Category Archives: Poetry

A 2022 Virtual Interview with Melissa Studdard

Background

Thursday, October 13, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-second-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-melissa-studdard-tickets-414817900507

Feature Melissa Studdard is the author of fives books, including the poetry collections Dear Selection Committee (Jackleg Press, May 17, 2022) and I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2014), the poetry chapbook, Like a Bird with a Thousand WIngs (Saint Julian Press, 2020), and the young adult novel Six Weeks to Yehidah (All Things That Matter Press, 2011). Her work has been featured by NPR, PBS, The New York TimesThe Guardian, and Houston Matters, and has also appeared in a wide variety of periodicals, such as POETRY, Kenyon Review, Psychology Today, New Ohio Review, Harvard Review, New England Review, and Poets & Writers.

The Interview

CH: It’s delightful to have you back with us, celebrating the publication of Dear Selection Committee. Our last interview was in 2016, so I want to start with your multi-genre book, Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings, which I understand was written to accompany Christopher Theofanidis’ The Conference of the Birds for string quartet, and came out from Saint Julian Press in 2020. Please tell us a little about the book. How did the collaboration come about?

MS:

Thank you—I’m delighted, as well! I met Chris Theofanidis at The Hermitage Artist Retreat in 2019, and we began collaborating almost immediately afterwards.

Theofanidis’ piece, released in 2018, is inspired by Aṭṭār’s Conference of the Birds, the 12th Century Sufi allegorical poem in which all the birds of the world convene and decide that they need a ruler and that they will make a pilgrimage to a distant land in search of the mythic and divine bird, Simorgh. Their journey leads them through seven valleys of understanding, the first of which requires them to cast off all the preconceived ideas and dogma in their thinking, and the final of which requires annihilation of the self in order to attain complete communion with the divine. Theofanidis’ piece traces the metaphoric journey of the birds in seven short character pieces, each lasting between 1 and 3 minutes, and each focusing on a highly defined musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. As he says in the introduction, “Much of the string writing is inspired by the flocking movement of birds; that is, there is a ‘group logic’—a kind of unity of movement and purpose in which all the parts are highly interdependent.”

I wrote Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings quickly—in about a week—because the Argus Quartet contacted Theofanidis asking for poetry to be recited between the movements of Conference of the Birds.

CH: Because your poems were written to accompany the musical composition for string quartet, and the music was written to trace “the metaphoric journey” of The Conference of the Birds, I find myself wanting to call your poems here an “ekphrastic translation.” Tell us a little about working in the dimensions of sound and text in the service of accompanying the musical composition.

MS: Yes—ekphrastic translation is an interesting way of thinking about it. I wanted to create poems that provided a lyric complement to the music, rather than retelling the story, so I decided that above all else I would focus on capturing the personality and spirit of each of the different movements in Theofanidis’ Conference. My goal was to provide language and images for ideas and moods—to help contribute to contemplative reception of Theofanidis’ music and Attãr’s themes. To keep the answer from getting too long, I’ll give you examples of my thinking for two of the seven valleys.

For The Valley of Knowledge, my goal was to evoke the harmony that comes up from below constantly and redefines itself, and I wanted respond also to the searching instability between the harmony and melodic line. So, I had the birds toss jewels around and drop them and pick different jewels back up—a bird might drop a diamond and then, in scooping, find not a diamond but a ruby. I also wanted to have the birds pass the jewels around in the same way the rising line is passed around among the different instruments, like a collective set of questions.

In The Valley of Unity, bird note is spatial and passed around among the birds. The grace notes create flutters that I wanted to honor with chirps coming from various places in the trees. It’s a feeling of echolocation within a smallish area and then the sounds coming together. For this, I brought in the idea of a second person human presence, a You inside of which the birds are singing. But the You is also inside the singing birds.

CH: Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings came out near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the plan to get the book (and the music) out into the world change in response to the pandemic?

MS: Oh gosh! It was really something. Thank you for asking. Originally I wrote the poems to be recited only, but one thing about concerts is that people like to have something to take away with them to remember the evening, so we decided to make a chapbook to have on hand at the performances. We raced to get it done in time for the first concert at The Kennedy Center in April of 2019. But that performance was cancelled, as were many others. Because our main intent was simply to have a physical text as a memento of the performance, we never had any kind of publicity plan in place, and when the pandemic hit, I was focused on holding my life together, transferring my classes online, taking care of my family, and co-authoring pandemic poems with Kelli Russell Agodon. So, aside from a lovely virtual release party co-hosted by Malaika King Albrecht, and my publisher, Ron Starbuck, there actually was no publicity for Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings. Gradually, though, people have begun to find the chapbook, and quartets have begun to perform the music and poems. Argus performed it online at the Raritan River Festival, Electric Earth performed it in person at Jaffrey Center, and Ciompi Quartet did a sunrise performance of it in person at Duke University.

It’s a physically beautiful book, which, in addition to the poems, contains pieces of Theofanidis’ score, snippets of Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Conference of the Birds, and artwork by Elisa Vendramin—I have faith that it will continue to find its way.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of your new collection, Dear Selection Committee, just out from Jackleg Press. Please tell us a little about the book.

MS: Thank you! Dear Selection Committee addresses a number of personal and societal concerns, like loss, gender identity, wavering faith, the nature of pain, climate change, and the difficulty of modern distractions. I think because the quarantine was a time when the workforce as we have known it was disrupted, and people began contemplating the role they wanted work to play in their overall lives, I liked the idea of using the model of a job application as a vehicle for poetry. I mean, do we want to allow work to structure our lives, or do we want work to fit into the structure of our lives?

What are we really building and doing? Like most people, I feel unqualified for my own life, but I also know that for all the anxieties and difficulties we may experience in this chaotic world, we can find balance by striving for connection, compassion, humor, and justice. So, ultimately, Dear Selection Committee uses the structure of a job application to contemplate, mourn, and celebrate an imperfect journey through an imperfect life and society.

CH: In an editorial review, poet Diane Seuss says these poems “unearth the incorrigible self and bury conventionality and its offspring, shame.” How did you decide on the job application as a vehicle for these particular explorations?

MS: Almost immediately after I wrote the titular poem, “Dear Selection Committee,” I knew it would be the defining poem for my next collection. Part of the work of poetry, for me, has been an attempt to liberate myself from the impairment of rigid, overbearing societal conventions. When the poem “Dear Selection Committee” came along, it 1) basically flipped the bird at the kind of exploitative capitalism that harms workers by trapping them in unfulfilling, unappreciated jobs, and 2) irreverently and unapologetically prioritized and seized back female gratification in a context in which women’s bodies have been so frequently commodified for the pleasure of others. The poem flips the system so the interview is no longer about the woman/applicant having to accommodate someone, but instead about the woman/applicant being accommodated. When I got a taste of the liberation “Dear Selection Committee” offered, I wanted more, and I trusted it to guide me in creating a collection that would follow suit.

CH: I understand you’ve performed in a number of virtual and in-person events since Dear Selection Committee was published. How has it been to return to in-person performance?

MS: Wonderful! I love both in-person and virtual events. They each have their own, unique kind of spirit and energy. In an online reading, you can really see people’s faces and how they’re responding to a reading, as well as receiving and giving in-the-moment comments—I love that. In person, though, there’s a collective energy and a sense of community that comes from experiencing something together, in the same physical space, and I love that too. I’m grateful for all and any of it. In general, I think people have a renewed sense of gratitude for events that bring them together.

CH: In addition to your teaching and writing work, you’re currently on the advisory board of the Roulah Foundation (https://www.roulah.org/roulah-foundation/) . What inspired you to join this board? How does the work you’re doing there fit your larger vision for the work you want to put into the world?

MS: Roulah works with victims of self-immolation, domestic abuse, underage and forced marriages, and child-labor, as well as women and children with disabilities. For me, there was never a choice. As soon as Sheema Kalbasi contacted me and told me that she and Shaghayegh Moradiannejad were founding Roulah and wanted me to join the board, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

As a writer and a teacher of literature and writing, much of my work is about helping others to be heard, and I’m painfully aware that there is so much of the human experience that has not been expressed or understood. Through working to excavate hidden voices and create platforms and audiences for silenced voices, people in the literary field can help foster a greater understanding of the human condition, and that, in turn, grows awareness and compassion. That’s part of the work Roulah does, and it’s an investment in a better future. Roulah also strives to help victims to a place of physical and emotional safety. 

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

MS: I’m always reading about 20 books at a time—scattered all over the house in little piles near anywhere I might sit down. The stack next to me now has Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn; Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss; The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, which is edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser and has a foreword by Toni Morrison; Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962 – 1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik and translated by Yvette Siegert, and Drunk by Noon by Jennifer L. Knox. I love all of these poets for so many reasons, but thinking about them together, I’m struck by how they all have a kind of wildness that is metaphorically brilliant but not overly crafted. 

A Virtual Interview with Allyson Whipple

Background

Thursday, September 8, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-allyson-whipple-tickets-389991443907

Allyson Whipple is the editor and host of the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), a project devoted to the intersection of food and haiku. During her 14 years as a Texas resident, she served as board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and was co-creator of the interactive fiction Choice: Texas (www.playchoicetexas.com). Allyson is also the author of the chapbooks Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press). She now lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her family.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What ignited your interest in it?

AW: Poetry has been in my life in one way or another since I was a small child. I remember having beautiful illustrated anthologies of nursery rhymes that had belonged to my father when he was young. I think it’s easy to get dismissive of nursery rhymes as being just for children, but when you think about it, they’re really illustrations of rhyme, meter, and other major literary devices in formal poetry—and I believe formal poetry is still worth studying, even if you want to write free verse. When children recite nursery rhymes, they’re internalizing poetic structures, even if those structures are not being taught explicitly.

I can’t recall what specifically interested me in writing poetry regularly. I think it was simply the impulse of adolescent angst and the need to express myself. There might have been a particular poem, or a particular assignment in my middle school language arts class, but if so, enough time has passed that I lost it. Maybe I just really wanted a reason to justifying a notebook covered in blue glitter at the mall? Honesty, that would be pretty on-brand if it’s true.

CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

AW: I was 12 years old, on spring break visiting my aunt in Pennsylvania, and I just got it into my head one day that I was going to be a poet. The way I remember it is that I was sitting on the couch at her apartment, and the thought came to me like a flash. Or maybe I was already at the mall, and the moment I saw that blue glitter notebook at the Claire’s store, that was the moment the divine inspiration struck. This was 26 years ago, so the finer points are a little fuzzy. But I still remember that notebook. I filled it before the summer was out.

I will say that my identity as a poet waxed and waned for many years. After being a prolific writer of angsty adolescent sonnets, I really struggled to hack it in creative writing classes at Kenyon College, and turned my undergraduate focus to literary theory and criticism. I would return to poetry occasionally—it could never leave me completely—I didn’t really start to feel like I could be a serious poet again until I moved to Austin. When I started working at BookWoman and started meeting all the poets that hung out there, I found a community where I could be a writer, and things started to blossom from there.

CH: Tell us a little about your two chapbooks, Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press, 2016) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press, 2013). What would you say they have in common? How do they reflect your development as a poet?

