Tag Archives: Hoa Nguyen

A Virtual Interview Desiree Morales

Poets Desiree Morales and Ashley Smith Keyfitz  will be the featured readers on Thursday, February 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Desiree Morales is a poet and educator whose work has been featured in the
forest dRIVE, Truck, and Conflict of Interest. She grew up in Southern
California and lives in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

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

DM: When I was fifteen I actually had to save up to buy Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, which I found while loitering in a bookstore with queer friends. Watching people I loved get to see queerness reflected back at them was an education in art’s power against the loneliness of otherness. “A Supermarket in California,” “Howl,” “America”—these poems are so beautiful, and also biting, weird, subversive, explicit and for awhile ILLEGAL; everything about them was compelling for me. They were part of the secret world I was sure adults were keeping from me, and they were evidence of the existence of the people and ideas I wanted to be around always.

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

DM: Around that same time, in high school. I got to be around a lot of really smart kids, and we wrote poems and made art and found subcultures to join. I wrote constantly, all cringe-worthy, but I was doing enough work to begin to have instincts by the time I got to college.

CH: What is your writing practice like?

DM: I love writing, talking, and reading with other poets. A daily practice isn’t for me. Getting to be in Hoa Nguyen’s workshops here in Austin is maybe the best thing that ever happened to me creatively, because seven years later I’m still generating work in that format, with talented poets I met in her living room. So I know you know the format since you write with me, but for anyone else, the format looks like this: read a poet’s work aloud for about an hour, then generate writing prompts based on observations of this poet’s work, then write from that. It’s like trying on a poet’s style to see where it fits and how it can move your own style forward. The poets in our group are all publishing and reading regularly and I also learn from watching their styles evolve, to see how work changes from first draft to finished—it’s fun to open a friend’s book and see a poem I first met right when it was written.

CH: How do your roots in Southern California influence your poetry?

DM: It’s inextricably part of me. I first experienced vastness and an intimacy with the world by swimming in the ocean and climbing red rocks in the desert and laying my hands on centuries-old sequoias—these are my first loves, and they’re all in California. I’ve learned how to really be openly unabashedly in love with California, strangely enough from being in Texas—Texans really know how to love a place. Climate change is showing up in my poems more and more, and this brings me back to California, the fate of our food, the way people feel when they don’t see rain anymore. I’m compelled to shout this to anyone who will listen.

CH: I know you studied linguistics and creative writing as an undergraduate. How did the study of linguistics influence your poetry?

DM: Aaaaaahh this question is so fun. Linguistics is an entry point for seeing that language is a fucking wilderness—it has all the elegant order of any living system, and also all of the totally out there, exotic wildness. To do linguistic field work you have to re-organize your mind to think outside of the constructs of your native language, and this forces you to realize how much of your worldview is built on the structure of your native language. A terrifically mindblowing example of this is noun classes—in some indigenous languages, nouns have a marker that indicate their category, and so there’s a language where a “feminine” category includes nouns for women, water, fire, violence, and certain animals. That makes me feel like the classification system I inherited is completely impoverished. I want more ways to see connections between things. As a poet studying different ways languages organize the world, I can see more of what’s possible when I’m open to experimenting.

There are these confidence-building truths rooted in linguistics, too. Language is innate. We are giving and receiving so many verbal cues about connection, culture and identity when we speak to each other. Language is generative, and native speakers of a language have impeccable instincts about that language—so if I name something, or choose to say something in an experimental way in the hope of getting it right, it’s likely to be understood, even if no one has said it that way before. From the point of view of linguistics it’s like, hey, you’re a human animal. You got this.

CH: How has your experience as an educator shaped you as a writer?

DM :I just heard an Eileen Myles interview in which she says that being a poet is kind of like being a professional human. So is being an educator. Both require you to interrogate this like, maelstrom of data and sensation to find what’s compelling and urgent about the human experience, and then what do we do with that? Hopefully you give someone else tools to make their lives richer, or more illuminated. Plus teenagers have a high standard of authenticity that would make anyone a better poet, if they can live up to it.

CH: What are you working on now?

DM: Poems of resistance. Sometimes trying to articulate anger and bear witness to the terrible history being made on us. Sometimes this frantic cataloging of everything I value, or struggling to value what I take for granted that might be taken from me. As we are living these experiences that I thought I would only encounter in history books—the dehumanization that is the groundwork for ethnic cleansing, for example—I want to say this is unacceptable and you have to do something about it. Right now. And also, this could be you. When we see civil-rights era photos of violence against activists, the lesson isn’t that this happened to someone fighting for their civil rights, the lesson is this might be what you have to do for your civil rights, be ready. It’s a lesson I’m learning right now and I want to put it into poems.

CH: Where would you like to see your work in five years?

DM: This question makes me think of CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine. That book is just so good, and seeing her style evolve over the course of her body of work leading up to CITIZEN, it’s so subtle that all I can really say is she sounds like a smart poet who has been at it for many years, honing her craft. She sounds like a Greek chorus, just naming and narrating with a spareness that’s never pedestrian. She is deft. So I hope my work gets more like that—maybe the mechanics aren’t as visible and it feels wise, like something that’s built on many years of practice. In five years I will have been writing poems for like 25 years, and I’d like that to shine through.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

Dara Wier, Jack Gilbert, Ted Berrigan, Ada Limón, Hoa Nguyen.

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

Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón. I keep coming back to it. The poems in this book are so fierce and tender, it hurts a little bit to read them. But they are also kind and wise—she urges us to see into what hurts, she tells us something beautiful about it, and we realize she’s showing us that we can take it because we’re strong, she’s strong. It’s great post-election fortification.

 

A Virtual Interview with Cindy St. John

Cindy St. John will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Poet Cindy St.John is the author of the newly-released collection Dream Vacation, published by H_NGM_N Books, as well as four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). . She holds an MFA from Western Michigan University. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches at a public school.

The Interview

CH: I’m always interested in how writers get started on the path. How did you first become interested in writing? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

CS: In elementary school, my teachers often praised my writing, so I guess I just assumed that writing was something I was good at and therefore something I should do. However, I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was much older.

CH: When did you start to write poetry? How was your identity as a poet forged?

CS: I can’t remember when I started writing poems. I think poetry has always been a part of my life. Just the other day my mom gave me a book of poetry I made in the fifth grade. It was illustrated, bound with a plastic clip and I even invented a publisher. Most of the poems were about puppies and trees. I became a serious reader of poetry as a teenager. I used to skip class to go to the library to read Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. This makes me laugh now. I did not identify myself as a poet until my mid-twenties. Then, I lived in a small city in Michigan where many other writers lived and people identified each other by what they wrote. People called me a poet, so I started calling myself a poet.

CH: How did you select Western Michigan University for your MFA? What were your expectations of the program before you entered it? Did it deliver?

CS: I applied to Western Michigan because former professor suggested it. I didn’t have any expectations for graduate school and I’m still not really sure why I applied. I just wanted to get out of Texas and live in a small apartment by myself where I could think and write. It was clear during my first few classes that it was going to require quite a bit more work than that because I was severely unprepared. I had not read many contemporary poets and I didn’t have the vocabulary of my classmates. But at Western Michigan my professors and fellow writers were kind and it wasn’t competitive like many other MFA programs. They really helped me become a better reader, and introduced me to so many writers that have influenced me.

CH: I understand you were a Millay Colony artist-in-residence in 2013. What did that experience bring to your work?

CS: The Millay Colony helped my feel validated as a writer, like if a foundation was willing to support my work, then maybe the work had value. It was a wonderful experience to spend my days living in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s barn and walking in her garden, then have dinner every night with other writers and artists.

CH: You have four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). How has your work evolved through these collections?

CS: The chapbook format is what I write in naturally; for whatever form or subject I am working with, 25 pages is usually a good length. So, I just keep writing them. Each of my four chapbooks feels like it has its own identity, but I do see an evolution. I am a writer very centered in place. I think my poems have evolved from a physical place to the poem as place, and that is reflected stylistically as well.

CH: How did you first conceive of your collection, Dream Vacation? How were you drawn to the haibun form for this work?

CS: Dream Vacation took a long time to write, and that is because, as I have said, I usually write in shorter formats. My time at the Millay Colony helped me to write poems as a longer work. I actually printed out all the poems and arranged them on the wall, then I found some pink butcher paper and literally mapped out the poems into a structure. At times it felt forced for me to write a full-length collection, but I don’t feel that way about the finished book. Now, it feels solid.

CH: Dream Vacation was a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize from Tarpaulin Sky, part of whose tag line is “Lovely Monstrous Hybrid Texts, Amen.” When did you first become interested in hybrid forms? As a poet, what do hybrid forms of poetry deliver that non-hybrid forms lack?

CS: For me, hybrid forms, particularly the haibun, allow me to write more closely to the way I think. We spend our days in prose: we make coffee, go to work, do the dishes, etc. But there are also small moments of beauty that open to us throughout the day, and I experience those moments in verse. Neither has more value than the other, hence, why I write in both prose and verse.

CH: We met in Hoa Nguyen’s workshop here in Austin, an incredibly rich environment. In what other ways have you nurtured yourself as a writer since finishing your MFA?

CS: In Kalamazoo, I was nurtured by such a rich community of writers. I was nervous about finding and meeting other writers in Austin outside of the university. At some point, probably as AWP, I picked up some beautiful chapbooks from Effing Press and shortly before moving, I saw that they were based in Austin so I emailed the editor, Scott Pierce. Right away, he asked me to give a reading with some other poets at 12th Street Books. There I met poets Hoa Nguyen, Dale Smith, the artist Philip Trussel, and later Farid Matuk, Susan Briante and Kyle Schlesinger, all of whom very much influenced have influenced my work. When many of those writers left Austin, I started a reading series, Fun Party, with Dan Boehl and I published an art and poetry publication called Headlamp as a way to keep myself connected to the writing community.

CH: What role does poetry take in your work as a teacher? Is it something your students resist? Embrace?

CS: Honestly, I think my students like poetry because they know I love poetry so much. I teach wonderfully open-minded and open-hearted teenagers, and when I am passionate about a text, they are excited about it too

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

CS: Favorite poets: Frank O’Hara, Brenda Coultas, Mary Ruefle, Frank Stanford, Jack Spicer, Kate Greenstreet, Alice Notley, James Schuyler and all of my friends. I often wonder how I have come to know so many amazing writers. I recently read two books: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and The Market Wonders by Susan Briante, both books I admire.