Category Archives: women’s poetry

A Virtual Interview with Nicole Cortichiato

Nicole Cortichiato will be the featured reader Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Nicole Cortichiato is a writer with narcolepsy who resides on the edge of consciousness. You’ll find her napping in unusual places and making a creative life of joy and service despite her disability. She’s published numerous poems, plays, and children’s stories that blend fiction with reality and dark humor with optimism. Her short play “Fries” was featured in TILT Performance Group’s production of “Flip Side Redux.” She also won 2nd place in Austin Film Festival’s First Three Pages Live competition for her TV script “How to Grow a Man.” If you attend an open mic in Austin, chances are you will see Nicole perform. She’s been featured at Malvern Books’ I Scream Social and Writer’s Roulette, NeWorlDeli’s Poetry Night, and the One Page Salon with Owen Egerton. On the side she is also a member of the band Nicole and Eric’s Guide to a Meaningful Life in which she plays theremin and gives life advice. She lives in Austin with her partner and two demanding corgis.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

NC: Children’s books. I loved the humor, simplicity and illustrations.

I wrote a few short stories in 2nd grade about a dachshund named Boodie. But honestly, I mostly read during my early years or tried to. Often, I would fall asleep because of my undiagnosed narcolepsy.  I wrote in journals and such but it was mostly therapy. I didn’t start writing seriously until about 2012.

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

NC: Only in the last few years. But honestly, sometimes I cringe when people compliment my writing or even call me a writer. Not because I don’t think I am one, but probably because I’m still learning to take a compliment.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve also published plays and children’s stories, and you’ve written a TV script. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

NC: Easy going. I’m not hard on myself regarding what I write or don’t write– and I’m not a perfectionist. I edit of course but I don’t make myself crazy doing it. I do make sure I come back around and finish poems or stories that I’ve started. But once I’ve read them out loud at an open mic a couple of times then I’m kind of done with editing. I’m also a meditative writer.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

NC: No, I’m just a perpetual learner. If there is a class that makes me uncomfortable, then I will make myself take it. For example, the very thought of memoir made me ill so I took a class on it. I’m probably still trying to figure out my identity but I prefer to dip in as many genre pools as I can.

CH: What excites you about theatrical writing? How do you see the intersection between your theatrical writing and poetry?

NC: Figuring out what is funny and what is not. And of course seeing your play performed and watching how the audience reacts. I like discovering what kind of dialogue keeps an audience’s attention. I feel blessed I can even keep people from getting bored.

When I write theatrically it is mostly dialogue and relationships. My poetry often has a bit of humor. What interests me most about the two intersecting is my connection with the audience. I like to surprise people.

CH: What is your writing life like?

NC: I don’t write everyday. I write mainly in the morning. I don’t care what I write about and I don’t think about it too much before hand. I just write. And then later I’ll read it — sometimes weeks or years later. Sometimes I’ll take a line from it and make a poem or a story. Sometimes I’ll make my list of things to do for the day and I’m inspired. Or I’ll take notes of conversations.

My favorite thing to do is to take a writing class or workshop because then you know you are producing and learning. And the great thing about a class is you can apply almost any idea to the assignments in class. I love the creative writing classes at Austin Community College. I highly recommend them. If I do have a specific goal with my writing— I will meditate before or during the process.

CH: You’ve been public about having narcolepsy. How does your experience with this disability shape your writing?

NC: In the beginning my writing was internal. It was mainly in journals and my therapy. One thing that helped me take my internal to the external was getting a reaction to my poetry. I remember the first piece I read in front of an audience. One woman gasped after my reading and said, “Wow.” It was her reaction that probably encouraged me to get started.

CH: Tell us a little about your experience with the Imagine Art studio.

NC: Imagine Art is a wonderful art studio in Austin for adults with disabilities. When I first came to Austin, it was Imagine Art and Art Spark Texas that first nurtured my creative side regarding visual art and writing. I wrote and directed my first two plays at an Imagine Art artist retreat. And at Art Spark Texas I assisted with a storytelling class called “Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD).” It was OMOD that helped me be a more succinct and impactful writer.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?

NC: I keep taking classes in anything and everything related to writing and performing. My most recent class was “Stand Up for Mental Health” through Art Spark Texas. In that class I learned how to be a stand up comic. I also constantly make myself perform at open mics. Reading poetry in front of a group is infectious and you learn a lot about how to edit your work. In addition to that, I study other people’s work. For example, every few months I go to BookPeople, (the children’s section) to review their newest books. I’ll grab a huge stack of them and then go back downstairs to the coffee shop and spend a couple of hours reviewing them in a notebook.

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

NC: I like finding writers that are also good at performing their poetry. Right now I’m inspired by poetry with unique analogies. I prefer short poetry. And I like poems that tell stories.

My favorites are always changing. Maya Angelou (I love listening to her), John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Arnold Lobel, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anthony de Mello, Tracy Oliver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Dina El Dessouky.

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

NC: The Arrow” by Lauren Ireland. She has lines that stay with you.

A Virtual Interview with Viktoria Valenzuela

Viktoria Valenzuela was the featured reader Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Viktoria Valenzuela is a creative nonfiction poet human rights activist whose work appears in such publications as Poetry Bay, Mutha Magazine, AMP (Hofstra University), The MALCS Journal, and A Prince Tribute Anthology: I Only Wanted One Time to See You Laughing. Valenzuela is an educator, a Macondista and the organizer of 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. Her writing keeps keen focus on Chicana mothering as decolonization and political action. Valenzuela and poet Vincent Cooper have six children and live on the Westside of San Antonio.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
VV: My first interest in writing was a natural desire for me. I was a very inquisitive child. I remember sitting on the carpet in kindergarten learning how to spell the word “zip”…. There was a cartoon drawing of a St. Bernard dog who was zipping up his jacket and my old teacher was really putting emphasis on the Z sound to pronounce the word as she read it, “Zzzzip!” I was taken by how easy it was to create sound with these funky lines and squiggles. It was a monumental moment where art met sound in these things called letters… I wrote Zs and Ss everywhere. Later, when I learned to write down words then sentences, I wrote poetry (or songs) about beautiful things like flowers, rocks, or love poems for my dad…
I was always a writer. Dad saved some of those poems in an old suitcase for 30+ years. I didn’t realize I was always a writer and poet until recently when my old high school buddies reminded me that they have journals and yearbook entries with poems I wrote for them. I don’t remember writing these at all but apparently I’ve been a poetry-tagger.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
VV: I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was in my late 20s. I’d always considered myself an artist. I double-majored in Studio Art and English for a creative writing degree at community college when I went back to college as a single mom. While there, I took to hosting a bimonthly open mic event in 2003. Poetry just took over. I stopped pursuing art to be a creative writing major when I made it to university.
I began to think of myself as a “real writer” when I was featured at The Sterling Nature Center by my good friend, the poet Charles Itzin, who also asked me to speak at his college class as a poet. Before then, poetry had been just a fun hobby but these moments .
CH: I know that you write creative non-fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?
VV: I don’t believe I have a primary identity as a poet or CNF writer but I think most folks know me as a poet. I have two books of memoir that I’ve been writing. One deals with my hazy teen years and claiming Chicana identity, while the other is more recent and is a hybrid work that centers on my experiences as a mother of nearly nine children. These are both personal narratives and include the political awareness of their times. I maintain that all my work is politically charged.
CH: How has your life as a mother and human rights activist shaped your writing?
VV: There is no divide. I chose to become a mother at 21 years old. I knew having children would affect my work as an activist and scholar but I also knew that if I didn’t have children when I did, I might have no children at all. Writing and activism requires that you give your whole self to it. I have not maintained balance but I have tried my very best even if I fall short I do not quit. I write because, in a hundred years, I refuse to go unread. I exist, I care about other humans, and I have some stories to weave into the fabric of America.
CH: What is your writing life like?
VV: If everyone in my house goes to sleep at 9pm then I have 3 hours to write by myself. If not, I wait until they go to school. I have to be a mom and wife before I am a writer at my desk or agree to do a reading or event. My daylight hours are for the children and at night I might have a reading. I write between tasks or I carve out space where I can. There are times when I wish for more hours in the day but then I remind myself that Andre Dubus III wrote House of Sand and Fog in his truck parked at the job site. He gave himself only 20 minutes a day on his way to work to write as much as he could. The books want to be written.
CH: Tell us a little about the Macondo Writers Workshop. How did you become involved with this program? How has it influenced your writing?
VV: I was always interested in writing for mainstream culture. I remember reading House on Mango Street in my high school English class and then an article about Sandra Cisneros that talked about her moments leading up to creating Macondo Writers Workshop. I had already resolved that I must become a writer “for those who cannot out” but further, I knew I wanted to become a Macondista someday.
I would have applied to be a Macondista in 2015 but I was pregnant and the labor date was within two days of the start date of the workshop. I applied the next year and was accepted. It was a very validating moment for me as a writer. I now serve on the ad-hoc board and am so proud of the work I am doing there. I helped plan last summer’s workshop and this year will do the same.
My writing has grown in craft due to the amazing master writers that lead the workshops I have participated in. Also, being able to workshop with other Macondistas about our work has been key to publishing well.
CH: Tell us a little about 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. What motivated you to become an organizer with this group? What gifts and challenges did you find from your involvement?
VV: The BP Oil Spill of 2011 was the sole reason I became an activist poet organizer. I had been following certain poets on Facebook when it was new to me and I was struck by another poet, Michael Rothenberg, making comments about how atrocious it was to allow the oil spill to continue the way it was. I found a kindred spirit in him and when he said that we should write poems about this I was ready. When he said we should march in the streets and demand they repair the oil spill I was all for it. The more we chatted on these comment threads, we came to debate if having one large poetry event will make a difference. He was able to secure Stanford University to host an archive database of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Cities from all over the planet contribute photos and poetry to the site and it is considered as one poetry reading even if 800+ cities around the globe participate. I submitted one poem in 2011, in the next few years since I have created poetry reading events and zines of the works read there.
The gifts of these readings is in the amazing networking that can happen. My readings have helped others in many ways, such as when I hosted deportable Vietnam veterans and gained some national attention for them.
CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?
VV: Time for nurturing myself as a writer is not easy to come by but I am blessed that my family understands the need for alone time. I stay up later than everyone else. When we have time and money, I sign up for writing workshops nearby. This summer I was thrilled to take workshop with the amazing poet, Sherwin Bitsui at Poetry at Round Top and I recently went back to university for my masters in English. When I am actually writing, I tend to sip coffee or ginger root tea while listening to John Coltraine on Pandora radio.
CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?
VV: My favorite writers are Dorothy Parker for her clever skill and wit. Li-Young Lee is a master writer and I aspire to his level. I also like Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, Jane Hirshfield, Deborah Landau, Sherwin Bitsui, Claudia Rankine and Ada Limón… and more… there are thousands of poets I love.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
VV: I am just started reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid.

A Virtual Interview with Gabrielle Langley

Gabrielle Langley will be the featured reader Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Poet Gabrielle Langley will be our feature. Langley has been featured in the Huffington Post and the Houston Chronicle as one of Houston’s important emerging poets. With work appearing in a variety of literary journals in the United States, and in Europe, she was the featured poet for Houston Poetry Fest 2017, a recipient of the Lorene Pouncey Award, the Vivian Nellis Memorial Award for Creative Writing, and an ARTlines national poetry finalist. Ms. Langley works during the day as a licensed mental health professional. To safeguard her own mental health, she writes poetry and dances Argentine tango at night. Her first book of poetry, Azaleas on Fire, was released in March of this year.

The Interview

CH: When do you first become interested in writing? What drew you to it?

GL: My mother gave me my first book of children’s poetry when I was about four years old. It was Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Collection of Poetry. With that anthology, my mother started reading me a poem every night before bedtime. I was always captivated by the rhythms of the poems. But perhaps even more than that, I loved all the magical imagery that started dancing in my head whenever I heard the poems being read aloud.

That book became a treasure to me. In fact, that same book is still a part of my library to this day; it has always remained with me wherever I have lived. No doubt, this was my first initiation into the magic of poetry.

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

GL: I started writing poetry when I was an undergraduate at George Washington University. I was incredibly fortunate to have mentorship from the creative writing staff there. Washington DC also had – and I believe still has – an incredible community of poets and poetry lovers. I think the true game-changer for me was being placed in an advanced workshop with Lucille Clifton who was a visiting professor there at the time. (I was even invited to open for her at one of her readings in D.C. So that was just an incredible honor for me as a young writer.) Even so, I was not majoring in literature or creative writing–I was an Art History major. So I got into the poetry world through the backdoor, so to speak.

I didn’t really start identifying myself as a poet until about eight years ago. It was when I had two different poems published in Europe (Algebra of Owls in England and The Wild Word in Berlin); somehow those international publications gave me the courage and confidence to identify myself  as “a poet.”

CH: I have read that you describe yourself a “devout minimalist” in your sense of aesthetics. How does minimalism appeal to you as a writer? How would you describe its effects on your poetry?

GL: I am laughing here because for as long as I can remember, I have always felt claustrophobic in highly cluttered environments. My mother was actually something of a hoarder, so I can remember feeling really overwhelmed by all of the stuff everywhere in the home where I grew up. As an adult, I have never enjoyed owning lots of things; I don’t like feeling responsible for too many things. If hoarding can be considered a psychopathology, then I think of it on a spectrum. That would put me at the extreme – and perhaps equally neurotic – end we could call “anti-hoarding,” or maybe we could call it “hyper-editing.”

Having said all that, I do love the idea of having a few well-chosen pieces. Editing things down to a few exquisite essentials comes naturally to me, and isn’t that what poetry is really all about? For me, it is the ultimate goal, how we can say the most using the fewest, most exquisitely chosen words and images.

CH: I have also read of your interest in exploring romantic themes in your work. What do you see as the influences of Romantic poetry on your own work? What divergences do you see?

GL: Well to begin with, I have always been a Keats fan. His work has an exuberance to it that I cannot find matched by any other poet. (Ok, I will admit, Neruda is a possible exception).  Keats’ poems are, for me at least, like spiritual epiphanies. The Romantics, in general, invite us to celebrate our own inner worlds.

At the same time, I love the spare aesthetics of the Imagists. I am a big fan of T.S. Eliot, HD and Amy Lowell. I love their ability to create abstract meditations. I also love their ability to fracture symbols and images. This almost surreal ability to fracture images is one of the greatest gifts that Modernism brought to poetry.

Safe to say, it is the Imagists’ fearless free verse, combined with their riveting images, that brought us into the 20th century, and into Modern poetry as we know it today.

CH: Tell us a little about Azaleas on Fire. Over what period of time were the poems in this book written?

GL: Azaleas on Fire is a collection of works written in an on-and-off again time frame over the past twenty years. While studying with poet Justine Post (author of Beast, which is an exceptional collection of poems), she began working with me on culling through my existing poems, identifying recurring themes in the work. Learning how to identify the themes and obsession that emerged organically in my own work really helped bring clarity for me. From there the collection transformed into its own narrative arc.

CH: What was your process of selecting the poems for Azaleas on Fire? What strategies did you employ in ordering the poems?

GL: I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value a good editor. Azaleas on Fire benefitted tremendously from Melissa Hassard’s (Sable Books) expert eye. Melissa really perfected the narrative arc so that the book, when read in sequence, reads almost like a novella, even though the poems were written separately as stand-alone pieces; I was not thinking about a book when I wrote them.

I also had Stacy Nigliazzo go over the book once the narrative arc was set. Stacy was working on her most recent book, Sky the Oar, at the same time, so I recall that we spent one entire rainy day at my house together making last-minute final touches on our manuscripts.  If you are familiar with Stacy’s work, you know that she brings a surgeon’s precision to the page, demanding that every syllable earn its right to appear on the page. Of course, I had also worked with both of these amazing women, Stacy and Melissa, when we co-edited Red Sky: poetry on violence against women, so I was over-the-moon with delight to have them provide editing support for Azaleas on Fire.

CH: You have written about your eclectic background in terms of place (e.g. Europe and the American South). How does place figure in your work? 

GL: Having a sense of place in my work has always been a priority. I love travel, and have been fortunate enough to travel extensively. At the same time, I also love being at home (which for me is the Southeastern United States).

I am really sensitive not only to sights, but also to shifts in scents, weather patterns, light, taste, and sound. I find myself even more acutely aware of these things when I travel, and also again when I return home, as if I am experiencing the signature elements of home for the very first time. There is always some part of me that wants to share these experiences on the page. Sometimes it almost feels like writing a love letter where you want to tell your beloved all about the place where you are, and you hope, if you can write well enough, that the page you send can bring them to that exact place from where you are writing.

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

GL: Ark by Ed Madden. He is a really gifted poet from rural Arkansas. His work is really mysterious, like nothing else I’ve ever read, but it also has this instantly recognizable rural Southern United States setting.

The poetry of Ark deals with the ambivalence experienced by a family whose father is on hospice care. Madden’s work brings this wonderfully eerie sense of things that seems to accompany so many deaths. His work has a way of making you see the ghost before that person actually becomes a ghost. He brings you into that twilight space which is the very transition between life and death.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Lucy Griffith

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

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

LG: The Chasing by Ada Limón

A Virtual Interview with Amanda Johnston

Amanda Johnston will be the featured reader Thursday, December 13, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of two chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key, and the full-length collection Another Way to Say Enter (Argus House Press). Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle, Pluck!, No, Dear and the anthologies, Small Batch, Full, di-ver-city, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism.

The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, a cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She serves on the Cave Canem Foundation board of directors and currently lives in Texas.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

AJ: Reading. When I was a child, my mother gave me Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I believe it was the risk he took to be daring and surprising in his poetry that pulled me to the page. His subjects and narratives in his work was at times naughty and out of the ordinary. I loved it! I can’t say that I wrote outside of school then, but those poems still excite me today and I turn to them when I forget to have fun with the lines and turn to the unexpected.

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

AJ: I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005 while my husband was in the Army. I worked at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College and started writing with a group on campus and helped with the campus journal, The Heartland Review. That’s when I felt the drive for more. I wanted to read more, write more, and learn more about poetry and the literary world. Shortly after that, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets and was awarded a Cave Canem fellowship. These communities encouraged me to continue writing and to publish professionally. This is when I started ‘doing the work’ seriously on and off the page.

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Southern Main?

AJ: The Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine was the only program I applied to. My friend and Cave Canem faculty, poet Patricia Smith, attended Stonecoast and taught there after graduation. She encouraged me to apply. I learned a long time ago that if Patricia tells you to do something you do it because it will probably change your life for the better. It did! Stonecoast has an incredible faculty, and as a student, I was able to work with Joy Harjo, Tim Seibles, Aaron Hamburger, Ted Deppe, Jim Kelly, Alexs Pate, and Annie Finch. I also took advantage of their study abroad program and attended a summer residency in Dingle, Ireland. Most of all, the program allowed me time to selfishly focus on myself and my writing. I needed that uninterrupted time to listen to the voice within and learn additional tools to help it rise to the page.

CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

AJ: During the program, I took traditional form and cross-genre workshops that broadened the scope of my reading and writing. I wanted more and I needed to understand prosody and apply the study to my work so I could break it down and build it back up. I learned scansion and meter. I learned form. I love to break apart forms and mash them up with others in new ways. The freedom to take control of form and structure, along with time, was the greatest gift. I gained this whole world where other writers were just as curious and focused on the work as I was. That gave me strength and support to continue writing and push my work.

The biggest drawback? It is a financial expense, but one worth making. My husband and I discussed it like buying a new car. Do we need it? Yes. Why? To get to work! I certainly got to work and I would advise anyone considering their MFA to really consider the work they need to get to and how the program as a whole will help them accomplish their goals.

CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?

AJ: I applied to Cave Canem in 2005 and was offered a fellowship that year. I applied because Nikky Finney, a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, encouraged all of us APs to apply. I didn’t know much about it, but again, Nikky is one of those people you better listen to if they give advice.

After attending my first Cave Canem retreat, my life was truly changed. I moved back to Texas that summer and only applied to jobs that would support me creatively as a poet. The home my family chose had to have an office and quiet spaces where I could read and write. Being a Cave Canem fellow reinforced my commitment to poetry and broadened my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Over three years of retreats, I studied with Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afaa Weaver, Cyrus Cassells, Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Erica Hunt, Patricia Smith, and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Guest poets during the retreats included Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. My life changed. My world changed. I couldn’t get enough.

I stayed after graduating to work as retreat staff and served as retreat coordinator until 2017. I now serve on the board of directors. My life is dedicated to Black poetry and supporting marginalized groups across the literary landscape. Becoming a Cave Canem fellow lifted me up in such a way that I can’t image not having this opportunity for others. My writing is stronger because of this house and my dedication to the community is unwavering.

CH: Tell us a little about the Affrilachian Poets. How does this community nurture you as a writer?

AJ: The Affrilachian Poets is a collective of poets from the Appalachian region. Poet Frank X Walker, a Danville, Kentucky native, coined the term in the ‘90s when he didn’t see people of color included in the definition of appalachians. He didn’t see himself. Along with other founding members, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, and others, they formed the Affrilachian Poets to give voice to their experiences and the experiences of other people of color from the region.

In 2004, while living in Kentucky, I was inducted into the APs as part of the second generation, the first group of inductees after its formation. As an AP, I was able to explore my writing and history wholly without restraint. I felt free writing in community with others who looked like me and understood what it means to be Black in America and daring to write about it. Because of the Affrilachian Poets, Kentucky will always be my poetic birthplace. My time there with them gave me the foundation I needed to carry my work forward with pride and purpose.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Way to Say Enter. How would you compare the experience of putting this full-length collection together vs. that of composing your chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key?

AJ: Another Way to Say Enter is the gathering of many years of writing into a meditation on my personal journey of womanhood. It’s not soft. It’s not pretty. If anything, I hope it’s honest and carries the places that hurt toward healing. I hope readers find the poems in this collection and know that they are not alone.

It took time and the support of an incredible editor, Teneice Durrant founder of Argus House Press, to see this book become reality. It didn’t follow the business of production. Putting this collection together took patience and compassion and I’m thankful she was able to offer that to me and my book.

GUAP and Lock & Key were personal projects that I arranged and produced. I had complete control. Each of these projects were necessary to make way to grow and enter the next phase of work. AWSE is only a year old, but I can feel the seeds starting to take root for what’s to come. It’s all part of the process of listening and staying present with the work.

CH: How has your experience teaching at Stonecoast influenced your writing?

AJ: Being that I attended Stonecoast, I want to provide the same experience I received as a student for my students. This means I read a lot! I dive into what they are interested in and that often opens up a new world of work to me. Creating coursework for workshop and individual intense study requires I offer my knowledge and experience, but stay open to the riff and flow of each student’s own needs and growth. It keeps me on my toes and I learn so much in the process. They inspire me and it makes me hold myself accountable to them and my own work. I fully believe you must practice what you teach! 

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

AJ: Anything by Lucille Clifton because she gives me permission to write short poems that cut and love deeply. And anything by Sharon Olds because she gives me permission to write the personal, intimate, experience through my own lens without blinking.

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

AJ: On my desk right now are Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez and Monument by Natasha Trethewey