AW: We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are is about my first years in Texas. I’d moved there from my home of Ohio, and those were some intense years. I’d had a rough time in my first graduate program, and even though I’d finished my master’s degree, I was feeling ashamed of not riding it out all the way to a PhD. I was working in a nonprofit where I was getting paid too little to work too much. I was trying to be in a marriage even though we were both too young and had ignored so many warning signs of incompatibility that were glaringly obvious in hindsight. It covers the period of time where I was just trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult, and what kind of life I wanted to create for myself.

Come Into the World Like That came together in a burst of productivity about a year after my divorce. I put it together in the span of one summer. Some of the poems in the manuscript were older, but most of them were written in a span of about six weeks. It’s like I was purging things I still hadn’t processed, getting ready for the next phase. It’s more overtly confessional than We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are, and doesn’t conceal identities. The chapbook focuses first on my childhood, and then on my own marriage and divorce. I was looking at my parents’ own fraught marriage through the lens of my own, using the past to make sense of the present, and also using the present to make sense of the past. The book is an exploration, but also a reckoning.

Both chapbooks cover periods of my life that feel so distant to me now. I don’t read from these collections very often at all anymore, even though there are some great poems in both of them. They’re also time capsules of some intense periods of my life, and it doesn’t always feel good to revisit the past like that. I still write poems about difficult things, but I’m more interested in sharing my awe of the world around me. I’m more interested in poems that balance the tension of difficult topics with a love for the world.

CH: I find both your chapbook titles to be intriguing. What’s your approach to titles at the level of the poem and the collection?

AW: I actually hate having to title things! For individual poems, I wait for the title to reveal itself during revision. Often I take a line out of the poem itself, and that becomes the title. Since I tend to write shorter poems, I prefer not to also have the title be a line in the poem; that often feels repetitive to me in a short piece. Of course, with haiku, I don’t have to worry about titles at all!

With my first chapbook, the title was also the title of one of the poems that I felt was really at the heart of the collection. Abe Louise Young was mentoring me through the chapbook development process, and that title emerged through our explorations of the manuscript’s themes. For my second chapbook, the phrase “come into the world like that” was used in a poetry prompt; when I saw it, I knew that had to be the title from my chapbook. The manuscript was untitled at the time, but I had the immediate gut sense that it was the right fit.

CH: How has the focus of your work changed since the publication of Come Into the World Like That

AW: A lot has happened since 2016! That chapbook came out when I was 1/3 of the way through my MFA, which I finished in 2018. I unfortunately had a great deal of difficulty writing after I finished my program and went through a long fallow period.

I did turn my MFA thesis into a chapbook manuscript, though I had been frustrated with the thesis experience because it felt like I was putting together a manuscript by committee. After about 18 months, I went through and stripped out everything that didn’t feel authentic to me or to the manuscript (even cutting some poems people thought were fantastic), and ended up with a solid chapbook. I sent it out to contests and open reading periods for about two years, and then decided I was done paying $15-$30 reading fees. I absolutely understand why small presses need reading fees–my time working with Borderlands and handling the financial aspects of the journal was illuminating–but eventually I just got tired of spending the money to get nowhere. I believe in the chapbook and I know that presses can only take on a certain number of books per year. I was just ready to be done with that system.

The chapbook really synthesizes my last few years in Texas, my explorations of Mexico, and chronicles the first few years of my relationship with my partner. Although it’s less confessional than my first two chapbooks, it’s in many ways more vulnerable and personal. Especially now that I’ve moved to St. Louis, I want to get that chapbook into the world as a final farewell to my Texas years. I think the DIY route is the way to go; that’s my approach to so many of my other projects these days. Self-publishing is new territory for me, though, so I need to get settled a little more in St. Louis before embarking on that project.

The early months of COVID were also rough on my creativity. The disruption, the uncertainty, and the fear all made it difficult for me to focus on writing. It was even difficult for me to read. So many people were writing work in immediate response to the crisis, and much of it was quite good, but I just couldn’t look at any of it. That’s actually how I got into quilting; it gave me a creative outlet without having to work with words.

And that’s also how I ended up focusing on haiku. I’d been interested in the form for years, but I always have a number of projects going, and haiku would drift out of my life sometimes. The brevity of haiku, the immediacy of it, made it a form that I found comforting. I could even read other people’s COVID-inspired haiku, because there’s no room for analysis. There’s just the moment. The haiku form has a level of complexity that often gets glossed over in English-language education, so I started reading books and listening to podcast that covered haiku beyond just the number of lines and syllables. I haven’t tired of it yet; I think I will be with haiku and its related forms for many years to come.

CH: I understand you have a black belt in Kung Fu, and I know that you have been working on a Pilates certification. How do these embodied practices inform your writing?

AW: I loved movement before I loved poetry. I started ballet when I was 8 and studied various forms of dance until moving on to other practices. I try to get some sort of movement in every day. Pilates helps me tune into my body and focus. My favorite form of movement is walking. It’s a chance to get out of my head, let my mind wander, and work out problems without overthinking things. That’s where I get my best ideas.

CH: I’m intrigued by one of your newer projects, the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), which is “devoted to the intersection of food and haiku.” Tell us a little about this project and how it got started.

AW: This past spring, I decided to embark on a daily haiku practice focused around the concept of kigo, which are words that denote specific seasons in haiku. Kigo are often compiled in saijiki, which are volumes that organize kigo based on season, and provide sample haiku that show excellent use of seasonal words. Usually, those who compile a saijiki usually offer some commentary for each season word, explaining why it ties to that particular season. One of the most famous Japanese kigo is “cherry blossoms,” which denote spring. Of course, living in Texas, cherry blossoms weren’t a relevant spring kigo!

One of the best-known English-language saijiki is Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson. There are also a number of online saijiki, as well as those offered in e-book format, but I still love print books, and I liked the idea of choosing a kigo a day from Haiku World and using that to inform my writing practice, making notes in the margins as necessary. Although a short form, haiku have many facets, and I wanted to see what would happen if I just focused on kigo for an extended period of time.

I was only two days into the project, which I started in March, when I was struck by the idea to explore more about how food serves as a seasonal word in haiku. I was walking my dog, which is where I do most of my poetry-related thinking, and it occurred to me that with food being intimately connected to the seasons, food words had the potential to serve as useful kigo. However, Haiku World only contains a few food words, and many of them fall into the All-Year category, rather than a specific season. I browsed some other saijiki, which again, had few to no food words, many of them only pertaining to foods specific to Japan—not necessarily useful when you’re writing from Texas! So I decided to start a blog in which I would collect haiku with food words, organize them according to season, and write about my observations. At the moment, this isn’t structured like a formal saijiki, but ultimately, I do plan to put together a print volume that resembles Haiku World.

The idea for the podcast came soon after. I’d always wanted to do a podcast, but couldn’t think of what specific thing I wanted to talk about. I realized that with The Culinary Saijiki, the podcast could be a complement to the blog. I love conversational podcasts, so I wanted something where I could be in dialogue with my fellow haiku practitioners, and add another layer to the conversation.  

CH: You were a long-time resident of Austin and have recently moved to St. Louis. What’s enlivening about being in this new place?  What impact has the move had so far on your writing?

AW: This week, my partner and I are closing on a house in St. Louis proper, after three months of staying with family in the suburbs. I love being in an old city in St. Louis, and am excited to live in walking distance of the historic Soulard Market. It’s a neighborhood where you can really be part of a community. Being in a liminal state for the past few months, I haven’t been writing regularly. I did the Poetry Postcard Fest in August, which did help me with the structure I needed to carve out writing time every day. But between adjusting to a new job and searching for a place of our own, I haven’t had the brain space. I’m looking forward to being settled with my furniture and all of my writing tools, and cultivating a new space to work.

CH: You were co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. How did these literary citizenship roles affect you as a writer?

AW: Literary citizenship is part of my overall practice as a writer. To me, there’s no real distinction between the two. There are times when editing a publication, or doing budget reporting for a literary nonprofit, can take away from the time you spend as an individual writing or revising. But that doesn’t mean it’s not contributing to your writing life. Literary citizenship is how we ensure continuity of community. It’s how we foster relationships, find mentors, and support each other when times are tough. That sense of community is going to feed your work in its own way. How that works is not always immediate, tangible, or quantifiable. But I believe that being in community is essential to most of us as writers.

There are plenty of ways to be in community, and there are plenty of ways to practice literary citizenship. You don’t need to have a lot of money or even a lot of time. Sometimes, literary citizenship is as simple as giving someone a ride to a poetry reading because they can’t drive, or lack access to public transit. Literary citizenship, to me, is simply the actions we take that foster the greater literary community, without worrying about how it’s going to benefit us as individuals.

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

AW: Right now I’m reading A New Resonance 12: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, edited by Jim Kacian and Julie Schwerin. I love this series, published by Red Moon Press. Each edition consists of a chapbook-length number of poems of a few haiku poets. A New Resonance 12 is the newest installment, and it’s got some of my favorite haijin (haiku practitioners) who are working right now.

One of my all-time favorite poetry collections is All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby. This collection features free-verse poems, but also sonnets and abecedarians. It’s one of the best collections of formal poetry I’ve ever read. Part of the poem “Nine Sonnets from the Psalms,” is tattooed on my arm. It reads:

I’m a hundred million molecules in search
of an author. If that’s you, thank you for my skin.
Without it, I’d be in worse shape than I’m in.  

A Virtual Interview with Alexandra van de Kamp

Background

Thursday, August 11, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-alexandra-van-de-kamp-tickets-354850937707

Feature Alexandra van de Kamp is Executive Director for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s Writing Arts Center (www.geminiink.org), and the author of the full-length collections Ricochet Script (Next Page Press, April 1, 2022), Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press, 2016), and The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (WordTech Communications 2010), and several chapbooks, including A Liquid Bird Inside the Night (Red Glass Books, 2015) and Dear Jean Seberg (2011), which won the 2010 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest.

Her poems have been published in journals nationwide, such as The Cincinnati ReviewThe Texas Observer, Denver Quarterly, Great Weather for MEDIA, Washington Square, 32Poems, Tahoma Literary Review, and Sweet: A Literary Confection. Find out more about her poetry here: alexandravandekampppoet.com.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of reading poetry? How did it engage your interest?

AvdK: Believe it or not, I think Shel Silverstein’s was one of my first poetry books that I remember engaging with in any memorable way—Where the Sidewalk Ends. The humor and rambunctiousness of those poems, and their sense of permission to write on all kinds of quirky topics made an impression on me. There are poems called “Band-Aid” and “Sleeping Sardines,” and ‘Rain,” which begins with this wonderful surreal premise: “I opened my eyes/And looked up at the rain,/And it dripped in my head/And flowed into my brain,/ And all that I hear as I lie in my bed/Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head.” And the poem’s surreal logic continues from there! Who could not love a poem that has the word “slishity-slosh” in it? The drawings that go with these poems also created a wonderful and imaginative world that I could revel in.

