book.

CH: Memoir’s promise to the reader is to elucidate the human condition on a very personal level. What risks did you feel as you began to work on the book? How did those perceived risks influence you as you moved forward?

JBG: Like many other writers, I didn’t feel capable or talented enough (aka imposter syndrome), and the risk of exposing myself as a mediocre writer set in. I also knew by penning the story I risked reliving the pain of the kidnapping and the guilt of my mistakes and decisions.

It also felt way too risky to expose myself and my weaknesses, not to mention exposing others’ shortcomings and weaknesses, even though I changed the names and identifying characteristics of certain individuals. Would I be sued? Speaking my truth about the patriarchy of the times and exposing patriarchal individuals, e.g., psychologist Dr. Bob, was also necessary but extremely risky.

CH: What was your process in writing You’ll Never Find Us? Once you had an initial full-length draft, how long did it take to arrive at its final, publishable form?

JBG: When I write a blog, I’m a start-and-stopper. I throw ideas/words down on the page, then set it aside for a day or two. Write, leave it, re-write, leave it, re-write. Works great for blogs but for the memoir, leaving it for too long had its drawbacks. I therefore do not recommend my backburner writing process for a book of this length, though it proved to be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, by starting and stopping, I lost momentum, and “lost my place” so to speak. Oftentimes it felt like having to start all over again. I remember doing extensive research, only to repeat the process further on down the road, not realizing I’d already done the necessary investigative work during earlier drafts.

On the other hand, the book needed to grow and so did I. The scope broadened over the years as I studied writing at a deeper level and researched the historical elements crucial to the story. It became a creative challenge that required years of workshops, critique groups, mentors, and some therapy. In that sense, it needed a fifteen-year process. Besides, you wouldn’t have liked the first draft. It was about a perfect woman and her evil husband. Those, I am told, are a dime a dozen. I am grateful to my mentors for not allowing me to publish the earlier versions of the book. The book and I needed time to grow.

The first synopsis was written in December, 2005. Fifteen years later it was in the hands of She Writes Press in publishable form. I am glad the book is coming out now as it seems particularly relevant given its major themes, which are timelier than ever: dealing intimately with white supremacy, patriarchy, feminism, and women’s empowerment. But most importantly, parental child stealing.

It also helped that certain characters passed on, increasing my comfort level to speak the truth I needed to speak. And now, let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to get cracking on the next memoir.

CH: You’ve long been involved in the Story Circle Network. How would you describe the influence of a writing community on the development of You’ll Never Find Us?

JBG: I’m a big believer in education, support, encouragement, and handholding. Story Circle Network (SCN) offered all that to me and more. For anyone unfamiliar with Story Circle, it is a non-profit organization, started by award-winning author Susan Albert, supporting women writing and sharing their stories. SCN will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2022. I know the heart and soul of this organization, and they live their mission.

If I have any advice for a writer, it would be to find such a group – don’t go it alone.

CH: We spent time together in 2019 at The Writer’s Hotel conference, where you were working on this book. How did the experience help shape You’ll Never Find Us?

JBG: The Writer’s Hotel (TWH) NYC “Mini MFA,” a unique and comprehensive writing program, was truly a one-of-a-kind conference. Two NY editors read and consulted on my entire manuscript pre-conference. With you as my knowledgeable guide, I was able to navigate the conference, lectures, craft labs, and professor Richard Hoffman’s major daily workshop. TWH was absolutely instrumental in my advancement as a writer. I spent another year rewriting and editing my memoir based on what I learned, and produced a much better book, one that Richard Hoffman agreed to endorse.

CH: It’s often said that we learn to be writers as we write. What did you learn about yourself as you wrote You’ll Never Find Us?

JBG: It’s been fifteen years in the making, so my desire to share the story has evolved over time. Originally, I didn’t care if I had an audience. It was strictly cathartic and I realized I needed to heal. Poet and author Mark Nepo said in The Book of Awakening, “Tragedy stays alive by feeling what’s been done to us, while peace comes alive by living with the result.” As long as I let the story fester inside me, there would be no end to the pain. It would win. But by writing and shedding light on the story, by learning about writing—and myself—over the years, I found peace.

One of the things I learned about myself was the courage I needed was within me. I didn’t consciously summon the courage. It was my job to protect the well-being of my children. My love for them was infinite; the images of their faces in my mind and the ache in my heart became my fuel. How could I not search for them? I had chosen not to be a victim in an abusive relationship; how could I allow them to become victims? I didn’t go searching for courage. The drive came from within me. It wasn’t a choice. You don’t go looking for it—you’re not missing equipment—you have it in you. All of the above applies to me as a person and as a writer as well.

CH: I understand your children have read You’ll Never Find Us. How did they respond on first reading it? Were there any surprises for you in the response?

JBG: I gave them both an advance reader copy several months back and politely suggested they read it before the publication date. My son, Tyger, six at the time of the story, now fifty, called three days later and said, “Sh*t, Mom. I had no idea. No idea of what you’d been through.” I think that was followed with some tears on my part, and loving words from him (probably about what a great mom I am). Megan and now sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Hudson, started reading the book together. We met at a local coffee shop about a week later. Megan wanted to speak but a flood of tears interrupted her mid-sentence. She, too, appreciated the gravity of my life with Klaus, and was glad Haywood had been so supportive. She expressed surprise to have learned much about herself, based on my expressed vulnerabilities.

CH: The story at the core of You’ll Never Find Us took place many years ago. What was at the core of your persistence in getting this story out?

JBG: Once I started, I had to finish. I remember when I received word that my ex-husband had died (2001). I knew I’d find the courage to one day write the story, but at that moment, I was still so filled with suppressed anger, I didn’t start writing until Christina Baldwin urged me to get the story onto the page. She gave me permission to tell my story before I even knew it’s what I needed to do. It was as if writing the memoir birthed my voice.

I don’t remember the timeframe, but I met with a therapist/conference facilitator who realized I had stuffed my anger and needed to acknowledge it. “He f**king stole your kids…let’s be angry before we move on to forgiveness, shall we?” She was fierce for me. Talk about having an angel dropped in your lap.

And then came more support. Critique group members that wouldn’t let me quit, even though there were many days when I wanted to stop; I wanted my life back. It was re-traumatizing going back over and over to write the book. But I was able to rest in the love and support of others, and I grew more accountable to the book day by day.

CH: If you could give advice to the person you were when you started writing You’ll Never Find Us, what would it be?

JBG: The journey you’ll been on, difficult though it may be, will be the foundation for your own personal growth: to learn self-compassion, and to know more gratitude than you can imagine for your community: family, friends, writers, mentors, and Robert, your husband. Don’t shy away from it, keep on keeping on. It’ll be worth the ride and you’re the only one who can tell your story. This is a story of moving from a misguided mindset of subservience and powerlessness to finding that power.

Other women will be inspired to tell their stories for whatever reason—whether it be cathartic or to share it with others in some capacity. Those who have experienced the emotional abuse and gaslighting that you did, will realize they are not crazy; they will discover the importance of taking care of themselves and tap into their own internal courage to handle whatever situation they are in.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Reagler

Background

Thursday, August 12, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event on EventBrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-robin-reagler-tickets-162818493497

Feature Robin Reagler is a poet, educator, and leader living in Houston, Texas. Over the past 22 years, she transformed Writers inthe Schools (WITS), a small grassroots organization, into a national literary movement with 40 sister programs across the US. She retired in September to focus on her own writing. Since then, she found publishers for two new books of poems. Into The The, winner of the Best Book Award, was released on March 21, World Poetry Day (Backlash Press). Night Is This Anyway, will be published by Lily Poetry Books (March 2022). Reagler is the author of Teeth & Teeth, selected by Natalie Diaz, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize (Headmistress Press, 2018) and Dear Red Airplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012, 2018).

She earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. She has published poems in PloughsharesNorth American ReviewPleiadesCopper NickelIowa ReviewColorado Review, and Zocalo Public Square. Her essays have appeared in books, newspapers, and journals. The Other Mother: Letters from the Outposts of Lesbian Parenting was named best Houston parenting blog by Nickelodeon in 2009.

She has helped shape dozens of new literary organizations and has volunteered on national boards. In 2018-2019 she chaired of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Board of Trustees. Currently she is the Board Chair of LitNet, the national advocacy group representing literary organizations and publishers and Board Secretary for the equity-based Justice Hub Charter School.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

RR: My first memory of poetry is my mother reading nursery rhymes to my sister and me. I remember that I had a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson on my bedside table. One of the poems, “Block City,” was about building imaginary worlds.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA, and a Ph. D. in Creative Writing?

RR: Getting an MFA was, for me, about becoming a better writer and finding a community of writers. Getting a PhD was a career-focused decision. I hoped to teach in a college and that seemed like the best path forward. As it turned out, after I finished my doctorate, I chose to work with Writers in the Schools (WITS), an education organization with a K-12 focus, for 25 years. Now, after taking a year to focus on my own writing, I will be teaching college. Finally!

CH: How would you describe your experience at Iowa? What has been the biggest gift of doing these programs? The biggest drawback?

RR: The great gift of going to a program like Iowa is that I got to meet so many amazing poets and writers. Those friendships continue, even though we live across the nation. Having friends who support each other as writers and as people is the greatest gift for me. The biggest drawback is that when I went to Iowa it was not a diverse community, no matter how you define diversity. And the writers we studied were not very diverse either. This was in the 80s. It may be quite different now.

CH: Tell us a little about Dear Red AIrplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011 and 2018) and its re-release.

RR: When I submitted Dear Red Airplane to Seven Kitchens, I felt certain it would win their contest. It did not. I couldn’t believe. I’d been rejected many times, so it’s weird that I was surprised, but I was. A year later I got an email from the editor at 7K, Ron Mohring. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the poems and asked if it was still available. That is how the chapbook was published the first time. It had a small print run and sold out quickly. The second printing was done through Seven Kitchen’s Rebound Series.

CH: I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Teeth & Teeth (Headmistress Press, 2018), and was profoundly moved by its weaving of desire, grief, and identity. How did you select the pieces in this chapbook? How did you go about sequencing the poems?

RR: When I wrote the poems in Teeth & Teeth, my father had passed away and my mother was in hospice. The manuscript was selected by Natalie Diaz for the Charlotte Mew Prize. I mention that because I was influenced by Diaz in creating this collection. Her poem “Grief Work” was especially compelling to me. In my grief, I wrote the poems feverishly. I discovered that grief contain more than I had ever imagined—emptiness, anger, loss, rage, desire, love, and even hope.

CH: In Teeth & Teeth, I was really struck by the sense of the line in the poems, and by your use of whitespace and monostich stanza. How do you approach the use of whitespace in your poems?

RR: The line works musically in Teeth & Teeth. The white space provides silence, a key component to that music. In a monostich stanza, the words are isolated. Each line might be the last.

CH: Tell us about your most recent work: Into The The (Backlash Press, 2021) and the forthcoming Night Is This Anyway (Lily Poetry Books, 2022). How do you see the trajectory of this work with respect to your earlier books?

RR: Poems don’t necessarily get published in the order they were created. Into The The contains some of my earliest work, as well as some recent poems. Of the group, I think of it as first, chronologically. Following it, I would place Dear Red Airplane, then Night Is This Anyway (although I’m considering a title change), and then Teeth & Teeth.

CH: I understand you recently retired as Executive Director for Writers in the Schools (WITS) to focus on your own writing. How has this change made a difference for you? What is your writing life like now?

RR: I left Writers in the Schools so that I could focus on my own writing. It has made a huge difference in my writing life. Both Into The The and Night were accepted early in the year. I finished another manuscript that I’m sending to publishers now and am hoping to complete another in the coming months. So having this time has enabled me to BE a writer.

CH: You continue to be involved as a literary citizen. In your view, what are some of the gifts of literary citizenship?

RR: I’m very devoted to the literary community, and I have enjoyed being a part of it. Although writing itself is a solitary act, writers have a great deal to offer one another. Through my activism in organizations such as the WITS Alliance, AWP, and LitNet, I have connected with incredible, dedicated people. We are stronger together and able to serve the public in new and engaging ways.

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

RR: Right now, I am reading Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar.

A Virtual Interview with Laura Van Prooyen

Background

Thursday, July 8, 2021 7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-laura-van-prooyen-tickets-158345005173

Feature Laura Van Prooyen is author of three collections of poetry: Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books), Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press) nominated by Philip Levine and winner of the McGovern Prize and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press). She is also co-author with Gretchen Bernabei of Text Structures from Poetry, a book of writing lessons for educators of grades 4-12 (Corwin Literacy). Van Prooyen is the Managing Editor for The Cortland Review, she teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Miami University and is the founder of Next Page Press: www.nextpage-press.com. She lives in San Antonio, TX. www.lauravanprooyen.com

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What do you remember about your relationship with books during childhood?

LVP: Most of what I heard as poetry was from the Bible and old Hymns sung in church. So, the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and plenty of Hymn meter in songs. At the time, I was not thinking in terms of poetry at all, but I imagine that’s where and how my ear got tuned. Books were not a big part of the culture of my childhood, but I remember a teacher who read aloud to the class in fourth grade. I remember loving that.

CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

LVP: First glimmer: in college when two different professors at two different colleges planted the seed that I had something going on. Honestly, there have been a couple of times in my life I’ve tried, weirdly and consciously, to not be a writer. But I would soon learn that I was deeply unhappy if I wasn’t involved in reading, writing, thinking, and creating, so I supposed I really was a writer.

