Category Archives: feminist poetry

A Virtual Interview with the Editors of Red Sky

 

The poets and editors of Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women will be the featured readers Thursday, February 8, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Red Sky, edited by Melissa Hassard, Gabrielle Langley, and Stacy Nigliazzo, was born as a response to the murder of Houston nurse Caroline Minjares as a vehicle for making the voices of victims of violence heard. Readers for the evening will be contributors E. Kristin Anderson,  Dr. Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza, and Dr. Andrea Witzke Slot, and editors Gabrielle Langley and Stacy Nigliazzo. Here, we interview editors Gabrielle Langley, Stacy Nigliazzo, and Melissa Hassard.

The Interview

CH: Tell us about the inspiration for Red Sky, and how you began this collaboration.

SN: The project was launched after the death of my colleague, Caroline Minjares. She was murdered by a former boyfriend, who then took his own life. Gabrielle Langley and I discussed the possibility of creating an anthology project to honor the voices of those impacted by such acts of violence after I crafted an erasure poem in Caroline’s memory. Melissa Hassard of Sable Books read the poem and approached us about making the anthology a reality. Thus, Red Sky was born.

GL: Stacy Nigliazzo and I became friends through poetry. I have always admired her work tremendously. I had also been trying to write a poem dealing with war crimes against women; these are the types of crimes that affected both my grandmother and my aunt, as well as thousands of other women who were living in Berlin under Russian occupation at the end of WWII. These crimes had been kept secret for so long, at both the macro and the micro level. But when you investigate medical and hospital records from Berlin at that time, the rates of female suicides sky-rocketed disproportionately under Russian occupation. Not surprisingly, there were also reports of sky-rocketing abortion rates as a result of the unwanted pregnancies that came from the rapes. I saw so much psychic damage in my own family from holding on to these secrets. Something inside of me needed to give voice to this.

Subsequently,  after I returned back from a trip to Berlin (a pilgrimage of sorts), Stacy lost a friend and colleague who had been stabbed to death by her husband. When Stacy sent me a draft of her amazing erasure poem that she had crafted from a newspaper article about the crime, the rage that pulsed in the lines of that poem really grabbed me. And you have to understand that Stacy is an emergency room nurse, so she is no stranger when it comes to facing violence head-on. At the same time, she is one of the kindest spirits I have ever met. Her intense compassion has always been a hallmark of her poetry, but this piece (“Triptych”) was something else entirely.  The absolute rage was palpable. It was like a light flashed inside of me, and I thought women need to have a special place for these poems, an anthology.

CH: How did you find the work that you published? How long did it take this book to grow from inspiration to publication?

GL: We put out a call for submissions, through Sable Books.  We also posted on poetry boards through social media. I think all three of us were pretty certain that this topic was going to capture the attention of many poets. What we NEVER expected was to receive close to a thousand submissions coming in from poets all over the world. When they began pouring in, we knew we had struck a nerve.

SN: I am immensely proud of the poems in Red Sky. They were culled from a general submission call, word-of-mouth, and personal invitations. It took the better part of a year to receive, read, re-read, and select the pieces for this work. Gabrielle, Melissa, and I poured over each submission, often two or three times, sharing our impressions and recommendations with each other. We felt a great sense of privilege to read these words. Each story was a gift.

CH: What was your process in organizing this work?

GL: Well, first of all, thank goodness for Dropbox! With Melissa living out of state, and Stacy and I both keeping really crazy schedules, this project could not have been possible without this technology. Melissa Hassard at Sable Books is also eminently qualified when it comes to organizing a project like this.

SN: For me, this was the hardest part, logistically. In my personal collections I have always relied on the expertise of a skilled editor for direction and guidance in framing a book. In the case of Red Sky, Melissa filled this role to perfection. The sequence is incredibly apt and inspiring. Each poem folds into the next. I am awed and humbled by her creative vision.

CH: What was the greatest challenge of this project? Its greatest gift?

SN: From the start, I was worried about re-traumatizing victims of violence through this collection. There is a quote by Margaret Atwood: A word after a word after a word is power (from the poem Spelling). I was determined not to allow my sense of fear to overpower the spirit of the book—the good I knew it could do. Yes, we offered works of harrowing violence, but also of survival and recovery.  And these stories need to be told.

