Category Archives: Poetry

A Virtual Interview with Patty Crane

Background

Patty Crane will be the featured reader Thursday, March 12, 2020 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX)

Patty Crane’s collection Bell I Wake To is just out from Zone 3 Press. Her book-length poem, something flown, was winner of the 2017 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award. Her poetry and her translations of Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer have appeared in numerous journals, including Bellevue Literary Review,VerseDailyWest BranchAmerican Poetry ReviewBlackbird, and The New York TimesBright Scythe, a bilingual volume of her translations, was published by Sarabande Books in 2015.

The Interview

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

PC: I vividly recall the joy of reading and reciting nursery rhymes, a joy embodied in the memory of looking up at the summer night sky with my grandmother while together we recited “Star light, Star bright, the first star I see tonight…”

I don’t know when I began to think of myself as a poet, but I’ve only recently begun to feel comfortable calling myself one. Maybe because I’ve learned what a conversation-stopper it can be. Why is that? This is a topic worthy of deeper discussion, but let’s just say it took far more external validation than it should have for me to fully acknowledge my poet-self.

CH: How do you trace your development as a poet?

PC: I came to poetry (with a capital P) relatively late in life, but poetry was always there in the background. As an adolescent, I journaled in a cheap spiral-bound notebook that I kept hidden in the bottom of a drawer. I wrote poems, song lyrics, thoughts, little epiphanies, and jotted occasional quotes. It wasn’t a diary or chronicle of my days, but a way to work things out—who I was, or wanted to be, and how to be that self in such a confusing world. I preferred to be alone, riding my bike long distances, often to the beach, where I’d walk for what seemed like hours and feel utterly free to observe and to think. This was surely formative to my becoming a poet, as was my training and career as a registered nurse, learning the limits of the human body, the reaches of human spirit, and the value of empathy.

CH: I’ve been exploring the poems on your website. I love the spare, lyric voice in them, and I’m intrigued with your play of space. Please tell us a little about your approach to the use of whitespace in your poems.

PC: The use of white space doesn’t feel intentional, but inevitable. The white spaces are pauses, periods of silence—sometimes hesitations, sometimes open waiting—as I listen to or for the quiet place in my mind that helps me to focus, tune out the static and chatter, and tune in to the object or objects of my attention in order to really see them. Also, pauses create the rhythm, the same way they do in music. Poetry is music. Whether it’s a blank page or score, silence is where the words and notes originate.

CH: How did you become interested in translation? How did you become engaged with translating Tomas Tranströmer’s work?

PC: During a three-year period living in Sweden, I gained a level of fluency in the language that eventually put me on the path to translation. What began as an exercise to refine my Swedish, grew into a curiosity about translating that turned into a passion. I’d been reading Tranströmer since the late 90’s (mostly Robert Bly’s translations), but suddenly I could read the original and it felt entirely new. Over the course of a winter, I translated his 1996 collection THE SORROW GONDOLA and, at roughly the same time, had the great fortune of befriending Tomas and his wife, Monica. I spent many hours visiting with them at their home in Stockholm, and ultimately many more hours discussing those first translations with them. In 2011 I was awarded a MacDowell fellowship to continue this work and while there, news arrived that Tomas had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That was memorable! Those translations were gathered in “Bright Scythe” (Sarabande, 2015).

CH: How has working with translation influenced your own writing?

PC: Influence seems impossible to pin down. For example, the poems I wrote while living in Sweden have a spareness and voice that’s very different from my other work. Is this my translating coming through, or the Swedish landscape with its extremes of light, what I was reading at the time, or what was happening in the world or in my relationships? I just can’t say.

What I can say is that translating gets me out of my own head, allows me to time- and place-travel, and to see my own place a little more clearly because I’ve gained some perspective. And I get to temporarily inhabit the mind of a speaker like Tranströmer, who moves fluidly between the everyday and liminal worlds, offering me glimpses that, at the very least, heighten my sense of possibility for my own writing.

CH: What do you do to nourish yourself as a poet?

