Category Archives: women’s poetry

A 2022 Virtual Interview with Melissa Studdard

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

MS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

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

A Virtual Interview with Allyson Whipple

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Alexandra van de Kamp

Background

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AvdK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with 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.