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

AvdK: I think I was always a scribbler and have distinct memories of these black-covered journals with blank pages that I would earnestly fill up with worries, fears, jottings and more from age 8 and up. I think I started to identify with myself as a writer when I was about 9 or 10 because of an assignment to write on a summer experience, and I ended up writing about a waterfall in Vermont I discovered while visiting a friend’s ski house. The waterfall was massive, and I could stand on a rock ledge beneath it and breathe in the water-house it created with the cascading muscularity of the water all around me. It was like the coolest of hideaways. I wrote a piece that tried to capture the magic of it all. My teacher praised me for it, and the satisfaction I experienced while getting these words down on the page was when I first glimpsed the power of words to capture and save what was precious to me.

CH: I understand you studied at Johns Hopkins University and received an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. How did your undergraduate work inflect on your decision to go on to receive an MFA? How did you decide on that path?

AvdK: Johns Hopkins University is first known for its amazing medical school, which is in downtown Baltimore, but its undergraduate campus in the northern part of the city has some wonderful humanities majors, and a great English Department, and I was lucky enough to major in “Writing Seminars,” which combined creative writing with philosophy and other humanities areas. I took poetry seminars with wonderful poets like David St. John and Peter Sacks, who later married Jorie Graham and has gone on to become a groundbreaking visual artist, to name just a few of the poetic mentors. This was when I first experienced the writing workshop model. I was brazen enough to ask Peter Sacks if I could enter a poetry workshop in my second semester of freshman year, and this was a class with upperclassmen—much more experienced poets than myself. I was clearly out of my depth but learned so much from hearing the other poets share their work and offer feedback and criticism on their peers’ poems. This was when the language of poetry-making first became apparent to me.

I think another key part of my time at Johns Hopkins was my junior year abroad in London. I had never traveled outside of the country before, and it was a life-changing experience to be at University College University of London for a year surrounded by the sights, sounds and textures of London. I was exposed to all kind of British poets, learned the difference between Ben Jonson and Samuel Johnson, and had to write essays every two weeks for my tutor, Helena Sand, who was Oxford-educated and none too impressed with my essay writing the first few months I was there. (I was far too busy traveling on the weekends to other parts of Britain and enjoying the liberation of a Pass/Fail grade system). However, when I hunkered down to write on Keats and wrote something with my full attention a few months into my year there, she seemed to think I had some potential and was a wry and steadfast intellectual guide for me.

But the travel and time abroad helped me learn so much more about how I wanted to be in the world and gave me my first inklings of the life I wanted to live—one with travel, writing, and creative journeying at its core. I ingested the city of London and loved it. I also took advantage of the Brit Rail pass for students, which allowed me to travel to Spain, France, and Italy relatively inexpensively. I will be forever grateful for that time of discovery and travel. I also think my time at Hopkins cemented my decision to be a poet and helped me see the benefits of the workshop model. I also was able to take a class senior year on poetic form with David St. John that had graduate students in it. Once again, I learned a great deal from writers more seasoned than myself and wrote my first villanelles, pantoums, and more. This showed me how the intensity of a close-knit writing community, and the regimen of a  Master of Fine Arts, could be a path forward for me to learn how to live a writer’s life.

CH: What changed in your writing as a result of your MFA studies?

AvdK: I went to graduate school relatively young, at age 25, and learned a great deal from my peers—some of them who later became revered poets such as the wonderful Joanie Mackowski–but I was lucky enough to have writing workshops with Heather McHugh, David Shields, and David Wagoner, editor of Poetry Northwest. Although Wagoner intimidated me, it was a life-changing moment when he asked me if two poems I had written for his workshop could be published in Poetry Northwest.  It made me think I maybe could do this thing called the poetry life. I also loved learning about the Northwest poets, such as Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Linda Bierds, and others. I was fed by the Northwest backdrop itself and wrote many poems that were inspired by the moody tones and gray palettes of that region. I seemed to find my voice in that new world. An East Coaster to the core, I did not know the difference between a Douglas Fir and other pine trees, let alone what a clearcut was and had to learn all about the spotted owl and endangered species. So, overall, it was an education on multiple levels.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of your third full-length poetry collection, Ricochet Script. How did this manuscript come together?

AvdK: I have Laura Van Prooyen, editor of Next Page Press, to thank for the creative spur she provided when she asked me if I could show her my next manuscript for possible publication by her new poetry press, based in San Antonio itself and focused on poets writing their second or third books. I did not really have a completed manuscript at the time—maybe 40 pages done out of a possible book of 65 pages or more.  However, with Laura’s guidance, I honed the book, wrote new poems to fill out the main themes, discovered poems from my last few years of writing that I had not first considered including, and went through a rigorous editing process. Through this process, several people read my book as a whole, and I received  comments from Laura and fellow assisting editors, Sheila Black and Joni Wallace, as well as consultants Tina Posner and Judy Jensen.

Each poet offered their keen eye and perspective on my poems. While I did not take all of the advice offered, I did benefit from much of it and, often, just the experience of seeing how others experienced my poems helped me rethink them in new and earth-shattering ways—all which helped me push the book further. Laura was kind enough to let me know that when she first read my draft manuscript, she counted 40 uses of the word “bird” in the manuscript! Now I had not intended my book to be so “bird-centered,” as much as I love the avian species, so it made me think about what I wanted to write towards as I edited the book. And I realized the key issues for me in this book were aging, our relationships with the body as a life companion, and the slippery fact of time itself, let alone other obsessions.  I also love the title, how it suggests the uncanny and not-always-in-our-control narrative a life becomes, and Laura helped me come up with this after plucking the phrase from one of my poems in the collection.

CH: I so enjoyed reading Ricochet Script and wonder if you might comment on two poems: the ars poetica “Preferences,” and “Ghazal with Birds and Breath,” which astonished me with its fresh take on the ghazal form.

AvdK:

I love that you think “Preferences” is an ars poetica! I have a fascination with list poems and how they allow the writer an opportunity to compile into one space a wide range of thought, imagery, and leaps in imagination. I think of a poem as a mini piece of architecture with all kinds of fixtures and details dangling and working together in one room or space, and list poems are supreme for allowing you to mesh together disparate items. The writer need only come up with a wide enough “reason” or premise for the list and then their poem can take off from there. “Preferences” was inspired by Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful, wry, and world-weary list poem entitled: “Possibilities,” which truly provides a space where all kinds of ideas and items can live together in one space, from her statement “I prefer cats” to her declaration “I prefer conquered to conquering countries.”  Now there is a lot of distance in terms of registers of thought and emotion between those two items in Szymborska’s list!

About my “Ghazal with Birds and Breath,” it was my first ghazal, and, to be honest, I see it as a very corrupted version of that form. I was trying to end each couplet with the word “bird”—this was an intentionally bird-centric poem. However, I did have to bend the ghazal rules a bit as I found my lines becoming too long or awkward with this prescription embedded into it. And I have my poetry group, the “Little Death Poets,” to thank—we often meet at a wine bar in San Antonio called Little Death! This group is comprised of writers Sheila Black, Jenny Browne, Laura Van Prooyen, Amie Charney and Eileen Curtright, and it was their idea I try to write this poem in some kind of form since it was on the body itself in many ways—the ultimate form we contend with in life.

The earlier draft had hints of writing on the body, human breath, and birds but was a bit all over the place. So, for the first time in a while, I took a stab at formal verse. I was also inspired by Emmy Pérez’s exploded version of the ghazal in her book: With the River on Our Face. I knew there was a precedence for opening up the ghazal form and found this inspiring. Whenever I work in form, it always helps me use language in new and different ways and, therefore, come up with new ideas as I contend with the form’s playful “cage.” So, even though this is not a strict ghazal by a long shot, the use of the ghazal forever changed it.

CH: It seems you’ve had a full-length collection out roughly every six years, with The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (WordTech Communications) in 2010, Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press) in 2016, and now Ricochet Script. How have your interests changed as you’ve moved from book to book? What’s remained the same?

AvdK: I love that you noted this, Cindy, because it is true that my book-making pace seems to be every 6 years. I see myself as a rather slow book-maker! I think, over time, I have become more obsessed with the sound of words and their physicality on the page, and this has guided my writing process more and more. This all kicked in during my writing of the poems that comprise  Kiss/Hierarchy, and I found it very freeing. So, over time, my poems have become less narrative and more overtly associative with this reliance on the sound of words to guide my “poetry logic.” I will now allow a word’s sound to influence the words I use after it in playful ways I do not think I would have been comfortable with earlier in my writing life. For example, in my poem “Noon,” in Ricochet Script, there is a line about this midpoint in the day as a “sugar packet/ of dust crushed by the sun….” I don’t think I would have thought of using “crushed” in these lines if I had not already come up with “sugar” and “dust,” so the assonance helped me find this image. I am not the only poet doing this, for sure, but I find I more deeply trust the unknown in my poems through leaning into sound, and this has allowed for more humor and surprise to enter into my writing process. I also think I am a very visual poet, and this has remained the same throughout my three books.

CH: You’ve been at San Antonio’s Gemini Ink for a few years now, first as literary programs director, and now as Executive Director. Prior to that, you taught at New York’s Stony Brook University. How have the change in place and change of role influenced your writing life?

AvdK: I moved to San Antonio seven years ago with my husband, William Glenn, who had just been hired by UTSA Libraries as Head of Reference Services, and I was all set to continue my career at UTSA teaching writing and rhetoric. I even began to teach part-time in the wonderful writing department at UTSA, but then I met Sheila Black, who was Executive Director of Gemini Ink at that time, and she encouraged me to consider applying for an open part-time position of Literary Programs Director. I accepted after going through an interview process, and that seemed to curve my professional life in a whole new direction.

The key difference between a life in academia and one in the nonprofit world is that I lost my summers for writing. One of the gifts of the teaching life—and believe me it is more than earned by teachers and professors—are those two summer months to dive into projects or life pursuits outside of the classroom. And I do miss that now that I have a job that has no clear summer break. I have vacation time, of course, but not those wonderful two straight months off! I think it has changed me as a writer because I now know not to wait for a perfect “time-off” to write. I have learned to write on the weekends, when I am grumpy or even seemingly rushed by other aspects of my life. I also have found that I enjoy the more “9 to 5” office schedule as well and have acclimated to it more than I ever thought I would when teaching in the university setting. It also helps that I am rarely bored at my job and am working in a field—the literary arts—that I feel a true passion for.

CH: What has been the biggest gift of being involved in arts administration? What would you tell someone who is considering that kind of work?

AvdK: I have met so many amazing writers and that has been a true gift. I have also been able to proctor and enjoy a large variety of Gemini Ink’s public classes on the craft of writing or host authors as visiting faculty and speakers, and this has been a delightful part of my job. My first visiting writer to Gemini Ink when I was starting out in 2015 as Literary Programs Director, was the poet Laura Kasischke, and she taught a Saturday workshop on surrealism, and it was wonderful. I reached out to her a few years later, when I was finalizing Kiss/Hierarchy, and she was kind enough to write a blurb for it, which meant a great deal to me. But, mostly, I remember that workshop and the great gems of wisdom she shared with us on writing and writing strangely in a way that was so freeing and mischievous. She had great prompts, such as writing a poem as if you were a Martian who had just landed on planet Earth and was experiencing everything as if it were utterly unfamiliar to you. She explained it in a fuller, more idiosyncratic way, but the exercise was all about looking at your life as the weird thing it truly was! Other poets I have loved meeting have been Tim Seibles, Brian Turner, Helena María Viramontes, Terrance Hayes, Margaret Atwood and Emmy Pérez, to name just a few.