PC: What nourishes me as a person nourishes me as a poet: my relationships, my connections to place, bearing witness to beauty in its many forms and guises. Having a quiet, devoted space to write is key for me. I work in a tiny, humble studio I helped build with my own hands. It’s tucked into a field that overlooks an active beaver pond and is surrounded by woods. The natural world nourishes the whole of me, informing how I live, work and make sense of the world.

CH: What are you working on now?

PC: The growing disconnect between us humans and the natural world has been in the back of my mind these days as I write. I’m not overtly writing ‘about’ this, but it’s coming through, and in ways I hadn’t expected. The work is still raw and unfolding, and thus hard to talk about in any detail. I’m also actively sending out my second full-length collection of poems written during the years I lived in Sweden, and I’m deep into translating the complete poetic works of Tomas Tranströmer.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

PC: Whatever strikes my mood, mind and senses at any given time; and often several different genres at once. Right now, I’m reading Edna O’Brien’s Girl, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, and, for the umpteenth time, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim of Tinker Creek.

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

PC: Shirt in Heaven by Jean Valentine. Times two. After turning the last page, I went right back to the beginning and read it again.

A Virtual Interview with Sequoia Maner

Seqouia Maner will be the featured reader Thursday, February 13. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Sequoia Maner is a poet and Mellon Teaching Fellow of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University. She is coeditor of the book Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, January 2020). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been published in venues such as The Feminist WireMeridiansObsidian, The Langston Hughes Review and elsewhere. Her poem “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland” was a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and she is at work on a critical manuscript about the history of African American Elegy.

The Interview

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

SM: I’ve kept journals since I was a girl for song lyrics, poems, and intimate thoughts. I was a quiet observer as a child (still am if I’m honest) and writing was how I processed / articulated in my own special way. I think there are many reasons I was drawn to libraries, books, and music. I spent a significant portion of my childhood in foster care & this special bond with books was a way to process trauma. Books opened worlds for me & libraries have always been a singular refuge. Also, I am sensitive to sound, an auditory learner, so music and poetry play significant roles in my life for mediating the world. I have always been just dazzled by the possibilities of language.

CH: When did you start to think of yourself as a poet? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SM: I didn’t have people in my life who wrote for a living & I didn’t even think to dream that I could someday write books like Morrison, or Angelou, or Shange. Those were writers; that couldn’t be me. It wasn’t until my college experience at Duke University that I first called myself a poet but, even then, I didn’t realize a career for myself as a writer. I knew that I would write poetry for a lifetime as a personal self-care ritual, but I was open to career paths, studying chemistry & photography, relegating poetry to the sidelines. As an English major, college was the first time I studied major writers and eras, learned form and structure, and wrote with a close circle of writers. Before then, my writing had been for myself, you know. I started to experiment with public performance in the form of spoken word & collaborations with other artists—even still, I never called myself “a writer.” After college I moved home to Los Angeles, California & was working in an interesting & lucrative career field but I was writing bullshit for corporations and yearned to truly create from a place of intention. So, I enrolled in a PhD program, sold most of my things to move to Austin, TX and never looked back. Now, I am a writer.

I refer to myself as a poet and scholar, giving equal weight to both. Teaching in the classroom plays just as central a role in my life as wiring literary criticism and poetry.

 

CH: I’m currently reading Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, which of course you recently co-edited. Encountering its discussions of elegies that refuse both consolation and narrow boundaries of time and location has been quite an enriching experience for me. How has the experience of editing this book influenced you?

SM: Oh, it has been beautiful and heavy. I’ll simply say that this project has reaffirmed my dedication to working against oppression and violence in all of the spaces I inhabit.

CH: I recently read your poem, “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland,” and first would like to congratulate you on it being a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. I love the way this poem uses etymology and definition to explore alternation of meaning as it investigates and grapples with its subject. The poem is in the form of a justified block of text in which phrases are separated by a slash (“/”), which made me think of the way poems with line breaks are quoted within prose. How did you arrive at this form for the poem?

SM: Thank you. I am so humbled to have been named a finalist—its beyond my dreams!

I have to tell a quick story about this poem! I first wrote this in response to Kenneth Goldsmith’s abhorrent, offensive reading of Mike Brown’s autopsy report as “poetry” to a Brown University audience in 2015. I was so distraught by Sandra Bland’s death. We were the same age. Her arrest and jailing happened two hours away from where I live, on a road I drive often. She was an outspoken activist. She loved black people. She believed in the transformational power of education. She was resilient and inspirational. I didn’t know her, but I feel like she was my sister. She is my sis and I loved her. So, I read every damn word of her autopsy report. Gosh, this was on Christmas Eve (morbid, I know) and I was in a work session with my homegirl, painter Beth Consetta Rubel, and we was vibin. I was in the zone. I wrote this poem in two hours & have never edited it since. It came out in a trance & I remain astounded that I am able to honor her in this way.

This was my attempt to recapture the beauty and brevity of Sandra’s life / to honor breath / to breathe / to acknowledge an afterlife / to unravel the structures that bound her / to identify all the ways one can asphyxiate: miscarriages – economics – policing – mental illness – black womanhood in a white supremacist nation / to release her from all that shit.

Yes, this is an etymological poem that pivots along the varied meanings of “ligature” and “furrow.” I was thinking about how the language of the autopsy report tells us everything and nothing… the language is useless in reviving the dead, useless in telling the truth of it. Although it is a poem about meaning, I think it is a really a poem that reaches beyond meaning, if that makes sense.

Last thing I want to say is that poem was chosen by Patricia Smith as finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks prize. I submitted it for this purpose alone. I knew that she was also writing exquisite “autopsy poems” & I hoped that she would get it. She got it. I am so honored to have had her read and anoint this poem.

CH: How do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

SM: I have no balance, really. I’ve been in a dry spell with my poetry for too long & I’m really frustrated. I am in the early stages of my career as a professor in a tenure-track role & this job is all encompassing. There are teaching demands, publishing demands, and service demands. This means that for the past year or so I’ve been focused on other kinds of writing: I published the co-edited book, two essays, and a couple of book reviews. I try not to be hard on myself for producing less poetry because shame is useless and debilitating. I try to tell myself that I am building other muscles for the time being and will be stronger when I rec-enter poetry in my life. I am headed to the James Baldwin Conference in Saint Paul de Vence, France for a creative writing workshop in the summer & I am so excited to rediscover my poetic voice.

CH: Who are some writers that changed the way you looked at language and writing?

SM: I return to Langston Hughes at different stages in my life. He is so deceptively simple, so pure in his love & hope for black people, and unabashedly critical of oppressive power. Hortense Spillers and James Baldwin are master essayists I look to. Evie Shockley & Douglas Kearney are some of my favorite contemporary poets—I think I share their experimental sensibilities. Brenda Marie Osbey & Sonia Sanchez teach me the power of chant and repetition and pacing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and John Milton have taught me something about formal rigor and beautiful images. Steinbeck’s opening pages of East of Eden rocked my world as did so many of Morrison’s openings—Paradise, Sula, and The Bluest Eye come to mind. I consider two books my literary bibles: Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems and Zora Neale Hurston’s Collected Letters. Both of these writers teach me about authentic voice & the unabashed celebration of black womanhood.

CH: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m working on two monographs. The first is a critical study of Kendrick Lamar’s work. The second is what I’m calling a critical history of the African American elegy.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

SM: Fiction. I have about four novels on my nightstand at the moment. I adore the detective novels of Chester Himes, the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler. I return to Baldwin/Morrison every other summer, reading their respective bodies of work in full. I love everything Kiese Laymon has written. Right now, I’m about halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is marvelous.

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

SM: Right now I’m toggling between Chad Bennet’s Your New Felling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, Faylita Hicks’s Hood Witch and AI’s Vice. Additionally, I’m teaching with Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, so I’ll be reading nearly the entire volume over the next few months.

A Virtual Interview with Natalia Trevino

ire’ne lara silva and Natalia Treviño will be the featured readers Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño is the author of the chapbook, VirginX, which was a finalist for the open chapbook contest with Finishing Line press. A professor of English at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, she was raised in a Spanish speaking household and learned English from Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. Her awards include the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the San Antonio Arts Foundation Literary Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for Poetry, the Menada Literary Award at the Ditet E Naimit (Dee-tet EH Nah-ee-mit) Poetry Festival in Macedonia, and several others. Her first book, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was a national and international awards finalist. Natalia’s poems appear in BordersensesBorderlandsThe Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and other journals and anthologies.

The Interview

CH: It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since we’ve shared this space. So I’d like to start by asking your thoughts about your writing life during this interval. What pieces have remained constant? What has changed, or ebbed and flowed?

NT: I also cannot believe it has been five years. So much has happened—to both of us. Since the last time I came to share this space, I’ve lost a parent, my father. It’s been a very difficult time. My writing sort of halted as I felt very deflated even though I know my work with the Virgin was spiritual preparation for something big. I didn’t think it would be that big or that close, but I knew I was on the verge of a loss of some sort. I imagined it was the loss of my beloved Tia Licha who I write about in my first book. She’d been such an inspiration to me and was a living connection to my grandmother, her big sister. That could be the only explanation for so much miracle, so much direct and divine intervention as I was diving into my study of her.

The loss of my father was completely unexpected. I was had lunch with him in my home on that last day of his. I had just come home from a trip abroad to study and write about the Virgin. I am just now getting back on track with my work with her and with my other projects. Grief is most definitely best understood through creativity. It has been a reflective time. Thankfully, my poetry group meets consistently, which means I churned out several new poems since then, but they are all over the place, about teaching, about my cat, about the chasm that is in my consciousness now in the world without my father. It has been a challenge.

CH: I read on your website (http://www.nataliatrevino.com) that you are working on a new collection of poems about Mary, and it was lovely to be able to read one of the poems (“Between Wings”). And contemporaneous with the 2nd Thursday reading in December, BookWoman will be having its annual Virgin Day Celebration in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.  Please tell us a little about how Mary resonates for you, and about the inspiration for this new project.

NT: Thank you for the kind words and the research, Cindy! And I’m thrilled the reading fits in with Virgin Day at BookWoman. It is such an honor to bring my poems about the Virgin to any audience because she is more than the mom of a really nice man who was crucified for being a really good guy, a spiritual coffee cup, waking people up about their inner lives and their socio-spiritual responsibilities. Among other things, Jesus told us we are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters, and he liked peace and humility, and a rule of law that was based on compromise and respect. He did not want us lusting after wealth or prizes or power. The realm within is what he was helping us to understand, but He also cared for the poor and for children, for marginalized people. Sadly, he’s been twisted into someone who represents the homophobic jerks who hoard wealth and funds illegal materialistic wars. He can’t be happy with his characterization and how he’s been pimped out by corrupt leaders because this claiming of him to justify war and pompous self-righteousness so contradicts the very simple sentences that he emphasized: live without sin. Sin is dicking over your friends, family, and community: dicking them is doing the same thing to God, and that’s not good. It is the worst form of self-harm.

The Virgin is a much bigger being than a saint or relative to Jesus, and not only because she was used to replace Tonantzin by the Catholics, and not only because she’s the symbol of Catholic purity, the Mother of Jesus, Blessed among women, but also because, like all women, she’s linked to us all genetically and is a reminder that yes, we actually are brothers and sisters. She is linked genetically to Mitochondrial Eve, the maternal ancestor to all living humans, and so are all of us.

There is a common factor in our shared genetic being, and all woman are the sacred portal to life through this ancestral communion with life, original human life. This is true especially for women, not only if we become mothers, to send that genetic message forward, but because we are from mothers, connected to the source no matter what our reproductive choices are. Being aware of our cosmic ancestry going back to Mitochondrial Eve is a portal to Life, and with the big L, I mean Spiritual Life: the awareness that we are all deeply connected to one another through one actual mother. How is the Virgin mixed in with this? That is the miracle. She is a once-human-body that has transcended humanity, as all of our ancestors have, and who I believe is aware of us and her own connection to the Spirit Mother-Father, what some will God, the Creator.

We all have the DNA from Mitochondrial Eve, and we would not be alive without it. This is passed only through the mother line. Our ancestral mother, the mother of all mothers lived 200,000 years ago according to a study from Rice University, and she’s alive in each of us, literally in our spit, semen, and eggs. She’s in our tear ducts! She’s in Mary’s DNA too, and the Creator Goddess (who else) built this system of people.

Our indigenous ancestors and family members already know this. The goddess, Mother of God, is the Origin of Life, and science says all life begins in the ocean, in water, which has almost the same rich saline solution as the salt in our first nest, the amniotic sac, which was at 2% saline. The ocean is 3%, but this is so interesting. Salt water is necessary for life, for birth, and somehow also necessary for all foods to grow so that plants, humans, and animals can survive. Fresh water is absolutely essential for all of these life forms too. How can we not pay attention to that when we talk about the Mother of God? She’s liquid. She’s in our many ducts, aware of us and calling for self-care and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is the message of the Son, right? The Santeria religion, which is a blend of Catholicism and West African Yoruba practices call have syncretized their water goddess Yemaya/ Yemoja with the Virgin as well.

Mary, La Virgen is, like all women, tapped into that enormous power, and represents that power so beautifully, as she’s the one who was chosen to be named the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. It’s in our DNA to connect to one another to assemble as a group, and many can do it through the idea of a Mother Goddess. This is why she was accepted by the indigenous people of the land that is now called Mexico. They said, “Oh, that’s how you see HER? OK!” And we have the matachines devoted to her every December  8th, the day she appeared to Juan Diego.

The thing is that all mothers are linked like a constellation, or better yet, a power grid to this great source, and so are all of their children. I know this sounds wildly heretical, but it’s also exactly what John said in John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and we have not yet been shown what we will be in the future.” There is a lot of debate about whether this means we are automatically saved just because we are God’s kids. The line about the future evokes that question. The Second Coming is what most scholars say this future is about and yes, this is a factor in the Bible, judging those who lived in Christ— but to live in Christ meant be a good person. Believe that you must be a good person to reach spiritual feast and glory, and good means some basic things: do not hurt one another is number 1.

But who wrote the parts that said Jesus locks you out if you do this or that? Men. Men who wanted power. Jesus wanted us to love one another and His Mom. He wasn’t after power on Earth, was he? He was saying Heaven is for all of us if we are KIND to one another and look INWARD at our own sacred potential, sharing our material wealth with others so we can stop worrying about bread and begin worrying about our spiritual nourishment instead.

While dying on the cross, he looked at John; “Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” This is John 19. What a great son to know his mother so well, to see her real power and place in the world. I honor that.

Our Mother “es muy milagrosa,” my grandmother once told me. I see it now. My project is attempting to understand her better, and in so many traditions. There are over twenty two thousand Virgins who are all the same spirit, and each of those names, or identities are specific manifestations of her miracles. I understand there are many ways to access her, and I hope to understand this more by examining her representations created by humans in their inspired creative works. They looked to her miracles in their world, felt her resonance with all people as the Mother of God and all of us too, and found women around them who could represent her to model as her. They see her in their own mothers or lovers or muses. Looking at how artists adorn her and tell her story inspires me with a lifelong project of deepening my faith, taking in art, and tapping into the eternal thing I’ve always loved about literature: the complex, sometimes broken, but everlasting human spirit— in all of us!

CH: I understand you are teaching at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. How do your students surprise you? How does teaching inform your own work?

NT: My students are so much smarter than they think they are. Once I build an atmosphere of trust, they tell me what they know. If they do not trust me, they will stay shy and not reveal their knowledge to me. If they do not trust me, they will never tell me what they need and what they don’t really know, and so with trust-building, we begin, and I also use trust move them forward with so much excitement.

They already receive a mass of information. They read all day long, not textbooks, but yes Twitter feeds and status updates. They are reading, communicating, connecting, making meaning, making new words, working out what ethos they will follow, working out who they will believe. My job is to show they how they can do it on a different scale, an academic one, so they can be degreed.

Why do most of them want a degree? It is not to discover mysticism or realism or humanism or even Chicano power. Most want to move along on the socioeconomic ladder that they feel is holding them back. I know I did when I was their age. How would I own a home one day? How could I be wealthy? I wanted to hoard and save like my father did, so I could one day take great vacations, travel, and of course, own a swimming pool. My students want these things too. They think things will bring them happiness and they have lost their faith in teachers. What surprises me is when they do trust me because I work on this every semester. Being in their lives is sacred work.

They are all multi-lingual and mostly bicultural like me. Most community college students are nepantleros, between two worlds: culturally. Once we talk about this idea of Gloria Anzaldua’s, they know we are being real and that they can be free to share their world in the classroom.

What surprises me most is when they trust me with their story, when they volunteer to share a personal worry or story. One of my students lost his father this year. He announced this during our Dia de los Muertos event. It has been less than two weeks. I started getting teary and shakey as I responded to him, but thankfully we were all talking about our dead, and we had a positive, communal Die de los Muertos altar that they had voluntarily built in front of us, a ceremonial space which made it beautiful. He added a picture of his dad to it. He wanted us to all know it had just happened the week before. I am doing the most important work I can do, helping my students gain confidence to share their voice. Their voice is their super-power.

CH: You have many roles in life: professor, writer, mother. How are you creating balance? How do you make time for your own writing amid the demands and commitments of work and family?

NT: This is always a struggle. It’s midnight as I type this interview and I need to be at work tomorrow at 9 a.m. There is a ton of grading waiting for me on my desk. It’s 4 a.m. when I do my best prose writing —sometimes on a Sunday morning when an idea wakes me up— or a hot flash!. Sometimes I tell my husband, “Don’t talk to me until I come out of our room” or “Don’t talk to me until Sunday.” He is fantastic and extremely generous about these requests. He understands how important it is to me to have time to write. I would not be the writer I am if it were not for his generosity and faith in my work, which has been there from the beginning. We met writing letters to one another. He is a writer too, but he is so selfless that he makes the space for me to create what I want to create. He will make dinner, clean up, and even give me alone time to write when we have a short vacation or a weekend together.

It’s just the two of us now, and we are learning it together since my son has always been a part of the package. I am in a new stage of motherhood now, which kind of feels like a break up, but not the angry kind, the I know you need to go kind. It’s nature. He’s moved out. He’s 21. It is so hard to miss him as much as I do, but it is also a wonderful time in our relationship as we are honest with each other and support each other as artists.

He’s a musician, rapper, and college student. I can fall asleep without knowing where he is finally. It used to keep me awake! I don’t have ulcers from worry, but I do send regular texts telling him to quit smoking. Mexican moms hang on tight, too tight. I’m trying to resist making him dread his oppressive Mexican mother who is a ball of worry and doubt and fear. Yes, I have all that, but the other day I sang the 12 Days of Christmas to him in full opera style at dinner. He and my husband loved me enough to let me do this. I need singing lessons. We have fun, and I can enjoy a glass of wine with him now as I tread into this new space of motherhood that is about encouraging and guidance and not rules and mandates.

I find that through attention to my body, which has been so generous with me so far, that I am able to balance and remember why I am here. I am running three times a week and dedicated to walking long distances with my best friend at work every day. I am taking care of  health in numerous ways, not forgetting about my body as often as I used to. These active measures punctuate my week and my life now. My exercise routine is a keystone habit reminding me each day of my priorities: goals, work, family, not in that order.

Family is first, work is second, writing is third except for when it is first, and family does understand that sometimes writing is first.

CH: In a section labeled, “finding purpose,” your website has an intriguing discussion of the term mutualism. along with the statement, “Mutualism describes the relationship between my writing and my life.” How did you come to your understanding of mutualism? How has adopting this concept made a difference in how you approach your own work, and working with others?

NT: I love the wisdom in the physical world. If a tree creates and gives me oxygen, I want some of that wisdom so I can survive like a tree does, giving something written to the world in return for its favors of light and air, Earth and water. I am happy to be a place for nests, a place that provides shelter for my students, friends, and loved ones, and perhaps also provide good fruit for my readers, if I am lucky enough to be that kind of tree. This can happen when I receive the gift of consciousness, calm, reasoning, and love, so can put forth more branches and perhaps be close to winged creatures that inspire me. My student just posted this wonderful line in his research paper where Chelley Seibert, a 25-year police veteran giving a TED talk, quotes Jana Stansfield saying, “I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do” (“Behind The Badge”). Yep.

CH: Tell us a little about your novel-in-progress, Drinking the Bee Water.

Oh, that is the marathon for me! I was so fortunate to have it accepted with the press of my dreams a few years ago, and then my agent advised me to pull it because she did not approve of the contract. It was the bravest thing I have ever done because I have been working on this novel for a long time and this was my desired press, the press that changed my life and introduced me to Chicano letters. The truth is the novel was not done, and pulling it was a good idea in the long run. I am reworking it after others have read it and said, “Hey, this is not done yet. Try this. Work on that.” Ok. I always tell my students to sacrifice the words for the work. The work is not done, and I am so excited about how it is going now, which is a sacrifice of words, a lot of them, thousands of them that need to be unstitched, reconsidered. Luckily, I have many new words inside of me, and I have some new possibilities for publication, but I have to see it through, which gets back to the work/life balance thing. The story about this woman, Berta, is too important to muck up.

CH: When we last spoke, Lavando La Dirty Laundry had just come out, and you were focusing on its launch and promotion in the world. Looking back, were there any surprises along the way? Was there anything you would have done differently?

NT: I am so pleased with how it went. Who can complain about a dream come true? My first book of poetry. I would gladly revise it now because I have grown as a writer, and some of the poems could use some nurturing and pruning, and this is also true for VirginX. My Macondo network helped me immensely with this book, and I have limited time to travel and promote it.

The next book will get more attention on this front. The more you plan before the book release the better the launch will go. I had no idea how to get the word out, and so I said yes to everything and everyone. There is no small audience, only a small performer. This is what a former music professor friend used to say. And with each encounter I have in sharing this book with others, I notice it has its own life, how it resonates with certain people who are navigating nepantla, the world in between cultures, languages, between heritage shame versus heritage pride.

CH: What are you reading now?  

Research papers. HAHA! Yes, I do read a lot of student work, revisions, revisions, and reflections and drafts. But for my own work, at the moment I am reading ire’ne lara silva’s  Cuicacalli (Saddle Road Press 2019) and an early copy of Wendy Barker’s Gloss (Saint Julian Press, out in January 2020). These are my two favorite poets, and it is an honor to also call them my friends. They are a huge factor in the mutualism idea I mention in my website. They are great trees who bear important fruit and nutrients for me. I can honestly say that they have had a deep influence on my work.

In fiction, I am reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, who I met at Gemini Ink last summer, and this book, which is so out of my normal reading range, it is shedding light on all kinds of things, showing me something lyrical in the structure of a contemporary short story collection about how dirty love can get. I recently finished another book about love called Love by Hanne Ørstavik and translated by Martin Aitken from Norwegian (Archipelago Books, February 2018). It is about the limits of motherhood, a very powerful book gifted to me by my amazing friend, Gregg Barrios. It haunts me, but this is a good thing.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Lucy Griffith

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

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

LG: The Chasing by Ada Limón

A Virtual Interview with Lilli Hime

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LH: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

A Virtual Interview with Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells will be the featured reader Thursday, April 12, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Cyrus Cassells is the author of six books of poetry: The Mud Actor, Soul Make a Path through ShoutingBeautiful SignorMore Than Peace and CypressesThe Crossed-Out Swastika , and The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, just published in the Crab Orchard Poetry Series (SIU Press). Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a William Carlos Williams Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.  He is a professor of English at Texas State University and lives in Austin.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of writing? Your first memory of poetry?  

CC: I was asked to write the class prophecy in fourth grade. My first memory of reading poems is rather blurry; I didn’t care for poetry much as a child; I was solely interested in fiction. The first book to interest me in poetry was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, which I read as a teenager. I also read Ai, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich shortly after.

CH: When did you begin to consider yourself a writer? A poet? 

CC: Only when my second book of poems, Soul Make a Path through Shouting, was published in 1994.

CH: Your first book, The Mud Actor, was a National Poetry Series selection. How was this collection conceived? Looking back, what factors helped you achieve that first success? 

CC: I conceived the book as a three-part meditation on the possibility of reincarnation. I was experimenting with hypnosis and past life regression therapy during the time I wrote the book. Poet and novelist Al Young heard from others who knew me that I was working on a manuscript. He asked me if I could complete it within a three-month period and submit it to him as a judge, and he ended up choosing my manuscript for the National Poetry Series.

CH: Your fourth book, Riders on the Back of Silence, is a novel in verse. What were your inspirations for that project? What are the particular challenges of that form?

CC: I never published the novel-in-verse, with the exception of seven poems that became part of The Crossed-Out Swastika. My main goal with the project was to explore the theme of family secrets. I viewed it, after the fact, as a kind of laboratory for creating characters in verse and as a preparation for my first novel, My Gingerbread Shakespeare, which I completed last fall.

CH: Now you’ve had your sixth book, The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, published. What has changed in your writing practice over time? What remains the same? 

CC: I’d say very little has changed in my writing practice over time—with the exception of working on and completing a novel, which requires a more sustained, even daily practice.

CH: Please tell us a little about The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. How did the poems for this book take shape?

CC: I was in Charleston and the Sea Islands doing research to play Eugene in Dael Orlandersmith’s drama, Yellowman, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the production got canceled, but then poems about the area began to pour out of me. I visited South Carolina three more times before I completed the title sequence. The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, contains two song cycles. The book’s title sequence is an extended paean to the enduring strength and integrity of the dynamic Gullah culture of Charleston and the Sea Islands; the poems celebrate the legacy of resilient rice and indigo working slaves and their irrepressible descendants (“Who better to define freedom / than slave?”). They also praise the true-life triumph of Gullah people over the systematic repression of their once banned and imperiled language. The second sequence, “Lovers Borrowing the Language of Cicadas,” has a vivid Mediterranean backdrop and explores themes of pilgrimage, erotic and romantic love, classical history, the solace and majesty of the sea, reunion, regret, and loss; this European cycle concludes with elegies to my mother and to the countless men lost in the juggernaut of the AIDS crisis.

CH: You’ve often spoken of the importance of travel to your writing. How would you describe the relationship to place in your work?  

CC: Landscape and history are ever-important in my work—not only the physical but the psychic landscape, as I often write about historical trauma.

CH: How has your work as a creative writing professor influenced your writing?  

CC: It has spurred me, on occasion, to take more chances with my writing, in terms of subject matter and approach.

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

CC: From the past, Paul Celan, T. S. Eliot, Jean Follain, Robert Hayden, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Boris Pasternak, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams; among contemporary poets, Frank Bidart, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Suzanne Gardinier, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Ellen Hinsey, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Li-Young Lee, and Jean Valentine come to mind.

CH: What are you working on now? 

CC: Several things at once: a seventh volume of poetry, Dragon Shining With All Values Known, a book about spiritual quest, set partly in a desert monastery: a second novel called A Horse is a Very Big Dog, set in New York, New England, and Greenland between 1897-1918; and The Book of Spanish Mentors, about my experiences as translator of Spanish and Catalan poetry.