Category Archives: women’s poetry

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 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.

A Virtual Interview with Laura Van Prooyen

Background

Thursday, July 8, 2021 7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-laura-van-prooyen-tickets-158345005173

Feature Laura Van Prooyen is author of three collections of poetry: Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books), Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press) nominated by Philip Levine and winner of the McGovern Prize and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press). She is also co-author with Gretchen Bernabei of Text Structures from Poetry, a book of writing lessons for educators of grades 4-12 (Corwin Literacy). Van Prooyen is the Managing Editor for The Cortland Review, she teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Miami University and is the founder of Next Page Press: www.nextpage-press.com. She lives in San Antonio, TX. www.lauravanprooyen.com

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What do you remember about your relationship with books during childhood?

LVP: Most of what I heard as poetry was from the Bible and old Hymns sung in church. So, the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and plenty of Hymn meter in songs. At the time, I was not thinking in terms of poetry at all, but I imagine that’s where and how my ear got tuned. Books were not a big part of the culture of my childhood, but I remember a teacher who read aloud to the class in fourth grade. I remember loving that.

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

LVP: First glimmer: in college when two different professors at two different colleges planted the seed that I had something going on. Honestly, there have been a couple of times in my life I’ve tried, weirdly and consciously, to not be a writer. But I would soon learn that I was deeply unhappy if I wasn’t involved in reading, writing, thinking, and creating, so I supposed I really was a writer.

CH: Your educational background includes an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. How did you decide on that path? How did your MFA experience change you as a writer?

LVP: I’m first-gen. My sister and I were the first in our family to complete college. I’m the only one who got addicted and just kept going. Not long after college, I decided to get an MA, which was fine and good. Then I spent a decade working, marrying, having a family and writing in isolation. I knew I needed a community and I missed, terribly, engaging in the life of the mind. I went to Warren Wilson as a more “seasoned” student with three small children. Going to that program remains in the top three decisions I ever made. I realized how much I didn’t know, how much I wanted to know, and how much I could push my work. I found the community I was looking for.

CH: Tell us a little about your first book, Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press, 2006), and your second volume, Our House Was On Fire (Ashland Poetry Press, 2015). How did the experience of your first book shape your approach to the second one?

LVP: My first book was written nearly all in third-person. I don’t think I felt brave enough to write from the lyric “I” and I needed distance to write anything at all. I felt pretty outside of art, of the writing community, and I wrote that book while my babies napped. The second book was completed as and after I went to Warren Wilson. Truth is, that feels like my first book—the other feels like a warm up. Nevertheless, I embraced writing in first-person, and I also paid closer attention to musicality. It felt like I had found a way in to speak with a truer voice.

CH: Your third collection of poetry, Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021), has just been released. Over what period of time did you write the poems of this most recent collection? What was different for you in the process of making this book?

LVP: The oldest poem in Frances of the Wider Field is 10 years old and the most recent to be included was written a few months before the manuscript was selected by Lily Poetry Review Books. The book, as a whole, saw many versions in between those points. This time around, I gave myself some rules so I didn’t fall into comfortable habits. For the subject: no husbands, no daughters, no birds. I mostly stuck to that. So, in writing away from what I “knew” I found my way into what I “didn’t know.” Frances became a presence that showed me into some absences and unknowns.

CH: One of my great pleasures in reading Frances of the Wider Field was in encountering its formal variety—from single-stanza, couplet, and tercet poems to ones in which white space inhabits margin and mid-line caesura (as in “Imaging Test’). Please tell us a little about what animates your use of form in Frances of the Wider Field. How has your approach changed over time?

LVP: I’m open to anything, stylistically, and I like to play. I made choices about what was ultimately included in the book, paying attention to having poems that varied in style, but that still carried a thread of thought throughout the collection. My hope was that the variations would create a textured, layered experience.

CH: There’s a strong evocation of place in Frances of the Field: the place the adult speaker inhabits, and the place of her childhood. What do you see as the importance of place in your work?

LVP: If you can imagine it, my mother has never moved in her life. She lives in the house next door to the house she was raised in, next door to the house that was my great-grandmother’s. Three houses on one plot of ground. The address of the houses changed four times, from Rural Routes to numbered streets as farmland was replaced with subdivisions. I chose to leave. And my parents live there still. We are losing my mom to dementia, but there she still is, physically in that place. And here I am.

CH: Your other recent publication is Text Structures from Poetry (Corwin Literacy, 2020), a book of writing lessons for educators you co-authored with Gretchen Bernabei. What was something that surprised you during that project?

LVP: Yes. When Gretchen and I met each other, within 30 minutes we discovered that her methodology of teaching in her Text Structures series of books was similar to the way I approach teaching poetry, so she invited me to write a book with her. I was surprised that something I was already doing intersected with curriculum that was publishable and could be adapted to help teachers, especially those who were a little intimidated by poetry.

CH: One of the things I love about poetry is its ability to surprise, to make me see the world freshly. Can you point to a collection that’s helped change how you think about what’s possible in poetry?

LVP: Adelia Prado’s Alphabet in the Park knocked me out with the juxtaposition of strange, bold statements.

Brenda Shaughnessy’s My Andromeda made me consider how to write with fresh eyes about personal challenges. And Richard Siken’s Crush showed me about intensity and the use of commands. I’ve come back to each of these books through the years.

CH: What are you reading now?

LVP: I just finished C. Dale Young’s new book Prometeo. Also, Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow. Dilruba Ahmed’s Bring Now the Angels. And I’m reading Alyssa Nutting’s novel, Made for Love. I have stacks of books, due to an addiction of buying more than I can read. I recommend each of these titles. Also, I’ve been reading . . . I plan to announce this news this summer . . . I am launching a poetry press, and the first title is a chapbook by Ann Hudson called Glow. It is coming out in October. The first full-length book is Ricochet Script by Alexandra van de Kamp. I can’t wait to share these books. The website is just up www.nextpage-press.com. You’re the first to know!

A Virtual Interview with Christine H. Boldt

Background

Thursday, June 10, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-christine-boldt-tickets-154458799427

Feature Christine H. Boldt will be reading from her inaugural poetry collection, For Every Tatter (Lamar University Press, 2021). Boldt, a retired librarian, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, lived in Italy during the 1970s, and has lived in Texas for forty years.  She has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother.  Her poetry has appeared in Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, Bearing the Mask, Adam, Eve, and the Riders of the Apocalypse, the Poetry Society of Texas’ Book of the Year; Red River Review, Ilyia’s Honey, and Encore. Her collection Missing, One Muse:  The Poetry of Sylvia St. Stevens was selected as the winner of the 2018 Alabama State Poetry Society Morris Memorial Chapbook Competition.  

The Interview

CH: What are your first memories of poetry? What was your experience with poetry growing up?

CHB: My first memory is of my having an ability to memorize verse easily.  When I was three, my grandmother would ask me to entertain her bridge club by standing next to the fire place in our living room and reciting nursery rhymes. 

My father, who had memorized a great deal of Nineteenth Century poetry as a boy, recited it to me in lieu of bedtime stories. In both elementary and high school I was required to do lots of memorization.  Students were asked to take turns standing in front of the class and repeating the poetry they had learned. I took what were called “elocution lessons” from a private tutor who required even more memorization.  I also compensated for not being able to carry a tune by memorizing ALL the verses of hymns, and not just hits songs from Broadway Musicals but all the witty patter that preceded the stars’ bursting into song.

When, at age 12, I received a gift of money during the holidays, I bought a copy of the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spent evenings beside the Christmas tree reading her work.  I still return to those poems each year during the holidays.

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

CHB: In Elementary School in Buffalo, New York, I won two city-wide essay contests.  These affirmations encouraged me to write.  Because of all the poems swirling around in my head, poetry seemed the natural way to express my interest in writing, but after college I set poetry aside for about 40 years.

CH: I understand you volunteered with the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy in the 1970s. How have these experiences shaped your perspective? In what ways have they influenced your writing?

CHB: Living in foreign countries required me to appreciate life from other peoples’ point of view.  It also taught me empathy for “outsiders,” (since I was one), and it challenged me to question my own assumptions.  Most of my poetry is preoccupied with character study of one kind or another.  I turn to poetry when I want to puzzle out why people think and behave as they do.

Language exposure has been another plus of foreign travel. Being conversant with Latin, French, and Italian gives me many more words to use as building blocks when I construct my poetry.

People in the countries where I lived or visited had amazing traditions of expressing religious thought through sculpture and painting. Although I did not write poetry during the years I lived abroad, when I returned to poetry in my later life, I was prompted write ekphrasic poems and poems with religious themes because of sensitivities I had developed in my years of travel.

CH: You had a long career as a librarian. What do you see as the influence of this career on your development as a poet?

CHB: Well, as a reference librarian I was astounded by the variety of things people wondered about.  I was so curious about library patrons’ interests that I was encouraged to think someone else might be interested in the things I reflect on.  Often the answers to reference questions seemed like poetic metaphors just waiting to be tapped.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Missing (New Dawn Unlimited, 2018), which won the Morris Memorial Chapbook Contest of the Alabama State Poetry Society. How did you collect and assemble this manuscript? What did you learn from this process?

CHB: I imagine that everybody who writes poetry writes ars poetica, poems about writing poetry.  It is not strange that the processes we are involved in, and the discoveries we make, would be one of the chief topics of conversation we have with ourselves.  But it is also likely that writing poems about writing poetry is a guarantee of having a small audience for one’s work.  When I found myself writing too many of those poems, I decided that I either had to own them or quit writing them.  So I imagined a persona, a character named Sylvia, who stumbles into poetry for all the wrong reasons, has a comeuppance, and then approaches poetry again from a new perspective. Each poem Sylvia “writes” is a milestone on her journey.  I hoped her path into poetry could be emblematic of the paths that others might take in crafting their own lives.  Assembling this manuscript made me wish that I had learned about poetry by reading entire volumes written by individual poets, rather than by reading the anthologies that were the texts for most of my classes.  I learned a collection needs a narrative thread that holds the poems together.

CH: For Every Tatter (Lamar University Literary Press, 2021) is exquisite in its treatment of aging, both from the standpoint of individuals who are reaching their later years and from the perspectives of those around them. How long has the subject of aging been a writerly obsession for you? How did you come about deciding to use an excerpt from William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as an organizing principle for the book?

CHB: Thank you.  I think I have been writing this book for most of my life.  I grew up in a four-generation household where the difficulties of aging were much discussed by my grandparents and great-grandparents.  Often my parents would take me aside to explain what it was my elders were experiencing.  They always described our elders through a prism of love, and always assured me that “One day you will understand.”  And, sure enough, I have.  As I began to age, I wrote more and more poems on the various aspects of aging, but I could never decide how to organize them.  Yeats has been a favorite poet since I read some of his poems in a children’s anthology “Silver Pennies,” seventy years ago.  I was listening to a CD of his poetry while driving in my car one day and was struck by the verse from “Sailing to Byzantium” that I have used to introduce my book:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

I thought that I might use each line of that verse to headline a group of poems offered by different voices:  In the first section I would have old folks reflecting on the disabling factors of age.  In the second I would present the voices of younger people as they regard their elders rather critically. I then envisioned a third section where the older voices would remark on the joys of aging, and a fourth where young people would express admiration for their elders.  I soon realized that the third and fourth sections would need to be combined because many of the joys of aging are found in the interactions between the elderly and the young people who are a part of their lives. With this scheme in mind, I began to order each section so that it moved from a confusion of emotions toward resolution and acceptance.

CH: Many of the poems in For Every Tatter take on lyric forms. Who are some of your influences in lyric poetry?

CHB: The Romantic and Victorian poetry my father recited for me when I was young still rings in my ears today: poems like “Abu ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt, “The Children’s Hour” by Tennyson, and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Yeats, Frost, and Dickinson, came into the picture pretty early on.  Auden is very important to me. Galway Kinnell is another poet whose writing has meant a lot to me.  But then every poet whose work is in my CD collection or whom I have heard read at the Georgetown Poetry Festival, or at Roundtop, or at Baylor’s Beall Poetry Festival in the last twenty years has left his or her mark.  It was a highlight of my Covid Year to be able to Zoom the Dodge Poetry Festival!

CH: I was struck by your deft use of received form throughout the book. What are some of the challenges you find working in form? What calls you to the use of form? What informs the decisions that you make to alter received form, as you do with the rhyme scheme in “The Changeling?”

CHB: I think I was imprinted by exposure to so much rhythmic poetry as a child. Rhythm does not come easy to me.  I have tried mapping stressed and unstressed syllables and simply can’t do it.  I just have to keep saying the words over and over again and making corrections until they sound right. But I keep at it because I need form.  I need to build some kind of structure in which I can think my thoughts, have my feelings and express them without being overwhelmed by them. I recall someone once describing a formal poem as a rubber room in which one could bounce to her heart’s content.  

As many people have discovered, concentrating on form lowers a poet’s guard, allowing unexpected words and ideas to slip into a stanza,  words and ideas that might otherwise have been held at bay by logic, prudery, or fear. And I have been struck by the way rondels, pantoums, and villanelles echo our thinking processes as we mull over decisions in our lives rehearsing and rerehearsing our decisions. 

I am happiest when I can create a poem with true rhymes, but I will always prefer to use near rhymes, or an extra beat, when it is a choice between doing that and contorting the syntax of a poem.

CH: How was the process of creating For Every Tatter different from that of creating Missing? If you had one piece of advice to share with a poet working on their first full-length collection, what would it be?

CHB: In both cases it was a matter of finding a pattern.  Missing has only one voice, Sylvia’s.  Well, actually, it has two, because each poem “written” by the Sylvia has a second, ironic title which comments on her thoughts and behavior. Perhaps it is better to say that Missing is the story of one woman coming to understand her life and her gifts.  Tatters organization was trickier because I tried to include as many voices and perspectives on aging as I was able to create. Each section is a somewhat random compilation of voices, but I still tried to nudge the poems in each section–and the combined sections–toward definite conclusions.

I guess I would have to give two pieces of advice that helped me: First, to read other poets books from cover to cover and think consciously about their organization. Second, to identify the story you want to tell and to keep shuffling the poems until their order allows the story to be told.  That process may require writing poems that fill in missing pieces of the “story.”

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

CHB: Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris.  Wonderful!

A Virtual Interview with d. ellis phelps

Background

Thursday, March 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Register for this on-line event at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-d-ellis-phelps-tickets-138117614503

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for more information.

Feature d. ellis phelps is the author of two books of poetry: what she holds(Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020) & what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019) and of the novel, Making Room for George (MSSP, 2016). Her poems, essays, and visual art have appeared widely online and in print, and she has edited more than a dozen anthologies.

On her blog, Formidable Woman Sanctuary, she writes about spiritual and emotional healing and the writing life among other topics while also publishing the work of other writers and artists. She is the founding and managing editor of Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press and of fws:  international journal of literature & art. She has taught fine arts in various venues with students of all ages for decades and she currently facilitates The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas.

The Interview

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

dep: My first memory of poetry is listening to my mother recite nursery rhymes for me, how I loved to chime in, how much we laughed together over their various twists and turns, their sonorous interplay, their rhythms, and rhymes.  From as early as second grade, I participated in University Interscholastic League events like storytelling and declamation, often winning a red or blue ribbon for my recitations, memorizing the esteemed lines of  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Children’s Hour  or The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.  And I stood, for these contests, in the library stacks, sometimes for hours (and for years, as I competed through High School) reading one anthology after another, looking for these poems, as it was I who chose what I would memorize.

But my first memory of myself as a poet is as a fourth grader in Mrs. Anderson’s class.  She asked us to create our own anthology from chosen, favorite poets.  We were to copy the poems in our neatest handwriting and illustrate them then we were to compose a poem of our own.  I remember illustrating Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and that I included Invictus by William Ernest Henley, too.  The only line I remember of the poem I wrote is this:  and lightning refreshes the air in a poem about a thunderstorm.  I’ll say Mrs. Anderson’s project has stuck with me.

I continued to write poems, mostly bad ones, having published my first piece in a High School literary journal, something about lonely teenage angst.  But it wasn’t until the late 1980s when a San Antonio visual artist, Alberto Mijangos (now deceased), asked to read some of my poems and then invited me to collaborate with him, writing words to go alongside some of his paintings for a show that hung at the Blue Star, that I began to take myself seriously as a poet.  

CH: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a visual artist. What do you see as the connection between these forms of expression? How do your experiences as a maker of visual art inform your poetry?

dep: It was, in fact, also Alberto Mijangos who noticed my art.  When I brought my poems for him to read, he noticed the markings in the margins, all over the edges, inside and around my words and pointing to them he said, “What are these?”  “Doodles,” I answered.  He paused.  “I think you may be an artist,” he said.  Then he encouraged me to buy some art supplies and to begin.  And so, I worked in much the same spirit as the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham did as she started to choreograph a new dance by saying “Begin!”  I began.  I followed the marks as they appeared on the page.  I learned to ask or dialogue with the canvas, standing, sometimes for long minutes before making another mark, waiting for the mark or the color to make itself known to me.  It was a kind of improvisational play I had never experienced, and it changed me.  Thus, it also changed my writing, making it even more improvisational, helping me listen for what the poem wanted to say, helping me listen for what I wanted to say.

Every medium has its limitations and I think words may be the most limited medium.  Becoming more fluent as a visual artist meant having a whole other language, it meant being able to show ideas, worlds even, that words somehow seemed unable to touch. 

Both the written word and visual art are markings, ways to make marks, languages, movements.  And whether I am writing or painting or writing and painting, as lately, I often do a kind of mixed-media working with words, color and form, I am mostly dialoging with Universe, realizing and expressing the interconnectedness of all things, observing the natural order, or as in what she holds, working to resolve an emotional conflict.

CH: You’ve published a novel as well as two collections of poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer?

dep: First, I am happy to announce here that I have a new book of metered, rhymed poetry for children, words gone wild, forthcoming from Kelsay Book’s Daffydowndilly Press this summer!

So my first book of poems, what holds her, is ecstatic verse.  My second book of poems, what she holds, is transformational, deeply personal, reconciliation work.  And my third book of poems, words gone wild, is light and fun and full of fantasy.  My novel, Making Room for George, is a highly embellished (fictionalized) memoir based on a true story, also a work of reconciliation.  I am currently shopping a fourth book of poems that are all social justice work.

Maybe it’s fair to say my work is transformational, deeply personal, even ecstatic work that celebrates the natural world and relationship in all its forms, a work that takes itself to the playground and knows how to whoop and holler, too!

CH: Tell us a little about your first book of poetry, what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019). How did this collection come about?

dep: This book came to me as I processed the grief I was experiencing over the death of both of my parents within twenty-nine days of one another in 2009.  Prior to their fleshly departures and after, the grief was so deeply overwhelming that I would lie on my deck, spread out on my grandmother’s quilt in the shade of the redbud, mourning.  I almost always have a journal and pen nearby, so then there would be words, phrases floating into my consciousness between bouts of sobbing.  The words were in a foreign syntax, and very different from what I then considered my style of writing.  But the words and phrases were persistent day after day, so I began to record them.  Often, a few words or a line would arrive but nothing else would come until I had recorded the words given.     

The poems for what holds her came often simultaneously with the poems that would become the collection I title what she holds, as I struggled to process the fact that as my father left his fleshly body, my chances of reconciling my difficult relationship with him were ending.

The poems in both collections proved me wrong. 

I think the first collection came first as a collection as a teaching from the ether, from the Universe, from my Soul Pod (the one that includes my parents) to shore me up and ready me to really have the space and spiritual substance to process the trauma, experiences and revelations that were to come to me with my father’s discarnate self.  We had unfinished business.  That’s what the writing of many of the poems in what she holds addresses.

CH: Your new collection of poetry, what she holds (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020), has followed quickly after what holds her. What was different for you in the process of creating and releasing this second collection? What effects did the pandemic have on the release of this book?

dep: In 2014, a good five years after my father’s passing, I began to break down emotionally.  As I describe in the afterword of what she holds, I had night terrors, there were psychic attacks of the most brutal kind, I was an emotional wreck, still in the throes of a relationship that clearly still needed to reconcile. I took up my pen and my paint.  I prayed and sang and chanted.  I sought counseling. I saw a spiritual guide. I joined a dream group.  I recorded my dreams.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I spoke out loud to my father.  I saw a shaman.  I cried.  I reasoned.  I pleaded.  I commanded.  And I returned, again and again, to the words, to the paint.  It took months, but Allelujah!  Healing happened.  what she holds is the product of that transformational process. 

What was different in the writing process was that in writing what holds her I felt as though I was taking dictation from the Spirit World.  In the writing of what she holds, I was actively working the memories, recording and working the dreams, both exhuming and laying to rest all that I was holding with the tools I use to do such transformational work:  my pen and my brush.

Because of the way our world has been turned inward during this year, the releases of what she holds and of what holds her have been soft and silent, almost as if that is just as it should be.  The readings I had scheduled for what holds her were cancelled and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to read from what she holds.  I don’t think though, that I could have done a reading of it maybe until now for every time I read it, it touches me so that I cry and cannot keep reading. 

CH: How do what she holds and what holds her speak to each other? Are there ‘through lines’ between your poetry collections and your novel, Making Room for George (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2016)?

dep: what she holds is a memoir:  what happened, how it felt and what I did with it.  It is “of this world.”  what holds her is not of this world.  It is beyond what happened.  It is like Mooji Baba, a Buddhist guru I follow says:  there is living as a person, taking everything personally, holding on to or being attached to things, happenings, circumstances, feelings and so on and then there is becoming aware of the True Self, letting go of the tangible world, living more in the timeless realm, recognizing who You really are and living out of a more neutral state, more connected to Pure Consciousness.  what she holds is a record of living more identified with  the personal state of being.  It is samsara or suffering. But what holds her is sutra, the Truth of Being, the way of being more identified with Pure Consciousness.  I think I had to have that knowing, its teaching in order to do the “of this world” healing my soul needed to do.

Making Room for George is also samara or suffering.  It was also written as a transformational process, working through difficult relationships with the men in my life, dealing with sexual ambiguity, discerning direction and purpose in my life, all of this done under the guise of the main character, Bet.  I was still very angry during the writing of George and I simply needed a place to put all of that angst.  I needed a record of what was happening to my life.  Writing it all down became my way out like hacking a path through a jungle.  I am grateful to the book and to George, himself, for giving me that path. You’ve made me curious about “through lines.”  Of course, the themes are interwoven.  It seems my soul work during this incarnation is to learn how to live in harmonious relationships, especially with men, to learn to forgive, and to do this and not give up being true to myself, to do this and to identify with my True Self, to do this as a graceful, peaceful, yet empowered, formidable woman.  Now I have to go read my books and find whether there are actual repetitions of lines in them.  I’ll bet there are!

CH: You’ve founded two literary enterprises: fws: international journal of literature & art and Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press. How has your work in the publishing sphere influenced your life as a writer?

dep: Mainly, my work as an editor has used a great deal of my writing time, but it has afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of contemporary work, a process that is educative and worthy.  I also follow the lead of many of the writers whose work I publish, finding new journals and submission opportunities, making connections and even friendships.  That’s fun!  Sometimes, when I’m publishing an anthology or collection, I contribute, having been inspired by the theme of the call.  I especially liked writing the lines I contributed to the Renga Edition of fws last spring.  That was such a joy to see unfold as it did.  Further, Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press has published two of my books that may have taken much longer to see in print had I opted to use a more traditional publisher.  In this respect, being a publisher has given me much freedom and I am certain, opened space for more work to come because, you know, rejection and the burdensome slowness of traditional publishing can be debilitating to a writer’s morale.  MSSP gave me speed and now and next.  I am very grateful for that!

CH: You’ve taught fine arts for decades, and currently facilitate The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas. What has your experience as a teacher brought to your writing life? Please also tell us a little about The Art of Writing Workshop Series.

dep:

Ah!  When I teach, I bloom!  I always work the prompts I am using to teach a concept or technique and the result is new work of my own, of course! It is said that if one wants to know a subject, one should teach it.  I find that I learn so much by trying to explain writing as craft to someone else.  In my preparation, I read many poems I would otherwise perhaps not have read.  I read commentary by other writers and teachers of writing on the subject I’m approaching.  And of course, I hear what the writers who attend my workshops write as a result of the prompts we are working and that is always so interesting and sometimes quite wonderful!

In The Art of Writing workshop series we have approached writing prose poems, memoir, the blessing, the epistle, form poems, poems of praise, rhyming poems, point of view poems, the personal essay, making metaphor, how poems move, and much more.  We do a writing warm-up, read some sample poems, try our hand at writing to a prompt or two, share and give soft feedback in every session.  We are an intimate group of twelve or less (on zoom for now) and we meet the second Saturday of each month from 1-3P through April, 2021.  Beginning in May through September of 2021, I will be continuing the series with a set of five workshops on the writing of memoir also on the second Saturday from 1-3P CST. Workshops are free and open to the public.  Please join us!  RSVP with interest to stauber@boernelibrary.org     

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise? If you could sit down for an afternoon with a poet from history, who would you choose?

dep: Emily Dickenson, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, TS Eliot, Whitman, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Alfred K. LaMotte…I tend to like certain poems, those that stay with me, rather than certain poets or entire books, except Rumi and Eliot and Whitman and Oliver.  Those I can read again and again.  I love the work of my contemporary Robert Okaji. I love your work, Cindy, especially that poem about the Red Admiral I heard you read in Boerne last year and the two we published in Through Layered Limestone:  Praise for a Splintered Birdhouse and Nut Sedge.  I also very much enjoy the new book by my contemporary Lucy Griffith, We Make A Tiny Herd.

I’d like to sit down with Rumi  or Kahlil Gibran.

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

dep: I am reading Mary Oliver’s What Do We Know.

A Virtual Interview with Susan Signe Morrison

Thursday, February 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-susan-morrison-tickets-138114936493

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for additional information.

Background

Susan Signe Morrison is the editor of a recently-released chapbook, Another Troy (Finishing Line Press, 2020), containing poetry written by her mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison. Committed to bringing the lives of women hidden in the shades of history to a wider audience, she has also edited the wartime journals of Wehlen Morrison, which have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. 

A Professor of English at Texas State University, Morrison is the author of four books on the Middle Ages, as well as a novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, which retells the story of the Old English epic Beowulf from the perspective of the female characters. A broader audience has accessed Susan’s work through interviews with Wired, American Public Media, the History Channel, and The New Yorker.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of reading? What role did story play in your childhood?

SSM: My first memory of reading was when I was 7. I know I read before this, but the summer of 1966 really stands out to me. My parents took my brothers (ages 10 and 12) and me to England. While there we walked on the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury—a storied pilgrimage path from the Middle Ages. We each had only what our rucksacks could hold which we carried on our backs. We’d walk 5-7 miles a day and sleep at inns. Because we had limited books, we all shared. I read everything from Agatha Christie to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

In third grade, I would bring my beloved stuffed animals with me to class. They included a Tigger (the tiger) and Snakey (who was a…you guessed it! A snake!). My teacher allowed me to present little skits on a periodic basis to everyone. I would make up stories and act them out. Later, I acted on stage in theatre productions, but those moments of making up skits on the spot for my classmates filled me with the joy of creation and sharing.

CH: What inspired your interest in creating a retelling of Beowulf? What did you learn from the process of writing Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife?

SSM: I teach medieval literature at Texas State University. Regularly I have my Old English class. I teach all sorts of shorter works like saints’ lives and women’s songs, but end with Beowulf. As a feminist, I have always gravitated towards highlighting the women’s perspective in the epic. I learned that one can say through fiction what one might also do in scholarly tomes—only you reach a much different, wider, and more diverse audience!

CH: I understand you’ve written four books on the Middle Ages. How did you become interested in this period?

SSM: One semester in graduate school, I took a Chaucer seminar at the same time as a course on Middle High (medieval) German. There was no looking back for me! It was only after my first book on medieval women pilgrims was published in 2000, that I came to realization as to why I became a medievalist. As mentioned above, my parents took us on a pilgrimage when I was 7 to Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims also went on such a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. So the seeds were sown when I was a child. Also, once I learned about medieval women and their writings, I was hooked.

CH: How do you see the literature of relatively distant historical periods speaking to a contemporary audience?

SSM: I teach a course on Quiet and Silent Women—with works ranging from Greek myth to the Harlem Renaissance. I designed it in early 2016 and taught it that fall—just as Hillary Clinton was running for president and the MeToo movement began. There is so much resonance between women’s lives thousands of years ago and now—sadly. You’d think things would have changed more in that time span. But, on the positive side, such female figures and women writers have amazing resilience and intelligence—I think they are role models for us all today.

CH: How did you become interested in telling the stories of women? Your volume, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, looks fascinating, and I enjoyed the thumbnail sketches I found on your blog, https://amedievalwomanscompanion.com. Tell us a little about your research for this book.

SSM : I have always been interested in women’s stories. After all, I am one! And my mom was a writer as well—an oral historian. Her perspective is: everyone has a story, even if they don’t realize it. I regularly teach a class on medieval women writers. They are so intelligent, sarcastic, and subversive.

CH: Please tell us a little about your mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison.  You’ve published Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America, which your mother wrote and which you edited. As you worked on this project, what did you learn about your mother that surprised you?

SSM: Well: I learned so many wonderful things! That she was intellectually precocious, poetic from her earliest writings (age 10—some little poems still exist), and so funny! Her humor about others and at her own foibles was a delight to behold. She was just the same woman I knew—only much younger. I wish I could have been her classmate. She and I always wanted to write a book together. Now we have: two of them. I only wish she were here to see them—she would be delighted.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Troy. The title of this book of your mother’s wartime poetry makes me think of course of The Iliad. How did you select the title? What was it like to edit this volume?

SSM: Actually, Another Troy was the original title for Home Front Girl, the volume of her diaries from the war years I edited. The publishers thought it was too poetic—hence the name change. But such a poetic name is perfect for a volume of poetry. My mom, Joan, was obsessed with classical languages and literature. She often mentions Troy, Helen, Pompeii, and the passage of time—seeing the destruction in Europe as parallel to that from 2,000 and more years ago. Hence the title. When she has just turned 18, on December 28, 1940 during the Blitz in England, she writes, “The world’s changing. Troy; who thinks of Troy now. London is Troy tonight; London is brave somehow—burning and huddled in shelters; yet walking also in the unlighted streets. . . . London is Troy.”

CH: As I look at the titles on your website (http://www.susansignemorrison.com/) , I see a range of interest that I find fascinating—not only Medieval scholarship, but books like The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter.  As a scholar, how would you describe yourself?

SSM: I would say I write about topics lying in the shadows and bring them to light—whether the hidden lives of women or, in my work in the Environmental Humanities, issues like waste and filth. I want to draw attention to these topics so people will pay attention so we can change the world for the better.

CH: What are you working on now?

SSM: I am writing a memoir about my time teaching in East Germany. Using archival research, I am documenting the impact of a 1970s/80s exchange program I participated in between two universities: Brown University in Rhode Island and one in the former German Democratic Republic—East Germany. Ultimately, I show how Stasi (secret police) files—including my own—responding to this program fail to accurately retell what happened. If you want to hear about my experiences, this podcast has an interview with me about my experiences in the former East Germany: https://coldwarconversations.com/episode130

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

Well, it’s stressful, so I’m reading historical fiction to be in another time and place. I think one of the best cures for a pandemic is reading stories by P.G. Wodehouse—so silly and funny!

A Virtual Interview with Loretta Diane Walker

Background

Thursday, January 14, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information, or register with Eventbrite: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-tickets-135623037155)

Loretta Diane Walker is the author of five collections of poetry, and her sixth collection, Day Begins When Darkness is in Full Bloom, is forthcoming in 2021. Her most recent title is Ode to My Mother’s Voice (Lamar University Press, 2019). Her third collection, In This House (Bluelight Press, 2015), won the 2016 Phyllis Wheatley Book Award. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, a nine-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee, she is not only an award winning poet but a musician who plays her tenor saxophone sometimes, a daughter navigating a new world, a teacher who still likes her students, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and an artist who has been humbled and inspired by a collection of remarkable people. Of her work, Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “Loretta Diane Walker writes with compassionate wisdom and insight—her poems restore humanity.” 

The Interview

CH: When you last featured for the BookWoman 2nd Thursday series, it was 2016, prior to your winning the Harlem Book Fair’s Phyllis Wheatley Award for In This House. Congratulations on winning this national award. How did it change your life as a poet?

LDW: I garnered recognition from various entities I would have never considered. I was asked to deliver the commencement address for the 2016 fall commencement ceremonies at the University of Texas at the Permian Basin. In 2018, I was invited to serve as one of the back-to-school convocation speakers for the Ector County Independent School District.

I have been invited to read/present at a variety of poetry venues and have been asked to judge a number of poetry contests. The award afforded me a new level of respectability.

CH: Since 2016, you’ve also published two more volumes of poetry—Desert Light and Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, both from Lamar University Press. Tell us a little about how your relationship with the press came about.

LDW: Jerry Craven heard me read from the anthology Her Texas at The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas weekend. He heard me a second time at Angelo State Writer’s Conference. After the presentation at Angelo State, he said, “I like your work, send me something.” Afterwards, he gave me his business card. This is how Desert Light came into being. I submitted a second time, Katie Hoerth accepted my manuscript— Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems came into fruition. I hope to publish with them again one day.

CH: What have you learned in the process of publishing these most recent books?

LDW: First of all, I have received the gift of “belief” in my work from the publisher. Twice this press has invested in me. This is also true of the other two collections (Bluelight Press). These last two books revealed, if I were writing a novel series, light and the night sky would be the protagonists. My reference to them is numerous. Also, when my mother was about to share something about herself with me, she would make a reference to something in the sky as a segue to the conversation. If she said, “That’s a harvest moon; we used to pick cotton by it,” I knew to listen. I mean really listen. She was about to share something that would make her vulnerable.  I have deduced the night sky is a perfect example of vulnerability.

CH: The sense of place that permeates the poems of Desert Light is striking. Please tell us a little about your experience of these poems, and how the book came together.

LDW: Odessa is nowhere on the top 100 places to visit in the world list (LOL), but it has a barren beauty that mesmerizes me. The sky here is absolutely intriguing. To watch it change is a show in and of itself.  In Desert Light, my goal is to share this beauty—from the way pink streaks a morning sky to the way the wind blows autumn leaves. This collection is a tour guide for hidden beauty in a desert place. 

CH: One of the pleasures I had in reading Desert Light was to encounter in the poems the presence of the night sky and the liminal surface between darkness and light. As a writer, how do these subjects call to you?

LDW: I have had an obsession with the night sky since childhood. I can remember stretching out on the sidewalk or in the grass looking up, ogling at the stars, the moon, or clouds skirting the moon. I felt a connection then, and still do, that I cannot verbalize. I believe as long as there is light in the darkness there is hope. Perhaps what I am actually writing about is hope— a hope that I have carried from childhood, hope I will carry into the future.

CH: Your fifth volume, Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, came out in 2019. Tell us a little about your connection to the ode, and how it informed the poems of this collection.

LDW: Since the ode is a platform to offer praise and honor, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle for what I was trying to achieve. The purpose of this collection is to honor my mother. All of my books thus far contain poems about her, this one however, is to “spotlight” her wisdom and essence. I asked my siblings to share at least one life lesson, or “Mary Walker sayings” as we fondly refer to them, with me to include in this book. Many of the epigraphs in this collection are things she said to us. Mother died June 15, 2018. My siblings and I experienced her slow decline starting in September 2017 until then. She spent much of that time in the hospital. All of us, including her caregiver, rotated time spending the night/day with her so she would never be isolated from her loved ones. I wrote some of these poems from her hospital room. Ode, in a sense, is my mother’s eulogy. 

CH: The way that you employ metaphor in your poems lends a plushness to the work, a deep dimensionality. How do you approach the use of metaphor in a poem?

LDW: I truly wish I had an intellectual answer for you. What I can offer is this—I view life in metaphors.

CH: How has the pandemic affected your life as a poet? I’m thinking not only of direct impacts, but of your work as a teacher and the extra demands the pandemic has made.  

LDW: Unfortunately, my pandemic reality includes a new cancer diagnosis. Much of my energy is spent on doctor’s appointments, visits to the oncology center for treatments, CT scans, all the care healing entails. Also, I teach face-to-face and I am also responsible for providing instructions for virtual students. This requires a great amount of energy as well. As far as writing, I write when I am in the waiting room, in the infusion chair, on lunch breaks, on the weekends if I have the energy, and sometimes in the evenings after work. Gratefully, I have had various opportunities to present workshops and do readings via Zoom.  

CH: What are you working on now?

LDW: I am working on a collection entitled Day Begins When Darkness is In Full Bloom. It is forthcoming from Bluelight Press in 2021. It is eclectic in nature, thus the title. Some poems address my current bout with cancer for the third time, teaching face-to-face during COVID, my response as a black person to our nation’s current social unrest, and how I am dealing with COVID in general. I don’t know how many times this proverb has been quoted to me: Things will look better in the morning; I find it quite ironic morning begins at the darkest hour. However, where there is light in the darkness, there is hope. This collection is my journey through the darkest part of morning, to the brightest part of day where the sun is hope incarnate.

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

LDW: I am currently reading, “Mary Oliver’s Devotions, Jan Richardson’s The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Time of Grief, and Karla K. Morton and Alan Birkelbach’s A Century of Grace. I have one book in the bedroom, one in my office, and the other in the living room. This is the way I read poetry. (LOL)