Another gift has been the San Antonio writing community, which is welcoming and chock full of talent! Getting to know writers like Carmen Tafolla, Naomi Shihab Nye, Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, Sheila Black, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Laura Van Prooyen, jo reyes-boitel, Wondra Chang,  Natalia Treviño, and so many others has enriched my writing life in ways I cannot even begin to calculate. And about getting into arts administration. It is a labor of love and definitely not easy at times. I think someone considering this kind of work should know time management is something they will need to grow in, and continue to master, if they want to do their jobs fully and have time for other pursuits, and their own writing life. The key is to never let your writing life sit idle for too long while working on programming all about empowering writers—find the time to tend to your art. It will make you a better arts administrator.

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

AvdK: I am truly enjoying reading Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. What a stunning, emotionally explosive book! Each poem has riveted me. But I tend to frog leap among poetry books and am also truly enjoying reading about poetry itself through Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry. I can find it helpful to step back from poems themselves and read poets’ books on poetry. In fact, I rather nerd out about this! Zapruder has some penetrating stories on his discovery of poetry and, at one point in this book, describes his realization that: “A poem, literally, makes a space to move through. To read a poem is to move through that constructed space of ideas and thinking” (p, 57). I read those lines the other day, and they just lit up a new hope in me that, after not writing poems for a few months, I can get back into my process and just create spaces of thought that can move down the page—it was both simplifying the idea of what poetry-making was, which I found comforting, and then showing its intellectual daring and spaciousness. I have a leaning “Tower of Pisa” comprised of books on my night table—my husband gawks at it in amazement sometimes and he’s the librarian in our house! And this represents one aspect of my reading life: I surround myself with what I hope to read, so there is always an ellipsis in my reading life, the “what will come next.”

A Virtual Interview with Renée Rossi

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

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

Background

Renée Rossi’s chapbook, Motherboard, was selected as runner-up in the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize contest. Rossi has published the full-length poetry collection, Triage, and two additional chapbooks: Third Worlds, and Still Life, winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize. A native of Detroit, she currently divides her time between the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and other places she finds compelling.

The Interview

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

RR: My first memory of poetry was really in high school English, and it was mostly formal poetry (aka Emily Dickinson) and, also, I would read Kahlil Gibran. As a kid, I read novels and Scientific American, and other arcana. I love the use of imagery in poetry, but I also am really drawn to all the moving parts that happen simultaneously in good poems: syntax, diction, imagery, meter, sound etc., and that it is a venue for the creative expression of feelings.

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

RR: When I was practicing in Boston in the early 90s I was able to take some night classes in essay writing and poetry. I was also writing some technical medical articles at the time that for medical journals. I have always written in personal journals, and sometimes it’s just snippets of images, found language from reading, or overheard conversation bits. I see myself more as a creative person than anything. I also love the art of collage making and really began to see poetry making as a type of collage making.

CH: I understand you’ve had a career in medicine, and I know that puts you in excellent company (I’m thinking here of Dr. Rafael Campo and William Carlos Williams, among others). How would you describe the intersection of your interest in human health with your interest in poetry?

RR: I practiced surgery (Otolaryngology) for many years, but I also pursued a master’s degree in Ayurveda (one of the oldest forms of holistic medicine) so there’s an “integrative” bent. I have always been interested in how illness can be a manifestation of the mind (particularly in holistic medicine) — Hippocrates famously said “look not at the disease a man has, rather the man who has the disease.”  I also believe my work serves as an investigation of our transience. In medical school, they told us we would be adding 20,000 new words to our vocabulary…how could I not use some of those Latinate words in my writing? I think it’s kind of magical to weave medical terminology into poetry…sometimes, it almost feels like code switching.

CH: I understand you received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How did you decide on that path? How did your studies there affect your writing?

RR: About 20 years ago I had a near death experience in a rollover car accident right after my mother’s death and I had to take a year off from working because I couldn’t fully use my arms. That didn’t work for a surgeon! I started writing in earnest and was involved in a community writing center, the Writers Garret, in Dallas. The late Jack Myers suggested I think about VCFA. I think more than anything the opportunity to attend the low residency MFA and engage with serious writers from all genres was an absolute gift, and so inspirational. We would be immersed together in writing, attending lectures, reading our work, etc. for ten days straight twice a year and it was a chance to dig deeply into the writing life and to have a vibrant exchange of ideas with others that just doesn’t happen in everyday life.

CH: Your chapbook, Still Life (Gertrude Press, 2009), was the winner of the 2009 Gertrude Chapbook Poetry Competition, and your chapbook Third Worlds was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Please tell us a little about these earlier chapbooks. What changed for you in collecting Third Worlds? What was the same?

RR: While at the Writers Garret I took a class on making chapbooks with Joe Ahearn which was fantastic. Though I scrapped my first chapbook, I really found that the chapbook length was ideal for selecting poems thematically and practically for organizing. I know some writers write thematically from the start. I don’t. I let the ideas come to me organically for the most part.  Both of the chapbooks were generated mostly from material after my MFA. The first time I sent out Still Life to contests, it received a few finalist nods. I kept revising it and sending it out again. Finishing Line Press also accepted Still Life, just as I was about to withdraw it. They asked if I’d send some more work and that ended up being Third Worlds, so the work in those first two chapbooks evolved simultaneously.

CH: Your full-length collection, Triage, was published by Lost Horse Press in 2016. Please tell us a little about this book and how it came about. What did you learn from the process of putting together this full-length collection?  

RR: About half of the poems in Triage came from the first two chapbooks and the rest was newer material. The word triage comes from the French verb trier, to sort. But it also has the connotation from WWI battlefields in its current usage in western medicine –which is to triage patients into three groups: those who will make it without any intervention, those who will not make it regardless of intervention, and a third group who will make it only with intervention. To triage basically was to identify that third group and prioritize helping them. I think it also works for poems! I put the book together keeping in mind the concept of three thematically and ended up intertwining or braiding when I put the poems together:  medical poems, origin poems, abstract poems, etc. Only selecting about a third of the poems I had on hand! I remember having printed poems all over the floor for awhile in the living room and just moving them around to braid them. For Triage, I sent out the manuscript to several presses cold and a couple contests. I really liked how Christina Holbert at LHP put together her books—it’s an art form for her, and I appreciate how the book came out aesthetically.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Motherboard, runner-up for the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize. Tell us a little about this new work. What was the inspiration for this collection? Over what period were the poems written?

RR: The poems for Motherboard were mostly written after 2016, however, a few were older. I think the inspiration for this work was a meditation on the concept of “mother” in a universal sense, and I started to see poems with that theme aggregating. Everyone has a mother, and most animal species do as well. But, I didn’t start thinking of it that way originally— it came about organically as I have “phased out” of motherhood (my sons are both in their 20s now!) and am entering the crone stage of life.  Being a mother was singularly the most important experience in my life and I wanted to pay homage to that from the ground up in all its joy, trauma, trials, and beauty. During the pandemic, I had some extra time to work on revising the poems for the manuscript.

CH: How do you see your development as a writer over time?

RR: I see it as an evolutionary process and for me, being true to voice seems to be most important, whether I’m writing a narrative, figurative, or persona poem.  Writing has been a way for me to try and understand the ineffable in life, to have a conversation with the universe. To send a postcard to the universe.

CH: What are you working on now?

RR: I have become more interested in writing persona poems, ekphrastic poems, and honing the image narrative. I think it’s a real challenge to write a persona poem that maintains the writer’s voice and doesn’t sound like it’s been misappropriated or disingenuous.

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

RR: Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath, which won the National Poetry Series award. It’s a wonderful figurative rumination about a ruined place. I adore the title and its double meaning; the name of a town which is anything but “a place of learning” as the place one hails from.

A Virtual Interview with Jenny Qi

Background

Thursday, February 3, 2022 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. CST

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-presents-a-virtual-reading-with-jenny-qi-tickets-203251058387

Jenny Qi is the author of the debut poetry collection Focal Point, winner of the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award. Her essays and poems have been published widely in newspapers and literary journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has received fellowships from Tin House, Omnidawn, Kearny Street Workshop, and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Born in Pennsylvania to Chinese immigrants, she grew up mostly in Las Vegas and Nashville and now resides in San Francisco, where she completed her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology and currently works in oncology consulting. At the end of graduate school, she co-founded and produced the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio, where she wrote and talked a lot about death. She is working on more essays and poems and translating her late mother’s memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and immigration to the U.S.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What first drew you to it as a means of expression?

JQ: My very first exposure to poetry came early—my mother and grandmother taught me to recite Tang poems when I was a toddler, a practice supposedly common among Chinese school children. (I never went to school in China, so I can’t verify this.) A few years later, probably on the tail end of elementary school, I became introduced to English poetry by way of a YA novel that included William Blake’s “The Tyger” as an epigraph, and I was delighted by the sonic qualities and vivid imagery. And I enjoyed rap music, which can be a sort of poetry too. It was around that time that I was inspired to start writing and engaging in the kind of wordplay that I wasn’t seeing in prose, and through poetry I could start to connect and express ideas that I couldn’t fully articulate as a child on the cusp of adolescence.

CH: When did you begin to direct your energy toward writing? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

JQ: Hmm, there are many ways I could answer this question. In some ways, I’ve been directing energy towards writing of all genres since childhood, initially mostly as a hobby. As the only child of immigrants, I never really imagined that I could have a creative career because that seemed so risky and impractical. Only in the last few years, towards the end of and after graduating from my PhD program in Cancer Biology, have I allowed myself to place more weight on writing. (I wrote more about this for the New York Times here.) Although I’ve left the lab, I still work in STEM, and I don’t have an MFA, so sometimes I still feel like writing is my secret. So I don’t know, I guess I’m a writer teetering on the edge of many parallel lives. We all contain multitudes.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Focal Point. In the book’s acknowledgments section, you say the project “has been a decade or more in the making.” Please tell us a little about the journey that led to your creating and publishing the manuscript.

JQ: Thank you. I didn’t set out to create a manuscript, to be honest, and maybe that made it easier to create. I wrote a few of these poems in college, never dreaming I’d publish them in a collection. My mom passed in my last year of college, when I was only 19, and I stopped writing, and then a few months later I started my PhD program. A year into grad school, I started writing poems again and started attending a casual weekly workshop run by Dr. David Watts out of his office, and I guess I think of that point as another beginning of this project, the processing of grief and learning how to be a person in the wake of that loss. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after I’d written probably hundreds of poems and started to publish poems individually, that it even occurred to me to compile them into a manuscript. I walked into workshop one day, and David asked me, “So, where’s your book?” And then I started to think about it more seriously.

