Category Archives: LGBTQ

A Virtual Interview with Lisa Dordal

Background

Thursday, May 12, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-featuring-lisa-dordal-tickets-302471098197

Feature Lisa Dordal will be reading from her new collection, Water Lessons (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming April 2022). Dordal teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University and is also the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in NarrativeRHINOThe SunThe New Ohio ReviewBest New Poets, Greensboro ReviewNinth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

The Interview

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

LD: My first memory of writing poetry is from when I was 8 years old. I wrote a poem (I think it was for a school assignment) about cows and chickens and the pillows I was sure they needed for their heads…!

Then, during high school, I started writing poetry on my own, mostly as a way to deal with what was probably undiagnosed depression. All I knew during high school and college was that I felt different and was deeply unhappy. This was back in the late 70s, early 80s. I would realize much later that I was a lesbian.

It took me a long time to actually think of myself as a poet. I grew up in a very math/science-oriented family—a career as a poet definitely wasn’t on the table! Furthermore, my family of origin embraced fairly traditional gender roles, and the primary expectation was that I would marry a man and that my husband would provide for me. So, after college I dutifully adhered to those expectations and married a man! Through my 20s I wrote poetry occasionally though not as consistently as I had in high school and college. Then, at the age of 30, I realized I was a lesbian and filed for divorce.

I had been a Religious Studies major during college and, in my early 30s, had been enrolled for a few years in a graduate program in feminist theology. In my late 30s, I decided to go to divinity school. During the program, I was drawn to studying the Bible, and one of the things I learned was the importance of asking who has voice in a particular text and who doesn’t, who has power and who doesn’t. Who is central to a story and who isn’t.

Towards the end of my MDiv program I started to write poetry again. Most of the poems I was writing after my long hiatus were about women in the Bible. I creatively re-imagined stories in which women appear only peripherally, hoping to give them a voice that had been long denied. A few months after I finished the program, I saw an advertisement on the Vanderbilt webpage for an evening poetry class. After taking that class, I began auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt and eventually applied to the MFA program which I completed in 2011.

CH: What draws you to writing poetry?

LD: I started writing poetry to help process the pain I was feeling in high school and college., and I think I’ve been drawn to it ever since as a way to help me make sense of what it means to be alive in this world. I like the concision of poetry—how it can take people so far with just a few words. I also think there is a real connection for me between theology and poetry: they are both trying to get at something that can’t be fully or directly named. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to “big” questions. What does it mean to be alive? What happens when we die? Poetry is a natural partner for those sorts of questions.

CH: I understand you have an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University. What motivated you to get the degree? How did the process meet with your expectations? What changed most for you as a writer in the process of getting the degree?

LD: I had been auditing workshops in the MFA program at Vanderbilt for a couple of years, but I never considered doing the program because of the cost. Once Vanderbilt began to offer financial support to their students, I thought, “why not?”

Doing the program was a huge help to my writing in terms of deepening my understanding of my own voice. But like a lot of people who do MFA programs, I needed some recovery time afterwards, time to turn inward and do a lot of studying and writing on my own to get back on track. Workshops can be challenging—it’s a very intense experience mostly in terms of the emotional work, and you can’t incorporate every opinion, or your poem will just fall apart.

Overall, I’d say it was a completely worthwhile experience. I’d never be doing any of what I’m doing now without the degree

CH: Your first collection, Mosaic of the Dark, came out from Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Tell us a little about it, and your journey toward it. Over what period of time were the poems written? How did you go about selecting and sequencing them? How did they find a home with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: As a whole, Mosaic of the Dark addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. Its poems focus on my experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into what felt like a prescribed script of heterosexuality, as well as on my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. It took me a long time to write the book—some of the earliest poems were from 2007.

I don’t remember all the decisions I made about sequencing the poems in Mosaic of the Dark, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. I had entered a few contests with Black Lawrence Press and was a finalist a few times, then decided to submit through one of their open reading periods. I was so thrilled when Diane Goettel—the executive editor—called with the news back in May 2016!

