Category Archives: poetry of place

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 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 Jim LaVilla-Havelin

Jim LaVilla-Havelin will be the featured reader Thursday, June 14, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jim LaVilla-Havelin is an educator, arts administrator, community arts advocate, consultant, critic and poet. His fifth book of poems, WEST, POEMS OF A PLACE is recently out from Wings Press. LaVilla-Havelin is the Poetry Editor for the San Antonio Express-News and the Coordinator for National Poetry Month in San Antonio.

LaVilla-Havelin retired in 2013 after seventeen years as the Director of the Young Artist Programs at the Southwest School of Art, to write, teach, and consult. He teaches Creative Writing in the Go Arts Program of Bihl Haus Art, in the Writers in Communities program at Gemini Ink, where he teaches at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, and in the BFA program at the Southwest School of Art, where he teaches The Image of the Artist in Literature and Cinema.

He has offered workshops, classes, and public programs for the McNay, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio Independent School District, Georgetown Poetry Festival, Gemini Ink, and many other sites . He lives in Lytle, Texas, (the “place”,of  “poems of a place” with his wife, artist, Lucia LaVilla-Havelin.

The Interview

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

JL-H: My mother read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES and Mother Goose rhymes, Burl Ives and Belafonte/Odetta/Makeba  and Lenya/Weill poem songs, and Odgen Nash and of course, Dr. Seuss. (That I’m not writing doggerel is a testament to William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman.)

I was writing stories and puppet plays in third grade, and from there, never looked back.

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

JL-H: Consciously, or probably self-consciously, in high school. It was kind of an affectation,  except I was writing, reading voraciously, listening to Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. And wrote a novel when I was in high school (that is, thankfully lost forever). Went off to college as an anti-war radical and a writer (pretentious).

CH: I’ve recently been reading your collection, Counting (Pecan Grove Press, 2010). I was struck by the way these poems engage with the larger world, their social consciousness. How has the theme of social consciousness developed in your work over time?

JL-H: Social consciousness has been part of the work forever. Levertov and Piercy, Merton, Gandhi, Whitman, the Beats, Dan Berrigan, Grace Paley – they were all a significant part of my writing life, shaping my sense of the engaged, committed, writer. And while that has changed some over the years – as radicalism has shifted,too. My work is always political.

CH: Tell us a little about your newest collection, West: Poems of a Place. What got you started on this project? How does this book differ from other work you’ve done?

JL-H: WEST, poems of a place, is a book by a city poet who now lives (and has done for fourteen years now in the country. It is about adjusting my eyes. It is different from other work I’ve done in the way that country life is different from city life. It Is much more about the space of the West, the look of a place, the time of it. I think my earlier work was grounded in place and places, and in multi-sensory observation, but I think the country has cleansed my palate (or is it the palette that it cleansed?)

CH: You’ve long been involved in the community as a teacher and an arts advocate, and you’ve been very active as a “literary citizen.” How has this public commitment to arts and to poetry informed your own work?

JL-H: I hear new work. I find great energy and inspiration in teaching, workshops, students of all ages. I listen closely to the sounds of the poems of others and am amazed at how many ways there really are to look at a blackbird. The work gives me hope, sound, courage and often outrage to keep working at my own writing. (It isn’t so different from the social consciousness – in fact it may be my 21st century version of social consciousness.)

CH: What are some of the things you have learned from your students?

JL-H: Given that I work with students across the lifespan – and in a variety of settings, the lessons are varied and rich – from my Golden’s (senior citizens) to my Juvenile Detention kids to Young Women’s Leadership Academy girls, to fellow writers in many workshops I’ve taught –so just a few of the lessons

  • rage and loss fit on the page with the joy in letting them loose
  • memory is a sharpen-able tool
  • every writer will crack it open when they’re ready
  • there are ways to help folks get ready
  • my voice, my poems, my solutions to problems posed in work are generally only about half-right for most students
  • that half is good enough

CH: Thinking back to your early work as a poet—perhaps to your first book, or earlier—what’s changed in your writing? What threads are constant?

JL-H: I love language, words, the sound of words banging against one another. I love the look of a poem on the page.

What’s changed? The scene, my sense of time (both the local-rural time, and aging time). I think I’m more playful now (though that’s up for argument. Probably my definition of the “meditative quality of writing” has shifted some. (again that’s about time.)

CH: What are you working on now?

JL-H: Many projects – a double-chapbook called Will Be a House / Will Be a Book –

dedicated to my father (house) and my mother (book) is done, looking for someone to love it; PLAYLIST a ten year project, finished, in the hands of two very good readers – a narrative poem about jazz; the second book of a five book sequence of narrative poems which started with SIMON’S MASTERPIECE. So I’m onward to the third book (hoping it doesn’t take 10 years)

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you turn, time and again, for inspiration?

JL-H This list is very long. It starts with William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Philip Levine,and Pablo Neruda. But includes local and regional poets, friends.

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

JL-H: THE LAST SHIFT by Philip Levine; VOICES IN THE AIR  by Naomi Shihab Nye and books or manuscripts by Charles Darnell, Linda Simone, Laura Quinn Guidry, and Michelle Hartman.

A Virtual Interview with Leticia Urieta

Leticia Urieta will be the featured reader Thursday, January 11, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, Texas. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

The Interview

CH: What brought you to poetry? What is your first memory of it?

LU: My grandma was a poet who wrote in English and Spanish, but was unpublished. As I got older, she gifted me several books of poetry by Pablo Neruda, and encouraged me to write in both languages. Because of this, I became more interested in experimenting with poetry and reading more in the genre at school.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself?

LU: I don’t like to limit my writing to labels or genres per say-it makes life unexciting if I feel I can only identify with one genre or style. However, much of my writing is a hybrid of genres and styles, and I explore Tejana identity and womanhood in my work because that is what feels vital to me right now.

CH: You recently completed your MFA in Fiction writing at Texas State. What was this program’s greatest contribution to you as a writer? its greatest challenge?

LU: I think what I took away from that experience was the mentorship of other graduates and friends, such as Sarah Rafael Garcia, who brought me into the community at Resistencia Bookstore and provided me with the opportunity to become the program coordinator in Austin of the youth writers workshop that she founded called Barrio Writers. I also sought out support from professors like Jennifer DuBois and my adjunct reader and friend Natalia Sylvester, who always met my work where it was and worked with me to make it better.

CH: How does your work in fiction intersect with your work in poetry?

LU: Studying poetry and its forms has helped me to think about the structure of stories and how I enjoy emphasizing images and experimental language in fiction to the points where I think the genres merge, and some stories feel like extended prose poems and some poems feel like ongoing narratives. I think that often these distinctions are arbitrary. I want to write something engaging, that feels meaningful to me, and ultimately the form will be dictated by the content of the piece.

CH: Tell us about your recently-completed mixed genre collection. How long did it take you to write? How did you decide on the mixed genre expression?

LU: The collection is called Las Criaturas. It took me about six months to write all of the stories and poems in it. All of them explore the word “criaturas,” which in Spanish has several meanings roughly translated as “baby”, “animal,” “monster,” and “creation.” Most of the stories, both in traditional structures or poetic forms, explore traditional storytelling influenced by fairytales, fables and the indigenous stories of the feminine across multiple cultures. As a mixed woman, this representation of hybridity feels very right to me. I was reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ seminal work “Women Who Run With Wolves” and that work greatly influenced the subject and structure of the stories.

CH: How does place figure in your work?

LU: My novel, which is still in progress, is heavily influence by place because it is about a Mexican woman marching in Santa Ana’s army during the Mexican-Texas war in 1836. That physical movement of the characters across space and time is central to the narrative, as is the spiritual space that the heroine and narrator inhabits in the afterlife. I have completed, and plan to complete further research on the subject. What is challenging about this process is that so little is written about these women, called “soldaderas” who travelled with the male soldiers during the war. This, however, also gives me quite a bit of freedom to invent and play with space and time as I imagine it, which is energizing.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets and fiction writers?

LU: I both love and hate this question. There are those writers I go back to over and over: Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison. I try to read widely. I am a multifaceted person, and want to read multifaceted books across many genres.

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

LU: I am currently reading “Lessons on Expulsion” by Erika Sanchez, which is fantastic. I read a little every day. When I read collections of poetry, I want to take my time with each poem.

A Virtual Interview with Christia Madacsi Hoffman

Background

Christia Madacsi Hoffman will be the featured reader Thursday, December 14, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Christia Madacsi Hoffman grew up along the banks of the Mystic River in Mystic, Connecticut. Her poetry collection, Intent, was published by Hedgehog & Fox in 2017.  A longtime Austin, Texas resident, Hoffman’s work has appeared in the Texas Observer and the annual anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Through her company, CenterLight Media, Hoffman works as a marketing and editorial writer, graphic designer, and actor. Her early career adventures included antique furniture restoration and leading treks in the high Himalaya.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

CMH: Shakespeare – and winter readings in a close upstairs room above the Captain Daniel Packer Inne bar in Mystic.

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

CMH: In my early work as a graphic designer, I found I was incidentally
writing and editing on most projects that came my way – developing ad headlines and
copy; discovering copy errors and suggesting changes; writing company communications
and marketing materials. About 10 years into my design career, I got certified as a copy
editor in AP style. While I’d been writing all along, it wasn’t until I submitted my first
feature article to a travel magazine that I felt the title officially applied.

CH: You grew up along the Mystic River in Connecticut, but have long lived in Austin.
How have these two environments helped shape your perspective? How does place
figure in your work?

CMH: I moved to Austin sight-unseen. I hadn’t planned to stay more than a year, but, well, love… Some 12 years in, just as I was planning my departure, a tap on the shoulder on the dance floor at the Broken Spoke held me here. Score two for love. My heart is with the sea (see “I Belong”), but over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate and integrate the openness and friendliness I’ve found in Austin, which is something I believe I needed to learn. While I’ve lived in some stunning cities, I find it’s the people here who give this city its beauty. Austin is young yet and developing unevenly, but each time I leave, I’m encouraged by the dynamism I feel upon returning. At home, in Mystic (it will always be “home”), nature and the seasons define the sense of place. Here, it’s so much less about the landscape and the greater environment. In Austin, the energy of the people and change itself define the sense of place for me. (See “An Age for Innovation.”)

CH: Tell us a little about your collection, Intent. How did you arrive at this collection?
How long did you take to write it? What was your process in sequencing its poems?

CMH: I began writing when my daughter was an infant. A photographer friend of mine, Sarah Bork Hamilton, had challenged herself to post a photo to Facebook every day for a year. While she’s a professional with full kit and gear, she elected to limit herself to her
iPhone. Sarah unwittingly inspired me to set a challenge for myself: to write two lines of
verse a day.

While it doesn’t sound like much, the commitment to two lines seemed significant in
combination with caring for an infant. And the accountability factor was key: I made a
commitment to post those lines each day to Facebook. Very quickly, two lines turned into
complete, usually short, poems – the length being both a function of time and natural
style. Most of the poems in “Intent” were completed in 15 minutes to an hour, with
editing taking place in-line, so to speak, as they were developed. Working in Microsoft
Word, I could iterate quickly – faster than I could write longhand, which I do only if
inspiration strikes out of range of a keyboard.

The book is the culmination of work from 2013 through the early months of 2017. I
wrote each day for the first two years, and have written regularly, though not daily, from
2015 through today. At this point, the practice feels almost essential. As with exercise, I
feel grumpy and muddle-headed if I don’t take time for writing poetry. And while I write
most every day to earn a living, the practice of poetry clears my mind and contributes to
my overall sense of well-being and purpose.

CH: You’ve had a very interesting career trajectory, from restoring antique furniture
and leading treks in the high Himalaya to leading your own company, CenterLight
Media, and working in writing, graphic design, editing, and acting. What do you see
as the trajectory of your literary life? Where would you like to be in five years?

CMH: I’m laughing reading this. I always have a challenging time answering the question,“What do you do?” The answer depends on the context, but I’ve always felt that each pursuit developed something else in the other. Especially now, with a focus on writing and designing for business, acting for both business and art, and writing poetry for art, I see the complementarity in each component. But that’s not what you asked about…

My goal at present is to find residencies so that I can discover what it is to write within a
greater span of time, in contrast to the few hours I devote over the course of a week. In
particular, I’m interested in exploring and capturing sense of place in my poetry as an
artifact – a leave-behind for the people who inhabit a particular locale now, and for future inhabitants. A snapshot in time of culture and character – character of both place and people. Especially now, as we see traditional skills and crafts being overshadowed and lost to new ones, and as climate change alters our landscapes and traditions, I want to assist in capturing what is fading and how it’s being replaced, or in fact, saved or
reclaimed. I might say I want to practice cultural anthropology through poetry –
ethnographic poetry. (I just looked that up. Turns out it’s already a thang!)

CH: How has your work as a voice actor influenced your approach to poetry and its
performance?

CMH: I like that you referred to the “performance” of poetry, because in fact, I’ve discovered that’s indeed what’s happening, even outside of a slam. When it comes to
poetry, the term “reading” is something of a misnomer.

I’ve observed that the work is most effective, the event most enjoyable, when story is interwoven into the delivery of the pieces, and when the poet is fully committed to the words on the page – just as in acting. Depending on the nature and character of the author, this can take different forms, but the audience knows whether or not you’re genuinely invested in your words and your “role” as a performer. (This can be especially
challenging if you suffer at all from imposter syndrome, which I’ll admit to experiencing
at some point in just about every facet of my career.)

I’m still discovering the differences between VO (voice-over), on-screen, and poetry performance. With VO, the trend these days is for a “natural” read. That means clear articulation but no over-enunciation, while still hitting the key words – not to mention the emotion and meaning that needs to be conveyed in the copy, and getting the pacing right for time (:15-, :30-, :60). On screen, in certain instances you can “throw away” a few lines here and there – intentionally give them less emphasis – and articulation depends on your character. And of course you have the benefit of the camera to pick up what you’re saying with your eyes.

With poetry, I’ve found I have to slow myself down and allow words and phrases to land
– both on me and on the audience. Clear articulation is especially important because the
audience usually isn’t reading along, but you also want to let your genuine voice come
through. It’s an interesting balance to try to strike, and I’m still learning. I’ve also
discovered that poems that tell a story, which rely less on word play that might only be
realized on the page, are more successful in “performance.”

CH: . How do you balance the many demands of entrepreneurship with your writing life?
How do you make room for poetry?

CMH: I have a regular writing practice. During the week, I typically get up at the same time each morning – 6 a.m. Three of those mornings I work out; the other two are for writing.

CH: What are you working on now?

I’m writing poetry regularly – two days a week. Some of my work is trending more political these days, given the current climate. I’ve begun researching residencies and feeling out ways to spend more time writing. I’ve observed that the more you do what you want to do, the more you get to do it. I believe the more time I can give to poetry, even if it’s in small increments, the more I’m likely to be able to spend time within that realm.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work?

CMH: I don’t know that I could point to one poet whose work has directly inspired my own; influence is so often subconscious. I would say instead that I feel most inspired by seeing other poets at work. My local (Austin) influencers are Joe Brundidge, Aimée Mackovic and Jim Trainer.

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

CMH: I just picked up Aimée Mackovic’s newest release, “Love Junky,” which is rather tremendous. I’ve been balancing out “Darkness Sticks to Everything” by Tom Hennen with an international anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz entitled “A Book of Luminous Things.”

A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

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

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.