CH: It was a pleasure for me to encounter the variety of poems in Focal Point, both in terms of subject matter and in form. How did you approach knitting these poems together as a manuscript?

JQ: Thanks so much. When I started putting this book together, I knew nothing about how to put a book together. In my first attempt, I put poems together by category, which meant all the heavy grief poems were in one section. It wasn’t a good book, but I think it was actually a helpful exercise to see what themes recurred in this body of work. Based on feedback I received from friends and mentors, I started to put poems (which I physically printed out) next to each other based on these recurring themes and images, and often others saw connections that I didn’t. After I graduated and had some time away from the lab, I was also able to gain a different perspective. It was only then that I revisited the older “Biology Lesson” series of poems and some of the short “how-to” poems and thought about how those might serve as a manual for navigating loss and growth in tandem.

CH: I find in the poems of Focal Point a deeply engaged speaker, and I love that the gaze of the poems moves across many kinds of relationship, in love and grief and anger. How did the writing of these poems change you?

JQ: I love this question so much, because the writing of a poem absolutely does change you, in many ways. I think one of those ways is by teaching a kind of radical acceptance of the subject, the speaker of your poem, and even yourself. The speakers of these poems are often flawed, expressing “ugly” human emotions such as anger and resentment and envy, and in the writing of the poem, sometimes I learn about where that comes from. I’m thinking of the persona poems about Circe and Penelope, two figures from Greek mythology that I never particularly understood or liked as a recalcitrant youth because I felt they were compromising too much. The writing of those poems in their voices at that particular time in my life helped me arrive at a new understanding of these characters and the complex calculus of adulthood and specifically womanhood.

CH: In “Call and Response,” you’ve translated a poem by Su Shi (1037 – 1101) from the Chinese and written a companion poem in response. What inspired you to write in the voice of the departed?

JQ: This poem is one of my oldest in the collection and came out of a translation assignment in college. When I was choosing a poem to translate, I realized I’d learned all these old Chinese poems as a kid, and they were always written by men. So I wanted to write in that voice because I wanted to give voice to the woman in the poem, who’d likely had no voice even while she was alive. In retrospect, I guess a lot of my early poems were persona poems in the voice of women who had been written by men or otherwise muted. I think I was starting to grapple with my paradoxical upbringing—I’d grown up with a strong, ambitious female figure in my mother, but we came from a culture with deeply ingrained misogyny.

CH: I understand that after graduate school, you became co-founder, co-host, and producer of the science storytelling podcast Bone Lab Radio. Tell us a little about the podcast and how you became involved in that project.

JQ: Actually, that was a project I did during grad school! Outside of my lab responsibilities, I did a lot of science communication and journalism work as a grad student, and Bone Lab Radio was the last of those before and immediately after I graduated. There were four of us who co-founded the podcast: three bone researchers and me. BLR was really my friend Kate’s baby—I reached out to Kate Woronowicz, who was in my year in a different grad program, because I’d just left the school newspaper and was looking for a new scicomm project. I’d never done audio before and wanted to learn something new and see if that might be or lead to a career option after graduating. I think what I brought to that project was my writing, editing, and interviewing experience and my obsession with death and the less technical aspects of bones. It actually helped that I wasn’t a bone researcher so I could tell them if things were getting too jargon-y. The rest of the team has remained in academic research, and I guess I’m still the weird one, ha!

CH: You hold a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, and work as an oncology consultant. How have you made space for your creative life amid the demands of your professional life?

JQ: It’s honestly really challenging. And there’s a difference, I think, between making space for the act of creating and making space for the tasks around putting that creation into the world. To actually create something, I need more mental space than I often have in daily life, and it’s been so valuable to attend workshops and conferences where I’ve set aside time (and gone to a different physical location) for that sort of creative thought. It’s been tougher during the pandemic, but it’s helped to be a part of various writing groups that meet regularly via Zoom. I think building community has been the single most important thing for my creative life, especially since I don’t have an MFA and am not necessarily trained as a writer. Beyond that, I use a bullet journal and heavily rely on Google Calendar to organize my time. That has been so important during my book tour, particularly since I haven’t been able to take time off of work for it.

CH: As a writer, what are you working on now?

JQ: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on book promo. But in terms of actual writing, I’ve been working more on prose, and that’s really exciting for me. I’ve been writing more personal essays, and I’m going to be doing a lot more translation work—translating some of my late grandfather’s poems and my late mother’s memoir—and writing essays in response to that work. In poetry (and prose), I’ve been exploring the reverberations of my parents’ experience of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the consequences of technological and climate instability. 

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

JQ: Of course, I love and read a lot of poetry, but I probably read more prose, honestly. I love a good historical fiction novel, and I find novels set in 1600s France to be weirdly comforting because of my childhood obsession with Alexandre Dumas. I generally enjoy fiction, historical or not, and I like outrageous business dramas (Bad Blood comes to mind as an example), the occasional memoir, and short story and essay collections.

A Virtual Interview with Kai Coggin

Background

Thursday, January 13, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-kai-coggin-tickets-206977474197

Kai Coggin (she/her) is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021) and INCANDESCENT (Sibling Rivalry Press 2019). She is a queer woman of color who thinks Black Lives Matter, a teaching artist in poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, and host of the longest running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country—Wednesday Night Poetry. Recently awarded the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award and named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times, her fierce and powerful poetry has been nominated four times for The Pushcart Prize, as well as Bettering American Poetry 2015, and Best of the Net 2016 and 2018. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRYCultural WeeklySOLSTICEBellevue Literary ReviewTABEntropySWWIMSplit This RockSinister WisdomLavender ReviewTupelo PressWest Trestle Review, and elsewhere. Coggin is Associate Editor at The Rise Up Review. She lives with her wife and their two adorable dogs in the valley of a small mountain in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of poetry?

KC: As a reader, I would describe myself as hungry, always searching for a voice, and image, a light that reflects mine, that speaks to the devastation and triumph of the human experience. I love language that gives hope, gives space to the trauma of living in these perilous human experiences, but also guides me to something higher within myself. I love Rumi, Harjo, Hirshfield. I open poetry books of my friends at random and let them speak to me in in the moment. I love humor and dry wit as well, and love Sedaris for that. 

My first memory of poetry is reading and re-reading Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I checked it out at the library with a stack of “choose your own adventure” books, and it was like the top of my head was suddenly opened up to a whole other world— poems.

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

KC: I hardly have memories of my life up until the age of 7. I know I lived in Bangkok, went to a British International private school, and took ballet lessons— all experiences I can glean from photographs. My parents divorced and my mom, little sister and I crossed the pacific and came to Houston TX to chase the American dream. It’s something inherent, perhaps, the writing. My American father was a writer, a journalist for the AP and TIME Magazine. He interviewed sheiks and kings, reported on global atrocities and wars, but I didn’t know that as a child, just knew that he left us. My Filipina mother grew up on a farm, in a village in the Philippines. She memorized and recited poems to perform in neighboring villages, and I can recall a sepia photo of her mid-recitation, atop a feebly-formed platform reciting with the drama and ache of a seasoned actor. So this storytelling, this language, this need to voice something deeper— inherent.

As my young adolescence continued, I questioned my attraction to girls, my inner conflict of being raised in the Catholic faith while, at the same time feeling i would be “cast to the fires of hell” or something because I thought Kelly, the blonde girl in homeroom, was so pretty. I was raped at 13 by a stranger who knocked on the door asking for a glass of water. Many things tried their hardest to break me, and I wrote. I wrote in a journal. I wrote unrequited love letters for the girls I liked, but could never tell. I wrote tragic love poems that would never be read. Words saved me from myself. Words were where i could be myself. Words were my safe space in a world that made me feel unsafe.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher Miss Sloan told me I could be a writer one day. It was the first time someone noticed something was good about me, that saw my real talent. I leaned in. I believed her.

CH: I understand you hold a Bachelor of Arts in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M, and that you were once a high school English teacher. I also understand you are currently a teaching artist with both the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning through the Arts. How did you become interested in the role of teacher? What have you learned from teaching?

KC: Yes–a BA in creative writing and poetry, and a masters from the school of hard knocks. When I graduated with the degree in poetry, I didn’t know how to actually BECOME a poet, how to make a life out of it. This is something you learn in an MFA, but I barely survived undergrad as a lesbian in the Corps of Cadets (another story), so wanted to just get started with my life, start a career somehow. I had been in a teaching role for many years, in many different capacities, working with youth and in leadership roles growing up. Teaching seemed like something I could sink my teeth into, and looking back on my life at that point, it had only been teachers who saw me, who gave me a hand in the dark. I wanted to be that hand to other kids.

I got my emergency teacher certification and was in a 9th grade classroom the very next fall after graduating from college, back teaching in Alief, the same school district of my personal education. Alief was/is a very diverse demographic, about 98% Black and Latinx, 1 % Asian, 1% white. I knew (from personal experience) that kids growing up here were predestined to live on the margins of life/society. I wanted to be someone they could see as a reflection of themselves, who was “making it,” who had gone to college, gotten a job, bought a home for their mama, all the things.

I could see what the kids needed because I needed the same things when I was in their shoes. They needed safety, relevance and connection to the curriculum, to be heard, seen, and valued. I brought in unconventional lessons, and “radical” literature. I took them outside for poetry and drum circles. We read Romeo and Juliet with meter-stick sword battles and a balcony scenes where boys played Juliet and girls played Romeo, and there was no bullying, there was just love and laughing. So much laughing. Teaching was like my whole heart was on fire, with purpose and passion. But poetry still burned in the background… waiting.

By my fifth year, I had a poetry unit that was so incredible it culminated with Sandra Cisneros flying in to see and visit with my students for a whole day, bringing them signed copies of her brand new hardcover novel, signing them, listening to their poetry. It was LIFE-CHANGING for my kids (students). I saw what poetry had the capacity to achieve. I won Teacher of the Year that year, then won for the whole school district, then was a top-5 finalist out of 85,000 teachers in the Region. Then you know what I did?

I quit.

To become a poet.

Fast forward ten or so years, and here I am in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, with four published books under my belt, named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times in 2020, and was just awarded the Governor’s Arts Award in Education from the Arts Council in 2021. I am a poet, now, yes. But I am also a Teaching Artist with Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, bringing the healing and emotionally freeing magic of poetry to thousands of kids across the state each school year.

My high school kids in Houston are all grown up now and are my friends on FB, but I still feel like I am an example for them, a reflection of someone who looks like them— someone who chased her dreams, and caught them.

CH: Tell us a little about your work as editor at Rise Up Review. How has this work shaped you as a writer?

KC: Being an Associate Editor is a humbling experience. Seeing how many types of poets there are, how many different voices out there trying to be heard, it’s just mind-boggling. I always read submissions hoping to feel, hoping to be struck by emotion, tension, action, hope. I want to learn and see perspectives of others when I read for RUR. Rise Up Review is a journal of resistance, born out of defiance to the acts against humanity of the last administration. I am honored to help facilitate more poems being pushed out into a greater sphere, that fight towards justice and light. I see myself as a warrior poet. I write the wrongs. I fight with the sword of my words. There is still much work for us to do.

CH: You published your first poetry collection, Periscope Heart (Swimming with Elephants Publications, 2014), and have since published Wingspan (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016), Incandescent (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), and now Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021). What do you see as the arc of your development as a writer?

KC: First of all, these are SUCH great questions, Cindy. Thank you for the opportunity to answer them. My arc as a writer has definitely shifted from book to book. PH was very inward facing, about my body image, love, spirit. Wingspan is laced with all of these inward facing poems as well, those reflections, but also I began to see the power of my platform (having a mic to read poems at each week, and naming injustices I see and felt, as a progressive blue flame in a very red state). My justice work began. My activism. My poetry as protest. Incandescent is almost all of that entirely, as we were in the hands of a cruel the of darkness.

Throughout all my books, I write with light, hoping to bring beauty and nature back into the consciousness of the reader, in such a troubling time. There are always love poems. Requited now. Queer and beautiful. But my work has gotten increasing more political, and as consciousness has evolved, I have evolved with it, adding my voice to the conversations on race and inclusion. Black Lives Matter, let me take the moment to say.

Mining for Stardust is all prismatic views of the previous facets of my work, plus the pandemic. It is my most intentional work. It was the hardest to write, to find the light in such unprecedented chaos and dark, such volatile upheaval. Here, let my book trailer try to convey what I hope this book does.

CH: Tell us a little about how Mining for Stardust came to be. What does it share with your earlier work? How does it differ?

KC: I wrote the first poem of the book after watching a viral video of a quarantined Italian opera star sing “Nessun Dorma” to his isolated comrades from his balcony– the future for all of us bleak and unknown. I cried, and I wrote. For all of 2020, I did this, leading a community of poets on Wednesday Night Poetry each week with pointed poems of emotion and light. The poems breathe and grieve, lose and love, heal and hope–they take you through and to the other side of this darkest time in our collective lived human experience. Mining for Stardust is memorial, grief, joy, beauty, truth, resistance, reflection, love, and balm for the aching human heart. It is the work of a scribe who earnestly engraves this moment into our human history. This collection is something you can hold in your hands, point to, and say, “I lived through all of this, too. I survived. I made it to the other side.”

CH: I found the breadth of poems in Mining for Stardust to be fascinating: from love poems to poems that rage against the pandemic and social injustice to poems that celebrate the way that land can be medicine. What guided you in the selection of the poems for this book, and in their sequencing?

KC: Chronological devastation and hope, loss and love. As I moved through the moments in earnest empathic feeling, the poems emerged.

CH: What sustains you in your writing practice? 

KC: Beauty. Being struck by beauty. Feeling that I am the only one on earth at a particular moment, seeing with the eyes of a poet, a minuscule precise sliver of existence. Naming it. Holding it on my tongue. Making it live forever.

CH: You’ve been hosting the monthly Wednesday Night Poetry series for quite some time. How was it for you to assume the role of continuing the unbroken streak of readings since February of 1989? How has it been for you to continue this practice through the pandemic?

KC: It has been the honor of my life holding space for poets all over the world to survive this pandemic.

CH: Now that Mining for Stardust is out, what are you working on?

KC: Resting. Breathing. Noticing. Writing. Being.

A Virtual Interview with Teresa Palomo Acosta

Background

Friday, December 10, 2021 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-presents-tejanaland-by-teresa-palomo-acosta-tickets-201325238207

BookWoman is delighted to present Teresa Palomo Acosta for the launch of her book, Tejanaland: A Writing Life in Four Acts (Texas A&M Press, 2021). Tejanaland collects three decades of Acosta’s work in poems, essays, drama, and children’s story that address the cultural, historical, political, and gender realities that have informed the author from childhood to the present.

Poet, historian, author, and activist Teresa Palomo Acosta grew up in McGregor, Texas, in a home approximately 100 human paces from the railroad tracks. She first learned about music and writing from her maternal grandfather Maximino and her mother Sabina. At 11, she decided to become a writer and spent the next four years cogitating before settling on poetry as her chosen form. Teresa’s degrees in Mexican American Studies from UT Austin and in Journalism from Columbia University reinforced her commitment to depict her Tejanaland life in equal measures of joy and pain.

In addition to Tejanaland, Acosta is the author of the poetry collections In the Season of Change (Eakin Press, 2003), Nile and Other Poems (Red Salmon Press, 1999), and Passing Time (Teresa Palomo Acosta, 1984). Acosta co-authored Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003) with Ruthe Winegarten.

The Interview

CH: First, tell us a little about the term “Tejanaland.” Where did it originate, and how does it resonate with you? Why did you select “Tejanaland” as the title of your book?

TPA: Tejanaland is my name for a powerful world that gave me life. I chose it as the book title because it is an emphatic grito that lays claim to “the land that became Texas,” a common phrase used to denote the present-day State of Texas. Mexican-origin people often possess both indigenous and Spanish-Mexican roots, making us a people who, for many generations, have lived our lives on both sides of the present-day border. Just as importantly, the title is a way to proclaim my creative literary landscape. The title Tejanaland is leaves no doubt that what I write is both deeply rooted in the Central Texas Blacklands, where I grew up, and is connected to all the other geographic landscapes my people occupy in this state.

CH: You’ve said you learned about music and writing from both your mother and your maternal grandfather. What was the role of music and writing in your home life?

TPA: My maternal grandfather Maximino Palomo had been taught to play the violin as a boy. His family, according to the stories I learned, worked and lived on an hacienda. He was apparently meant to become the manager of the hacienda in due time. His future called for him to have “cultured tastes,” which included playing a musical instrument. The 1910 Mexican Revolution changed this trajectory, forcing him to flee with his family across the US-Mexico border. He continued, however, to play violin. He insisted that I practice soprano clarinet every day. I took up the instrument as a sixth grader in my school’s music program. My grandfather had been an actor in traditional Mexican plays, and he would sometimes perform a favorite role for me. My mother had a lovely contralto. She sang at home in Spanish as she did housework.

My mother provided space and quiet for me to write in our home. She would tell visitors, “Teresa is writing, so we must be quiet.” I’m not sure how she surmised that writing was important to me, but she did. In our kitchen, the Velásquez Spanish Dictionary was prominently displayed on a small table. My parents never told me how they obtained the book. But its presence was significant to me. I used the dictionary for my Spanish language classes in high school and later in college. Perhaps its availability was a foretelling that Spanish was a natural occupant of my writing world.

CH: Your bio talks about your early interest in writing, and the decision you made to become a poet. What was it about writing that fascinated you? And what steered you in the direction of poetry?

TPA: As a child, I spent a good deal of time imagining events and places. I would stand on the railroad tracks in front of our home and wonder about what lay in the distance—what people and experiences could be found “out there.” At the same time, the people who surrounded me were my major interests: how they spoke as they visited with my mother, father, and grandfather; the funny jokes and play on words that my father used in describing a friend or a situation; and what my grandfather told me about his life, dramatizing it for me, as needed.

What steered me to poetry is partly what steered many dreamy-eyed teenagers, at least in my memory, to poetry: a desire to write about romance, about being rescued by a “knight in shining armor” and similar themes. As a young girl, I grew deeply intrigued with the way words reveal so much about ourselves and others. Between the ages of 11 and about 16, I simply decided that poetry was my genre. Also, in high school, I participated in poetry interpretation in the University Interscholastic League competition. As a result, I read a great deal of poetry from English and American literature. However, I later learned just how limited American literature was by race and ethnicity, which was the case during my school years. Growing up, I had no Mexican-origin writers to emulate, and poems by or about about Mexicans were unheard at my school. Those poems, in fact, had existed for generations, but they were not taught to me throughout much of my formal education.

Thus, the Mexican American literature I learned was a living being within my home and my community. It was delivered orally to me in stories told at home and in our community. When I was more mature, I decided to make my people’s experiences one of the chief basis of my work. Indeed, my poetry emerged from what I learned or witnessed at home. As a young woman, I asked my parents a great deal about our family’s history. They were happy to tell me what they could. We would take driving trips around McGregor and the surrounding towns. On these journeys, they would relate many experiences and point out specific sites where they had lived, worked, and socialized as young people during the Great Depression. Many of the experiences they related to me made their way into my work—many. I cannot emphasize this enough. I can still hear my parents’ voices as they spoke about our family history in the Central Texas Blacklands. They, along with my maternal grandfather, were my teachers for making the community’s hearth a world—a Tejanaland—about which to write.

CH: I understand that Tejanaland surveys three decades of your work, from poetry to essay to drama to children’s story. How do you see your development as a writer over your career?

TPA: My formal training as a writer began when I enrolled at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. There, I studied with Dr. Travis Looper, who was considered a fearsomely tough professor of Freshman English. He taught us to diagram sentences, in an effort to illustrate to us how words function in relation to one another. After returning to us our first essay for his class, Professor Looper told us that while we “had a lot to say, we didn’t know how to say it.” I was both dismayed at my C- on that essay and elated that his class offered the opportunity to learn how to write persuasively. I had ended up in Professor Looper’s class by asking a pertinent question during fall semester registration. When I arrived at the registration desk, I learned that his composition class was woefully lacking in students. I asked why. A member of the registration staff responded, with a gleam in her eye, that students, if they could, made every effort to avoid Professor Looper’s class because he was “hard.” Great, I thought. I wanted a hard teacher, so I immediately registered to study with Professor Looper. I made sufficient progress in his class to earn a semester grade of A-. At UT Austin, I enrolled in the only creative writing class I’ve ever taken. Dr. Carlota Cárdenas de Dwyer was my professor. I wrote “My Mother Pieced Quilts” as a classroom assignment. Professor Cárdenas de Dwyer and other colleagues of hers were in the process of assembling The United States in Literature, a secondary school literature textbook. She asked me for permission to publish my poem in the textbook and, of course, I agreed to her request. “My Mother Pieced Quilts” has remained the best known of my poems, and continues to appear in several secondary American literature textbooks. For one year, I served as the editor of El Despertador at UT Austin, which was the newspaper of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). I loved writing. I knew that I would pursue it in one way or another.

CH: As a writer, what has become more important to you over time? As a young writer, were there things you thought important that seemed less over time?

TPA: Writing directly, using a contemplative or meditative approach has become paramount. As a young writer, I likely tried to please others. However, it’s become more important for me to write about what moves me rather than to try to please an audience. My lyric poetry has, I think, been largely been overlooked by scholars and others who have followed me as a poet addressing political matters. I consider the lyric poems key to my work. In Tejanaland they, some tinged with humor, reign.

CH: I have known about you as a poet and historian for some time, but did not know of your background in journalism. What led you to Columbia University? How did this course of study there shape the direction of your writing life?

TPA: I fashioned myself, incorrectly, a reporter because I am a very curious person and thought that journalism would provide a great platform for exploring the world. So I applied and was accept to the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Studying at Columbia was a tough road for me to traverse. I faced constant challenges in figuring out how to move about the city to complete my assignments. The pace at Columbia was also quite demanding.