CH: Your educational background includes an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. How did you decide on that path? How did your MFA experience change you as a writer?

LVP: I’m first-gen. My sister and I were the first in our family to complete college. I’m the only one who got addicted and just kept going. Not long after college, I decided to get an MA, which was fine and good. Then I spent a decade working, marrying, having a family and writing in isolation. I knew I needed a community and I missed, terribly, engaging in the life of the mind. I went to Warren Wilson as a more “seasoned” student with three small children. Going to that program remains in the top three decisions I ever made. I realized how much I didn’t know, how much I wanted to know, and how much I could push my work. I found the community I was looking for.

CH: Tell us a little about your first book, Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press, 2006), and your second volume, Our House Was On Fire (Ashland Poetry Press, 2015). How did the experience of your first book shape your approach to the second one?

LVP: My first book was written nearly all in third-person. I don’t think I felt brave enough to write from the lyric “I” and I needed distance to write anything at all. I felt pretty outside of art, of the writing community, and I wrote that book while my babies napped. The second book was completed as and after I went to Warren Wilson. Truth is, that feels like my first book—the other feels like a warm up. Nevertheless, I embraced writing in first-person, and I also paid closer attention to musicality. It felt like I had found a way in to speak with a truer voice.

CH: Your third collection of poetry, Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021), has just been released. Over what period of time did you write the poems of this most recent collection? What was different for you in the process of making this book?

LVP: The oldest poem in Frances of the Wider Field is 10 years old and the most recent to be included was written a few months before the manuscript was selected by Lily Poetry Review Books. The book, as a whole, saw many versions in between those points. This time around, I gave myself some rules so I didn’t fall into comfortable habits. For the subject: no husbands, no daughters, no birds. I mostly stuck to that. So, in writing away from what I “knew” I found my way into what I “didn’t know.” Frances became a presence that showed me into some absences and unknowns.

CH: One of my great pleasures in reading Frances of the Wider Field was in encountering its formal variety—from single-stanza, couplet, and tercet poems to ones in which white space inhabits margin and mid-line caesura (as in “Imaging Test’). Please tell us a little about what animates your use of form in Frances of the Wider Field. How has your approach changed over time?

LVP: I’m open to anything, stylistically, and I like to play. I made choices about what was ultimately included in the book, paying attention to having poems that varied in style, but that still carried a thread of thought throughout the collection. My hope was that the variations would create a textured, layered experience.

CH: There’s a strong evocation of place in Frances of the Field: the place the adult speaker inhabits, and the place of her childhood. What do you see as the importance of place in your work?

LVP: If you can imagine it, my mother has never moved in her life. She lives in the house next door to the house she was raised in, next door to the house that was my great-grandmother’s. Three houses on one plot of ground. The address of the houses changed four times, from Rural Routes to numbered streets as farmland was replaced with subdivisions. I chose to leave. And my parents live there still. We are losing my mom to dementia, but there she still is, physically in that place. And here I am.

CH: Your other recent publication is Text Structures from Poetry (Corwin Literacy, 2020), a book of writing lessons for educators you co-authored with Gretchen Bernabei. What was something that surprised you during that project?

LVP: Yes. When Gretchen and I met each other, within 30 minutes we discovered that her methodology of teaching in her Text Structures series of books was similar to the way I approach teaching poetry, so she invited me to write a book with her. I was surprised that something I was already doing intersected with curriculum that was publishable and could be adapted to help teachers, especially those who were a little intimidated by poetry.

CH: One of the things I love about poetry is its ability to surprise, to make me see the world freshly. Can you point to a collection that’s helped change how you think about what’s possible in poetry?

LVP: Adelia Prado’s Alphabet in the Park knocked me out with the juxtaposition of strange, bold statements.

Brenda Shaughnessy’s My Andromeda made me consider how to write with fresh eyes about personal challenges. And Richard Siken’s Crush showed me about intensity and the use of commands. I’ve come back to each of these books through the years.

CH: What are you reading now?

LVP: I just finished C. Dale Young’s new book Prometeo. Also, Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow. Dilruba Ahmed’s Bring Now the Angels. And I’m reading Alyssa Nutting’s novel, Made for Love. I have stacks of books, due to an addiction of buying more than I can read. I recommend each of these titles. Also, I’ve been reading . . . I plan to announce this news this summer . . . I am launching a poetry press, and the first title is a chapbook by Ann Hudson called Glow. It is coming out in October. The first full-length book is Ricochet Script by Alexandra van de Kamp. I can’t wait to share these books. The website is just up www.nextpage-press.com. You’re the first to know!