CH: Congratulations on your new collection, Water Lessons, just out from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us a little about it, and how the book came together.

LD: In many ways, Water Lessons continues to wrestle with many of the themes of Mosaic of the Dark, especially with respect to my mother. There are a lot of poems in the book about my mother’s alcoholism and eventual death. I thought, after writing Mosaic of the Dark, that I was done writing about my mother, but it turns out I’ll probably never be done writing about her!

There are also poems in this collection about my father’s (recent) dementia and my own childlessness, as well as poems about my own complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Those poems were inspired by the work I’ve been doing the past five years or so—thanks in large part to my church, First UU Nashville—to better understand systemic racism and my role in it.

For example, there’s a poem in the book called “Primer,” which was inspired by an NPR interview with a black scholar in which I learned about the racist content in Pippi Longstocking books. I was horrified when I re-read one of my Pippi Longstocking books, and began to think a lot about how problematic narratives operate on young minds.

Water Lessons also examines the patriarchal underpinnings of the world I grew up in, and meditates on a divine presence that, for me, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive. There’s a lot in the book about relationships between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, and presence and absence.

The book came together quite easily—well, at least that’s how it feels looking back on the process! I do remember wondering to myself after Mosaic of the Dark came out, whether I would ever have enough poems for another book. So maybe it wasn’t an easy process after all—it’s just that the manuscript came together so much more quickly than my first book.

Water Lessons’ four main topics form a loose narrative or chronological arc. The bulk of the poems about my mother’s death (in 2001) come first; poems about the failed adoption my wife and I experienced (after my mother’s death) and about my father’s decline (which began four years ago) come later in the book. Then there are the poems focusing on the dynamics of race, many of which reflect a much earlier period in my life.

I knew I didn’t want to group all the poems by topic because this isn’t how life happens; life is much more fluid than that. So, while I wanted to begin with poems about my mother, I didn’t want to begin with all the poems about my mother. My mother is still very present to me and, consequently, the book, in a certain sense, requires her to appear again and again. The first section of the book ends with the poem “My Mother, Arriving” because this title paves the way for future appearances, as does the last line of the poem: “My mother, not going away.”

I also knew that the postcard poems (“Postcards from the 70s”)—which explore the larger societal messages I received about race, gender, etc.—needed to come relatively early in the book, since they describe the world I grew up in just as much as the poems about my mother’s drinking do. So, the first two sections serve as the foundational and chronological beginning in the narrative arc, while the rest of the book moves forward in time to the present—a present deeply infused by the past.

CH: How did the experiences of putting your first and second books together differ? How has it been to work with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: It took a lot longer to put Mosaic of the Dark together. Some of the poems date from when I was auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt—so back in 2006 through 2008. When I received my MFA in 2011, I thought I had a finished manuscript (based on my master’s thesis), ready to send out to publishers. But it turned out that a lot of the poems still needed more work or needed to be scrapped altogether. Over the next five years, I sent out versions of the manuscript, though it wasn’t really ready until 2016.

Because I had my first book published by Black Lawrence Press, I was able to submit Water Lessons as a current author, so the process of submitting was a lot easier. I had loved what they did with Mosaic of the Dark and they were/are such a great press to work with.

CH: I also understand you hold a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt. How has this background shaped your work as a poet?

LD: Going to divinity school had a huge impact on my journey as a poet. I see poetry very much as a kind of spiritual practice—a way of paying deep meaningful attention to the world. When I read and write poetry, I feel connected to something much bigger than myself and know that I am not alone—that my life is bound up in the lives of those who have come before me and who will come after me. Poetry isn’t my only spiritual practice, but it is definitely one element.

I also see poetry as being very related to the prophetic tradition. In the Bible, the primary role of a prophet was to respond critically to the present—i.e., to call attention to societal issues. So many poets use their gifts to raise awareness about any number of societal ills, and I would argue this kind of poetry is very much in line with the prophetic voice in Biblical tradition. 

In my poetry courses, I make a point of exposing students to poets who are examining racism, calling out white supremacist thinking or calling attention to stories typically ignored in the dominant historical record. In this sense, my work in divinity school continues to impact not only my writing but my teaching.

Even though I’m no longer writing directly about Biblical stories, it’s not unusual for me to incorporate images or stories from the bible into my poetry. For example, my poem “Holy Week” from Mosaic of the Dark is about my mother’s alcoholism but is in conversation with the story of Jesus’s return from death. And my poem “The Lies that Save Us” is in conversation with the story of Sarah and Abraham.

I make similar connections in Water Lessons. For example, in “Postcards from the 70s” I’m next door at my best friend’s house when my friend’s mother appears in the doorway to ask a question. When I finally sat down to write about this moment from more than forty years ago, the Biblical image of the angel appearing to Mary came to me as a way of connecting religious and cultural expectations of women to the narrative scene of the poem.

CH: I know that you now teach in Vanderbilt’s English Department, and I’m curious about the interplay between your teaching and writing lives. How do you make room for your creative work? How has working with students influenced your writing practice?

LD: Making room for creative work is always a bit of a challenge during the school year. I can usually stay on track with my writing practice for the first three or four weeks of the semester, after which things start to fall apart. During the summer, I’m able to devote much more time to writing. I used to beat myself up about not having a more consistent writing practice during the school year, but now I just accept it and I kind of enjoy the rhythm. I love teaching and I love writing. And this way I have the best of both worlds.

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you return for inspiration?

LD: Jane Kenyon was one of the first poets whose work resonated with me in a deep way and was one of the most influential poets for me when I was starting out. She writes in a fairly plain style but her poems have such depth.

Marie Howe’s work has had a huge impact on me, and I return to it again and again. In fact, we just finished reading her book What the Living Do in my Intro to Poetry class. What I love about her work is that her voice is simple and conversational but, like Jane Kenyon, has enormous depth. And I love the way she weaves in references to Biblical stories in her poems. Those allusions really resonate with me.

Another poet whose work I admire is Natasha Trethewey—especially her book Native Guard,in which she writes a lot about the loss of her mother. Though the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death are very different from those surrounding mine, I relate deeply to Trethewey’s descriptions and images of loss and grief. She also writes a lot about how historical events are remembered and taught—what gets left out of the main historical record, for example.

Other poets I love and keep retuning to are Ellen Bass, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, and Mark Doty.

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

Well, I just finished re-reading Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do! That was for class and of course I’ve read it many times before, but I never get tired of those poems. Not long ago I read Didi Jackson’s lovely book, Moon Jar. And now I’m in the process of reading Skirted by Julie Marie Wade and The Absurd Man by Major Jackson.

And now that the semester is over, I’ll be able to read a lot more!

A Virtual Interview with KB Brookins

Thursday, February 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-presents-kb-brookins-and-renee-rossi-tickets-230165259487

Background

Features KB Brookins and Renée Rossi will be reading to celebrate their recently-released titles from Kallisto-Gaia Press. 

KB Brookins’ chapbook, How to Identify with a Wound, was selected as the winner of the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize from Kallisto-Gaia Press by ire’ne lara silva. KB is a Black queer nonbinary miracle: a poet, essayist, educator, and cultural worker. In addition to authoring How To Identify Yourself With A Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022), their debut full-length poetry collection, Freedom House is forthcoming in 2023 from Deep Ellum. KB is a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices fellow and an African American Leadership Institute – Austin fellow, and has words published in Cincinnati Review, ANMLY, and elsewhere. Follow them online at @earthtokb.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

KBB: Probably around the time I was 12 in a 7th grade class. My English teacher did a reading of one of her former students’ poems, and I remember it really impacting me. Though it was essentially about a boy not texting the girl back, I — for the first time — felt like I felt all the emotions the girl felt, and it felt heavy! That piqued my interest in poetry, and I started writing poems of my own 3 years later.

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

KBB: Reading and experiencing other people’s poems draws me to poetry. Since the beginning, I’ve been a communal poet — one that really thrives when other poets are doing their thing around me. Though I had been writing on and off since I was 15, I think I thought of myself as a writer around 23. It was the year I started really moving inward and seeing my body as less of a nuisance and more of a mainstay. I guess that’s when I started being embodied, so I started being a writer.

CH: You are an essayist as well as a poet. How would you describe your identity as a writer?

KBB: I don’t know that I have an identity as a writer; just vision and purpose. I write to acknowledge my feelings, learn about my emotional/physical self, be reminded of my genius (we all have some genius in us), and to archive my life. A Black, queer, trans life that often goes unarchived. I share that writing to validate the feelings/ideas/experiences of folks like me, to give others access to new feelings/ideas/experiences, to connect to other writers writing on similar topics, and to contribute/offer material for movement work — especially movement that leads to justice for marginalized people. Whatever medium that’s necessary to help me achieve this vision and purpose is fine with me. 

CH: I understand you were a PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow last year. Tell us a little about that program, and how it has impacted your life.

KBB: The PEN fellowship was exactly what I needed at that moment in my writing path. In my application, I shared that I was feeling like I didn’t have mentorship, or affordable education opportunities, or a consistent community of writers that were passionate about the work of words. I’m a Black queer & trans poet without an MFA or the luxury of money/literary industry access, so these things are often hard to get. During the duration of my fellowship with PEN, I was able to connect with other writers in similar positions as me, get education on things like “getting essays published” and “getting an agent”, and have the confidence/mentorship to finish a manuscript of poems. I also got connections to folks that could answer questions the fellowship couldn’t, due to my mentor and PEN staff generosity. I don’t think I would have my amazing agent (Annie DeWitt), my debut full-length forthcoming with Deep Vellum Publishing, or other awesome connections fostered from June-October without PEN. And for that, I’m very grateful.

CH: Your focus and determination have been evident for quite some time. How have you charted your path toward the writing you want to do? Where do you seek sustenance?

KBB: Thanks for that! Due to (honestly) anti-Blackness and queerphobia inherent in many literary entities, I’ve had to do a lot of digging. Digging in books, digging in myself to write the most authentic stuff, digging out of the holes made for me to fall in/for others to patch up with me in them… it’s been a lot. Over the years — especially from 2018-now, I just marketed myself super hard. On social media, at open mics/readings, in Submittable. I’ve shot a lot of shots! To this day I’ve submitted to 500+ opportunities and maybe…. 75 of those have been Yes’. The Yes’ come as you work on yourself, I think. I’ve been just staying alive and staying dedicated to what I believe is my purpose and vision. I seek sustenance in community, and in the words I produce. I also seek sustenance in reflection and listening. 

CH: Congratulations on the publication of How to Identify Yourself with a Wound, winner of the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize. Over how long a period were the poems of this chapbook written? How did you approach sequencing the work?

KBB: 90% of the poems were written from 2018-2019. There’s maybe… one poem from 2020 and one poem from 2021. I think I went to an event at Malvern Books in 2019 where Ire’ne (the 2021 judge) was speaking with Natalia Sylvester I believe. Ire’ne said “when you identify yourself with a wound” at some point in an answer during the Q&A, and I was so struck by that phrase. I went home and researched and wrote what ended up being the How To Identify Yourself With a Wound poems (all of which have the same name) and… the chapbook just happened from there I think. I thought I had another chapbook, but I abandoned that because the premise of this one felt more interesting. Then I sent it to 7ish places, and KGP picked up. Also, sending the manuscript to friends and trying out like… 5 different orderings of the poem helped.

CH: I understand your first full-length collection, Freedom House, is slated to come out from Deep Vellum in 2023. Tell us a little about the book. How does it relate to How to Identify Yourself with a Wound? How did the process of collecting a full-length volume differ from that of putting together a chapbook?

KBB: I honestly think they’re polar opposites; haha. Though some themes like Blackness, queerness, and gender come up (I can’t escape my life’s context), the premise is a bit more place-based, and large in scope. I see How To Identify as this self-facing debut that’s so much about me trying to find my place in poetry/the world, and Freedom House’s process is different. These poems are more 2021, more critical of politics, gender as a construct, and more. If I could give it a sentence, it is a speaker exploring personal, systemic, and interpersonal freedom through the metaphor of a house. 

Collecting it was surprisingly easier than How To Identify. I was a lot more confident this time around, since it doesn’t have the pressure of being MY FIRST BOOK, haha. 90% of the poems were written during my time as a PEN fellow. Hint: a number of individual poems that got picked up by me last year are in that book. I think people will like it, and see my growth as a writer after reading both. 

CH: Your bio identifies you not only as a writer, but as a cultural worker. How has your work as a cultural worker impacted your writing?

KBB: Cultural work is what I’ve done for almost as long as poetry, so I see them as inherently linked. When I say I’m a “cultural worker”, I mean I work toward dismantling harmful cultures through education, art, and community-building. For me, that looks like offering workshops, keynotes/lectures, conflict facilitation, and publishing art that critiques culture — especially the rampant cultures of anti-Blackness, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, and other things inherently American.

In the past, my cultural work has been participating in protests, being a part of advocacy groups, starting the nonprofits Embrace Austin and Interfaces, and other things. All of that has been in the name of finding justice. Writing is not just words on the page; I can’t act like I don’t live a politicized life. And I hope that comes off in How To Identify, Freedom House, and all other writings I choose to publish. My hope is that my words start much-needed conversations and actions that create a better world. 

CH: What’s your vision of yourself in 5 years?

KBB: My vision is that doing the things I’m already doing with more financial/social support. I’d like to have stellar physical, mental, and spiritual health. In December 2021 I started doing artivism and consulting full-time, so I’d like to be doing that still — performances, workshops, etc. — in 5 years.

I’d like to have a CNF book out, and a 2nd full-length out or under contract. I’d like my work to be translated to at least one other language — Spanish especially since it’s the 2nd most spoken language in Texas. I’d like to be fluent in Spanish and ASL. I’d like to be exploring work in other genres — plays, songwriting, TV writing, and Afrofuturism intrigue me. I’d like to have tried stand-up at least once. I’d like to have a band, and assistant, and some video-poems out.

I’d like to organize toward an Austin and Texas that is livable for poor, disabled, Black, queer, and trans people through my art and cultural work. I also envision being able to do some kind of artivism fellowship, and regularly contribute to literary/social good causes that I love. Last is that I’d like to be somebody’s poet laureate, and at least a finalist for an NBA/NBCC/PEN award. Those are my manifestations. We’ll see. Haha.

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

KBB: Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Reagler

Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Lesléa Newman

Thursday, May 13, 2021 7:15 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-leslea-newman-tickets-148942524099

For more information, contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com

Background

Lesléa Newman will read from her most recent book of poetry, I Wish My Father, a memoir in verse. Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections Nobody’s MotherOctober Mourning: A Song for Matthew ShepardStill Life with Buddy, and the companion memoir-in-verse to I Wish My Father,  I Carry My Mother.  She is also the author of many children’s books including Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island StoryKetzel: The Cat Who ComposedHere Is The World: A Year of Jewish Holidays, and the groundbreaking Heather Has Two Mommies. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the National Jewish Book Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award. From 2008 – 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA.

The Interview

CH: What is your earliest memory of reading and of writing?

LN: Reading: My dad used to read us Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss and then he would lie down on the floor and we would literally hop on him!

Writing: When I was 8 years old, we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island and I was miserable. I wrote very sad poems in a black and white composition notebook and somehow that made me feel better.

CH: What were your ambitions as you grew up? Did you always want to be a writer?

LN: I always wanted to be a writer; I never had any other aspirations. Everyone said I had to have a day job, but I didn’t listen to them. My role model was Barbra Streisand. I read somewhere that she never learned to type because, as she said, if she learned how to type, she’d wind up typing (and how could she type with those nails anyway?). If you have a fallback plan, you’re going to fall back on it. My plan was to be a writer and it was my job to figure out how to make that happen.

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

LN: I have identified as a poet since I was a teenager, and that identify was validated in 1976 when I had several poems published in Seventeen Magazine, and even got paid well for them!

CH: You’ve had success in poetry, children’s books, novels, and have had your work adapted for the stage, publishing an astounding. seventy-five books to date. how would you describe yourself as an author?

LN: Restless! I like to move from genre to genre, though poetry was and always will be my first love.

CH: Tell us a bit about the rhythm of your working life. On how many projects do you typically work contemporaneously? What inspires you and renews you?

LN: I usually work on one project at a time. I have a hard time coming up with ideas (most people are surprised to hear that) but once I do have an idea, I become obsessed and can’t think about anything else. I am inspired by reading wonderful writing, poetry in particular. I often get ideas while driving (I don’t listen to music or news for that reason) or while gardening or in the shower. Ideas come from dreams, from observing life, from personal experience, from everywhere.

CH: Many readers I’m sure are familiar with the groundbreaking Heather Has Two Mommies. How has that book’s success impacted your career? What other books have acted as milestones for you?

LN: Some people advised me to publish Heather under a pseudonym so as not to ruin my career. I’ve certainly had the last laugh about that! Ironically, Heather, a book that my friend Tzivia Gover and I published on our own with ten dollar donations from hundreds of people because no traditional publisher would touch it, is now my claim to fame. Other books I am known for are the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, one of the first books about Jewish lesbians ever published, and my Jewish children’s books such as Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story and Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail, both of which won the National Jewish Book Award.

CH: Tell us a bit about your memoirs in verse I Carry My Mother and I Wish My Father. What was similar and different in the writing of these two books? How do they converse with one another?

LN: My book about my mom consists of poems written in traditional forms: sestina, villanelle, ghazal, sonnet, etc. My grief was so enormous, I needed a container in which to pour all my messy, unwieldly feelings. Formal poetry gave my grief some structure, some elegance. The poems about my dad are constructed as narratives and they have humor woven into them. My dad appears in the book about my mom, and my mom appears in the book about my dad. They are inseparable in these two companion volumes just as they were in life. They were married for 63 years and I like to think they’d be pleased to know they are now a “boxed set.”

CH: I was fortunate to see an off-Broadway production of Letter to Harvey Milk, based on your short story. How involved were you in the process of translating the story to theater? What was it like to see the work staged?

LN: I was not involved in the adaptation at all. I did have a chance to give the creators some feedback after an early staged reading. It was very emotional to see the show, which is partly about a lesbian whose family doesn’t accept her and is obviously autobiographical. It was especially emotional when I saw it in 2012 sitting between my parents. My mother was very ill at the time and died three weeks later. It took everything she had to feel well enough to schlep into Manhattan and sit through a show. But she did it and said it was one of the best days of her life.

CH: What one piece of advice would you give someone who’s starting out as a writer, regardless of their chosen genre?

LN: I have three pieces of advice: write, write, write. Come up with a writing schedule and stick to it. Read, read, read. Read everything and if you don’t know where to begin, start with the award winners (National Book Awards, Newbery Medalists, etc.). Find or start a writers group and listen to what others say about your writing. Bonus bit of advice: be kind to yourself and other writers. We’re all in this together.

CH: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?

LN: Favorite authors: my mentors, Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley. My literary mothers, Patricia MacLachlan and Jane Yolen. My heroes who paved and continue to pave the way: Jacqueline Woodson, Alison Bechdel, Alex Gino, Joan Nestle, Sappho, Chrystos, so many others.

Reading: at this very moment, I am reading an interesting novel called BROOD by Jackie Polzin, which is about the art of raising chickens and what that can teach you about life. I recently finished the middle grade novel FIGHTING WORDS by Kim Brubaker Bradley and it broke my heart and healed it at the same time, something which is very hard to do. In the poetry department, I have  just read Mama Phife Represents by the amazing Cheryl Boyce Taylor. The book chronicles the life and death of her son, famed musician Phife Dawg and how she grieves that loss. And finally, I am very excited about the new picture book Two Grooms on a Cake by my good friend Rob Sanders.

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 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