GL: Well, as you can imagine, reading close to a thousand poems that speak so honestly and intimately about violence against women was, both spiritually and emotionally, a huge challenge.  I had to find something very resilient and tough within myself; it became my own determination not to back down.  More to the point, it was my determination not to let the perpetrators dominate, yet again. Something inside of me was compelled to stare these bastards down, and to do so without blinking.

As I kept moving with the editing process, I realized that each and every poem was a triumph for the person who wrote it. As tough as these poems can be to read, I began to understand that, in addition to the sheer physical and psychological trauma that the victims face, there is yet even another damage, too. It is the way that perpetrators effectively hi-jack the entire story of the woman’s life.  He robs her of this, seemingly forever.  However, in being able to write about it, the woman takes back her story! The story is told her way, She decides what gets put in and what gets left out. Where the poem is concerned, the perpetrator falls powerless at her feet. This victory, for me, has been the greatest gift.

CH: With the rise of the #MeToo movement and the large-scale Women’s Marches that have been taking place in the U. S., feminist issues have risen in prominence in the national conversation. How has the book been received? Have you seen any change in its reception in the last year?

SN: This book has been very well received, and I suspect, would have been regardless of the current social/political climate. This is because violence against women is not a new thing, as Red Sky compellingly illustrates. There are poems from people of all ages covering a myriad of historical periods—personally, generationally, and metaphorically. And there are so many stories yet to be told.

GL: We felt amazingly fortunate that Red Sky has had such support and interest from the beginning. Obviously, it came out before the #metoo movement. Even so, on the same  day that it came back from the printer, Michelle Obama blew us all away with her incomparable speech in response to the “just grab em by the pussy” story. For me, there was a real synergy in that moment. It felt like it was the herald of something really big.

CH: What advice would you offer to someone who is thinking of compiling an anthology around social justice issues?

MH: One of the things we saw as a priority with Red Sky was to make sure we were constantly self-critiquing and -evaluating to make sure we were reaching and encouraging marginalized communities to send work so that their voices would be heard as much as we could.

During this project, there was value in moving deliberately and slowly through the process. Delving deeply and authentically into these injustices or crises or failures of humanity is important, difficult work and one can be triggered by some of what he/she/they is/are reading. I didn’t realize this could or would happen, and sometimes it would absolutely bringing to me a stop for at least a few days. People are beautiful and experiences are terrible and there is nothing one person won’t do to another.
Reading the work aloud holds enormous value. After a while, the poems began to call out for one another — but only after we’d had some time to sit with them and really listen — to hear the moments and places where they resonated with each other.
Before launching into any next project, I continue to stop and ask myself if I am the one who should do the work, or if it would be better to center and support others who are already doing this work.

GL: Try to find a publisher with the experience and resources that you may lack. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask really well=known poets if they will consider contributing a poem to your project.  Support can come from the most unlikely places, but only if people know what you are up to. So many of us who are poets tend to be really introverted and even shy. Where social justice is concerned, it becomes important to step out of that quiet space and speak up.

A Virtual Interview with Liza Wolff-Francis

Liza Wolff-Francis will be the featured reader for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, June 9, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Liza Wolff-Francis is a feminist poet and writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She was co-director for the 2014 Austin International Poetry Festival and a member of the 2008 Albuquerque Poetry Slam Team. She has an ekphrastic poem posted in Austin’s Blanton Art Museum by El Anatsui’s sculpture “Seepage” and her work has most recently appeared in Poetry Pacific, Edge, Twenty, Border Senses, the Di-verse-city anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival, and on various blogs. She has a
chapbook out called Language of Crossing (2015, Swimming with Elephants Publications), which is a collection of poems about the Mexico- U.S.border. Every day she eats both popcorn and dark chocolate and she currently lives in Albuquerque, NM.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you start to think of yourself as a writer?

LW-F: I began writing in a Ramona Quimby diary when I was twelve. At thirteen I had a diary named Felicia, which I named after a popular red haired girl in seventh grade. I confided quite a bit in that diary. From those diaries on I always wrote, but I’m not sure I really took myself seriously as a writer until about ten years ago and at that point I really knew I needed to keep consistently writing. It became so important to me that I couldn’t not do it.

CH: What was your first exposure to slam poetry? How did you go about getting involved in the slam scene? How has that experience shaped you as a writer?

LW-F: The National Slam Championship came to Albuquerque in 2005 and Albuquerque won. I went to watch many of the competitions and realized slam could be motivation for writing and also that my writing could improve with community input. Plus it seemed fun. I began to read my poetry, then to memorize it, then to compete. I was suddenly surrounded by community and art and felt a real push for creativity. Slam has opened my ears to many voices I might not have otherwise heard. It has also shaped my poetic voice to always be conscious of an audience.

CH: What motivated you to get an M. F. A. in Creative Writing? How did you go about choosing Goddard?

LW-F: I wanted to get an MFA to be able to write better, especially in fiction. I chose Goddard because it was a low residency program and it was liberal. I wasn’t able to move somewhere else and liked the adventure a low residency program afforded. I found Goddard at AWP (when it was held in New York) applied there and nowhere else, got in and went. It felt like the perfect school for me.

CH: What changed in your writing as a result of the M. F. A.? What was its single biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

LW-F: The MFA focused me in on my writing even more. I believe it helped my writing improve. It also introduced me to many wonderful writers I would not have otherwise known. I enjoyed my experience but I don’t know that everyone has to get an MFA to be a writer or to improve their writing, that was just something I wanted for myself.

CH: There often seems to be a schism between “stage poetry” and “page poetry,” but you have inhabited both worlds. What has been your experience moving between these worlds?

LW-F: This is always an interesting question and one that continues to come up. I love both performance poetry and page poetry. I think some performance poetry is really meant for performance and that is where it really shines and there is definitely some “page” poetry that would be enhanced if the reading/performance of it was improved. That said, if there is a meet in the middle coming together of the two, I think it can reach more people, bring people together, and be really fun and dynamic as well as improve the craft. At this point in my life I have people from both camps in my life and enjoy that. I definitely think slam poetry has made poetry more accessible to voices of people of color and that I think is not only necessary but amazing.

CH: I know you identify strongly as a feminist poet. How does your feminism shape your poetry?

LW-F: My writing is informed by the fact that women’s voices, writing, and work is undervalued and often dismissed and ignored. My writing voice adds another woman to the canon of writers and often advocates for gender equality both directly and indirectly.

CH: Tell us about your new chapbook, Language of Crossing. What inspired these poems? How did you decide on collecting this group of poems for the chapbook? How did you go about finding a publisher for your work?

LW-F: I work with Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S., who are primarily Mexican. I have heard many stories over the years about border crossing and have seen the effects that undocumented border crossing has had on people. I wrote a play on undocumented border crossing from interviews I did in Los Angeles after 9/11 about people’s experiences crossing the Mexico-US border and at the time wanted to bring attention to the issue. When teaching a workshop in southern Tucson at a border conference, I began to write poetry about the border and border crossing and the fence. I was seeing these issues still present and that people are still dying at the border. I wanted to call attention to the issue from a poetic perspective hoping people would be able to feel compassion and learn about the humanitarian crisis that has been and continues to be going on there. I wanted to help push education about immigration- hoping eventually there will be even more of a push for immigration reform. Swimming With Elephants Publications sees the issue as important and one that has been silent; they were excited to publish the chapbook and raise awareness about the issue.

CH: Like many women, you have many roles, including mother, partner, professional. How do you fit writing into your life? What is your writing practice like?

LW-F: My writing practice at this time in my life fits in where I can fit it in. I try to write every day, though that doesn’t always happen. I write best early in the morning so when I can, I wake up and go to a coffee shop or hide out in my office at home for a couple hours before work. Days that I can’t do that, I write at night. I know it is impossible for me to leave writing behind so I make time for it where I can. I feel happier when I write regularly.

CH: Please name some poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work been shaped by theirs?

LW-F: There are so many poets who have influenced my work over the years, including local poets who I have read with, through slam or at open mics in different places and of course some of the bigger names as well. It’s hard to make a total list so I’ll just name a few who I have been enjoying recently like Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, Robert Haas but I have also enjoyed Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and many more. Truthfully, there are some poems and poets that call to me at different times and have influenced my writing more at different times, but I think every poem I have ever read or heard has influenced me in some way. It’s that power of poetry.

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

LW-F: Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage.