Tag Archives: Brigit Pegeen Kelly

A Virtual Interview with Cyrus Cassells

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now? 

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

A Virtual Interview with Katrinka Moore

Katrinka Moore will be the featured reader Thursday, March 8, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Katrinka Moore comes from a long line of Texans. She grew up in Brazoria County and now lives in New York.  A former choreographer and dancer, she is a lyric and visual poet.

Her poems appear in Dos Gatos Press’ Weaving the Terrain: 100-Word Southwestern PoemsBig Land, Big Sky, Big Hair: Best of the Texas Poetry Calendar; and Milkweed Editions’ Stories from Where We Live: The Gulf Coast.

She is the author of Numa, Thief, and This is Not a Story, winner of Finishing Line Press’s New Women’s Voices prize. Her latest book, Wayfarers, is a collection of poems that are tales told by multiple narrators.

 

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you start to become interested in writing?

KM: I first heard poetry in the Episcopal church when I was five years old—the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I drifted away from church as a teenager, I still like to dip into the BCP and feel the musical rhythm of the words. The first poetry I read was in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was especially fond of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” maybe because I loved to eat oysters.

As a child I was more interested in playing outside and riding horses than in the idea of writing, though I did love to read.

My parents were print journalists and they raised my sister and me to consider writing as necessary a life skill as cooking or learning to drive (for which I thank them!). I thought writing was prose that explained something or told a story. Secretly I felt writing couldn’t describe— something, a feeling I had about the mystery in the world—but it took a long time for me to realize that what I wanted was poetry.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a poet? How would you describe your identity as a poet?

KM: I began to think of myself as a poet once I could purposely work on a poem, either start one or revise one, in whatever time I had available, even if I didn’t know where I was going. And being a poet meant being serious about reading others’ poetry, to delve into a poem without thinking of my own work but to find out what that poem was about.

I think of poetry as a bridge to the unseen, to mystery, something we feel but find hard to know what it is. So as a poet I want to cross back and forth on that bridge, try to discover something on the far side and bring it back over here, where we live. I set many poems in the natural world, which I sense is a way—the way for me, anyway—to try to understand how everything is connected in a non-hierarchical manner. Everything includes people, animals, plants, boulders, earth, stars, galaxies, the universe, and all that is invisible.

CH: Some might say a career in dance and choreography seems at odds with the stillness suggested by the life of a writer. What relationship do you see between dance and choreography and writing poetry? With poetry itself?

KM: The dance I studied, performed, and created was based in stillness. My mentor was Mariko Sanjo, a choreographer and dancer who incorporated traditional Japanese sensibility into her work. She taught her students to wait, to move only when absolutely necessary. We practiced being still, moving slowly, and making honest movements, not trying to look a certain way. It wasn’t that we held still or that we didn’t leap and run and fall, but that we were quiet inside.

I use that same idea of stillness, of quietness, to write, though I may have to go through a lot of words to get down to the honesty, the deep quiet, where I try to go. I do write a lot about movement, use a lot of active verbs, and I suppose that comes from my dance experience as well.

That said, I move when I write, walk around, pour over the OED, sit at one desk, stand at another. (I brought a drafting table into my little writing room just for that purpose.) I can’t sit still for hours and write but I can write for quite some time if I’m able to be active.

I think dance and poetry are very similar. Both are ways of saying what can’t be said directly, of exploring the world in a nonlinear fashion. While I mean for my poems to be clear and accessible, I do sometimes feel they are closer to dance or visual art than to prose.

CH: In your bio, you describe yourself as a lyric and visual poet. Please tell us about how your visual poetry manifests.

KM: Several years ago I took a visual poetry workshop with Jill Magi.  I learned from Jill but also from fellow participants, especially Christine Hamm and Sue Macklin. In that workshop I learned the process of erasure and developed ways of combining text with images such as maps or collages. I use these techniques in Thief.

Later I began making assemblages right on the scanner screen using three dimensional objects like nests and stones. I use this technique for images in both Numa and Wayfarers. I think of placing art next to poems in a book as similar to Japanese haiga, in which the visual work complements, rather than illustrates, the writing.

CH: How does place figure in your work? How had moving from Brazoria County to New York shifted your perspective?

KM: I grew up in a tumble-down house on 15 acres of pasture and woods, located in a bend of Cowarts Creek. I loved roaming the property, riding horses, just being outside.

Living in New York City, living more indoors, I’ve written a lot about my childhood home—the open spaces, the natural world, snakes, oak trees, the creek.

I’ve also had the opportunity to spend time in rural areas beyond the city and I’ve set a lot of poems in the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York state. My writing within a framework of nature definitely comes from having spent my early life in the rural Texas coastal plains.

CH: Your chapbook, This is Not a Story, won the Finishing Line Press “New Women’s Voices” Prize in 2003. How did you put this book together? How did you move, then, into your first full-length collection, Thief?

KM: I had been working on a full-length book, which was really just a bunch of poems. I finally collected a small group of poems that complemented one another. My decisions were on a subconscious level, I’d say now, but the process later helped me think about how to compose a book. I pulled the poems together in a hurry, to meet the FLP deadline. (Sometimes deadlines are very useful!) Later I realized the chapbook is about my childhood home.

That made me think I might try to write about my early days in New York City, wandering around, lost a lot of the time, slipping into used bookstores to find my emotional bearings. I began to include bits of writing from authors I loved, like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, and those I stumbled across while browsing, which is where I found Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, a book I’ve made a lot of erasures from. So the theme of Thief developed.

Gradually I set more poems in the natural world and thefts began occurring there, as well. This time I knew I was writing poems specifically to create a book, so I consciously tried to connect different poems to make a coherent work.

CH: Tell us a little about your collection, Numa. What inspired the writing of this epic poem? How did you find a publisher for it?

KM: I wanted to write an epic from the monster’s point of view, a female monster of course. Numa is a shape-shifting numen, or local divinity, who lives in a forest.  She’s part of the environment, but from the outside someone might consider her a monster on the order of Humbaba in Gilgamesh.

Numa grows up in the forest, learns how to be a skillful shape-shifter, mates with an otter, has a cub and begins to teach her to shape-shift.  Then a young man on a quest for glory comes to the forest to defeat the monster.

So Numa is part ecological cautionary tale and part feminist retelling of epic. It’s not written in a heroic style, but in fragmented narratives, though the poems about the young man use Anglo-Saxon alliteration and caesura.

I was very lucky with publishing. My sister, Nancy Jane Moore, publishes fiction with Aqueduct Press, a feminist SF publisher in Seattle, and she suggested I send the manuscript there. The managing editor Kath Wilham designed the book and helped me a great deal with the art I submitted.

CH: What was your process in collecting and constructing your newest book, Wayfarers? Looking back, what are the things that distinguish this collection from the others?

KM: I was thinking about the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Rather than describe real-life events, I tried to create a sense of mythic storytelling about people uprooted from their homes. From there I leapt to a family story of my grandparents traveling across the Southwest in the 1920s. And gradually I wrote a number of poems about my past and present homes, I think out of appreciation for what I have.

Wayfarers is not a single story, as Numa is, and it’s more cohesive visually than Thief. As I wrote I let the idea of wayfaring broaden to include both traveling in space and exploring familiar ground. I may have been more willing to let the poems go where they wanted than in previous books.

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

KM: Whenever possible I spend time in nature, walk, sit, hike, just be there. I practice tai chi. And I love to get away from poetry and read character-driven novels with great plots—things I couldn’t possible write. I just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest and James McBrides’ Song Yet Sung, both wonderful.

But I also read poetry, especially contemporary women poets. And often writing itself nourishes me.

CH: Please share a few of your favorite poets. What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

KM: I especially admire Kay Ryan, Susan Stewart, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Linda Gregg, Deborah Digges. Recently I’ve been enjoying Barbara Hamby’s work and have discovered Jamaal May, Molly Bashaw, Barbara Ras. I always come back to Shakespeare and frequently return to a volume of Japanese poetry, The Country of Eight Islands.

Currently I’m reading and re-reading Alicia Ostriker’s The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog.  She manages to cover a wide range of topics in the voice of each speaker (woman, tulip, dog) and it’s both hilarious and heart-breaking, absolutely true.

A Virtual Interview with Sasha West

Poet Sasha West will be the featured reader on Thursday, December 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Sasha West’s first book, Failure and I Bury the Body, was a winner of the National Poetry Series and the Texas Institute of Letters First Book of Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Forklift Ohio, Third Coast, American Poet, and elsewhere. Her awards include a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference fellowship, a Houston Arts Alliance grant, Pushcart nominations, and Inprint’s Verlaine Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX.

The Interview

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

SW: Writing has always been a way I’ve processed the world. My first memories were writing poems as a small child—maybe 6? 7?—to try and explain how I was experiencing little things in the world: watching the lights of my town come on at night from a friend’s house on the hill, the death of a zinnia in my garden. I wrote stories and plays in my youth, too, but those seemed to fall away as I got older, while poetry stayed.

CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?

SW: Given the answer above, this took a really long time. I didn’t start to realize until after I’d graduated from college how unusual it was to always be writing poems, how much it marked me. It was so much a part of myself that it was invisible to me as something to identify. Isn’t that odd? So, it has been a way I know myself since I was very small. But I don’t think I learned to say that to other people, to call myself a writer out loud until I started publishing work in my mid-twenties.

CH: How has your educational background contributed to your work as a poet? Which pieces of formal education have been especially helpful in your growth as an artist?

SW: I gained a living appreciation for a wide range of styles and approaches by taking many literature classes with people who loved and studied eras that seem to be as dissonant as postmodernism and medievalism, for instance. That sense of being in a large and elastic tradition has been very valuable to me. I have also been lucky to have teachers in writing who opened up to me craft techniques and their own enthusiasms. Accessing poetry through the minds of some of my most admired teachers has changed me, given me a deeper ambition for what a poem can do and how it can last in the world.

CH: I was first introduced to your collection, Failure and I Bury the Body, at Poetry at Round Top 2016, and continue to be astonished by its landscapes of elegiac allegory. How was this manuscript conceived? Did the poems arrive from an idea for the book as a whole? Or did idea for the book grow from a series of poems?

SW: Thank you so much for saying this! I feel lucky to get to know that my work has a life for readers. I thought the book would be a single poem—maybe 6-8 pages long—about the speaker and Failure on a road trip in the desert. But the world kept unfurling and the characters started being sites of discovery for me. It grew piece by piece as I tried my best to listen to what it wanted to be. Every new thing I learned opened up other problems to solve: for instance, if this is a big road trip, what is the change, what creates the narrative arc? That answer led to the introduction of the Corpse and to a different relationship to the history of America, as his body is the site for all our violences to each other.

CH: What drew you to the allegory of Failure?

SW: Oh gosh, everything. Developing a relationship with failure is vital to being an artist—vital to our ability to risk and thus to find. Plus, I feel like our sense of self comes partly from the narrative that we give ourselves around our own failures. So I felt like I needed to come to terms with failure as a person and as an artist. Having Failure be a person, not an idea, deepens the speaker’s relationship with him, which allowed me to see the idea itself differently. As the book came along, I realized I was also really drawn to exploring how the U.S. deals with its failures—or really, doesn’t. Think about the water cannons being sprayed on protesters at Standing Rock in sub-zero temperatures just days before Thanksgiving. Can you think of anything stranger, darker, more ironic, more repetitive? The fact that those kinds of cruelties still exist is a sign that we as a nation have not developed a healthy relationship with our failures. We have simply tried to pretend they don’t exist. And so, we keep playing them out in new tableaus.

CH: The road trip with Failure that links the poems of this collection pulls the reader along, awake to the ruin and rot that strew highways everywhere. How did you arrive at the road trip as a central element in this book? Were there particular books, movies that influenced you?

SW: I wanted a way to talk about a lot of space. I love road trips and have been lucky enough to have annual pilgrimages across the American Southwest as a big part of my adult life. Starting in college, I’ve lived a state or two over from my families in Arizona and northern New Mexico for all but three years. That means the I-10 in particular has been a backbone of my holidays and vacations since I was 17—first arriving at it from San Diego and then traveling it across Texas. The landscape and sprawl of the horizon, the quiet of all that space against the small strangenesses that appear lives very deeply in me. There are days and days of my life in this book noticing small things out the windows. Plus, there’s something about the road trip that’s really American, right? I didn’t consciously go back to any of these, but I think things like On the Road or The Road or Easy Rider are a part of how I understand long travel, so they must be there somewhere.

CH: It was wonderful to encounter Failure’s Accounting of Influences, to see and feel the some of the cultural landscape that permeates these poems. How did you decide on aggregating this accounting, rather than relying on epigraph? What compositional strategies inform the inclusion of these influences in the work?

SW: This book wanted to draw on so many things. I wanted my speaker to be inside of a life always being built by other people, other things, information and poems and paintings and space—the way each of our lives is. But I also wanted those things to get their own lives in the poems, to be remade in them. When I see notes at the end of books that tell me where influences/collage starts and ends, those pieces start to feel other to the poem. I wanted readers to know the poems owed a debt elsewhere, but I wanted that knowledge to send readers back to the sources themselves. Maybe I was trying to make Frankenstein’s monsters but without seams? In terms of composition, I was thinking a lot of visual artists like Anselm Keifer and Joseph Cornell, and of poets like Marianne Moore—all of whom worked with a kind of collage—either with actual outside material or, in Keifer’s case, with media like sand and metal that one wouldn’t expect to find in a painting.

CH: How does your work as a teacher of creative writing influence your work as a writer? Were there particular teachers / classes in your undergraduate studies that inspired you in your current career path? Or did your vision for your career gel much earlier?

SW: I am lucky to get to spend a good portion of my time thinking about why poems work and where they could be sharper. That constant training—going back and forth between poems I’m teaching, poems students are writing—makes my mind stay alive in poetry. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.  I guess I started teaching, on a very small scale, in junior high and high school, working with fellow students who’d immigrated and were learning English for the first time. Trying to puzzle through language together always felt like such a discovery. When I came back to teaching in graduate school, I re-recognized that human value in being in a room together, looking at the world. It felt familiar. While teaching very much feels like a calling for me, I’ve also tried other things in my adult life—working in non-profits or publishing or legislative editing. I thought for a while I wanted to be in something that was more public—as in: trying to impact the world more directly. But of all my work, I’ve loved teaching best, and I’ve come to accept that it’s probably the way I can best contribute to the world. I met Jorie Graham at an overseas conference once in Poland. We were talking about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau earlier in the day, and I asked her how she felt the call to a public life, to the tragedies of history. She told me that she thought if she taught someone to read a sentence really well, it could change that person’s life. That was so exactly not what I would have expected her—or any poet—to say, but as I’ve lived with that over the years, I think I’ve come to believe that she’s right. Teaching is the gateway to empathy, to critical thinking, and thus to understanding. I feel so lucky to have that career alongside my writing life.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

SW: I love so many poets that the answer to this feels constantly shifting. The poets I have gone back to most consistently across the years are probably Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson (especially her early books), Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Claudia Rankine, and Jorie Graham. But I’m sure that tomorrow I’ll think of ten other people I’m forgetting to mention.

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

SW: I’m in the middle of reading Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice and Emmy Pérez’s With the River on Her Face. Both are wonderful.