A Virtual Interview with Nicole Cortichiato

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What is your writing life like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Viktoria Valenzuela

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

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

The Interview

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

A Virtual Interview with Gabrielle Langley

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Susan Niz

Susan Niz will be the featured reader Thursday, July 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Susan Niz’s first poetry chapbook is Beyond this Amniotic Dream (Beard Poetry, Minneapolis, 2016). She has a second chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press (November 2019). Her short work has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, The Write Launch, Chaleur Magazine, Typishly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Carnival Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Blue Bonnet Review, Two Words For, Belleville Park Pages, Ginosko, Cezanne’s Carrot, Flashquake, Opium Magazine, and Summerset Review. She has been featured in live poetry shows in Minneapolis. Susan writes across genres. Her novel Kara, Lost (North Star Press, 2011) was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award (MIPA) for Literary Fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Education, raises kids, has been a grassroots community organizer, and conserves Monarchs. She recently relocated from Minnesota (having survived the Polar Vortex last winter) to the Austin area where she will delve into new creative and literary projects and enjoy the sun and warmth.

The Interview

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

SN: In second grade, I got very excited to write a story about a girl who took a car trip with her family.  I loved the way ideas became words that tumbled sloppily across the line, down the page, that a story could go somewhere, that it could be read and re-read aloud. I had a teacher who gave us these spiral notebooks with blue covers. Writing time was a special event and that white space between lines became a place of focus where I could put some of myself, which was better than keeping the pain of my isolated home life inside. Later, when I was thirteen, I had another spiral notebook with a blue cover. It became a secret place to feed lines of hot ink in unraveling scrolls of angst and wonder and loneliness. I called it poetry. I had a lot of questions! I then copied some of my angst in Sharpie inside the entire back of a denim jacket (along with song lyrics from The Cure). This writing thing was mine. It was uncontrolled, it was limitless, and the page always listened. I was hooked on this outlet.

 

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

SN: I studied writing and poetry in college as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take classes from some outstanding writers, but I wasn’t ready for the work of revision and I wasn’t yet able to access my voice because I carried a lot of shame from a very turbulent teenage experience. I gravitated to language study, learned Spanish, and became a teacher. I even abandoned journaling and part of me was missing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally found the focus to undertake a big project: a semi-autobiographical novel about a sixteen-year-old runaway. I dove into this in a time that I was waiting for a family and worked on it for several years, finally publishing it after my first daughter was born. I also wrote short fiction and published a few pieces. I published one poem that was written based on an image from a dream that I had. About a year later, the journal asked to reprint my poem in an anthology and I got motivated to try more poetry. It felt mysterious to me and for a while I thought my poems had to be conceived in my dreams! Eventually, I gained more of a flow to writing effective poems. I really developed my poetic voice through a series held in Minneapolis called the New Shit Show. I read at the open mic several times, was asked to feature, then submitted my first chapbook, Beyond This Amniotic Dream, to Beard Poetry. My first chapbook is about the two events of my father dying and my second daughter being born, which happened two weeks apart. I experienced delayed grief in order to be a present mother, and writing the poems finally processed the loss.

CH: I know that you write fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SN: I like to write across genres. In addition to poetry, I write short nonfiction essays, which are autobiographical. I wrote a second novel that did not get published because the revisions required would have taken too much time from my second and final baby. One thing that works with poetry for me is that it can be written in bits and pieces, unlike fiction which for me requires long stretches of focus. I think a big thing that defines me as a writer is that my writing is largely autobiographical. Even the idea of a persona poem is something I have not yet tackled. I plan to continue to keep writing across genres.

CH: How has your life as a community organizer and parent shaped your writing?

SN: As a parent, I learned to write sleep-deprived and all hours of the day, which made me a more adaptable writer. It made my writing time much less frequent when my kids were little, but luckily I stuck with it slow and steady and was able to create work and publish occasionally which added up over time. As a community organizer, for a long time I struggled with the idea of writing creatively about Resisting, instead of only more personal topics. I felt that as a white, straight, cis-gendered ally, I had to consider perspective carefully and not try to write a story/poem that wasn’t mine to tell.  I think I finally bridged this when I wrote poems about school shootings, a topic that touches me personally because I am a parent. I also use nature imagery to bridge topics. For example, a poem about stitching the wound of a snowy owl (What passes through flesh/ Is forever) is about sexual abuse. Having found a way to enter writing of Resistance, I feel more freed to continue to write about topics such as immigration issues, as my husband is from Guatemala. Writing poetry also made my campaign and advocacy writing more effective and emotionally connected.

CH: What is your writing life like?

SN: Usually slow and steady, but I feel like my move to Texas has helped it pick up momentum. I carve out bits of time to jot notes or record poem ideas using voice to text if I’m running around, then write them out late at night. When I can keep an observant view of the world around me, I get more ideas for poems. When I can read more and hear other poets read live, I write more poems. When I have time and want to produce more, I read a favorite book of poetry and engage in a read-write-read-write cycle, drawing inspiration from the poems. I’ll generally write new poems for a few months, then revise, then submit, and repeat.

CH: What inspired the title of your forthcoming chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk? How did you arrive at this sequence of poems?  

SN: The title speaks to the potential absurdity of the connections I attempt to make with nature. I went to Mustang Island last year with my family. A naturalist had set up a tent and table to show beach-goers some of the sea creatures. I get extremely excited about this stuff. The moments of learning the names of animals, of witnessing them in the wild, are thrilling to me and make me feel very alive. I just moved to Texas from Minnesota, and I’ve raised Monarchs the last several years and I miss them a lot, but I’m planting milkweed and hope to see them in September. The winters there were very hard for me, and warmth and wildlife and time outdoors means I am not in hibernation, which became increasingly brutal to endure. An earlier draft of this chapbook was called “Measure My Wingspan in Words,” which is a line from a poem that is in the book. Maybe that title worked would have worked as well. I write poems about motherhood, which I think sounds saccharine, but I write about the harsh and dark corners of motherhood after a difficult childhood, and with nature often as a refuge and a vehicle for emotions and metaphor.

CH: By the end of this year, you will have published two poetry chapbooks since your novel, Kara, Lost, came out. What are you working on now? Where would you like to be five years from now?

SN: I have been writing a few poems and also short non-fiction pieces. Maybe next I would like to publish a full-length book of poetry or of the essays. Maybe I feel like I can be a little more patient about that now. I’m also working on planning for a poetry workshop that I’ll be leading at several local libraries this year called “You are a poet.” It’s for beginners and all levels. I want to feel prepared with a whole bunch of writing exercises that I probably won’t have time to squeeze in. If I do it well, the participants will do a lot of writing and I’ll do not too much talking. (Please like “Susan Niz Writer” on Facebook to find out where to join a workshop.) In five years, I hope to feel part of the poetry community in Austin. My writing goals have shifted from lofty aspirations to more finding what is fulfilling, challenging, rewarding—without boundaries. I will regather my strength to use my writing abilities to continue to Resist. I think we each need to focus on developing whatever our individual superpower for protest may be—whether it’s organizing, speaking, writing, leveraging and sacrificing privilege, gathering resources—and hone that power, or we’ll get tired of screaming.

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

SN: Making time to go be a part of live poetry is so important. Nature experiences are a given in my life, but following them up with writing is necessary. Establishing boundaries with my kids for them to be more independent and allow me time to read, write, get out. That is the hardest, but easier with time. I think, too, setting goals and having some ambition and also self-love and patience when it comes to setbacks. I’m looking on the bright side of life in between writing poems. Poetry writing can be emotionally painful, but finding joy and ease in other areas of life is important for self-renewal.

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

SN: Jim Moore, Larry Levis, Adrienne Moore, Louise Erdrich, Laura Kasischke, ee cummings, Ocean Vuong, Federico García Lorca, W.H. Auden, Danez Smith, Kendrick Lamar

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

SN: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, and also Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir, Jill Bialosky

Cindy, thank you for this opportunity to reflect!

CH: You are more than welcome.

 

 

A Virtual Interview with Lucy Griffith

Lucy Griffith will be the featured reader Thursday, April 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Happiest on a tractor named Mabel (a muse of 55 horsepower), featured reader Lucy Griffith lives on a ranch beside the Guadalupe River near Comfort, Texas. As a poet and essayist, she has work in Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems and Weaving the Terrain: 100-word Poems of the Southwest. She is co-editor of Echoes of the Cordillera: Attitudes and Latitudes Along the Great Divide, an ekphrastic anthology. She was a contributor at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 2018. Her poetry collection We Are a Tiny Herd has just been released from Main Street Rag Press.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?

LG: I grew up visiting farms and ranches and those many hours in the out of doors formed the backbone of my vocabulary. In addition, my father loved poetry and quoted it throughout my childhood. Later, as an English major I studied poetry and wrote poems in college.  I started writing poems consistently after I “recovered” from writing my dissertation in Clinical Psychology. I come from a long line of raconteurs, and as a Narrative Therapist, I am drawn to stories that help clients make more sense of themselves in the world. Some stories just beg to be heard, and poetry seemed the best medium for me to do that, hopefully in a compelling way.

CH: I know it can be challenging to work in an unrelated field and to keep the flame of creativity alive. What strategies have you used to make room for writing while working in a professional arena?

LG: Though I am “mostly retired” from my work as a therapist, maintaining our ranch in the hill country takes plenty of time. Taking a page from Mary Oliver, I am never without a pencil and notebook. I have learned to write in the cab of a truck, on a tractor seat, while yanking thistles or sitting in Austin traffic!

CH: Tell a little about your new book, We Make a Tiny Herd. How did you conceive of this book? What was the writing / revision process like?

LG: On travels to West Texas, I used to see a woman riding a burro in the bar ditch. Seeing her made a trip special. Once I passed her on my bike! I was fascinated with how she managed to live in that harsh climate, but other than seeing her occasionally I didn’t know much about her. I found out that her name was Judy Magers, and that her legal address was: On the Road, Terlingua, Texas. Once I had read everything I could find out about the Burro Lady, nicknamed La Reina, I was transfixed by her story. Something resonated deep within me as I imagined what her life might have been like.

We Make a Tiny Herd began with a persona poem (“La Reina”) in the book you co-edited, Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems. I believe that the power of a persona poem lies in its ability to help the poet role-reverse with someone else. As a therapist trained in psychodrama, I find role fluidity rich in inspiration.

After publication of the persona poem, for the next three years, my husband and I traveled to West Texas and interviewed folks who knew her. They in turn, gave me other folks to talk to, and it grew from there. I immediately felt protective of her privacy and treaded carefully to honor her in my approach. Once people knew I would not make a caricature of her, they were more open. Mike Capron, whose work is on the cover of the book, was especially generous with his stories. That portrait he did of Judy was painted entirely from memory.

I wrote whatever occurred to me after our visits to West Texas. Poems of place came, imaginings of conversations with her, what the burro might think, what must of it have been like to be her mother. It was a very unstructured approach until by the end I was dreaming about her and imagining her beside me each day.

CH: What were your inspirations for the book’s structure? Did the structure change over time, before the book was published?

LG  To begin with, I had a wild group of poems in several voices that needed to be wrangled into shape. Some fell away until I had the ones that seemed essential to the story. Sarah Cortez was helpful as a consultant by suggesting that I design sections in different voices (La Reina Speaks, El Burro Speaks, the Poet Speaks, the Stories Speak.) Eventually, a roughly chronological narrative arc emerged that seemed to fit. I have been tickled to hear that many readers have read it straight through as a story.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher? How has the publication process been for you?

LG: I submitted We Make a Tiny Herd to the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Contest. As a finalist, I was offered publication and was thrilled to accept. The editor liked my idea for a cover and did not ask for any revisions, so it went very smoothly.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing life. What does it look like? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

I begin my day by reading poems, good poems!  I also read fiction and non-fiction but I will let a book go if it is not what I think of as well-written. Garbage in, garbage out.

Three times a week I take a long run and it is usually there that I sort out rough spots in poems or get wild ideas to take a poem in a completely different direction than where it started. A writer friend and I call it “Bishoping” our poems, as inspired by the radical revisionist poet, Elizabeth Bishop. When I am really stuck, I get on Mabel, my tractor, and mow or push dead trees around. Empowering!

Rural poetry writing can be a lonely business, so I am blessed with poets nearby that I meet with regularly for solace after rejection, inspiration and critique, and tips on managing the world of po-biz. My husband, bless him, is my first audience and has had to weather many a rough draft, yet his encouragement is a constant that keeps me writing!

CH: You curate a reading series in Comfort, Texas. What has it been like to bring poetry to that arena?

LG: The Readin’s as they are affectionately called, have been such a surprise to me! Perhaps it is the lingering influence of the Freethinkers who settled Comfort in the mid-1800’s. They believed in creating your own fun, reading poetry and philosophy, sometimes in Latin, and were adamantly against slavery. I like to think that the Freethinkers laid the foundation for our well attended quarterly readings and the rapt faces of the listeners. Naomi Shihab Nye said reading there was her most enthusiastic audience in forty years! The local paper, The Comfort News, prints an article about some aspect of poetry and “poetry out loud” in particular before each Readin’ and that has further educated our attendees. It’s been a lot of fun!

CH: Which poets were your early influences? Among poets writing now, whose work excites you?

LG: My early “North Star” poets include Walt Whitman, Stanley Kunitz, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, who always felt like a friend I had yet to meet. As for poets writing now: Ada Limón takes my breath away with her fierceness, I have read all of Rita Dove that I can find, and Geffrey Davis, who taught me at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, speaks to me with a very tender heart.

CH: What are you working on now?

LG: I am working on another collection, this one more personal—about my experiences growing up on a South Texas brush country ranch called Esperanza. The working title is “Esperanza: School of Thorn and Fang.” The lessons were tough as well as memorable. My hope is that the collection will work on several levels, as a wilderness story, a bilingual childhood, an intra-psychic exploration.

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

LG: The Chasing by Ada Limón

A Virtual Interview with Lilli Hime

Lilli Hime and Abe Louise Young will be the featured readers Thursday, March 14, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Lilli Hime is an undergraduate at St. Edward’s University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English Writing. She has served on the submission review board for the school’s award winning creative arts journal, Sorin Oak Review, for two years. She believes art is the bedrock for empathy and understanding, and seeks to utilize it for social change by creating spaces where lesser heard voices can be heard. Her work stems from her identity as an immigrant, a woman of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, and a fellow person.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? What does writing give to you?

LH: My earliest memory was in 5th grade, Mrs. Irwin’s class. After school one day, I had shown her this story I was writing. I don’t even remember what it was about but I remember the image I made in the first sentence: light dancing across the floor of this moving train. In my head, I imagined paper cut out like beings doing a waltz and I thought that was a cool way to start the story. She asked if she could read it to the class the next day. I remember watching everyone listen to my words and the world I tried to make. I think that was it, knowing the worlds I saw as this hyperactive kid with an overactive imagination, could be shared with others.

Writing, and the larger business of storytelling, has given me an endless source of empathy. As a medium, it fulfills the ability to do one of the most basic human functions, and that’s to understand and to be understood. Writing allows me to figure out and process my story and my identity in the context of the world around me, and listen and empathize with others and how they are maneuvering through their world. From that connection, I think compassion naturally emerges to help us see others as made in our same image. There’s also power in that.

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

LH: It was just coming to the realization that, at the base of it, a writer is someone who writes. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be some tortured poet in a cabin in the woods or someone who’s published three books and won two national book awards. Taking some of the pressure off the title of “writer” makes it easier, in my opinion. I was a writer when I was in 5th grade and the only one reading my stories was Mrs. Irwin; I’m a writer today when I’ve only been published at my school, and I’ll still be a writer wherever I am in the future, so long as I just keep writing.

CH: How did you decide to pursue a writing degree at St. Edward’s University?

LH: Even though I came into college undecided, I think the English major was almost inevitable. I did so many things to try to figure out my capital p Passion – went to the career center, asked friends and family for advice, googled “how to decide your major,” all that good stuff. But when I took a moment to reflect without all the external noise, it was really just an act of recollection for me – remembering that since I was a kid, what I loved to do and always had was writing and stories. And since then, the lessons I’ve learned have only served as proof that was the right choice.

CH: How has your experience as a member of the submission review board for Sorin Oak Review influenced your views of publication? of writing?

LH: I’ve learned that the work doesn’t stand alone. When I’m reading a piece, I can’t ask the writer what their intentions were, when they wrote it, what it’s about. I can only try to figure it out in my own interpretation which comes with my own biases, ideas, understanding of craft, etc. So the work never stands alone but it must withstand whatever interpretations I project onto it. I think knowing that makes me a more empathetic reader, trying to not only understand the poem but understand the reader and the environment they wrote it in and really get as close as I can to their intentions, knowing I will never reach it.

CH: How do you see your evolution as a writer since entering university?

LH: In trying to figure out my place as a writer, I’ve had the opportunity at St. Ed’s to really get a taste of different fields of writing – journalism, poetry, playwriting, academic, and advocacy. Each one has taught me important lessons but I think the common thread woven throughout is the idea that stories and the empathy they inspire wield power.

CH: The current political environment of the United States is full of enflamed rhetoric and distrustful discourse about immigration, and anti-LGBTQ groups here continually attempt to nullify gains towards equal rights. How does your experience as an immigrant and a member of the LGBTQ community shape your writing life?

LH: I mean, when you’re part of a community, you naturally feel upset and hurt when y’all are under attack, especially by the very nation that should be claiming you. But I’ve learned from my experience at St. Ed’s that the best remedy to that hurt is action. And for me as a writer, my most effective action is telling stories of our community. So there’s a responsibility there to amplify those voices but there’s also a pressure when representing an underrepresented community that I think is important to address. There’s a pressure to make sure we’re perfect, we’re appealing, we’re respectable if we’re to gain respect but that shouldn’t be.

CH: Among the authors you’ve encountered during your education so far, who are some of your favorites?

LH: Sasha West, not necessarily because of her poetry though I do love it, but because she’s been such a mentor to me. She’s an extraordinary educator in the way she is willing to sit with her students in office hours and sit with the questions they have, helping them unravel these complexities together as well as acknowledging the ones she’s still figuring out. I think that speaks volumes to who she is and her understanding of poetry, to be able to create spaces to foster up and coming poets.

CH: Where do you see yourself / your work in 5 years?

LH: I’m graduating this spring, so I think the future is very lucid right now. It’s a little scary even to say any plans for the future for fear of them changing. I will say, writing and storytelling will be part of my life no matter what. Now, whether it will be my day job or my second job, whether I’ll be writing articles as a journalist full time or as a poet after the work day ends or whatever, that I’ll see.

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

LH: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen