A Virtual Interview with Griselda Castillo

Background

Griselda Castillo will be the featured reader Thursday, June 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX

Griselda Castillo is an unapologetically bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is a first-generation American and explores her Mexican-American heritage and identity in much of her work. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Spark + Blink, Unlikely Strangers, Chachalaca Review, and the di-vers-city anthology.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What is your first memory of writing?

GC: My first memory of writing goes deep. I don’t remember how young I was but I remember watching the cool important people writing. The scientists on TV, the news anchors shuffling white paper, David Letterman’s note cards. Were they blue?

As a kid, I would pretend I was a scientist taking notes that were really just scribbles. I would play news anchors with my little brother. We wrote stories about what had happened at the house or in the neighborhood that day and reported them later. Top stories were us making fun of our other siblings and stuff.

My first memories of poetry are more ambivalent. Kinda like my poems, surprise! I remember the initial complicated feelings that pushed me to frustration and thinking just say what you mean. Get on with it. I also remember seeing my sister write poems with abandon. And how she was the only one in the family who I ever saw writing more than their homework. She shared them unabashedly too. She used to call the radio station, recite a poem to the DJ…and get it played live on the radio! Fearless. Those are my two first memories of poetry as an art form.

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

GC: Probably in college. I was a theater major at first but quickly questioned if that was the right path for me. I was very disappointed in the lack of diverse roles and the rigor of the major was sort of ridiculous to me. Having come from a fine arts high school, I expected something a bit more… well collegiate. But it felt too chaotic for me.

I took a poetry and politics class that was taught by 3 professors who lectured and discussed with students during the same one class. We read and learned about Vietnam, watched Apocalypse Now and read Douglas Anderson, The Iliad and The Odyssey. I felt my world shift. I saw with eyes for the first time. Through the cross pollination of all of that media, I got Vietnam. It was a thing in our consciousness. I also began to understand how I could convey what I contained in a controlled context. And how, when a poet can articulate all those things well, it feels powerful. It moved the important things within you. I’ve always asking myself: How does this poem mean to get to where it wants to get?  And then we sort of figure it out together.

CH: Your bio describes you as both poet and creative nonfiction writer. How do these two passions inform one another?

GC: It’s the pearl and oyster scenario. With poetry, there is always this nagging particle. Something I mull and mull and ignore but can’t get rid of so I roll around until it starts to form. With creative nonfiction, it’s more about the oyster. There is more of a process or narrative, more thinking , more flesh and shell, more story. Can’t have one without the other.

CH: How has growing up along the border shaped your writing? How does place figure in your work?

GC: Border towns are…interesting places. But you don’t know that until you leave them. While you are in a border town, you are blinded by the border town drama. Almost everyone is brown, all the business signs are in Spanish, everyone speaks Spanglish: in other words not great English or great Spanish. Menus are in Spanish but everyone orders in English. It’s a bizarre spot.

When I left for school, I experienced great culture shock and was exotic. The latter was not a great feeling. I learned about people’s weird relationships with their parents and other people and also realized how poor my schooling had been at times. My grammar is still terrible! I was writing more sterile poems during that time because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a Hispanic writer. Didn’t want to become gimmicky. I was also young and didn’t have the experience or reading brain needed to write the kinds of things that painted my interior self.

But then I got homesick and homesick for the Mexican-ness of what makes up my “poet home.” In hindsight, I realized the richness from where I came and found fertile earth. The search from my severed roots led me to an understanding of the how the border weaves in and out of my identity and writing.

CH: How has your experience as a first-generation American shaped your work?

GC: I think it’s that border town bizarreness again. When you are in Laredo you’re a not really Mexican. When you are not in Laredo, you are very Mexican to others. And to make things even more confusing, when I say Mexican, I really mean Mexican-American. It was odd growing up as an American in a Mexican home that happened to be in America. I think that propels the treatment of identity in the poems.

CH: As a bilingual poet, you live with the music of two languages. How has this influenced the sonic landscape of your work?

GC: This is an area I am still developing an ear for. I write by instinct and nostalgia, always enamored with image. So the sounds in my poems flow like underground rivers. I feel them more than know there are there.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer? What paths have you taken to deepen your skill?

GC: This is a hard fucking thing to do. I am still learning how to nurture myself so I can nurture my writing. It’s hard. I am sensitive, combative, but want to take care of everyone. I’m sure my husband loves that about me! 🙂

But when there is cause for a poem, I get tunnel vision. It sit down to work for hours at a time, doing intense editing, handwriting draft after draft, until I leave it to rest for a while. What I am getting better at is coming back to them quicker. Writing in stints vs bursts. I feel more enjoyment from the writing when I can write that way. I also self-imposed a sabbatical at my brothers house one time to finish something. I want to do more of that. Removing myself from the world to write. Just writing that felt good.

CH: What is your writing process like? How do you make room for writing in your life?

GC: I ruminate a lot. I like to see stuff. Remember. I talk about ideas with Jim. Pull stories out of the depths of my parents. Then I get to work. Making room for it is tough though. I write for a living and the demands of that sometimes leaves little stamina for myself. I want to balance that a little better. Make enough money to be able to.

CH: Tell us a little about Five Voices One Brush. How did you get involved with the project?

GC: I never thought I would be a part of this amazing collaborative. I read poetry with Terry Dawson, a man with a very groovy past, and Joe Morales who is a Grammy winning musician. Joe puts together the trio, Terry puts together a very diverse set of poets and Chris Rogers does live painting to it all. It’s very cool and we hope to get the word out about it some more.

I write much differently for that. More of my performer side comes out. The outfit, hair and make up. I let the poems go loose for Five Voices One Brush and imagine the jazz band when I’m building my sets. The amazing thing about the collective is that it’s the poets that anchor the show. The jazz follows the poetry. We never rehearse! Yet it all works out. It gives me the most prized feelings: freedom and confidence.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

GC: I love Saul Williams, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath less and then more again, John Berryman, Robert Haas.

A Virtual Interview with Martha K. Grant

Poet Martha K. Grant will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 11 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Martha K. Grant is the author of A Curse on the Fairest Joys (Aldrich Press), poetry that explores the wounds of childhood and the grace of healing. Her work has been published in Borderlands, New Texas, Earth’s Daughters, The Yes! Book, the anthologies Red Sky: Poems about the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women and Unruly Catholic Women Writers, and nine editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar . She has a Pushcart nomination and received an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. A visual artist and a sixth generation Texan, she has a home and studio in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio.

The Interview

CH: How did you become interested in poetry? What is your first memory of poetry?

MKG: I have to laugh when I think of this: Casey at the Bat, Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem. The last stanza still gives me a frisson of memory of my dad at the radio listening to baseball games. I was around 10 or 11. The poem’s baseball story line was most familiar and the energy, drama and imagery captivated me at this early age.  Oh, somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout / but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out. I still get goosebumps.

The story of Casey and his Mudville team was in an anthology on the family bookshelf, The Best Loved Poems of the American People . I would thumb through it often for poems with a particular cadence or rhythm, but primarily ones with an engaging narrative. Another favorite from that volume was about a red balloon, but I am startled to find now that the poem, written by Jill Spargur, was actually titled Tragedy.  I always wanted a red balloon, / It only cost a dime / But Ma said it was risky / They broke so quickly / And beside, she didn’t have time. . . . I got a little money saved now / I got a lot of time / I got no one to tell me how to spend my dime / Plenty of balloons—but somehow / There’s something died inside of me / And I don’t want one now.  The wistfulness, the melancholy, hooked me and spoke for me in ways I couldn’t. I can’t say it inspired me to write poetry, but it impressed on me that you can find your own story in someone else’s writing.

CH: When did you first begin to write poetry? When did you start to think of yourself as a poet?

MKG: It must have been high school and the fork in the road of choosing an elective in 11th grade. Even though I had taken oil painting lessons since the age of 12 ,  I signed up for journalism rather than art—the first evidence of competition between my creative muses, the visual and the literary arts. Writing came easy to me and  I liked the various formats for  news articles. As editor of the school paper my senior year, the creative visual challenge of collaging blocks of copy into specified space was like an art project in disguise. A harbinger of later combinations of the two fields.

I wrote exactly one poem in school, accepted for a  local contest that is still active today—Young Pegasus—and not another poem until the late ’80s when I discovered the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Exposure to her very accessible, thoughtful personal narratives was a defining AHA moment in my earliest of poetry inclinations. Its deceptive simplicity redefined poetry for me as entirely possible. Though I would soon  learn that it was way harder than I thought!

CH: I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are both a fiber artist and a calligrapher. What role have your other artistic interests played in your development as a poet?

MKG: Between that first and only poem and the Naomi “epiphany” that inspired actual writing were decades of visual arts, primarily intense calligraphy study, professional lettering contracts and exhibiting “word painting” combinations layering abstract imagery and text. I worked at first on paper and canvas, then silk screening and dyeing art fabrics.

It coincided with a time inner shifting, searching and questioning. The meaningful  passages I rendered were a reflection of my own quest. The authors of these became my teachers along the way. Notably Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Carl Jung and others. I soon understood that I was living a ‘footnoted life’, that the personal credos I publicly professed in my calligraphy broadsides were actually declared by others and I was just hitching a ride. I wanted to make art out of my own words. But first I had to write them! This is where Naomi entered the picture, along with writing classes at Gemini Ink in San Antonio, open mics around town, and publication in an anthology of women’s voices, A Garland of Poems and Short Stories, edited by Michael Moore.

CH: I understand you’ve recently finished your MFA. What inspired you to enter that path? How has it changed your work as a writer?

MKG: Epiphany again. I put off an MFA for years. Time. Money. Nerve. Age. Distance. In  2012 I was at a workshop with Ellen Bass and Dorianne Laux who are on the poetry faculty at Pacific University and they spoke of the low-residency MFA format. It dawned on me: if I lived as long as my mother was (98)  and didn’t challenge myself with further study,  I would be disappointed at the end of my own life. The MFA gave me of course better writing skills, a wider appreciation of the lineage and legacy of poets, and great confidence and satisfaction in having pursued the adventure at this age. And thanks to the encouragement of my faculty mentors, I was able to dig deeper into old memories and release them into poetry.

CH: Please tell us a little about your book, A Curse on the Fairest Joys. What was its inspiration?

MKG: The title is taken from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “As the butterfly chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” The collection is a poetry memoir, an effort to bring to light the ghosts of  childhood and the extraordinary power of hope and healing.  It helped me reframe and claim my life and find in the writing new ground to stand on.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher for the book? What was it like to work with Aldrich Press? 

MKG: A poet friend  they had published recommended me to them. I made an inquiry and they accepted my manuscript. It was that simple! I had previously turned down the opportunity to publish a chapbook with another press, taking a chance and holding out for the larger manuscript. The gamble paid off. I followed the layout/formula of other poetry books from this press and it was a good fit for my work. The basic structure of the book is my MFA thesis manuscript.

CH: How do you identify as a writer? Is poetry your primary writing interest? 

MKG: After completing my degree and publishing my book,  I moved into memoir and nonfiction because there were many more stories and episodes that seemed to beg for  a larger format, a more conversational exploration than poetry allowed me. I pursued post-grad work with several nonfiction mentors. Of late I’ve been on a prose poem bender. I find even more “permission” in prose poetry to loosen up in subject matter and voice.  Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry is one of the best of the genre. In David Shields’ work on literary collage I’ve found a home for the varied subjects and genres I seem to come up with.

CH: I understand your family goes back generations in Texas. How does place figure in your work?

MKG: We live in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio and our live oak-and-cedar landscape with its variety of critters is an ongoing conversation with nature. The Texas Poetry Calendar has been a terrific catalyst for encouragement to “write Texas” and become as rooted in the landscape as I am in my genealogy.  I’m delighted to have been included in 10 editions of the calendar.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? Were there poets you discovered as part of your MFA who have become especially influential in your work?

MKG: Gregory Orr’s writing about the accidental shooting of his brother taught me a lot about dealing with childhood trauma, and  his personal encouragement not to run from my memory of a young friend’s murder helped me write through that old but lingering anguish. Jane Hirshfield’s very zen poetry is work I turn to again and again. So are Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi. Stephen Dunn, Dorianne Laux, Tony Hoagland are ongoing favorites.

CH: What was the last book of poetry you’ve read?   

MKG: I always have a book of poetry within arm’s reach. I have been facilitating a memoir class for seniors this year. Not surprisingly, narrative poetry with its depth, honesty, lyricism and concision provides many provocative examples and inroads into personal stories. I offer my students selections from Barbara Ras, Ted Kooser, Phillip Levine, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye to help trigger memories and a lyrical approach.

My latest creative form is a blend of the visual and the literary: a series of panels,  15” x 15” hand-dyed and screen printed art fabrics on which I am lettering my poems in brush calligraphy and embellishing with embroidery. My muses collaborating at last!

A Virtual Interview with Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich

Literary haiku poets Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich will be our features on Thursday, April 13, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Jan Benson is an award-winning haiku poet living in Fort Worth, and her work
has appeared in translation in several foreign languages. Her haiku have been published in many of the world’s leading haiku journals and magazines as well as regionally in “form poetry” magazines.  In 2016, she won or placed in three international haiku contests. She s a member of Poetry Society of Texas and The British Haiku Society, Jan Benson’s haiku poetry and public profiles can be viewed at The Living Senryu Anthology (http://senryu.life/poets-index/80-index-b/benson,-jan.html), The Haiku Foundation Poet’s Registry (https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=1980), Twitter: @janbentx, Facebook: Jan Folk Benson.

Agnes Eva Savich lives in Pflugerville with her husband, two kids, & four cats. She has been writing poetry since she was 12 and haiku for over a decade. She has over 100 haiku published in literary journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Acorn, has been translated into 5 languages, and has placed in international haiku contests. She has an early collection of poetry, The Watcher: Poems (Cedar Leaf Press, 2009) and a first haiku collection in the works.

The Interview

CH: What first attracted you to writing? What is your first memory of writing?

AES: Writing was a vehicle for awareness of self. I was 12 and my two best friends and I were at a sleepover. Sometimes our group dynamic was such that two of us would be on the same wavelength, leaving the 3rd one out for a bit. On this occasion, faced with just my own thoughts while they were busy with something else, I grabbed a pink sheet of lined notebook paper and tried to write the stream of consciousness thought process I was experiencing of their bonding together and my feelings of alienation. When I read it to them, they cried (tweens and their emotions!) and I realized what a powerful tool for expressing and channeling emotions poetry could be.

Of course my next poem was a vehicle for the silliness of being young, called Ode to a Nerd, which we turned into a ridiculous rap (loosely based on the Beastie Boys) using a Casio keyboard and a cassette tape. So even in the beginning I knew poetry could also be a vehicle for the lightness of being.

JB: My first memory of an impetus to write was at age 26, one year after the birth of my daughter. I had been keeping a journal-style record of her days, using first person.

At her first birthday, I decided I had a life too and began to journal. The practice has continued to this day, though with a couple of interruptions. First, in the mid 1980’s when my mother was fighting cancer; Second, in May 2014 when a medical procedure in the hospital caused me to lose my brain… down to no capacity for speech, no short-term memory, no sequencing skills, no writing at all.

CH: What was your exposure to poetry while you were growing up?

AES: I can’t say that I remember reading much poetry in grade school, but by 8th grade they had us memorize The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and I was also obsessed with The Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which I still have mostly memorized). I also went to Polish school (like a good little Polish immigrant in Chicago; all the way through high school), where they made sure we memorized the Invocation from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz in Polish and would test us on it every year (yup, still have that in my brain too).

I was also heavily influenced in early high school by the poetry of Jim Morrison, and I’m sure I was introduced to the classics in my AP English courses. I was more into literature than poetry, but I did get a comprehensive tour of the fundamentals in a great poetry course I took at Northwestern University. From there I came away with a healthy appetite for Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Wislawa Szymborska, ee cummings, Robert Pinsky, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Bukowski.

JB: The long made short, there was little poetry.

Mother occasionally read children’s books to my sisters and I. She had no inclination for poetry, except for songs and ditties. I clearly remember the song “Three Little Fishies” that had a chorus of: “boop boop diddum daddum waddum choo / and they swam and they swam / all over the dam.”

In 6th Grade we were putting on a play for the PTA that Spring and I wanted to be in the play. My English teacher insisted I could not audition for the play until I memorized Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!”  Which I did, auditioned for the play, and took one of the speaking roles.

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

AES: That was in high school for sure. I started my own zine with a friend; I submitted to the district student writing publication; my friend anonymously submitted my poem to her high school’s literary magazine where she had some editorial powers, just so I would see it in print; and I wrote about many experiences through the lens of poetry when they seemed to have meaning beyond just journaling about them.

The first poem that felt like a real work of art I wrote the summer I was 16 and attending band camp at the University of Kansas. There was a boy involved that I had a crush on and the poem I wrote about him afterwards really felt like a masterpiece to me! It was powerful to me that I could use poetry to describe an experience abstractly which would yield the same feelings in the reader that I had in the experience. It was also key that writing was a way to channel unrequited energy; he had a girlfriend back home or something, so it was just puppy love on my part, with no reciprocation or activity beyond talking. I would say after that summer, I felt like writing was my thing (along with playing oboe of course, which is what I was doing in camp, and still do to this day.)

JB: Truly, it was in a court ordered class for defensive driving after I was caught speeding in 2000 (Alvarado, TX) returning from a poetry fest in ATX.

In the car, as the officer was writing the ticket, I knew I was high on poetry, lost to the world of rules. But did not recognize myself as a poet until the class monitor asked our names, and what we do.

“Jan, I’m a poet”

CH: How did you become interested in Japanese poetry forms? How did they become the focus of your work?

AES: I became interested in writing shorter poems as a way of having fun and communicating experiences and feelings in a more condensed way. There’s this awful website, poetry.com, which back then had a couple of fun haiku contests going: magnetic poetry, where you had to make a short poem with only their given subset of words, and a “haiku this photo” contest. So for about a year I wrote a bunch of these pseudo-haiku, having no idea what the form was really about in the literary world. I threw a lot of metaphorical, poetical dense word clusters into 5-7-5 syllable, three line format and rejoiced at this neat little art form that could encapsulate my writing without having to go the distance of a full length poem!

But then I wanted to know what was being written in the ‘professional’ world of haiku, so I went and picked up a copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. By the end of the book, I knew haiku was a much more complex and nuanced writing genre, far beyond the 5-7-5 form definition being thrown around by school teachers and mass media. Eventually I joined the Haiku Society of America, subscribing to the foremost haiku journal Frogpond, where the true literary power of haiku as a genre really blossomed for me.

JB: In 1999, Fort Worth, at one of the various poetry venues, I made friends with a haiku poet and got interested in the concept of juxtaposition. I had to adjust my mind to the “new” rules, moving well away from my “elementary school” understanding of 5/7/5. I joined the group, workshopping and writing haiku, until I moved to S.C. in 2001 just after 9/11.

When I scratched my way back to Texas in 2010, I immediately picked up the practice again, learning even more devices and advancements in the genre.

In May 2014 when I lost my brain, it was a slow recovery. After about 9 months I thought I might be able to do haiku again, as a therapy. Haiku requires an equal balance of right and left brain activity.

After struggling alone, I joined The Haiku Foundation (online) for their haiku workshops. There I met the mentors, Alan Summers (Britain) and Marion Clarke (Northern Ireland), who were patient with my limitations.

CH: When I think of haiku, I think of its precision and richness. For me, it connects to and opens into the natural world and the movement of time. How do you experience haiku?

AES: Yes, for me haiku is the singular expression of a brief moment of time in which I feel deeply some facet of or delight in the meaning of life. Often this moment feels inexplicable, intangible, so all I can do is write down its details and recreate the scene so that the reader might too feel the subtle poignancy. Rooting it in season elicits richer commonly shared connotations and draws those in to add further flavor to the haiku.

JB: While I do use haiku as a therapy, I find it opens nature in me and provides a connectedness to the universe not before experienced.

Truthfully, I experience haiku through the academics; the research of this growing form is unlike any other under the umbrella of poetry. The devices are not at all common to Western genres of poetry and are a challenge to approach and sort out. Incorporating just the beginner level haiku devices has seen me grow to international notoriety as a haiku poet. I will gladly be sharing those devices during my presentation at BookWoman on April 13, 2017.

What encourages me forward are the ever unfolding and new devices that can grow my current catalogue of haiku and never allow the work to become boring.

CH: How has the practice of short forms influenced the way you approach writing?

AES: When I wrote longer poems, I would wait for inspiration to strike me. I am a natural introverted watcher of things, so inspiration would come at me just from being in the world.

With haiku, that happens sometimes, but most often I consciously create space for the inspiration to happen. I pointedly observe the details of the world around me and try to conjure forth what’s special. Sometimes it’s like tuning fully into a radio station and a perfectly formed cluster of words will come at me! But I am ok with editing that later, or taking incomplete pieces as they come – I spend a lot of time, say a lunch hour, just jotting down plain observations and then seeing on the page how these juxtapositions interact, and then try to dig deeper into what else I’m experiencing while observing the natural world. What thoughts was I just having, what else is going on in life, what memories just popped up out of nowhere? And then I apply that layer to what I’m observing and see how those things cook together.

A lot of my haiku get born that way. Staring at a pond full of lotus flowers and realizing I was just thinking about whether I’ll have any more kids, and how can I package that moment into a poem. Or even being in a work seminar and realizing the sound of everyone shuffling their papers has a magical feeling, and trying to capture that in a poem. I’ve also realized that not everything I write has to be amazing – some haiku are there just to be bridges to the really good ones.

JB: Oh, Brevity! Power and Joy are thy names!

I do believe it might do well to clarify here, that English Language Haiku is currently the most broad expression of the genre, and even the writers of Japanese haiku acknowledge its domination in the world of short-form poetry.

CH: When I think of your work, I think first of your haiku. How have the Japanese forms in particular influenced other writing that you do?

AES: Writing haiku has really sharpened my Occam’s razor: the simplest way to write something is the best way! I’m very influenced by the brevity and simplicity of haiku, which is rooted in my earliest literary love: Hemingway. I like to find a simple, direct, and clear way to say something, which then elicits connection and emotion. When I write a longer poem or prose, I wind up gravitating towards simplicity. When I edit an initially dense word cluster, I see how many words I can cut away for it to still have meaning.

JB: As I am yet recovering my brain capacity, I am all-haiku all-the-time. But yes, even in correspondence I notice and count on the resonance of words. Well worded brevity can be a powerful influence.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? As a non-MFA writer, what paths of growth have you followed?

AES: I self-assign myself a lot of reading (online and print journals, forums, and books) as well as involvement in the haiku community. I have a robust journal and contest submission schedule (Google calendar) and tracking system (Excel spreadsheet) for all my haiku. In the early days I was a frequent participant in several yahoo discussion groups where many of today’s best haiku writers were active, and now it’s mainly Facebook groups and The Haiku Foundation Forums.

The kill-your-darlings path of workshopping poems in online forums is particularly conducive to growth. I am protective of my haiku but without question I have gotten very valuable feedback that’s nudged work towards a polished gem as seen through others’ eyes – because ultimately haiku belongs just as much to the reader as the writer. It’s all about recreating your experience for someone else to experience in their own way. It’s amazing what depths are added when you bring another person’s viewpoint into evaluating your work!

I also think it’s important to collaborate. I’ve participated in renku, which is collaborative writing where there’s a leader and you take turns (sometimes competitively) adding to a chain of haiku according to specific rules. I’ve also started collaborating, notably with Jan Benson, on haiga, which is art or photography combined with a juxtaposed haiku.

I also try to push myself into presentation roles such as leading a haiku workshop at an Austin Writergrrls retreat, speaking at Waco Wordfest, and reading at BookWoman events. I am also planning on attending my first Haiku North America conference this fall in Santa Fe, NM. Immersing myself in workshops and lectures and meeting many of the haiku community in person will be an amazing experience.

JB:  Being classically trained as a musician in my youth did teach me discipline. One of my therapies prior to returning to haiku was regaining my musical knowledge. To this day, I will put down a haiku journal to listen to a concert or musician. Pop music as well as classical do the same for me…replenishing my spirit!

A learned drive is now built into me. I enjoy researching the academics of haiku. Further, many of the BBC and PBS series of dramas feed me. As well, I avoid images of war, and greed.

CH: Please tell us about poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work changed in response to their work?

AES: I pick up clues that influence my writing from reading my favorite haiku poets. Jack Kerouac’s haiku teaches me that haiku can be cool; Chase Gagnon teaches me to stay authentic and that urban grit and detailed personal experience are amazing in haiku; Marlene Mountain teaches me that one line haiku can capture the multisensory gist of a moment in as little as 5 words; Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, and George Swede all teach me that what seems like a fleeting thought can be a universal truth; Chiyo-ni teaches me to appreciate nature juxtapositions with the eyes of a child; Johannes S.H. Bjerg teaches me to dive head-first into the abstract; Jan Benson teaches me to dissect and clarify the possible interpretations of words; Alan Summers and Mark Brooks teach me to be playful with nature and thought; Alexis Rotella teaches me to look for the true delights in any given natural scene; Jane Reichhold teaches me about tenderness and deep listening; and finally Peter Newton, whose work I am most heavily crushing on right now, inspires me to write about the indescribable by catching seemingly disparate clues out of thin air and putting them together like a chef using exotic ingredients to create a multi-dimensional experience. There are so many more that are universally delightful and inspiring, but those are some of the specific lessons I’ve picked up from this set of poets.

JB: In the haiku world, these dozen poets most influence me:

Marlene Mountain (USA), for her brevity.

Johannes S.H. Bjerg (Denmark), for his experimentation in the form

Roberta Beary (USA), for ubiquitous presence, and feminism

Debbie Strange (Canada), for her unique expressions of nature

Chen-ou Liu (Canada), for his tenacity to publish and be published

Agnes Eva Savich (USA), for her sophistication and knowledge

Brendon Kent (Britain), for his whisper-soft juxtapositions

Marietta McGregor (Australia), for her unique images

Ben Moeller-Gaa (USA), for nuances in Midwestern observations

Marion Clarke (N.I.), for her deft hand at shahai (photo haiku)

Michael Smeer (Netherlands), for his international mentorship

Alan Summers (Britain), for his ability to teach students the value of a close

read in haiku and mentoring others to see themselves as “more-than”.

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

AES: I’m usually in the middle of like 6 books (it’s ok, with haiku you can skip around!) but the most recent favorite I’ve read is Christopher Patchel’s Turn Turn. He’s the kind of writer that whatever piece I read in whatever journal his work pops up in, I immediately feel like he’s reached into the deepest nethers to illuminate a universal truth and simultaneously stretched the boundaries of what haiku could be. He is currently the editor in chief of The Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond publication. I highly recommend his book, each poem is delicious like a French pastry baked from scratch.

JB: I read at least three books a week online. Fortunately, haiku has many PDF files on specific sites that one can access for free.

The most recent perfect-bound book I’ve read is the international anthology, “Wild Voices”, in which both Agnes Eva Savich and I have poetry. We will be reading from this book at the BookWoman Event.

 

 

 

 

 

A Virtual Interview with Ann Howells

Poets Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells  will be the featured readers on Thursday, March 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Ann Howells is editor of the Dallas Poetry Community’s literary magazine Illya’s Honey and author of Under a Lone Star (Village Books Press, 2016), chapbooks Black Crow In Flight (Main Street Rag Publishing), The Rosebud Diaries (Willet Press), and Letters for My Daughter (Flutter Press). She is also the editor of Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of D/FW poets. Her poems appear both domestically and internationally, and she has four Pushcart nominations.

The Interview

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

AH: In third grade I wrote a poem that was chosen for publication in my school newspaper. That planted a seed — not only could I write but others might actually be interested in what I had to say — a rather momentous realization for an eight-year-old. Still, I remained primarily a reader, quite indiscriminate, even literature that came with cough syrups and on backs of cereal boxes. It was a family joke that I was always curled in a quiet corner with a book. I believe, though, that first publication set the foundation for my writing. In college I shared poems, primarily angst-ridden, with other equally angst-ridden poets, doesn’t everyone? After that, I didn’t return to poetry until my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. My husband traveled, and family lived a thousand miles away. I put on a cheerful face and dealt with my fear through poetry.

CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?

AH: I have always enjoyed a good story, but stories tell what is happening, leave little room for interpretation. A poem has a different meaning for each person who reads it; we each bring our own experience and expectations to it. I should explain that I was a visual artist, and in fact, taught oil painting for several years. I enjoyed lush and vivid images; they were important to me, but found myself turning more and more toward written images as opposed to visual ones. I suppose it was sometime after I became involved with Dallas Poets Community that I began to see myself as a poet. Our founder had recently completed his MFA and was concerned with the manner in which a writer “gives himself permission to be a poet,” that is, to self-identify as a poet. I grew into that identity slowly and didn’t fully identify as a poet until my work was being regularly accepted by journals.

CH: What was your path to becoming a published poet? How have you nurtured yourself and grown your craft?

AH: Another poet in my workshop pressed me to submit, suggesting venues that might be open to my writing style. I wasn’t eager; in fact, I was teaching oil painting for the City of Carrollton at the time, and feeling some of the ideas expressed in my writing might be offensive to a rather conservative city government, I published my first poems under a pseudonym. Seeing my work in print seemed a sort of validation. However, it has only been in the last five or six years that I have made regular submission a part of my routine. I try to keep most of my completed poems under consideration somewhere. When poems return, I reorganize the ones not accepted and send them to another journal. I also attend as many conferences and festivals as I can, meeting other poets, learning, taking and giving advice, keeping up with what contemporaries are writing. I buy a lot of poetry books, and I frequently trade books with other poets.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbooks Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries. Over what periods were the poems for these books written? How did you go about finding publishers for each of the chapbooks?

Black Crow in Flight was written after my father’s death. He was patriarch of our family with children, step-children, grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren. He held our family together. All the poems in the book were written during the three to four month period following his death. I submitted the chapbook to several contests, and it became a finalist in two competitions. M. Scott Douglas of Main Street Rag called my home. My chapbook was first runner-up, and he wanted to publish it. He asked if prize money was a consideration or if I was more interested in the publication. Publication, of course! I accepted his offer; I’d understood from the beginning that no one grows rich writing poetry.

The Rosebud Diaries has a similar story. My daughter had a child whom, in the context of the poems, I call Rosebud. Following her birth, my daughter was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Fearing I was too old to raise a child, she chose a cousin to adopt. Legal difficulties slowed the process, and I cared for both my daughter and her daughter for eighteen months. Poems in the chapbook were written during that period and shortly after. I sought out a small publisher who worked with limited editions to publish that one. Copies of the book were given to family and friends. And, by the way, the cardiologist subsequently found my daughter’s heart condition a temporary aberration.

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent book,Under a Lone Star. What inspired this collection? How does it relate to your previous work?

AH: Under a Lone Star has a completely different story. First, we had moved to Texas explored the state on every two week vacation and three day weekend. I photographed around 200 of the state’s 254 courthouses and  probably saw more of the state than many natives. Second, after I began editing Illya’s Honey, the fifty-five became a popular form of flash fiction. The idea was to tell a complete story in exactly fifty-five words. There were few rules, which I applied to poetry, then utilized journal entries I had made while travelling the state. These poems began life as prose poems written without punctuation. They evolved into free verse poems with a lot of white space. At that point an artist friend, J Darrell Kirkley, asked if I’d like him to illustrate a few of them. I gave him the manuscript, and he returned it several months later with an illustration for every poem. Then, Dorothy Alexander (Village Books Press) accepted the manuscript for publication and took the poems back to a prose poem format but organized like short newspaper columns rather than extending the width of the page. These poems are really quite different than anything else I’ve written.

CH: What was the biggest challenge for you in putting together a full-length collection? How did that experience compare to your experience with Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries?

AH: Under a Lone Star just happened. I had the journals, and I was experimenting with prose poems. My artist friend came along at just the right time. My current manuscript, So Long As We Speak Their Names, is more closely aligned with the two chapbooks. It is semi-biographical, containing poems about growing up among watermen along Chesapeake Bay. I have been writing about this subject most of my life. The manuscript grew unwieldy over a number of years. I cut. I shuffled. I replaced. I repeated this countless times. I narrowed the focus and began again. Still it felt disorganized. I finally understood that I was too close to the material to be subjective. Currently, I have a completed manuscript of approximately seventy poems edited by Cindy Huyser. It is now ready to send to prospective publishers. Thank you, Cindy.

CH: Tell us a little about Letters for My Daughter. What was the inspiration for this work? How did you decide on the publishing route for these poems?

AH: Letters for My Daughter contains twenty-eight poems that were written for or about my daughter over the years. I didn’t write any new poems for the book. I simply realized one day that     I had a good group of poems about daughters and the mother/daughter relationship that might appeal to other mothers and daughters. I pulled them into a chapbook, and my friend, Darrell Kirkley designed a cover using my photos, some ribbon, and letters of his own. It was a spur of the moment thing. The book was published, though Flutter Press utilizing CreateSpace for printing. Sandy Benitez (Flutter Press) had published a chapbook by a friend who couldn’t praise her enough, so I sent my manuscript to her. She accepted it. Later I learned she also published four of Steve Klepetar’s chapbooks and recently accepted one by Jeff Alfier. She does not read full length manuscripts, but I recommend her highly for chapbooks.

CH: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also long been an editor. How has your experience as an editor shaped your work?

AH: I became editor for Illya’s Honey in 1999. It is a job I enjoy greatly. In 2013, we gave up printed copy and went on-line. At that time I invited Melanie Pruitt, our primary poetry reader, to become co-editor. This turned out to be a wise decision. It allows me time to write and submit. I’d likely never have gotten either my book or the latest chapbook published if I hadn’t done that. I also edited Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of greater Dallas/Fort Worth area poets, during the period when Melanie was editing last winter’s Illya’s Honey. She edits summer and winter; I edit spring and fall. I currently have only one copy of Cattlemen & Cadillacs left from the original press run, but I am considering going into a second printing as demand has remained strong. The anthology contains work by seventy-six area poets, including two former Texas Poets Laureate. Work includes everything from haiku to performance to sonnet and free verse. Though Illya’s Honey publishes poets from around the world, it was my work on the journal that awakened me to the wide spectrum of good poetry originating in north Texas.

CH: What are you working on now?

AH: Currently I am concentrating on finding a publisher for So Long As We Speak Their Names and completing a small chapbook about Van Gogh and his work, which is as yet untitled. I have always been fascinated by “Starry Night”–who hasn’t? But I recently began studying some of his other works, particularly his portraits, and reading biographies. One fact that particularly struck me was that he was named after a brother, stillborn, exactly one year before his own birth. Each Sunday as he left the church where his father was minister, he passed the tombstone bearing his name and date. How could he have escaped melancholia with that beginning? That fact inspired my first poem about the artist, and the more I learned, the more I was drawn in.

In addition, I have been working on the spring issue of Illya’s Honey, which I now feel is complete with forty-four poems. Melanie and I recently began requesting poets to refrain from submitting for the two issues following publication. This gives us an opportunity to promote other voices, and ensures that individual poets will be read alternately by Melanie and me.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours? What is the last book of poetry that you read?

AH: Pattianne Rogers influenced me greatly. I carried a copy of Geocentric  for quite a while. A poet friend once told me she usually began a reading with something by another poet whom she admired. If no one liked her work, at least they’d know she had good taste. I frequently opened with a poem by Pattianne Rogers. Marge Piercy is another who inspired me. I also enjoy Linda Gregerson, John Grey, Lola Haskins, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine (My friends call him Phil.), Donna Masini, Charles Simic, Sue Ellen Thompson, and Natasha Tretheway among many others, not all well known nationally. I enjoy reading poets whose work I’ve admired in journals and poets I’ve published in Illya’s Honey. I follow their careers.

The last books of poetry I read, almost simultaneously, were The Crone at the Casino by Janet McCann (I’m a long time fan), The Distance to Nightfall by Patricia Hamilton (whom I  publish in Illya’s Honey), and A Cut-and-Paste Country by Kathleen Hart (whom I recently met at the Windhover Festival). I read as many or more books by writers I’ve discovered through journals and writers I meet at conferences as I do books by “big names.” I try to subscribe to two journals annually, changing titles each year. And, of course, I read submissions for Illya’s Honey, and poems of those in my workshop group.

A Virtual Interview with Michelle Hartman

Poets Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells  will be the featured readers on Thursday, March 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Michelle Hartman is the editor of Red River Review and author of three collections of poetry: Disenchanted And Disgruntled (Lamar University Press, 2013), Irony and Irreverence (Lamar University Press, 2015), and, in 2017, The Lost Journal of My Second Trip to Purgatory (Old Seventy Creek Press). Her work has been featured in the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, and appears in such journals as Slipstream, Plainsongs, Carve, Crannog, Poetry Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, Raleigh Review, San Pedro River Review, Concho River Review and RiverSedge.

The Interview

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

MH: As soon as I learned to read. Books became my salvation early on and I wanted to be a part of that fantasy. Book reports for school. It was the only homework I didn’t have to be forced to do.

CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?

MH: I originally started with creative non-fiction and fiction. But I really sucked at it. I met Ann Howells at a workshop and she suggested working with poetry, to refine my use of words and voice. When I discovered poetry was no longer dead white guys, and what you could do with it, I was hooked for life. I didn’t identify as a writer until my first real publication.

CH: What was your path to becoming a published poet? As a poet outside of the academy, how have you nurtured yourself and grown your craft?

MH: Well, like everyone else I started with journals getting into more and more and better titles. Workshopping with the Dallas Poets Community, we also help each other with submission info; who’s new, or what kind of stuff they take. Most of my friends are writers, artists and professors. I’m always asking questions and learning. I read incessantly.

CH: Your background in political science and law makes itself evident as subject matter in some of your poetry (I am in particular thinking of the poems of Irony and Irreverence). How would you describe the influence of that background on your work?

MH: Poetry is a fantastic vehicle in that you have a tiny window; in which you have to grab the attention, set up the situation, then lead the person to the point you want to make. I call it the 4g’s of writing: get in, get down, get back, and get away. We live in the land of 15 seconds. We Tweet and Snapchat. If you want to make a point it needs to be fast, easy, and funny. Almost as sharp and quick as a political cartoon, it can go places where the big book or dissertation cannot. Also as a paralegal, I’ve seen slices of life that most have not.

CH: Your poetry is known for its humor, and I certainly find that element in your work. But sometimes the humor is in service of opening the reader to difficult subjects—for instance, the first stanza of “suicide note” (in Disenchanged and Disgruntled). Please tell us a little about the humor in your work.

MH: I learned to be funny early in life. If you could make mother laugh, you had substantially better chances to avoid a beat down. Same influences caused my humor to be very black in nature. The British would say dry and classy but I’m thinking more Sahara and white trash. Using humor, you can get away with more. Take Stephen Colbert. If he just opened each night with a straight list of all the things Trump does wrong, he wouldn’t last a month. But he makes it funny and Bam! Ratings out the wazoo! Humor is that little bit of sugar Mary Poppins use to sing about making the medicine go down. As far as “Suicide” I’ve always laughed at Death. I find its place in our society is hysterical.

CH: Lamar University Press published your first two collections, Disenchanted and Disgruntled and Irony and Irreverence. How did you go about finding a publisher for these books?

MH: Wow, you caught me on this one. I actually was rocking along with journal publications and happy as a fat tick on a big dog when out of the blue this guy contacts me on LinkedIn. Says, I see you are a poet do you have a book? Well, I was gonna say no, but I talked to Ann and she said you have plenty enough poems. Sure enough there was about 84 in the first book and most of those had been published. Lamar was just starting their press and wanted to find writers without going through the slush pile experience. So I’m really an example of how social media is playing a bigger part in the writing life now. The second books came about at the Langdon Review weekend reading. I had the room rolling and afterwards Jerry Craven of Lamar came up to me and said, do you have a book of those funny poems?

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent book, The Lost Journal of my Second Trip to Purgatory. How does it relate to your previous work? Over what period were these poems written?

MH: It is probably impossible for Lost Journal to be any more different than my first two books. But they were great training grounds for that type of writing. Some of the poems in this book appear in earlier works. I’d been dancing around this topic for years. But a few years ago I got very ill and was stuck at home in a really low period. No time like the present as they say and I really didn’t think I could get any lower so I let it all out. It took about two months to write all of the book and organize it. Took three years to get it published.

CH: You’re currently publishing collections at a pace of one every two years. What is your writing practice like?

MH: Again this is probably not what you want to hear. I binge write. I once wrote an entire chapbook when the cable went out! But in my head, it is constant. That second voice commenting and describing. I have a chapbook coming out this April based on the works of Edward Hopper. I wrote it in one week.

CH: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also long been an editor of Red River Review. How has your experience as an editor shaped your work?

MH: It makes me want to be a better submitter so another editor is not cussing my name in absentia. But usually it makes me feel very inadequate. All my reading makes me say why can’t I do that.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours? What is the last book of poetry that your read?

MH: Alan Berecka, Tony Hoagland, Travis Blair, Alan Gann, Ann Howells, Wilfred Owens, Siegfried Sassoon, A.E. Housman, and T. S. Eliot. Last read was a manuscript by Travis Blair, based on his life in Hollywood.

A Virtual Interview with Ashley Smith Keyfitz

Poets Desiree Morales and Ashley Smith Keyfitz  will be the featured readers on Thursday, February 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Ashley Smith Keyfitz is the author of various chapbooks & the forthcoming collection Park of Unwired Asking from Xexoxial Editions (2017). She was a founding editor of the press Little Red Leaves & lives in Austin where steps on many legos, ferments anything, and designs websites for the government.

The Interview

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

ASK: In first grade, I had a poem about an autumn tree being like fire published in Highlights Magazine. So that was basically my breakthrough publication. And it’s easy to like anything you’re recognized for. But even then, I really loved poems — as if they were these mysterious, incandescent launching pads for something. You weren’t trapped in poems they way you were stories — rather they pitched you into this incantatory, deeper field. At least I thought, and I sort of still do. I like novels, but when I read them there is a tiny part of me that resents that the story is trying to trick me into its narrative — as if the narrative wants to smooth over other possibilities and act like this were the only way. I remember also having the Random House anthology of poetry and really loving it. The first poem in it is Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” But I was also fond of some really great poems by Christina Rossetti in that anthology. I’ll copy one here because who reads Rossetti these days?–and so good. The poet Elizabeth Willis has a fascinating essay about the noir Kiss Me Deadly and Christina Rossetti’s poems against the atomic age (who wouldn’t want to remember now that that movie begins with the recently belated, but at that time gloriously young, Cloris Leachman running in front of the protagonist’s car wearing nothing but a trench coat and telling him she is named after Christina Rossetti), but I feel like many of Rossetti’s poems are protest poems:

Flint

An emerald is as green as grass, 
    A ruby red as blood:
A sapphire lies as blue as heaven:
    But flint lies in the mud. 

A diamond is a brilliant stone, 
    To catch the world’s desire:
An opal holds a fiery spark:
    But flint holds fire. 

Before that though, I remember my mom singing songs to my sister and me to put us to sleep & I really liked puzzle songs like “I Gave My Love A Cherry.” I also grew up close to a dance hall &  I would spend a lot of time, while my mom was working at a pottery shop, writing songs I thought I could sell to, like, Lyle Lovett or Robert Earl Keen. I don’t remember if they bought any. But later, in middle school, I did sell “seductive” or “romantic” poems to people to give to the objects of their affections.

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

ASK: The answer to this seems to be something between — I never have or I never stopped. Because I don’t have day job that gives me an official writer title, I feel somewhat outside that moniker. But I also remember at one point when I was a teenager looking at the many notebooks I had filled over the years and thinking, these are basically me. And also, what am I supposed to do with all these notebooks? In this way, writing can sort of externalize what feels like the   immensity of an inner life — and I had this sense growing up that women, like women in real life, weren’t known to have inner lives. I don’t know why.

But writing was a kind of evidence against this — like material evidence of a fuller, more complex existence than would fit in the snapshot of femininity I felt like I was going to be forced to step into and was sad about. To write then, is in many ways a resistance of erasure — resistance of being tucked quietly into bed. Returning to Kiss Me Deadly for a second —  in Cloris Leachman’s exchange with the protagonist Mike Hammer she alludes to a poem by her namesake, Rossetti:

Christina: “If we don’t make it … ”
Hammer: “We will.”
Christina: “If we don’t …. remember me.”

The poem she alludes to is–surprise!–Rossetti’s “Remember Me” — which is itself a weird meditation between burial and disclosure, departure and endurance — which is memorable in its resistance to giving up any options. A really great contemporary corollary to this is Taylor’s Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”– the chorus of which goes “Say you’ll remember me.” But there’s a sort of sci-fi implosion of time that happens in as much as the ground she’s requesting to be remembered in is not on the ground of what happened — but in the feral, potential-infused ground of “your wildest dreams.” This juncture between presence, remembrance and holding open the door toward something more is where writing lives for me. So I guess my answer then to when I began to identify as a poet is — in my wildest dreams.

CH: How did decide to embark on getting an MFA? What made you choose Texas State?

ASK: When I was in high school, I started working at a native plant propagation house during the day & taking community college classes at night.  I had 4 particularly great teachers. The first was a math teacher who was really insistent that I was great at math. Somehow that was important to my poetics, but it’s hard to explain. The second, Kimberly Saunders, was also a poetry student in the MFA program at Tx State. She was such a fantastic teacher, an amazing, statuesque angel of encouragement and intelligence, and still is. I remember complaining when reading a Hawthorne story once that it took forever to wade through his super floral prose — and her saying that maybe we are just so attached to the sound bite of the moment that we’ve lost to ability to stay with the language, to hold complexity, to let it teach us what it’s trying to say. That changed the way I read.

When I transferred to Tx State later, I was lucky enough to take a class with Austin’s own Annie Hartnett. At the time she was an MFA fiction student and dancer. She’s now a dancer and activist and badass. I love her. In her class, when she got to the end of James Joyce’s The Dead, she cried. That gesture of showing students that it’s okay to love the work you’re studying — to be moved by it is a huge gift. Both teachers were women I admired — so that’s how I was introduced to the idea that an MFA existed. Later I took classes with Kathleen Peirce. That seemed essential to me. Kathleen is such an intense thinker and teacher. She would say things in her classes about how we live in a world that is always trying to get us to become harder, less sensitive, tougher — but the object of her class was to increase tenderness, sensitivity, vulnerability as an act of resistance. These are still ideas essential to my politics and poetics and sense of self.

After college I moved to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico and worked at a coffee roasting house and with the World Birding Centers. I loved that, but I came to a point where I just wanted time to read & learn more and an MFA seemed like a possible way to do that. I applied to a bunch of schools — but in the end Tx State made the most financial sense. I only hesitated to go back because I had already been there. And there is part of me that regrets not expanding my Alma Mater — but I’ve come to realize that the quality of education that was open to me at a state school was really as good as what is available at the most prestigious or ivy league programs. So I thought — poetry is not about getting rich; I can go to Tx State, learn, and get my cognate in Tech Comm as backup. I guess it turned out to be an okay idea as I have fended off living in a ditch eating berries by working in IT since then.

CH: Looking back, what was the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?

ASK: Time / time.

CH: How did you decide become a founding editor for Little Red Leaves press? How has that experience shaped your own work?

ASK: So one of my first roommates in college was the poet CJ (Chris) Martin. I was riding a tram to school one day and he was wearing this very brightly colored crocheted hat. Tx State is full of bros — so it was unusual to see a regular guy wearing this humble but intense thing. When we got off the bus I said something like — I like your hat, and he said “Thanks, my Grandma made it.” Later when I moved up for my MFA, Chris had moved to Buffalo with the poet Julia Drescher to pursue a PhD. He quit and they both moved back to central Texas and started a double-sided book arts press and online journal. I basically asked if I could build the web journal as a way of fulfilling class project requirements toward my degree and they said yes.

Later, when we would solicit work, sometimes poets would send us entire chapbooks. Sometimes books that had gone out of print. Suddenly it made sense to start an online imprint for these works & we settled on a distribution model where you could download a PDF for free or order a print-on-demand copy of the book at cost. Each of the books we printed were intensely important to me. I learned so much. An element of the book I’m working on now was stolen from an LRLe-edition– Susan Gevirtz’s Prosthesis::Cesarea. The first section of Gevirtz’s book deals with the idea of art as prosthetic memory & ventriloquism & eighteenth century concepts of witchcraft. Here’s a quote:

Led to the definition of engastriloque:
   a. 1728, Hutchinson, Witchcraft: There are also many that can form Words and
   Voices in their Stomach, which shall seem to come from others rather than the
   Person that speaks them. Such people are called Engastriloques. ... There was a
   compact between the engastriloque and the exorcist…
   b. To cast the voice
   c. A wench, practicing her diabolical witchcraft. Some have questioned whether it
   can be done lawfully or no. Speaking from the bottom of the belly is a thing as
   strange as anything in witchcraft.

Gevirtz’s book questions these ideas of proper form, writing as memory, the voice that exists outside the body — and pushes against concepts of what’s natural. One of the ways she does this is by scattering these cast voices — basically backwards printed text on the page opposing the poem. The way a sort of residue of the poem is left on the opposite page, and yet exceeds it, is fascinating to me. So I’m stealing this idea and expanding it for the book I’m working on now where a majority of the poems will have something I’m calling transposition erasures on the opposite page (from the original poem). This makes the book so much more spatial to me — or understands the poems as migratory — signalling what can’t be moved or fully put down. It witches it.

Here’s a link to Gevirtz’s book: http://littleredleaves.com/ebooks/catalog/susan-gevirtz-prosthesiscaesarea

So yeah — I dropped working on the journal after my son was born for various reasons. But editing is pretty much one of the best things I’ve done. I would like to get back to it. So grateful to all the people who carry the work of publishing forward.

CH: I understand you have a manuscript in progress that should be forthcoming from Xexoxial Editions this year. Tell us a little about Park of Unwired Asking.

ASK: I started the book when my son was a baby and his father left. I was driving into the next town to work each day and driving back to pick up the baby in the dark after work. It seemed impossible to have time to write. But then, the cards seemed so stacked against being able to write from the space I was in — I became really interested in trying to find a form that might make it possible. Like if I could find a way to go on writing, I could find a way to go on. So I gave up the end of the line — or rather, I started using a spaced period as a way of preserving what the line does, but in a responsive format. This seemed necessary to me, b/c if I was going to be able to write into digital space, it was going to require a form with the flexibility to be accessed from my phone & my work computer or a laptop or the computer at the library — and typed in stolen moments between editing projects and while a baby slept on one arm and while feeding the dog and while washing diapers and while waiting for my car at the worst mechanics or bailing someone out of jail. And it would need to be able to move from a cloud doc to a blog post to a print format to a digital journal (that would be accessed by a person on a phone or a tablet or an ancient PC) and somehow survive.

So what is the lyric of that? I don’t think of the poems in the book as prose poems (which people sometimes refer to them as) but I think of them as lyrics in a form capable of migration, and responsiveness, and survival. In this process, I latched onto the figure of the pigeon as corollary inspiration — as a creature capable of adapting to the environment it finds itself in and exceeding that space. At the beginning of this project, when I was trying to write each day in April, one day I could only come up with the phrase “pigeon of tears” — that was it. “No one wants to read about the pigeon of tears.” I wrote. But I was wrong. Pigeons have a huge fan club. I would say Pattie McCarthy, Danielle Pafunda, Jessica Smith, Sarah Campbell, and Michelle Detorie were really encouraging to me at this time & I hugely appreciate that as well as the inspiration their writing gives me. And working in a group with you and Lisa Moore and Desiree Morales and Tina Posner has made everything since then possible. Other than that the book is also about money and survival and edible plants.

CH: What was your process in selecting the poems for this manuscript? How did you find a publisher?

ASK: My process for selecting poems for the manuscript was just to put all the poems I had that didn’t suck into the manuscript. And then the try to arrange them into some kind way that felt alive.

I was extremely lucky in that mEIKAL aND had edited a special issue of Truck I got to be a part of and I had shown him what I had of a manuscript at that time and he said he would be interested in publishing it through Xexoxial Editions. That was huge for me. Xexoxial has such a deep experimental catalog– it feels amazing to think of being a part of that. Like, I get to have the same publisher as Rachel Blau DuPlessis — who’s been so central to my work since like . . .forever. And mEIKAL has also been really patient and helpful in letting me do weird things.

CH: How do you find time to write amid your full-time employment and your role as a parent? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

ASK: I don’t. That’s why these interview questions are late 😉

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

By way of answering that I want to turn back a second to a point Willis brings up in talking about the Rossetti poem: “Kiss Me Deadly figures poetry generally and Rossetti’s poetry specifically as a hermetic field of information in danger of disappearing unless someone (whether the implausible Hammer or the incredulous viewer) is called upon to remember it –or, as Ruskin writes, ‘to learn it by heart.’”

There is an essay by Cole Swensen where she talks about the free verse line emerging as the chosen line of the city’s flaneur — and how as the urban perambulator would not know what was behind the increasingly tall downtown buildings — that each corner turned was a surprise — so too did the modern poetic line mimic this state of wandering and discovery. But in shedding rhyme, the poem lost a bit of the memorability rhyme adds to verse. And yet, free verse maintained an edge — a sense of something behind where each line ended. One might say back then there was a sense of the depth behind things, and idea that an unconscious controlled our real actions. And that slowly as technology changed, this sense of depth dissolved until now we can look into the vast digitized space of the internet as an externalized unconscious we gaze upon to know ourselves.

These layers are external and crack in the digital fragile. I think my own work probably reflects the realities of this (whether I like it or not). While country music, in particular, is a huge influence on my work, I think of my poems as more collaged, pixilated, carrying moments of infrasound & resisting recitation. A sort of hillbilly glitch work. But idk recently I’ve heard people saying, during the turn to globalized technological present, poetry became more forgettable. It’s definitely become less memorized, less ‘learned by heart.’ But last night at a reading I heard Sequoia Maner perform her poems for Muhammad Ali from memory and it was so impressive, so electric — how she was able to link through her voice the freestyle poetry of  Muhammad Ali’s own past, voices cracking through “the prismatic grey radio,” our cellphone cameras turned to cops, a poetic lineage traceable through hiphop to here & the fragility of the body. So, yeah, while children aren’t required to recite Frost or poetic battle hymns in the classroom any longer, and while rhyme has often dissolved into the tiniest folds of the poem, there’s a pretty badass tradition preserved elsewhere –in the recursive grooves of the slam circuit and hiphop and the in poets who put their bodies on the line in presenting their work without a screen — as if what exists on a piece of paper can be taken away, but what is known by heart goes with you, as vulnerably as the body does. I feel like my own work comes from such a different place, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Which is to say there is so much great poetry right now, it’s redic & amazing.

Some writers other than the ones I already mentioned throughout I’ve been really into recently are Susan Briante, erica lewis (who has a new book), Layli Long Soldier, Allison Cobb, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Rob Stanton, Wendy Trevino, Jeff Sirkin, Sarah Mangold, and Rosa Alcala, whose new book I’m especially looking forward to.

  1. What is the last book of poetry you’ve read?

It’s been a sadly long time since I read a book from cover to cover. I think the last book I read the whole thing of was josé felipe alvergue’s GIST : RIFT : DRIFT : BLOOM from Further Other Book Works. It’s a gorgeous book.

A Virtual Interview Desiree Morales

Poets Desiree Morales and Ashley Smith Keyfitz  will be the featured readers on Thursday, February 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Desiree Morales is a poet and educator whose work has been featured in the
forest dRIVE, Truck, and Conflict of Interest. She grew up in Southern
California and lives in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

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

DM: When I was fifteen I actually had to save up to buy Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, which I found while loitering in a bookstore with queer friends. Watching people I loved get to see queerness reflected back at them was an education in art’s power against the loneliness of otherness. “A Supermarket in California,” “Howl,” “America”—these poems are so beautiful, and also biting, weird, subversive, explicit and for awhile ILLEGAL; everything about them was compelling for me. They were part of the secret world I was sure adults were keeping from me, and they were evidence of the existence of the people and ideas I wanted to be around always.

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

DM: Around that same time, in high school. I got to be around a lot of really smart kids, and we wrote poems and made art and found subcultures to join. I wrote constantly, all cringe-worthy, but I was doing enough work to begin to have instincts by the time I got to college.

CH: What is your writing practice like?

DM: I love writing, talking, and reading with other poets. A daily practice isn’t for me. Getting to be in Hoa Nguyen’s workshops here in Austin is maybe the best thing that ever happened to me creatively, because seven years later I’m still generating work in that format, with talented poets I met in her living room. So I know you know the format since you write with me, but for anyone else, the format looks like this: read a poet’s work aloud for about an hour, then generate writing prompts based on observations of this poet’s work, then write from that. It’s like trying on a poet’s style to see where it fits and how it can move your own style forward. The poets in our group are all publishing and reading regularly and I also learn from watching their styles evolve, to see how work changes from first draft to finished—it’s fun to open a friend’s book and see a poem I first met right when it was written.

CH: How do your roots in Southern California influence your poetry?

DM: It’s inextricably part of me. I first experienced vastness and an intimacy with the world by swimming in the ocean and climbing red rocks in the desert and laying my hands on centuries-old sequoias—these are my first loves, and they’re all in California. I’ve learned how to really be openly unabashedly in love with California, strangely enough from being in Texas—Texans really know how to love a place. Climate change is showing up in my poems more and more, and this brings me back to California, the fate of our food, the way people feel when they don’t see rain anymore. I’m compelled to shout this to anyone who will listen.

CH: I know you studied linguistics and creative writing as an undergraduate. How did the study of linguistics influence your poetry?

DM: Aaaaaahh this question is so fun. Linguistics is an entry point for seeing that language is a fucking wilderness—it has all the elegant order of any living system, and also all of the totally out there, exotic wildness. To do linguistic field work you have to re-organize your mind to think outside of the constructs of your native language, and this forces you to realize how much of your worldview is built on the structure of your native language. A terrifically mindblowing example of this is noun classes—in some indigenous languages, nouns have a marker that indicate their category, and so there’s a language where a “feminine” category includes nouns for women, water, fire, violence, and certain animals. That makes me feel like the classification system I inherited is completely impoverished. I want more ways to see connections between things. As a poet studying different ways languages organize the world, I can see more of what’s possible when I’m open to experimenting.

There are these confidence-building truths rooted in linguistics, too. Language is innate. We are giving and receiving so many verbal cues about connection, culture and identity when we speak to each other. Language is generative, and native speakers of a language have impeccable instincts about that language—so if I name something, or choose to say something in an experimental way in the hope of getting it right, it’s likely to be understood, even if no one has said it that way before. From the point of view of linguistics it’s like, hey, you’re a human animal. You got this.

CH: How has your experience as an educator shaped you as a writer?

DM :I just heard an Eileen Myles interview in which she says that being a poet is kind of like being a professional human. So is being an educator. Both require you to interrogate this like, maelstrom of data and sensation to find what’s compelling and urgent about the human experience, and then what do we do with that? Hopefully you give someone else tools to make their lives richer, or more illuminated. Plus teenagers have a high standard of authenticity that would make anyone a better poet, if they can live up to it.

CH: What are you working on now?

DM: Poems of resistance. Sometimes trying to articulate anger and bear witness to the terrible history being made on us. Sometimes this frantic cataloging of everything I value, or struggling to value what I take for granted that might be taken from me. As we are living these experiences that I thought I would only encounter in history books—the dehumanization that is the groundwork for ethnic cleansing, for example—I want to say this is unacceptable and you have to do something about it. Right now. And also, this could be you. When we see civil-rights era photos of violence against activists, the lesson isn’t that this happened to someone fighting for their civil rights, the lesson is this might be what you have to do for your civil rights, be ready. It’s a lesson I’m learning right now and I want to put it into poems.

CH: Where would you like to see your work in five years?

DM: This question makes me think of CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine. That book is just so good, and seeing her style evolve over the course of her body of work leading up to CITIZEN, it’s so subtle that all I can really say is she sounds like a smart poet who has been at it for many years, honing her craft. She sounds like a Greek chorus, just naming and narrating with a spareness that’s never pedestrian. She is deft. So I hope my work gets more like that—maybe the mechanics aren’t as visible and it feels wise, like something that’s built on many years of practice. In five years I will have been writing poems for like 25 years, and I’d like that to shine through.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

Dara Wier, Jack Gilbert, Ted Berrigan, Ada Limón, Hoa Nguyen.

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

Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón. I keep coming back to it. The poems in this book are so fierce and tender, it hurts a little bit to read them. But they are also kind and wise—she urges us to see into what hurts, she tells us something beautiful about it, and we realize she’s showing us that we can take it because we’re strong, she’s strong. It’s great post-election fortification.