Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

A Virtual Interview with Christine H. Boldt

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHB: Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris.  Wonderful!

A Virtual Interview with d. ellis phelps

Background

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

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

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for more information.

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poems in both collections proved me wrong. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dep:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Rachelle Toarmino

Background

Thursday, November 12, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Rachelle Toarmino is a writer, editor, and educator from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the founding editor in chief of Peach Mag, and is the author of the chapbooks Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019) and Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Shabby Doll House, Sundress Publications, The Wanderer, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in The Cosmonauts Avenue Anthology and My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry. She will be an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst in the fall. *That Ex *is her first full-length collection.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

RT: In fourth grade, I wrote a poem for religion class in which I made the impressive mistake of thinking thong—a word I had heard on Sisqó’s hit single “Thong Song”—was a synonym for soul. Horrible.

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

RT: I’ve always kept a diary, so I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I still have my very first one from when I was about five years old, which flaunts a pink plush princess cover and is filled with pages of fat glitter crayon of all the words I knew that rhyme with cat.

CH: How did the poems of the first chapbook, Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016), come together? How did your process change with your second, Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019)? Is there a common through-line for these books?

RT: For Personal & Generic, I embroidered thirty micro-poems into needlepoint hoops of various sizes, shapes, and colors. I was interested in exploring what it might mean to make a poem solid—to approach poetry in three-dimensional space. At the time, I was really into Roni Horn’s sculptural representations of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I wanted to explore a similar intersection of reading and looking in my own work. That intersection is also a big part of Feel Royal, in which I constructed poems by finding text on the clothing worn by celebrities in paparazzi photographs, but my process was opposite of Personal & Generic in that I began with three-dimensional objects and put them on the page.

CH: Tell us a little about your full-length collection, That Ex. How did the process of composing this longer work differ from that of collecting your chapbooks? What did you learn from the process?

RT: The poems in That Ex, unlike my two chapbooks, were not written with a project in mind. Instead, they catalog themes of heartbreak, rage, desire, conflict, and trust—the emotions and experiences that characterized much of my twenties. The poems began to take shape as a book when I became interested in looking at the character of the ex-girlfriend and how she is represented in pop culture and works of art, including, as in my chapbooks, how she is made both solid or flat.

CH: Hera Lindsay Bird writes about That Ex, “This is a sensitive, self-aware collection full of Britney Spears references, emotional vulnerability, and digital nostalgia.” Tell us a little bit about the role of pop culture and digital life in your writing.

RT: I don’t believe in shying away from the digital in my writing. Digital technology and communication are so part of my life—I spend hours looking at screens every day—that it would be insincere to exclude them. As for pop cultural references, the poems in That Ex are specifically interested in representing a heartsick lineage. The speaker calls on her various models of exes—pop stars, fictional characters, poets, musicians, artists, and others—to teach her how to navigate her world post-breakup. I think there is an emphasis on Britney because I grew up with her. She was my first real example of an ex-girlfriend, and I watched what the publicness of her breakup did to her. The speaker in That Ex is likewise interested not only in the experience of heartbreak but the spectacle of it, too.

CH: What was your vision in founding Peach Mag? How has your experience as an editor influenced your writing process?

RT: My two cofounders and I wanted to create a space for emerging writers and artists to discover and celebrate each other. The greatest effect of Peach Mag on my writing life is having found a way to be constantly surrounded by creative people. It has given me access to a community I’ve read, admired, learned from, and had fun with.

CH: I understand you’re an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass. How did you decide on making this investment in yourself, and how did you choose UMass? What do you hope the MFA will bring you?

RT: I had always wanted to pursue an MFA for the time, focus, mentorship from professors, camaraderie among a cohort of readers and writers, and exposure to new writing and ways of thinking about writing. I appreciate UMass Amherst’s program for many reasons: it’s three years of funding, requires candidates to take at least one workshop outside their genre, and provides editorial and arts administrative opportunities that prepare us for the world of creative labor post-MFA. I’m also totally star-struck by many of the writers who went through this program or teach here now. It feels wild to have this experience in common with them.

CH: What is your writing life like? How has it changed over time?

RT: Chaotic and bewildering. I’ve found that I favor long and sporadic stretches of uninterrupted time to write—in that one analogy, I relate more to the sprinter than the jogger. As my lifestyle and responsibilities evolve as I get older, though, I’m learning to balance this preference for spontaneity with a more disciplined routine.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise?

RT: Some of my favorite poets are Anne Carson, Frank O’Hara, Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib, Hera Lindsay Bird, Tommy Pico, Kimmy Walters, and Jakob Maier. I’ve also been blessed both to discover and to publish some of my favorite contemporary poets through Peach Mag—our print and digital pages are full of work that challenges and excites me.

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

RT: Two books of poetry that I recently read and loved are Greyhound by Aeon Ginsberg and Not I by Sebastian Castillo. I highly recommend them.


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.

A Virtual Interview with Loueva Smith

Loueva Smith will be the featured reader Thursday, October 13, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Poet and playwright Loueva Smith of Houston is the winner of the 2015 Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize, awarded by Texas Review Press, for Consequences of a Moonless Night. She is also the author of The Book Of Wool And Fur, a hand-made fur-covered collection of love poems. Her poems have been published in such journals as DoubleTake and the Louisiana Review, and anthologized in Goodbye, Mexico, Untamable City, The Weight Of Addition, and TimeSlice. Her poetry is spoken as narration in Shamed, a dance film by Frame Dance Production, choreographed by Lydia Hance, has  been painted into nude watercolors by Cookie Wells for the artist’s 2015 show, Body Language, at Archway Gallery in Houston, Texas.Her work has also been presented in a dance performance by jhon stronks called Purging Honey at Rice University. Her play Tenderina was staged at Frenetic Theater in Houston, Texas.

The Interview

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

LS: I’ve written since I was a teenager but I don’t think I ever knew, or really understood myself as a writer until I started reading my poems out loud to people. Once I felt that connection to other poets listening to me, my understanding of myself as a writer deepened. I first read out loud when I was forty, and I’m fifty six now.

My inspiration to be a writer comes from a sense that by writing things down in an intuitive and skillful way I can become more deeply aware. I want to say I love you in a way that has my breath and my easily teary eyes in it, or the troubling dream I had last night. I need language to use as a container for the tenderness and bitterness of memory. I sense the power of knowing how to name my terror, or my astonishment, or my urgent yearning. In some ways, writing helps me to make power out of my powerlessness.

CH: Your work includes plays as well as poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer? Do you have writing interests beyond poetry and drama?

LS: I think of poems as little performances. I often see them on a stage with lighting and props, movements and costumes. Sometimes a poem starts with notes about how it could be acted out.

I’m very drawn to the need to tell stories. And I’m variously drawn to ways of telling stories. I love to explore the various ways of not just telling a story but of ritualizing one.

Words are so constantly with us and in us. Once I got curious about that and wrote a story/poem partly in a book and partly on my body. I was trying to find out which words belonged on my body and which belonged on the page…and where on my body did they belong…and once they were on the page, did they need a picture?

CH: Tell us a little about your path as a poet and playwright. How did you go about growing and expanding your skills?

LS: Working with an actor and a director is the best experience a writer can have because they mostly only want to know one thing; what’s the motivation? An actor cannot act a symbol. It has to be real, alive, have a motivation like hunger.

A director gets under the skin of the character and can ask a writer very penetrating questions about the backstory which is a kind of hidden text that isn’t spoken but is implied in the actor’s gestures and clothing and tone of voice.

I think poetry is greatly constructed around implication, or a kind of backstory. Poets call it connotation.

So…I love processes that teach me about the nuances of language and communication…but like all writers I’ve had to earn my identity as a writer by writing which takes so much solitude and sometimes it makes me sad to spend time doing that instead of being with friends and family.

CH: What is your relationship with the world of dance? Tell us a little about your experiences with having your work danced.

LS: I saw Lydia Hance do movement to a story by Diana Weeks, and it was so magical how she made the words into almost physical objects. It felt like she was putting the story into my hands…setting it on my lap. She made the words prick, or curve, or scurry away.

I sought her out and tried to learn from her. I collaborated with her and her dancers on a few dance films which she choreographed from writing prompts and texts. She’d watch us put our words into movement and then distill phrases of our movement into choreography. Sometimes, she’d sit watching us with tears streaming down her cheeks.

It is an enthralling art form to put poetry and movement together.

Lydia danced to an art opening for Cookie Wells at Archway Gallery. Cookie had painted a series of watercolor nudes with lines from my love poems written along the lines of the figures and in the background. Lydia did a dance interpretation with the watercolor images surrounding her and me sitting off to the side saying poems. That performance is something that still gives me goose bumps.

CH: What inspired The Book of Wool and Fur, with its hand-made fur cover? How did you go about having it produced?

LS: The Book of Wool and Fur came out of a doomed and impossible love affair. I presented it at the Houston Fringe Festival, and my performance can be seen on YouTube. It’s pretty dramatic storytelling with a poetic dialogue in the middle.

My friends and I cut out fake-fur and glued it to three hundred hand-made copies of stapled text. I gave them away for free and billed it as a book of Lesbian love poetry. I also made an audio recording of the book and will give away those CDs  at BookWoman on Thursday the 13th.

CH: Some of the publicity for “Tenderina” describes it as “the surreal story of a stripper/ballerina and her journey to self-revelation.” What role does surrealism play in your work as a whole? How was this protagonist developed?

LS: I love surrealism because it surprises me. It feels like a surrealist moment has the power to jog my memory all the way down to its roots.

“Tenderina” is a dance/play about the trial of Tenderina. She is on trial for having a dead kitten for a heart. She is carrying around a huge pink egg which is the focus of the interrogation  because she can’t set it down, doesn’t know where it came from, or if it is saying something. It seems to be haunted somehow.

She can’t give an accurate account of this huge egg except she knows it can be easily broken. The prosecutor gets so angry he jerks it away from her and a dead kitten falls out. (Not a real one. No animals were harmed in the production.)

I play a one-eyed voyeur. I live under the stage platform at the strip club. I watch Tenderina and when she discovers me our hair becomes entangled. We walk around tied together by our hair. I’ve seen her practicing ballet moves. She has so perfected her ballet that does a fire-walking act on stilettos with military-grade bullets for heels. When the bullets get almost hot enough to explode she does spectacular high kicks out into audience. Thus, she is empowered, and as her mentor my character counsels her to give up stripping for ballet.

CH: I understand that “Tenderina” was a collaboration involving film and dance, in addition to the script. What role does collaboration play for you as an author? How has your own work evolved in response to working in collaboration?

LS: I love collaboration because it stretches me. I’m endlessly curious about the intersections between artists. Of course, all such intersections are on the outskirts of town, but it is there that magic is made. I mean, both “Tenderina” and Lydia’s dance performance at Archway gallery were so unique, and had within them a fleeting incandescence…or…a shimmering that lasted for a moment signaling possibilities. Collaborations have at times filled me with a rush of joy. Collaborations can be difficult. They are made of listening and responding from your real self.

CH: How were the poems of Consequences of a Moonless Night selected? How did you decide on sending the manuscript to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest at Texas Review Press?

LS: Of course, Robert Phillips is an incredible poet and scholar of confessional poetry. Who isn’t captured by Sylvia Plath? Who doesn’t remember the first time they met up with her book Ariel? But confessional poetry doesn’t have much to do with why I chose the contest.

I selected the poems with the intention of telling the story of my family and of showing at the end who I grew up to be. There is a falling off a cliff moment in the book where things turn from memory to more urgent matters. I wrote it while I was grieving the death of my brother. I was very aware of my family because of his passing.

I sent the book to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest because I graduated from Sam Houston State University. I wanted to give part of myself back to the university, and I have great respect for the Texas Review Press.

CH: What are you working on now?

LS: I’m working on a book called “What The Music Wants.” It is set in Houston. The speaker’s name is Zoe. She works at the Jung Center. She is fifty years old and is giving an account of her life’s journey by recalling all of her lovers and recipes.

CH: Whose poetry inspires and delights you? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

LS: I most recently read Vanessa Zimmer-Powell’s manuscript called “Girl Eating Bird.” It is a series of poems based on responses to paintings which she hopes to find a publisher for. She came over for a swim in my above-ground pool and we talked about the poems in it.

I love poetry so much. I love to go to readings. I love that there are a lot of readings going on in Houston. I will buy books of poetry whether I know the poet or not. Poets are just such interesting people with gorgeous souls.

The poet who first bewitched me was Emily Dickinson. The one who helped me find the voice for Consequences of a Moonless Night was Charles Simic. He is so incredibly imaginative.

The one who taught me how to write poetry was Paul Ruffin. There is always something dark hidden under the layers, or the waters of his poems.

The one who made me go temporarily insane was Coleman Barks with those recording he did of his translations of Rumi.

The one who most changed my understanding of poetry was Alicia Ostriker and her book of scholarship on women’s poetry called Stealing the Language.

The one I always come back to is Elizabeth Bishop.

A Virtual Interview with Varsha Saraiya-Shah

Varsha Saraiya-Shah and Usha Akella will be the featured readers Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Varsha Saraiya-Shah’s first poetry chapbook, Voices, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in journals that include Asian Cha, Borderlands, Convergence, and Right Hand Pointing, as well as anthologies from Mutabilis Press, and is forthcoming in BorderSenses.  She has studied poetry in Houston, New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, SquawValley Community of Writers–California, Reed College–Oregon, and San Miguel De Allende–Mexico, and was a poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center, Martha’s Vineyard, MA in October, 2015.

Saraiya-Shah’s work is inspired and informed by humans, literature, visual and performing arts, gardening, travels, and an untiring eye for the small wonders of life. She lives in Houston, and currently serves on the board of Mutabilis Press.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing poetry? What first drew you to poetry as a means of expression?

VS-S: I believe I got smitten with poetry in fifth or sixth grade.  I wrote it in my mother tongue, Gujarati.  (Gujarat is a western state of India.)

I think it was the fascination for words; what one can do with them.  I’m sure my maternal grandfather’s poetic genes and the teachers gave me the seed of this art.  All of it ignited a lifelong love for poetry.  Being able to write and the freedom to play with words drew me in and will take me through.

I studied Hindi and Sanskrit as part of my education through high school.  Poetry in each of these languages has its own cadence and persona. Recitations were part of the curriculum as well as cultural way of life.  Acting and folk dancing were my two other intimate loves besides math and science.  The dramatic monologues they demanded with the magic of harmonium and the beat of tabla — all of it have contributed to my poetic expression. Performing words on a podium gave me a chance to express myself, and also gave a sense of power over the social constraints in adolescent years.

Learning English as a second language began in the 8th grade; I was thirteen and learning to sing Mary Had A Little Lamb… with my teacher and classmates. I could not have imagined then I would be an English poet with my own book some day!

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

VS-S: It came much later.  I guess when Houston Poetry Fest published my first poem in 1999: Tuesday Night Reading, kind of a love poem for my privileged encounter with the poet, Robert Creeley at MFAH.  As if I had arrived once again and knew, I have Miles to Go–– as Robert Frost expressed.

Winning contests for Gujarati poetry and debates deepened my interest and love for poetry.  When I started writing voraciously in English after a long dry spell during years of corporate career and family raising, I sensed a feeling of being “born-again” as a writer.

Writing has always been part of me, rather than a separate identity.  Being a financial professional (a Texas CPA with an MBA from California), I kept my writer side a secret during the grueling work years of “dress for success, failing is not an option, and work hard enough till you break the glass ceiling.” Though, I did enjoy all chances to do significant amount of business/technical writing.  And, grabbed every moment I could to write a poem in pockets of 15-20 minutes at lunch hours and while waiting for my children to finish their music lessons or game pursuits. For last five years or so, I feel grounded in a writer’s mojo.

CH: You’ve studied poetry in a variety of settings, from Squaw Valley Community of Writers to Sarah Lawrence College and San Miguel de Allende. What has motivated you to seek these experiences? How have you gone about selecting the programs in which you’ve participated?

VS-S: I sought these experiences to grow and satisfy that deep hunger to learn from the masters, to get better at the craft and seek critique from my peers away from home base.  A burning desire and innate curiosity to experience and enhance the creative process. To hone my calibre, to push myself in new ways while learning from others’ strengths.  All of these led me to workshops in a variety of settings. Repute and the repertoire of the faculty have been prime deciding factors.  Personal life and time constraints in which I could fit in these workshops also played a role in the selection process.  Then I simply plunged in with faith on taking a chance.

CH: Engaging in formal study takes a good deal of commitment, as does maintaining a writing life. What is your writing process like? How do you balance writing with other activities in your life?

VS-S: I try my best to catch on paper hints of creative sparks, through arrival of a phrase on NPR or a fleeting emotion, or when reading good books.  I’ve often pulled over from driving to jot down a few compelling lines.  At times a whole poem. I’ve locked myself in bathroom for a few minutes to catch my muse in writing when children were young and demanded non-stop attention. Some developed years later in beautiful poems.  My chapbook, Voices, has a few of those.

I’m a compulsive reviser.  But, my role models are––great writers, say Donald Hall, who starts each revision with a fresh draft each morning and whatever it takes–– as many as fifty drafts to make a poem work.  His book, Life Work delves into his process. Occasionally, I do a complete re-write of a poem when the umpteenth version is not working.  Perseverance always prevails and patience with the poem helps me understand what it wants from me.

Balancing writing with other tasks is mostly a matter of discipline.  I do have discipline and focus but easily get channeled into other pursuits. Good distractions, such as practicing on piano, or trimming a bush, or a bike ride, or picking up a book that’s poles apart from what I’m working on, actually help me with synergetic ideas.  Sometimes listening to music or walking long distances help me move on from where I’m stuck or bring in a fresh thought.

CH: What was it like to be poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center? How has this experience shaped your work?

VS-S: It was a challenge to stay focused day after day since the nature is so abundant and unique at Martha’s Vineyard (the kind I am not used to in my Houston’s city life). Initially I wanted to play all the time.  I was the only “poet” in residence; the rest were fiction writers, memoirists, creative non-fiction writers.  Though, they introduced me into their challenges of writing life as well.

I learnt that I need more discipline but it’s harder and different for a poet than a writer who’s doing x number of pages a day and writes within a framework/plot, whereas a poet doesn’t.  The residency reinforced my understanding how important it is to just write each day without any excuse, though I still make many and often.  Also the experience underscored:  Read, read and read some more, to be a better writer.

CH: Your chapbook, Voices, will be coming out soon from Finishing Line Press. How did you select the poems for this book? How did you go about finding a publisher?

VS-S: I wanted each of the poems in this collection to have an expression: an inner or outer voice.  Whether it was a sweet potato growing roots on my kitchen table, or a man with one earring precariously leaning out from his window I waved at in traffic jam.  Sky and its myriad manifestations, a piano telling me pay attention to me, an art exhibit that triggers a new dialogue with the faraway motherland.  At the end, all those poems made a cohesive collection.

I sent the manuscript to Finishing Line Press for New Women’s voices competition.  I didn’t win, but they liked my collection and offered to publish.  So, I accepted it.

CH: You list gardening among the inspirations for your poetry. How does the world of gardening inform and intersect with your work?

VS-S: Gardening is about life, about surprise (a poet’s candy) and demise, about living in the present moment and accepting decay.  It reminds me all the time: Begin Again, whenever I get frustrated with certain poems.   There’s no ego.  No fear of growth or contraction.  A weed asks for as much attention as a beautiful plumeria blossom or a wild flower.  Wish I would spend more time out there but for the heat and mosquitoes, that often keep me from interfacing with my lovely space, eh!

CH: I’ve found working as an editor with a small press (in my case, Dos Gatos Press), to be a very rewarding experience. How has being on the board of Mutabilis Press informed your views of writing/publishing?

VS-S: Cindy, I concur fully with you; my work with Mutabilis Press has been rewarding indeed.  I have been involved with Mutabilis from its conception days at Inprint Houston.  Through this small service, I feel like an integral part of my writers’ family here and elsewhere.  I’ve come to understand and appreciate the arduous process of selecting for an anthology through reading pages and pages of submitted poetry day after day. It has taught me “how to read a poem” as an editor as well as a poet.  My ability to discern from good to mediocre has grown tremendously.  I also work as their treasurer; a stint using my left brain. I appreciate the vital role small publishers play in promoting poetry which is hardly a lucrative business.  It is sheer labor of love for the literary arts and service to humanity. I feel grateful to be a tiny part in that endeavor.

CH: Please name a few poets whose work has influenced yours. How does your work reflect that influence?

VS-S: That’s a tough one to answer since I read many of them simultaneously.  And, there are numerous new poets too that I find inspiring and energizing my creativity.

Here’s a few of the many who’ve influenced my work: Octavio Paz, Jorge L. Borges, R. Maria Rilke, Rumi, W.Szymborska, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland, Robert Creeley, Robert Hass, Naomi S. Nye, Sarah Cortez, Lorenzo Thomas, Reetika Vazirani, Mark Strand, William Stafford, Antonio Machado, F. Garcia Lorca, Jane Kenyon, Ruth Stone, Yehuda Amichai, Anna Akhmatova, Rabindranath Tagore, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Gulzar, Ghalib.

A lot of these poets invite me in to emulate their voice or style.  Or, like a jazz artist, take me into a  “Call and Response” spin. Others linger under my skin till the inspiration ripens. I’m a product of multi-cultures, so I find translated poets intriguing and challenging for my own expression i.e. blending of my roots and experiences as an Indian American.

Western and Latin American poets’ teachings have instructed my work the most.  Especially studying the craft books like Richard Hugo’s “A Triggering Town” and Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem”, and “ The Demon and The Angel”. Late Lorenzo Thomas was my first English creative writing teacher; my Reverend Poet. Thanks to him, thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye, and also to Edward Hirsch for giving me “thumbs up” on my talent in my early years of writing.  Their initial advice on how I need to read a lot of contemporary poetry and spread my wings, to submit, share, and work with my community of poets. Their advice nurtured the roots of the tree I am now.  A communion received in my early forties when most successful poets have published at least a book or two. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, to continue the new chapter of my writing life as an English poet.  Many thanks to Inprint Houston for giving me a sanctuary, kind of an ashram to study poetry.

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

VS-S: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen — An American Lyric”.

A Virtual Interview with Liza Wolff-Francis

Liza Wolff-Francis will be the featured reader for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, June 9, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Liza Wolff-Francis is a feminist poet and writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She was co-director for the 2014 Austin International Poetry Festival and a member of the 2008 Albuquerque Poetry Slam Team. She has an ekphrastic poem posted in Austin’s Blanton Art Museum by El Anatsui’s sculpture “Seepage” and her work has most recently appeared in Poetry Pacific, Edge, Twenty, Border Senses, the Di-verse-city anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival, and on various blogs. She has a
chapbook out called Language of Crossing (2015, Swimming with Elephants Publications), which is a collection of poems about the Mexico- U.S.border. Every day she eats both popcorn and dark chocolate and she currently lives in Albuquerque, NM.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you start to think of yourself as a writer?

LW-F: I began writing in a Ramona Quimby diary when I was twelve. At thirteen I had a diary named Felicia, which I named after a popular red haired girl in seventh grade. I confided quite a bit in that diary. From those diaries on I always wrote, but I’m not sure I really took myself seriously as a writer until about ten years ago and at that point I really knew I needed to keep consistently writing. It became so important to me that I couldn’t not do it.

CH: What was your first exposure to slam poetry? How did you go about getting involved in the slam scene? How has that experience shaped you as a writer?

LW-F: The National Slam Championship came to Albuquerque in 2005 and Albuquerque won. I went to watch many of the competitions and realized slam could be motivation for writing and also that my writing could improve with community input. Plus it seemed fun. I began to read my poetry, then to memorize it, then to compete. I was suddenly surrounded by community and art and felt a real push for creativity. Slam has opened my ears to many voices I might not have otherwise heard. It has also shaped my poetic voice to always be conscious of an audience.

CH: What motivated you to get an M. F. A. in Creative Writing? How did you go about choosing Goddard?

LW-F: I wanted to get an MFA to be able to write better, especially in fiction. I chose Goddard because it was a low residency program and it was liberal. I wasn’t able to move somewhere else and liked the adventure a low residency program afforded. I found Goddard at AWP (when it was held in New York) applied there and nowhere else, got in and went. It felt like the perfect school for me.

CH: What changed in your writing as a result of the M. F. A.? What was its single biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

LW-F: The MFA focused me in on my writing even more. I believe it helped my writing improve. It also introduced me to many wonderful writers I would not have otherwise known. I enjoyed my experience but I don’t know that everyone has to get an MFA to be a writer or to improve their writing, that was just something I wanted for myself.

CH: There often seems to be a schism between “stage poetry” and “page poetry,” but you have inhabited both worlds. What has been your experience moving between these worlds?

LW-F: This is always an interesting question and one that continues to come up. I love both performance poetry and page poetry. I think some performance poetry is really meant for performance and that is where it really shines and there is definitely some “page” poetry that would be enhanced if the reading/performance of it was improved. That said, if there is a meet in the middle coming together of the two, I think it can reach more people, bring people together, and be really fun and dynamic as well as improve the craft. At this point in my life I have people from both camps in my life and enjoy that. I definitely think slam poetry has made poetry more accessible to voices of people of color and that I think is not only necessary but amazing.

CH: I know you identify strongly as a feminist poet. How does your feminism shape your poetry?

LW-F: My writing is informed by the fact that women’s voices, writing, and work is undervalued and often dismissed and ignored. My writing voice adds another woman to the canon of writers and often advocates for gender equality both directly and indirectly.

CH: Tell us about your new chapbook, Language of Crossing. What inspired these poems? How did you decide on collecting this group of poems for the chapbook? How did you go about finding a publisher for your work?

LW-F: I work with Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S., who are primarily Mexican. I have heard many stories over the years about border crossing and have seen the effects that undocumented border crossing has had on people. I wrote a play on undocumented border crossing from interviews I did in Los Angeles after 9/11 about people’s experiences crossing the Mexico-US border and at the time wanted to bring attention to the issue. When teaching a workshop in southern Tucson at a border conference, I began to write poetry about the border and border crossing and the fence. I was seeing these issues still present and that people are still dying at the border. I wanted to call attention to the issue from a poetic perspective hoping people would be able to feel compassion and learn about the humanitarian crisis that has been and continues to be going on there. I wanted to help push education about immigration- hoping eventually there will be even more of a push for immigration reform. Swimming With Elephants Publications sees the issue as important and one that has been silent; they were excited to publish the chapbook and raise awareness about the issue.

CH: Like many women, you have many roles, including mother, partner, professional. How do you fit writing into your life? What is your writing practice like?

LW-F: My writing practice at this time in my life fits in where I can fit it in. I try to write every day, though that doesn’t always happen. I write best early in the morning so when I can, I wake up and go to a coffee shop or hide out in my office at home for a couple hours before work. Days that I can’t do that, I write at night. I know it is impossible for me to leave writing behind so I make time for it where I can. I feel happier when I write regularly.

CH: Please name some poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work been shaped by theirs?

LW-F: There are so many poets who have influenced my work over the years, including local poets who I have read with, through slam or at open mics in different places and of course some of the bigger names as well. It’s hard to make a total list so I’ll just name a few who I have been enjoying recently like Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, Robert Haas but I have also enjoyed Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and many more. Truthfully, there are some poems and poets that call to me at different times and have influenced my writing more at different times, but I think every poem I have ever read or heard has influenced me in some way. It’s that power of poetry.

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

LW-F: Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage.

A Virtual Interview with Laura Guli

Louise Richardson and Laura Guli will be the features for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, December 20, 2015  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Laura Guli is a poet-psychologist who lives in Austin, TX. Laura graduated from the University of Virginia, where she majored in English, and later earned a Doctorate in School Psychology from University of Texas at Austin. Her chapbook, A Fiery Grace (2010), was a finalist in the Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices competition. Laura’s poetry has been in several literary journals including Kalliope, Lilliput Review, Heliotrope, Plainsongs, Potomac Review and Offerings. In addition to poetry, Laura has published a drama-based social skills curriculum for children (Social Competence Intervention Program, Research Press, 2008). She is also currently writing a musical for children and families.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? When did you begin to thin of yourself as a writer?

LG: I’ve been writing and thinking of myself as a writer since I was about 11, perhaps earlier. (According to family legend, at age 2 after losing a balloon at the zoo, I looked up and said: Balloon in sky/Baby cry. Not sure how much credence to give to this..!) I’ve always been drawn to creative expression of all kinds, and find that I’m not happy unless I’m creating on a regular basis. I read voraciously as a child, and was so inspired by the writers that influenced my life that I decided I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I soon found that rather than fiction, poetry was the way I best expressed what I thought and felt. Poetry pretty much got me through adolescence.

 

CH: In addition to being a poet, I know from your bio that you have an interest in drama, and that you’re currently working on a musical for children and families.  Tell us about the musical.

LG: It’s about a shy and bullied sixth-grade girl who enters magically enters the world of a famous painting and meets the artist. As a result of her experience, she finds the courage and inspiration to face her fears and be her unique self.  I don’t want to say too much at this point because it’s still a work in progress.

CH: How did you become interested in writing a musical? What draws you to the musical as an expressive form?

LG: I’ve always been crazy about musicals. Back in the 80s I was a somewhat unusual teenager.  Instead of singing along to Madonna or REM, I was belting out Les Miserables  and Phantom of the Opera songs. Singing is another way I love expressing myself, and I find that the musical perfectly blends story, music, poetry, drama and visual art into one great artistic experience. The musical idea was born when a talented pianist/composer friend of mine and I realized that when we wrote lyrics and music together something magic happened. I shared the budding idea with her, we wrote one song, and it went from there.

 

CH: Please tell us about your chapbook, A Fiery Grace. What prompted you to write this collection?

LG: This is my first collection and so was a long time coming. It’s comprised of stuff I wrote in my 20s and 30s, much of which was published in journals. I’d been wanting to publish a short collection and hadn’t made it a priority before. As time passed, I realized I want to share this part of myself more widely. The collection was my coming out of the poetry closet, so to speak. Although I didn’t put this collection together with any particular theme in mind, I realize now that many of the poems speak of culture, passion and identity.

CH: Authors frequently send collections to a number of publishers before they are accepted for publication. What was your experience with A Fiery Grace?

LG: I was extremely lucky, actually. I read about the annual New Women’s Chapbook competition sponsored by Finishing Line Press in the Poets and Writers magazine, and submitted the manuscript only there on a longshot. At the time, I wasn’t regularly involved in the Austin poetry community, but had a couple of poet friends offer some edits and suggestions regarding selection and order of poems. I didn’t anticipate publication!

 

CH: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your poetry?

LG: I think my poetry often includes themes of growth, change and emotional healing. Much of my poetry deals with my own past and family of origin, and in this way is therapeutic in and of itself. Curiously, I rarely write about my actual experience as a psychologist. I’ve been a poet much longer than a psychologist, so probably the greater influence is the other way around. I sometimes use writing and/or other creative modalities with clients to help them access their own healing processes.

CH: As someone who is still working a “day job,” I know it can be challenging to make time for my creative life. What is your writing process like? What strategies do you use that help you make writing a priority? 

LG: I never schedule writing time but allow myself lots of free time on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday mornings I often find myself writing. Scheduling creative writing time for me has never been effective (I rebel against “having” to do anything), although when I’m editing poetry and working toward deadlines I do discipline myself more. Generally ideas come at random moments (the car, in between clients, getting dressed, etc.) and I just scribble them on whatever paper I have, and flesh them out later. And of course insomnia is always useful. I love when I find a scrap of paper months later and have no memory of writing it.

 

CH: Where do you see your writing going? What’s next for you as a writer?

LG: I’d like to take greater risks as a writer, both in terms of what I write and by sharing my work. Right now I have two more chapbook manuscripts that need editing. I’d also like to write more about my Italian American heritage. I’m also figuring out how to blend my two identities as both a poet and a psychologist.

 

CH: Who are some of your favorite authors? Your strongest influences?

LG: Some of my longtime favorite fiction authors include Madeline L’Engle, Tolkien and Isabelle Allende. Early poetic influences include Emily Dickinson and Rilke.  As an undergraduate I was a student of Gregory Orr, so he’s a strong influence as well. More recent poet favorites include Jane Hirschfield, Ellen Bass, Mary Oliver, and Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafiz.

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

LG: Mules of Love by Ellen Bass. I love her raw, honest expression and gorgeous, unforced use of metaphor. Her previous life as a therapist is something I can relate to. I was really thrilled to meet her at Round Top last year.

A Virtual Interview with Kaye Voigt Abikhaled

Poet Kaye Voigt Abikhaled will be the featured reader on August 13, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for August’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Kaye Voigt Abikhaled is the author of Club des Poètes (2004),  Lyrics of Lebanon (2006), Childhood in the Third Reich: WW II and Its Aftermath (2000 and a second edition in 2006). A bilingual edition in German and English, translated by the author, was also published in 2006. She is a member of the Austin Poetry Society (APS) since 1985, member of the Poetry Society of Texas (PST) since 1987 and of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS). She was named Life Member of PST in 2013.

Born in Berlin, Germany, Abikhaled immigrated to the U.S. in 1960. Her poems have been published in English and as translations in German in state, national and international poetry journals. She was the editor of A Galaxy of Verse from 1999-2004, chaired the Poetry in Schools project for the Poetry Society of Texas and was appointed Counselor for the Austin area of the Poetry Society of Texas in 2003.  Her poetry was named First Runner Up of The Fernando Rielo World Prize for Mystical Poetry in Madrid, Spain in 2000 and Finalist in 2008.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? What was your first inspiration to write poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KVA: Although we read and recited much poetry during my childhood in Germany, I began to write poetry in 1984 after we’d been in Texas for a while. It was then I joined the Austin Writers’ League – as it was called then – and was inspired by other writers and poets.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

KVA: I write of subjects that leave lasting impressions personally, be it normal day-to-day happenings or political and historical news that affects us all and carries lasting consequences. I’m interested in ecological developments such as wind and solar energy, the latter has occupied scientists since the early 1970s but has been slow in making headway, and practices that leave a light footprint on our earth.

CH: Your biography notes several works in English, as well as a bilingual edition of Childhood in the Third Reich: WW II and Its Aftermath and translations of individual poems into German. Do you compose poetry in both English and German? Do you write more in one language than the other?

KVA: Most of my poetry is in English. Although it is my second language, I prefer it because it provides such brilliance of multi expression. I get excited reading a poet’s line quoting an unfamiliar word that I have to look up and find it perfect in its use, in that particular line. From time to time I catch myself subconsciously translating from German into English and then rearranging into proper English thought process. I wonder how many of us do the same? And we sometimes come across as somewhat ponderous at times, don’t we?

CH: Childhood in the Third Reich: WW II and Its Aftermath was published in 2000, well into your adulthood. What motivated you to write this book? How long did it take you to write it? What effects did writing it and publishing it have on you?

KVA: This, my first book, turned into a long process. I began to write snippets in 1978, to get memories down in case my children might become interested at some time in the future. But I soon felt the manuscript registered very little in form and interest, so I put it away until I joined the Writers’ League and realized I was a better poet than writer. I became committed to the manuscript and re-wrote, added to it, let a trusted friend have a read-through and took her advice, re-wrote, filed, and re-wrote. Meanwhile Austin provided a rich field of vibrant poetic venues where I could listen and learn and hone the craft. I attended a literary workshop in Paris when I received word that the book would be published. After nearly 25 years of heavy lifting and word “smithery” the feeling of success was indescribable.

CH: What were your inspirations for Club des Poètes and Lyrics of Lebanon? How did the process of writing them and collating these manuscripts compare with that of Childhood in the Third Reich?

KVA: Club des Poètes are ‘poems of the moment’ as experienced while in Paris, the good and the marginal, the beauty of this diverse city, the pride of the French and the hidden resentment of her people who put up with millions of tourists year after year. Lyrics of Lebanon is a tribute to my husband who took me to his homeland and showed me a totally different world: steeped in unchanging tradition yet always open to all avenues of interest, without prejudice and practicing with delight their legendary Arabic hospitality. I wrote about George’s family and their tribulations during and after the civil war. Childhood in the Third Reich is a semi autobiographic long poem.

CH: How did you go about finding publishers for your work? What advice would you share with poets on getting a book published?

KVA: In finding a publisher for one’s manuscript it is best to research presses that have a history of publishing the genre in which the manuscript shows a good fit. It helps when a publisher has a diverse and proven distribution list and is wiling to circulate and send samples to published book contests for you. This part of is never cheap – be prepared for possible unexpected financial outlay.

CH: How does your experience as a German expatriate figure in your work? Beyond the translations mentioned earlier, have you continued to publish in Germany?

KVA: My writing may read with a different slant and discussions within poetry groups have sometimes resulted in hilarious give-and-takes. My American poet friends see things differently which often comes down to disengaging ingrained German thinking and diving into varied and beautiful English language expression.

As to publishing in Germany: I have found that there are restrictions: while impressed with my translation of Childhood in the Third Reich, I have been informed that publishers’ policies are to use ‘in house writers’ only. However, there are a number of German language journals, magazines and especially academic publications in the U.S. that will accept and publish writings in German.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? Who would you cite as your poetic influences?

KVA: Favorite poets are     Seamus Heaney, Jusef Komunyakaa, Langston Hughes, a bit of Blake, Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, gutsy Gwendolyn Brooks, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Sandberg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Thom the World Poet, David Diop (Senegal) and so many more in my library of dog eared pages.  Whom would I cite as my poetic influence – that would have to be the twentieth century writers beginning with the First World War poets whose honest lines blazed their way into modern poetry.

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

KVA: Hannah Sanghee Park: the same – different; Winner of the Walt Whitman Award for 2014

CH: What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

KVA: Read any and all poetry you can get your hands (and internet minds) on: the excellent, the good, the bad, the ugly. You will become a better poet.