Yet, while it may seem odd, I think the study of journalism is a great education for a poet. It certainly was the case for me. I learned how to be quiet and let others talk. I learned to think on my feet, so to speak, and how to quickly devise the main point of a story. Importantly, I gained the ability to rapidly start a piece of writing with a phrase or one sentence—the so-called important “lead” of a newspaper story. Indeed, figuring out the “lead” is also important in writing poetry.

Almost from the first week of my journalism studies, I realized that I was not bound for a reporting career. Yet I am deeply grateful that studying journalism showed me how to explore the lives of people and situations that I thought needed bringing to light in poetry. Many of my poetry subjects live in the American Southwest, with many residing in my family history in McGregor and in my larger community in Texas.

CH: What do you see as the relationship between journalism and history? Tell us a bit about your experience with journalism. How did you become a historian?

TPA: I think journalism and history share a great deal in common. It has been proposed that journalism is the “first” history, as it reports on events as they occur, and history reports on the long aftermath of events. The two fields require keen observation; numerous sources; the ability to listen to others’ opinions, while refraining from judging their perspective; organizing an account of events that entices people to read it. Both rely on using the most intriguing of voices to tell a story. They also require writing precisely, although history allows for the fashioning of a longer narrative. I began to write history when I served for four years as a research associate for the New Handbook of Texas project at the Texas State Historical Association. I was hired to write about the history of Mexican Americans in Texas. My tenure at the Handbook allowed me to learn to use archival records and seek sources beyond the all-important interview that is of high importance in journalism. Before my experience at the NHOT, I would never have imagined myself as capable of writing history.

CH: When I see the term “Tejanaland,” I can’t help but think of Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003), which you authored with Ruthe Winegarten. How did your experience working on that project influence your writing life?

TPA: Writing Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History with Ruthe Winegarten had a deeply personal impact on how to write about women’s lives. What an uplifting journey she and I took in pursing the book. I have an essay in Tejanaland about our collaboration. As to how our work impacted my writing life: The experience confirmed my desire to write about Tejanas who are unknown or little appreciated such as Elena Zamora O’Shea, about whom I write in Tejanaland, or Daria Arredondo Vera, a labor activist in the Rio Grande Valley. In writing Las Tejanas, Ruthe and I went beyond focusing solely on major Tejana figures. Our commitment to depict the lives of extra-ordinary women continues to guide me. I find their stories deeply compelling and in need of an audience. Another outcome of our work was that I pledged myself to write honestly about women.

CH: Looking back on what you’ve learned, what might you tell your young writer self?

TPA: I would definitely tell her to be bold, to experiment with her ideas; to live outside of the United States for some time; to forgive herself for her writing errors; and to begin with anticipation and joy each time she faces the blank page. That blank page is an invitation to preserve human life in words. I would also tell her to be a generous writer, sharing what she knows and learning from others.

A Virtual Interview with Lauren Berry

Background

Thursday, November 11, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. CST

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-lauren-berry-tickets-184367276487

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of reading poetry?

LB: I would describe myself as a fleetingly obsessive reader. I get hooked on a genre and submerge into it for a couple months and then the wind will shift and I am onto something else. In the past year, I’ve leapt from children’s literature to erotica to biographies to Russian literature and now Lauren Groff’s new historical fiction novel, Matrix, which has absorbed my imagination.  

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

LB: I knew even as a child that I wanted to write. For fourth grade career day, I dressed up like an author – black velour turtleneck, black leggings, black beret. Also, my elementary school had a “Young Authors” program and if you wrote a story by each Friday, you earned an orange button that said, “Young Author,” and had a drawing of a quill on it. Once you collected so many, they framed your school picture in the library. I remember when I made it to the library wall. It was my first real milestone as a writer.

But I didn’t think of myself as a poet until I was a teenager. I used to ride horses but when I got mono in tenth grade, I missed six weeks of school and was told it was too dangerous for me to ride, so I signed up for a poetry workshop at a fine arts center a few miles from my house. I loved it. Sitting there at sixteen, in the middle of a group of retired women, I felt a flicker inside me. My teacher, Timothy Juhl, saw that light and encouraged me to get a degree in Creative Writing. I still think about him often, and I’m so grateful for his influence in my life.

CH: What motivated you to pursue an MFA? What changed most about your writing practice as a result of the experience of the MFA?

LB: The MFA felt like a natural step for me. I loved being a student and I just felt hungry for more knowledge. There was never a point when I considered not getting an MFA.

My time in the MFA program at the University of Houston changed my discipline as a reader more than my practice as a writer. Since I was young, I wrote constantly, but I was not as dedicated of a reader. However, when I got my first apartment in Houston, I discovered a wonderful stillness in living alone for the first time. I would sit on my porch for hours, curled up with a book.

CH: I understand you held the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute. How did you become aware of the fellowship? How did the fellowship impact your writing?

LB: The fellowship at Madison was one of the best years of my life because I taught for two hours a week—and that’s it. The gift of time to write made it possible for me to really get lost in my writing and reading. As a Floridian, I had also never seen snow and the winter wonderland that is Wisconsin opened a new realm in my imagination.

CH: Your first book, The Lifting Dress (Penguin, 2011), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the National Poetry Series in 2010. Tell us a little about how that collection came together.

LB: One of my favorite quotes about art is Michelangelo’s “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” When I began The Lifting Dress, I started with a scene that features the Just-Bled Girl the day after she endures sexual assault– and then I started “carving” my way through her narrative journey until she found her power again.

CH: The poems of The Lifting Dress contain a strong sense of place, as well as the gendered impacts of that place on the poems’ speakers. Please tell us a little about the role of place in your work.

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: The use of epithets for characters (“Big Man,” “The Just-Bled Girl”) in The Lifting Dress felt to me as if it moved them into the realms of archetype and myth. How has myth influenced your writing?

LB: For me, there is no place in the world as inspiring as Florida. I love its swamps and its beaches and its forests. It is the most intriguing landscape because of its tension between beauty and danger. It sets my imagination ablaze. When I am home, I feel more alive and more anchored in who I truly am.     

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent collection, The Rented Altar (C&R Press, 2020). How does it compare thematically with The Lifting Dress?

LB: Both collections are invested in portraying the experience of a female speaker in conflict with her own body. In The Lifting Dress, the speaker struggles to find her own voice in the aftermath of sexual violence. In The Rented Altar, the speaker searches for validity as a new wife and stepmother who cannot conceive her own child. I find the female body endlessly fascinating, and this intrigue has carried me into my third collection which is a book of persona poems from the point of view of Typhoid Mary.

CH: Both The Lifting Dress and The Rented Altar came to publication on winning a contest. What advice would you give to poets preparing manuscripts for contests?

LB: After sending your book out into the world, be patient. Trust that your readers are out there, excited for your book to come along. Be kind to yourself while you wait.

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

LB: I undertook the Russian literature marathon that is Anna Karenina in August and September, and I am still digesting its lessons. Tolstoy’s ability to capture the emotional interior of a character and communicate their point of view in such a believable way was an absolute gift to me as a reader.  

A Virtual Interview with Bree A. Rolfe

Background

Thursday, October 14, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-bree-a-rolfe-tickets-168042019203

Bree A. Rolfe will be reading from her new collection, Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl (Unsolicited Press, release date September 30, 2021). 

Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always loveable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally form Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for 10 years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’s poetry anthology, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology, Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology, Mother is a Verb, and 5 AM Magazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl is her first chapbook. http://breerolfe.com

The Interview

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

BAR: My earliest memory of poetry is probably in elementary school. I don’t know if I even remember what grade it was, but we read Shel Silverstein and I was completely in love. I think it’s interesting because I started with poetry from a place that was very funny and lighthearted, and I think, in a lot of ways, I ended up back there.  In the middle, there were a lot  of dark poems written, but I think now my work has a hint of the Silverstein I loved as a kid. I am not sure when I began to think of myself as a writer. I mean I am not even sure I even think that now, but I guess I became more serious, or rather too serious, about writing poetry in middle school. I had a wonderful teacher, Bonnie Staiger, who inspired me to write poems. In fact, I dedicated my book to her because it really was in her classroom that began a “writer’s life.” Since middle school, the poems have always been there for me. Obviously, not as a profession or anything like that, but as a practice or in the spiritual sense. Some people have religion. I have poems. 

CH: In addition to your poetry, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your non-fiction articles (“Imposter,” published in the journal Lunch Ticket), is just knock-out amazing, imho). How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a “primary” writer identity?

BAR: I’d say primarily I am a poet. Most of the writing I do that feels close to my soul is poetry. I don’t have the attention span required for writing essays on a regular basis. I have done journalism work in the past and I like that work, but it’s not part of my identity. For better or worse, I am a poet, which is frustrating at times because, let’s face it, poetry is not that lucrative or popular. 

CH: I understand you were a music journalist before you turned to poetry. How did that experience help shape the work you create as a poet?

BAR: Well, to be honest, music journalism sort of came to me after poetry. I wrote poetry first as a young person. I think I developed the passions for both simultaneously in high school. When I decided on a college major, I decided to major in journalism because I thought it was more practical, which is kind of hilarious as neither pursuit is actually all that practical. However, I took upper level poetry workshops all through college. I just so happened to get paid for writing about music and so that was more of a professional focus. However, my music writing and my love of music has always fed my poetry. My interest is mostly tied up in lyrics, which are a kind of poetry. I love how connected and comforted I have felt over the years by the artists I love. Music is kind of always in the background  of my life. I have a lot of musician friends and their work continually inspires me and my own poetry. I use music in writing exercises when I am stuck.  It’s shaped my work by being a point of access and a thread that I think reaches out to others who know and connect to the music I love. It creates a common ground. Also, it’s something that is integral in some of the relationships I write about. Growing up, the music of the sixties and seventies was like a religion in my house. My happiest childhood memories involve listening to music with my parents. I feel like when we couldn’t understand one another, we could always connect through music. That was deeply important to me and so it ends up in the poems. 

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

BAR: So, when I decided to go to Bennington, I was in a dark place mentally and professionally. After undergraduate school, I sort of just worked corporate jobs and wrote about music on the side and after doing that for like almost a decade, I was over it. I’d been working in the marketing department of a company that manufactured police uniforms and outerwear. It was awful and I worked with a lot of really conservative people and the job was just kind of soul crushing in many ways. I started taking poetry workshops at the Boston and Cambridge Centers for Adult Education. I just got more serious about poetry again to keep from going completely insane. I needed an outlet. Then I had, believe it or not, a LiveJournal friend who had applied to Bennington and gotten in. I didn’t even know what a low residency was at the time, but when I learned about it, graduate school became an option for me. I needed to work full time, so traditional grad school was not even feasible. I went to visit that friend during a summer residency. I met a lot of people in the program and I went to some faculty readings. I chose Bennington because I had experienced the program and I saw Jason Shinder read and he blew me away. I wanted to work with him and so I applied there.

CH: What has been the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?

BAR: The greatest gift of my MFA has been the friendships and connections I have made. Look, MFAs are not cheap and I am not sure if I can say it was “worth” the money in any practical sense. However, you can’t put a price tag on relationships. Also, without it, I wouldn’t still be writing and publishing and I am certain of that fact. I needed the structure. The major drawback for me is that apparently local community colleges don’t like my low residency transcript and won’t let me teach composition classes (even dual credit at the high school I taught at) despite the fact that I have a graduate degree and decades of experience publishing journalism. 

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl? Tell us a little about the book.

BAR: It’s a book that is grappling with, what at the time, was a life threatening illness. It is mostly about trying to figure out how to navigate life and relationships when faced with the possibility of dying. That sounds a bit more dark than I think the book is, but it’s essentially about these issues. I think, even more so, it’s about how you decide to carry on and how it changes you as a person. 

CH: What did you learn in the process of writing and sequencing the book? What was your process in finding a publisher?

BAR: I learned that I don’t like sequencing books and I have no idea how to do it. I did sequencing by taping it to my walls in my living room and physically moving poems all around. When I finally came up with an order, I decided I needed help. So, I then passed it on to my poetry sisters Judy Jensen & Tina Posner who were gracious and kind and more helpful than I deserved. So, they both gave me some orders. I had longer, full length versions of the book and they helped me cut it down to a chapbook size for a few contests that I, of course, didn’t win. But the “order” was largely their doing. So, I learned to get help from friends. As for a publisher, I sent it to a few contests, but being a high school teacher, fees are a barrier, so it wasn’t a ton. It got rejected. A lot. I was actually about to just give up on ever getting it published. So, I stopped sending it out for a while and then started actively looking again. And honestly, I have no idea how I found Unsolicited Press, but I clicked on their website and it said, “No bullshit. Just Books,” and I knew that was the home for my book. Their submission guidelines and how they presented them were just so much the way I write and think about poetry. I just felt like “these are my people.”  I am just so freaking grateful they saw something in my work. I am really proud to be alongside all of the other stellar work they’ve published. 

CH: I know your “day job” is as a high school teacher of English and creative writing. How has this work influenced your writing? What have you learned from your students?

BAR: I learn from my students every single day. Their resilience and their strength is often overwhelming. I have had students over the years who have had lives that have been filled with more challenges as teenagers than most people experience in a lifetime. They have reminded me to shut up and stop complaining and live the best life I possibly can even when it’s hard. I have also learned that processing through writing is so very important and so often vital. Working with my students and guiding them through their journeys has been the greatest gift of my life. Helping them find their voices has strengthened my own writing voice.  They also have helped remind me that writing should be collaborative and fun. It doesn’t always need to be serious. And to quote my former teacher Jason Shinder, “find what brings you joy.” My writing developed so much more humor and joy since I became a teacher. High school students are always good for making me laugh at myself. I appreciate them so freaking much.

CH: It often seems that by the time a book is published, other items are in the works. What are you working on now?

BAR: Well, I have a full length collection titled The Best Bad Idea You’ve Had in Months (a title stolen from a line from a poem by Jill Alexander Essbaum) that I’ve submitted to a few places. I am still waiting on collecting more rejections for that one. It has a lot of poems that again deal with my fumbling through life making mistakes and there’s an even more obvious thread of music throughout it. After it gets rejected from everywhere it’s currently out at, then I will rework it and just keep trying. I also want to do some found(ish) poems based on this How to be a Lady book by Candance Simpson-Giles. A friend of mine bought it from Brooks Brothers and showed it to me when I was visiting her and I was just so amused by it. So, that’s one of those fun projects that I think I need to get into soon because times are really hard right now for us teachers. I need something to bring me some lightness. 

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

Eileen G’Sell’s Portrait of My Ex with Giant Burrito (note: PDF access generously provided by BOAAT Press). And it is incredible. Everyone should go read it now.

A Virtual Interview with Rebecca A. Spears

Background

2nd Thursday Virtual Poetry Reading and Open Mic

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

Register to attend this virtual event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-open-mic-w-rebecca-spears-tickets-165695089473

Rebecca A. Spears is the author of Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), and The Bright Obvious: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been included in TriQuarterlyCalyxCrazyhorseBarrow StreetVerse DailyArs MedicaField Notes, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and Dairy Hollow House. Brook the Divide was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry (Texas Institute of Letters). Spears is also a Pushcart nominee.

“The gorgeous poems in Brook the Divide reverberate with change, following the speaker through seasons of luck and loss. Along the way, Vincent van Gogh becomes an intimate mentor for the hard joy of making. We see how artists transform the world into pieces of art that then transform us: “you ablaze in my eye / and I in yours.” Throughout, Rebecca Spears’ memorable writing invites us into looking, then lingering…. What a beautifully written book.” — Sasha West

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? Did you write poetry during childhood?

RAS: My first memory of poetry is of my mother reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was three years old. She read to me and my siblings nearly every day when we were all quite young. I remember several of the poems even in adulthood—“The Cow,” “Happy Thought,” “The Swing,” and “Time to Rise.” Of course, many of the poems are dated and out of sync with my thinking now. But my mom reading these poems to me helped me to developed an “ear” for poetry at a pretty young age.

As a young kid, I was more interested in drawing, painting, making collages. I never wrote poetry unless prompted by a teacher for a very specific reason—like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. I did begin writing poems as a teenager—really angst-ridden stuff, yet there are also some poems where I look into the landscape and observe life with a close eye.

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

RSA: When I was in my 30s, I worked in educational publishing as a Language Arts editor. That’s when I began to think of myself as a both editor and writer. Not only did I recruit writers, but I worked closely with many of them, collaborating, writing, and editing. I used to remark to friends, “I get paid to read books and work with writers!”

Not until I was in my 40s, did I begin to think of myself as a poet. I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry for many years. A friend invited me to a reading by Naomi Shihab Nye, and I was so engaged in hearing Naomi’s poetry that I later read everything she had written. Shortly after, I began to practice poetry. For a while, I “just wrote poetry.” Then I began attending Creative Writing workshops at the University of Houston, and during that time, I started to think that I might be a poet.

CH: I understand you received your MFA from Bennington College. How did you end up deciding to pursue an MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

RSA: Working on an MFA became important to me when I realized, from those classes at UH, that I needed to undertake some serious study of other poets and learn some new techniques to become a better poet myself.

To get an MFA, I knew that I needed a low-residency program because I was raising adolescent children at the time. I checked out the top low-residency programs and applied to five of those. At the time, Jane Hirshfield was teaching at Bennington, so that ultimately drove my decision to go to Bennington. I worked with her during my second semester at Bennington. Curiously, while I treasure the time I spent in her workshop, I learned more from the faculty whose style was quite different from mine. I suppose that is because I was entirely challenged in my thinking and writing. Another important reason that I chose Bennington was because of their motto: Read 100 books. Write one. That made a lot of sense to me, that we need to read the writers who have given us our poetic background.

CH: How did your writing change as a result of participating in this program? How did your experience in the program align with your expectations prior to starting?

RAS: The program at Bennington exceeded my expectations. I loved the writerly friends I was making, the reading I was doing, the formal annotations I was submitting, the poems I was challenged to write every month. The faculty were varied in their thinking and writing—and that engaged me. Many top poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers read and lectured at every semester gathering. It was astonishing, really. The research I did for my graduating lecture on poetry of the Vietnam War still influences me as I continue to make connections between trauma and poetry. (And by the way, the creative manuscript that I wrote for the MFA, has not been published—though I still have aspirations for it.)

CH: Laurie Kutchins describes your chapbook, The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press, 2009), as constructing “narrative moments converging with a larger collective story.” Tell us a little about this chapbook, and about your process of composing it.

RAS: The larger collective story of The Bright Obvious (2009) is the basis for my full-length collection published in 2020. In the chapbook, I was attempting to link the art of Vincent van Gogh with the way that I view the landscapes around me. You’ll also see my fledgling explorations of his personality, as well as a writer’s personality. Some of the poems were composed specifically as a sequence of van Gogh poems. Others were revisions (and retitling) of some poems that I had already written.

CH: Your first full-length collection, Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), came out just last year, and was shortlisted by the Texas Institute of Letters for Best First Book of Poetry. Tell us a bit about the book and its journey to publication.   

RAS: By the time I put together Brook the Divide, I had thoroughly immersed myself in van Gogh’s letters to his friends and families. Many of those letters contain his thoughts about the way he saw landscapes and people and the methods he used to create his art. I tried to connect the poems I wrote about van Gogh with my own translations of the world around me. And I also, more closely linked the emotional landscapes of my world and van Gogh’s.

The poet Sasha West first helped me see that I might have a worthwhile project, and I worked with her advice to help me sequence a manuscript. I kept writing and adding poems where I saw “holes” in the manuscript. After a few years on my own and with critiques from my writing group friends, I felt I had a finished manuscript. I sent out the final version to maybe five publishers (during open submissions, not contests), and it was accepted in 2018 by Unsolicited Press in Portland, Oregon.

CH: The life of Vincent van Gogh is a through-line for both The Bright Obvious and Brook the Divide. When did you first encounter Van Gogh’s work? What do you see in your work that resonates with his?

RAS: I first encountered van Gogh’s work in high school art classes, and later at a large exhibition of the Impressionists (at the Kimball, I think). At the exhibit, my young son tried to touch a van Gogh painting, and I was panicked as I tried to stop him. Later, that incident made me think of how we can reach into and inhabit the work of artists.

My early experiments in the visual arts trained me to view still life paintings, portraits, urban and natural scenes as impressions of the larger world. This carried over into my writing. Good grief, it’s hard for me to not employ landscapes—fields, mountains, roads, woods, gardens—in my writing. I suppose looking at the scenes outside my head keep me anchored.

CH: You’ve received awards from the Taos Writer’s Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. How have these workshops / residencies informed your work?

RAS: At the Taos Writer’s Workshop, early in my creative writing life, I workshopped with Laurie Kutchins. She is a generous, energetic person, and she had many writing activities planned that really gave me more courage to keep doing what I was doing—and to try some new techniques. By the time I was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center, my life had changed drastically, and it was difficult to find the time to attend. So ultimately, I let that opportunity slip away. My stretch at Dairy Hollow was solitary but productive. The residency occurred at a time when I felt a little stagnant with my writing. The solitude helped me to rely on my instincts again and take on  the challenge to do more reading and writing.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing practice. How has that practice evolved over time?

RAS: When I first began writing poetry as an adult, I wrote nearly every morning. When my life changed, after the break-up of a long marriage, I only had the energy to write on weekends and in the summers when I wasn’t trying so hard to make a living teaching. I still seem to follow this second pattern, depending on summers and other breaks to come up with new ideas and drafts. When classes are in session, I typically spend a few hours on the weekends writing and revising the work I did in the summer.

CH: Are there books to which you find yourself returning from time to time? What are you reading now?

RAS: Yes, there are a number of books and poets that I keep returning to. Let me say, though, that I read a lot of popular novels and stories at the end of a work day. Currently, I am reading, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray, and I’m about to take up Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. Yet this past winter, I read the new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, and I was just immersed in her life and Ted Hughes’ life for quite a while. In fact, I ordered Plath’s letters and journals, along with Hughes’ Birthday Letters—I’m still working my way through those. The poets I keep returning to are Rose McLarney, Ada Limón, Katie Ford, Sasha West, Franz Wright, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke.