Category Archives: women’s poetry

A Virtual Interview with Leticia Urieta

Background

Thursday, June 9, 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-leticia-urieta-tickets-328521957017

Feature Leticia Urieta (she/her/hers) is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She is the author of a hybrid collection, Las Criaturas (FlowerSong Press, 2021) and a chapbook, The Monster (LibroMobile Press, 2018). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. 

Urieta graduated from Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. She is a teaching artist in the greater Austin community and the Regional Program Manager of Austin Bat Cave, a literary community serving students in the Austin area, as well as the co-director of Barrio Writers Austin and Pflugerville, a free creative writing program for youth. Urieta is also a freelance writer.

The Interview

CH: I’m delighted to welcome you back to the BookWoman 2nd Thursday series! I know a lot has transpired since we last spoke in early 2018. It was a special pleasure to learn that not long after your feature, your chapbook Monster (LibroMobile Press, 2018) was released. Please tell us a little about it and about getting it published. 

LU: Thank you for having me back! Yes, I wrote this short story, “The Monster,” which is a speculative horror story about a child in a migrant detention facility and the psychological toll that it takes on her to be incarcerated and criminalized to the point where she isn’t sure if she is transforming into a monster or being hunted by one. My friend Ana Leticia de Leon was working on her masters at the University of Houston and asked for a story to print as a small chapbook for their risograph printing series. It was illustrated by the talented Lucero Hernandez. 

My good friend Sarah Rafael Garcia, the founder of LibroMobile in Santa Ana, CA was publishing chapbooks from local Santa Ana poets and wanted to reprint the story as a part of the chapbook series.

CH: Congratulations as well for the publication of your hybrid collection, Las Criaturas (FlowerSong Press, 2021). Please tell us a little about this collection. 

LU: I started writing this collection in 2016 when I was supposed to be working on my thesis, a novel, in my MFA program. I was reading a lot of traditional tales and archetypal folklore and was generally drawn to speculative stories and horror stories that spoke to how the creatures and monsters inside of us emerge in reaction to violence, suppression and trauma. The collection is a hybrid of poetry and prose, because many of the pieces move across forms and genres.

CH: I’m excited to know of the speculative narrative aspect of Las Criaturas. Speculative narrative seems an incredibly powerful vehicle for creating myths that can extend or upend traditional ones. How has your interest grown in this direction? 

LU: I’ve always been drawn to traditional stories from the monsters of Greek myth to the cautionary tales of Mexican folklore in my own culture. Speculative storytelling is so nuanced and can look to the future, but also incorporates all of the what ifs of the present. I love the freedom of creating speculative stories by incorporating horror, cosmic elements and creatures from traditional stories.

CH: We spoke in our last interview about the importance of place in your work, and I know FlowerSong Press shares a deep connection with the borderlands. How did your connection with FlowerSong come about? 

LU: When I was submitting my manuscript for this collection,  Flowersong Press came up multiple times as a small press out of McAllen, TX that had published other poets I respected. I knew that for this collection I would need to find a press that would respect the intent of the work and who would treat it with care, and Edward Vidaurre and his editorial team created that environment for me. I think that they are publishing a lot of beautiful and innovative work by poets and writers both emerging and more well known, and I am happy to be a part of the Flowersong community. 

CH: Since your last feature here, you’ve become the Regional Program Manager of Austin Bat Cave and have continued your work with Barrio Writers Austin and Pflugerville as co-director. How have these literary citizenship roles contributed to you as a writer?

LU: In my work as a community teaching artist, where I lead writing workshops for youth and in my roles as program manager for these organizations, I have the privilege of making space for students to learn new ways of telling their stories and to help them to share those stories. They are truly the most creative and innovative people and they truly challenge me to dig deeper and stretch my imagination in my own work.

CH: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your literary citizenship work, and your own practice as a writer? What will you carry forward with you as this public health crisis abates?

LU: The pandemic definitely challenged my connection with our students and my literary community. I did learn however that the way I was working previously was unsustainable as I navigated new health complications, and I learned that I needed to rethink my relationship to work and my capacity to serve others.

CH: How do you create space in your life for your own creative work along side your freelance, teaching artist, and literary citizenship activities?

LU: Sometimes I don’t make that space for a while because of the demands on my time, being chronically ill, or navigating my own energy. Sometimes I am just consuming stories and that in itself can be an important way for me to refill my creative well. But I know when I have been away from my inner self and need to journal, or sketch out a poem, or write for an hour in the middle of the night using the glow of my phone in the dark.

CH: At the time of our last interview, you had a historical novel in progress. If you were to draw a thread through the novel, Monster, and Las Criaturas, what would it be? How do you see your trajectory as a writer?

LU: I am actually working on a new historical young novel about Spiritualism in Austin in the late 1800s.  I see a lot of my work depicting characters who are trying desperately to others and to find their place in a family and community with others when trauma and loss has made them feel disconnected. And much of my work blends history and familiar stories, including ghost stories, into the struggles of these characters.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry that you’ve read? The most recent piece of speculative fiction? 

LU: I am currently reading Laura Villarreal’s Girl’s Guide to Leaving. She is an extraordinary poet. I’ve also been enjoying the collection of stories, Tiny Nightmare, which is a horror anthology of very short stories by many of my favorite writers.

A Virtual Interview with Lisa Dordal

Background

Thursday, May 12, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-featuring-lisa-dordal-tickets-302471098197

Feature Lisa Dordal will be reading from her new collection, Water Lessons (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming April 2022). Dordal teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University and is also the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in NarrativeRHINOThe SunThe New Ohio ReviewBest New Poets, Greensboro ReviewNinth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

The Interview

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

LD: My first memory of writing poetry is from when I was 8 years old. I wrote a poem (I think it was for a school assignment) about cows and chickens and the pillows I was sure they needed for their heads…!

Then, during high school, I started writing poetry on my own, mostly as a way to deal with what was probably undiagnosed depression. All I knew during high school and college was that I felt different and was deeply unhappy. This was back in the late 70s, early 80s. I would realize much later that I was a lesbian.

It took me a long time to actually think of myself as a poet. I grew up in a very math/science-oriented family—a career as a poet definitely wasn’t on the table! Furthermore, my family of origin embraced fairly traditional gender roles, and the primary expectation was that I would marry a man and that my husband would provide for me. So, after college I dutifully adhered to those expectations and married a man! Through my 20s I wrote poetry occasionally though not as consistently as I had in high school and college. Then, at the age of 30, I realized I was a lesbian and filed for divorce.

I had been a Religious Studies major during college and, in my early 30s, had been enrolled for a few years in a graduate program in feminist theology. In my late 30s, I decided to go to divinity school. During the program, I was drawn to studying the Bible, and one of the things I learned was the importance of asking who has voice in a particular text and who doesn’t, who has power and who doesn’t. Who is central to a story and who isn’t.

Towards the end of my MDiv program I started to write poetry again. Most of the poems I was writing after my long hiatus were about women in the Bible. I creatively re-imagined stories in which women appear only peripherally, hoping to give them a voice that had been long denied. A few months after I finished the program, I saw an advertisement on the Vanderbilt webpage for an evening poetry class. After taking that class, I began auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt and eventually applied to the MFA program which I completed in 2011.

CH: What draws you to writing poetry?

LD: I started writing poetry to help process the pain I was feeling in high school and college., and I think I’ve been drawn to it ever since as a way to help me make sense of what it means to be alive in this world. I like the concision of poetry—how it can take people so far with just a few words. I also think there is a real connection for me between theology and poetry: they are both trying to get at something that can’t be fully or directly named. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to “big” questions. What does it mean to be alive? What happens when we die? Poetry is a natural partner for those sorts of questions.

CH: I understand you have an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University. What motivated you to get the degree? How did the process meet with your expectations? What changed most for you as a writer in the process of getting the degree?

LD: I had been auditing workshops in the MFA program at Vanderbilt for a couple of years, but I never considered doing the program because of the cost. Once Vanderbilt began to offer financial support to their students, I thought, “why not?”

Doing the program was a huge help to my writing in terms of deepening my understanding of my own voice. But like a lot of people who do MFA programs, I needed some recovery time afterwards, time to turn inward and do a lot of studying and writing on my own to get back on track. Workshops can be challenging—it’s a very intense experience mostly in terms of the emotional work, and you can’t incorporate every opinion, or your poem will just fall apart.

Overall, I’d say it was a completely worthwhile experience. I’d never be doing any of what I’m doing now without the degree

CH: Your first collection, Mosaic of the Dark, came out from Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Tell us a little about it, and your journey toward it. Over what period of time were the poems written? How did you go about selecting and sequencing them? How did they find a home with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: As a whole, Mosaic of the Dark addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. Its poems focus on my experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into what felt like a prescribed script of heterosexuality, as well as on my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. It took me a long time to write the book—some of the earliest poems were from 2007.

I don’t remember all the decisions I made about sequencing the poems in Mosaic of the Dark, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. I had entered a few contests with Black Lawrence Press and was a finalist a few times, then decided to submit through one of their open reading periods. I was so thrilled when Diane Goettel—the executive editor—called with the news back in May 2016!

CH: Congratulations on your new collection, Water Lessons, just out from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us a little about it, and how the book came together.

LD: In many ways, Water Lessons continues to wrestle with many of the themes of Mosaic of the Dark, especially with respect to my mother. There are a lot of poems in the book about my mother’s alcoholism and eventual death. I thought, after writing Mosaic of the Dark, that I was done writing about my mother, but it turns out I’ll probably never be done writing about her!

There are also poems in this collection about my father’s (recent) dementia and my own childlessness, as well as poems about my own complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Those poems were inspired by the work I’ve been doing the past five years or so—thanks in large part to my church, First UU Nashville—to better understand systemic racism and my role in it.

For example, there’s a poem in the book called “Primer,” which was inspired by an NPR interview with a black scholar in which I learned about the racist content in Pippi Longstocking books. I was horrified when I re-read one of my Pippi Longstocking books, and began to think a lot about how problematic narratives operate on young minds.

Water Lessons also examines the patriarchal underpinnings of the world I grew up in, and meditates on a divine presence that, for me, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive. There’s a lot in the book about relationships between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, and presence and absence.

The book came together quite easily—well, at least that’s how it feels looking back on the process! I do remember wondering to myself after Mosaic of the Dark came out, whether I would ever have enough poems for another book. So maybe it wasn’t an easy process after all—it’s just that the manuscript came together so much more quickly than my first book.

Water Lessons’ four main topics form a loose narrative or chronological arc. The bulk of the poems about my mother’s death (in 2001) come first; poems about the failed adoption my wife and I experienced (after my mother’s death) and about my father’s decline (which began four years ago) come later in the book. Then there are the poems focusing on the dynamics of race, many of which reflect a much earlier period in my life.

I knew I didn’t want to group all the poems by topic because this isn’t how life happens; life is much more fluid than that. So, while I wanted to begin with poems about my mother, I didn’t want to begin with all the poems about my mother. My mother is still very present to me and, consequently, the book, in a certain sense, requires her to appear again and again. The first section of the book ends with the poem “My Mother, Arriving” because this title paves the way for future appearances, as does the last line of the poem: “My mother, not going away.”

I also knew that the postcard poems (“Postcards from the 70s”)—which explore the larger societal messages I received about race, gender, etc.—needed to come relatively early in the book, since they describe the world I grew up in just as much as the poems about my mother’s drinking do. So, the first two sections serve as the foundational and chronological beginning in the narrative arc, while the rest of the book moves forward in time to the present—a present deeply infused by the past.

CH: How did the experiences of putting your first and second books together differ? How has it been to work with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: It took a lot longer to put Mosaic of the Dark together. Some of the poems date from when I was auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt—so back in 2006 through 2008. When I received my MFA in 2011, I thought I had a finished manuscript (based on my master’s thesis), ready to send out to publishers. But it turned out that a lot of the poems still needed more work or needed to be scrapped altogether. Over the next five years, I sent out versions of the manuscript, though it wasn’t really ready until 2016.

Because I had my first book published by Black Lawrence Press, I was able to submit Water Lessons as a current author, so the process of submitting was a lot easier. I had loved what they did with Mosaic of the Dark and they were/are such a great press to work with.

CH: I also understand you hold a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt. How has this background shaped your work as a poet?

LD: Going to divinity school had a huge impact on my journey as a poet. I see poetry very much as a kind of spiritual practice—a way of paying deep meaningful attention to the world. When I read and write poetry, I feel connected to something much bigger than myself and know that I am not alone—that my life is bound up in the lives of those who have come before me and who will come after me. Poetry isn’t my only spiritual practice, but it is definitely one element.

I also see poetry as being very related to the prophetic tradition. In the Bible, the primary role of a prophet was to respond critically to the present—i.e., to call attention to societal issues. So many poets use their gifts to raise awareness about any number of societal ills, and I would argue this kind of poetry is very much in line with the prophetic voice in Biblical tradition. 

In my poetry courses, I make a point of exposing students to poets who are examining racism, calling out white supremacist thinking or calling attention to stories typically ignored in the dominant historical record. In this sense, my work in divinity school continues to impact not only my writing but my teaching.

Even though I’m no longer writing directly about Biblical stories, it’s not unusual for me to incorporate images or stories from the bible into my poetry. For example, my poem “Holy Week” from Mosaic of the Dark is about my mother’s alcoholism but is in conversation with the story of Jesus’s return from death. And my poem “The Lies that Save Us” is in conversation with the story of Sarah and Abraham.

I make similar connections in Water Lessons. For example, in “Postcards from the 70s” I’m next door at my best friend’s house when my friend’s mother appears in the doorway to ask a question. When I finally sat down to write about this moment from more than forty years ago, the Biblical image of the angel appearing to Mary came to me as a way of connecting religious and cultural expectations of women to the narrative scene of the poem.

CH: I know that you now teach in Vanderbilt’s English Department, and I’m curious about the interplay between your teaching and writing lives. How do you make room for your creative work? How has working with students influenced your writing practice?

LD: Making room for creative work is always a bit of a challenge during the school year. I can usually stay on track with my writing practice for the first three or four weeks of the semester, after which things start to fall apart. During the summer, I’m able to devote much more time to writing. I used to beat myself up about not having a more consistent writing practice during the school year, but now I just accept it and I kind of enjoy the rhythm. I love teaching and I love writing. And this way I have the best of both worlds.

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you return for inspiration?

LD: Jane Kenyon was one of the first poets whose work resonated with me in a deep way and was one of the most influential poets for me when I was starting out. She writes in a fairly plain style but her poems have such depth.

Marie Howe’s work has had a huge impact on me, and I return to it again and again. In fact, we just finished reading her book What the Living Do in my Intro to Poetry class. What I love about her work is that her voice is simple and conversational but, like Jane Kenyon, has enormous depth. And I love the way she weaves in references to Biblical stories in her poems. Those allusions really resonate with me.

Another poet whose work I admire is Natasha Trethewey—especially her book Native Guard,in which she writes a lot about the loss of her mother. Though the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death are very different from those surrounding mine, I relate deeply to Trethewey’s descriptions and images of loss and grief. She also writes a lot about how historical events are remembered and taught—what gets left out of the main historical record, for example.

Other poets I love and keep retuning to are Ellen Bass, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, and Mark Doty.

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

Well, I just finished re-reading Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do! That was for class and of course I’ve read it many times before, but I never get tired of those poems. Not long ago I read Didi Jackson’s lovely book, Moon Jar. And now I’m in the process of reading Skirted by Julie Marie Wade and The Absurd Man by Major Jackson.

And now that the semester is over, I’ll be able to read a lot more!

A Virtual Interview with Margo Davis

Background

Thursday, April 14, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-margo-davis-tickets-275801639127

Houston poet Margo Davis reads from her newly-released chapbook, Quicksilver (FInishing Line Press, 2022). Originally from Louisiana, Davis is a three-time Pushcart nominee, and recent work has appeared in ND QuarterlyAmethyst ReviewDead Mule School of Southern LitPanoplyEkphrastic ReviewDeep South MagazineMockingheart Review, the San Antonio Express-NewsHouston Chronicle, and Ocotillo Review. Her work may also be found in a number of anthologies, including Odes and Elegies: Eco-poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast (Lamar University Press, 2020), Untameable City (Mutabilis Press, 2015), and the Texas Poetry Calendar.

The Interview

CH; What is your first memory of poetry?

MD: Early on I discovered the beauty of metaphor by eavesdropping. Interactions seemed freighted with inference. One thing represented another. Our family, well, the males, told yarns, sometimes humorous and playful, or with unnerving undertones. I was rapt, and gullible. Also I’d attribute my hyperbolic nature, my love of embellishment, multiple meanings, my celebration in the face of defeat to Southern excess.    

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

MD: By four I fancied myself a witness. I’m still told, “Don’t stare!”  When I later realized there were multiple ways of seeing, of being, that what’s recorded or played out is often a larger truth, I wanted to write. I would master the novella. Then I turned to poetry, bite-sized, manageable. Gullible indeed! I revere poetry’s compression. Music. Concision. The power of suggestion.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Quicksilver (Finishing Line Press, 2022). Tell us a little about your process in selecting and sequencing these poems. 

MD: Thanks, Cindy! Sequencing can be hellish. Does mine flow? A recurring theme in my poems is the slippery nature of Time. You know, anticipating what’s next while awash in flashbacks and  functioning in the present. And illusion fascinates me. So, the poems begin with “I don’t appear” which wrestles with what seems versus what is. Thematically this led me to “Grey Days,” a perspective poem. The viewer realizes this child at play is no reflection in glass but a moment caught on camera and contained within a mirrorless frame. The boy is boxed in. Next, “Backyard Primer” I would categorize as a list poem of close observations. “Dirt Poor” follows, clarifying the narrator’s perceptions. It did seem to fall into place. Or that’s my rationale.

CH: I found the poems of Quicksilver astonishing in their attention to detail, which especially serves poems in which you treat difficult situations and relationships (I’m thinking here of poems like “Picnic” and “Unexpected Guest.”). Would you tell us a little about how the practice of close observation influences your work?  

MD: What is it Faulkner wrote? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Both these poems felt cinematic in the making. One closely observed detail can embody the whole. And lessen the overall intensity, don’t you think? even if one is within the frame. Telling it slant can diffuse it. Then drama steps onstage. Poetic license enters, stage left.

CH: I know you’re originally from Louisiana, and that you earned an MFA there. What motivated you to pursue that degree? How did you select your program? 

MD: My Creative Writing degree was offered locally, through UNO. It gave me balance and introduced great poets I’d not investigated. I’d been writing poetry seriously since 19, had published a fair amount as an undergrad, and read eclectically. Actually I yearned to study both film and writing at UT Austin, but at that juncture it proved unaffordable.

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

MD: I was older than most all the students, quirky, disinclined to go the academic route. I came out of the program with “paralysis of analysis,” revising my thoughts before pen hit the page. Couldn’t write for maybe 5 years. Then I was advised to read. Simply enjoy reading. Eventually I wrote in response to stimulating notions. My imaginary dialogues embraced photos, film, paintings, overheard conversations. It was sage advice, don’t you think? My style’s changed over the decades. The earlier work was spare, elliptical, maybe stronger.

CH: I also understand you hold an MLIS degree. What is your area of focus in library science? How has that background influenced your writing?  

MD: Poetry probably fed my day job rather than the reverse. I worked at the LSU Library while earning BA and MLIS degrees. I settled on managing all aspects of law firm research services. This after putting in time at the LA legislature and, before that, drumroll… a prison library. All male, minimum security. Now that would be a novel in itself.

CH: I’m thrilled to have read Quicksilver, and eager to know more of your work. What’s on the horizon for you?  

MD: That means a lot, Cindy, thank you. I’m revising a manuscript focused on ekphrasis. About half the poems respond to art in another medium. The remainder enact that same remove as an observer, a voyeur, generally. I believe a life spent ‘closely observing’ art affects how one moves through the world. Each encourages the other. 

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours?

MD: Where to begin? Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.  I remain awed by two amazing TX poet friends. Kevin Prufer’s seemingly casual constructions are flawless (latest: How he Loved Them). Read Sasha West’s visionary, disturbing Failure and I Bury the Body. They make this process look effortless. Purchase their books. My critique group’s work is so strong I can barely keep up!  Priscilla Frake (Correspondence), Rebecca Spears (Brook the Divide: Poems), Sandi Stromberg, and Stan Crawford (Resisting Gravity). Purchase a book, all these! Tony Hoagland was such an astute, humorous poet. His essays, Real Sofistikashun, invaluable. For quirky poems full of surprises, I turn to Mary Ruefle. Spiritual / otherworldly overtone: Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Kathleen Graber and Susan Prospere are must-reads. I’m a lifetime fan of Terence Hayes’ musicality. They must be read aloud. I sometimes marvel then dissect his poems. A. E. Stallings is so dexterous. Order any or all these from Bookwoman!

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

MD: Pandemic Zoom courses underscored the need to revisit several key poets. The Selected Larry Levis and Milosz: New and Collected Poems were marvelous. I’m still investigating poets discovered in Ellen Bass’s courses. I’m reading another strong collection, Anyone’s Son, by a former Austinite, David Meischen. Who else have I read? I’m sure to leave out many…Houston poet Dom E. Zuccone’s Vanishes is a virtual sleight of hand. I loved the chafing of humans and technology in your chapbook, Cindy, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. Bookwoman can order most all of these. Oh, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds reminded me to lower the pitch. Confide to an audience of one.

A Virtual Interview with Ann Hudson

Background

Thursday, March 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-ann-hudson-tickets-249960006107

BookWoman is delighted to present Ann Hudson, author of the chapbook Glow, released as the first title from Next Page Press in 2021. Hudson is also the author of The Armillary Sphere (Ohio University Press, 2006), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Cider Press ReviewOrion, Crab Orchard ReviewColorado ReviewNorth American ReviewSpoon River Poetry ReviewSWWIM, and elsewhere. She is a senior editor for RHINO, and teaches at a Montessori school in Evanston, Illinois.

The Interview

CH: What is your first recollection of poetry? When did you first begin to experiment with writing?

AH: I can remember walking down my sunlit street reading a book of Frost’s poems – not sure where I got it from or why I seemed to do so much reading while walking those days – but it wasn’t a very high-quality book and the spine broke easily. The book broke open to “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and eventually I noticed the poem on the opposite page, “For Once, Then, Something.” That was the first poem I consciously memorized, walking up and down my street.

I’d long had an interest in writing, but it was something private. In high school I began writing out in the open, in part because it was something to keep me occupied through my loneliness. Everyone around me seemed to have this friendship thing figured out, and I often sat alone, so pulling out a notebook kept me from feeling mortified about that. Later, later, I found things to say.

CH: What draws you to poetry as an expressive medium? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a poet?

AH: I’ve never had a knack or interest in building narrative – I admire those who do, but I think more in image, word, rhythm: the small, intense building blocks of poems. Toward the end of high school I was thinking more along those lines, and by college I was curious about writing workshops. I couldn’t get enough of them.

CH: I understand your full-length collection, The Armillary Sphere (Ohio State University Press, 2006), was selected for the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. Please tell us a little about this book.

AH: Like many first books, it was written over a long period of time, with a huge variety of influences. I’d been submitting that manuscript in one form or another for ten years, though by the time it got picked up, it bore only faint resemblance to the manuscript in its earliest form. I’d been sending it out so long it was a huge shock when it actually was selected.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Glow (Next Page Press, 2021). How did this collection come about? What prompted you toward its subject?

AH: Sheer accident. I spent a summer researching some family history, and as part of the project brought my family to Ottawa, Illinois where I encountered the story of the Radium Girls. Marie Curie had been on my radar for several years before that, and when I started to investigate the two at once, I found myself writing more and more poems about radium and its ripple effects in the world. You can read a little more about all this in an essay I wrote for Naoko Fujimoto.

CH: I love the way the poems of Glow are sequenced. Tell us a little about your process in selecting and sequencing these poems.

AH: Originally most of these poems were in a full-length collection I was writing about my father, but they are so different in tone and scope they got lost in the larger manuscript. I eventually pulled them out. Once I saw the poems on their own I recognized their particular energy; the voices had more resonance. It was a female-centric collection, which also seemed important to give more space to.

CH: I’m always intrigued to read poetry in conversation with science. The poems of Glow certainly fit in this category, and from its title, I suspect the same might be said of the poems of The Armillary Sphere. How do you see the relationship between science and poetry?

AH: My father was a scientist; as I was growing up I thought of him as vastly different from me, but as it turns out I think we have some similar ways we investigate the world. Science and poetry rely on close observation, pattern recognition, linguistic precision, and associative thought. I suppose it’s only natural that my writing has a lot of scientific influence, both in subject matter and also in approach.

CH: How would you describe your development as a writer between the publications of The Armillary Sphere and Glow?

AH: The core of The Armillary Sphere was written in my 20s, whereas I wrote many of the Glow poems nearly 20 years later. My father was ill and dying at that point, which cast those poems in a different light for me. I was not only a different writer, but in a very different point in my life. Since The Armillary Sphere was written I have raised children, changed jobs, moved… a lot of water under that bridge, I guess. With all those life changes has also come a shift in the way I write. I don’t have the kind of time I once had. Eavan Boland described having a notebook open on the ironing board so she could jot down lines while she pressed clothes – I think about that often.

CH: I understand you are a senior editor at RHINO. How has working in this capacity shaped your own work?

AH: I have so much admiration for the people who submit work to our journal. Whenever I’m feeling lazy about my own writing, I think about all the writers who are submitting through our portal, and I sit myself right back down at my desk to work. And work can mean a huge variety of things: submitting, revising, drafting, reading, daydreaming, doodling.

I take my work at RHINO very seriously – I enjoy reading submissions and I’m impressed with the variation, talent, and inventiveness of the work we see. It’s heartening and inspiring, and while we can’t accept every poem we admire, I’m so grateful to be able to read it.

CH: When you are looking for inspiration, where do you turn?

AH: I’m also a Montessori teacher, work that I dearly love, work which keeps me moving, engaged with people, and communicating on a steady basis. (It also has a lot to do with observation, precision, pattern recognition, and association.) So after a full day of teaching I like to come home and take the needle off the record for a bit. I need quiet and space. Walking, reading, writing, doodling, working on a crossword puzzle, or solitary tasks like that can fill that space.  

I do read a fair amount of non-fiction, and I’m particularly interested in science. I like the names for things, I like to understand how things work. On the other hand, I don’t have a good memory for science – I need to read things over and over. And I read as much poetry as I can get my hands on. I have very smart, talented, and generous friends, and I’m always asking them what I should be reading next.

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

AH: I tend to read many books at once. I’ve just finished Carrie Fountain’s marvelous book The Life. I’ve got African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (ed. Kevin Young) on my desk that I read in regularly, as well as the Franklin edition of Emily Dickinson; she’s a beloved and consistent favorite. Waiting in the wings: Terrance Hayes’ To Float in the Space Between; Darren C. Demaree’s a child walks in the dark, Katie Peterson’s Life in a Field, and Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour. I tend to keep a shopping cart open at Bookshop and then treat myself to books when I can.

A Virtual Interview with Renée Rossi

Thursday, February 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-presents-kb-brookins-and-renee-rossi-tickets-230165259487

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

Background

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Jenny Qi

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

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

A Virtual Interview with Kai Coggin

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I quit.

To become a poet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What sustains you in your writing practice? 

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Teresa Palomo Acosta

Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with 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.