Thursday, August 11, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Feature Alexandra van de Kamp is Executive Director for Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s Writing Arts Center (www.geminiink.org), and the author of the full-length collections Ricochet Script (Next Page Press, April 1, 2022), Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press, 2016), and The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (WordTech Communications 2010), and several chapbooks, including A Liquid Bird Inside the Night (Red Glass Books, 2015) and Dear Jean Seberg (2011), which won the 2010 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest.
Her poems have been published in journals nationwide, such as The Cincinnati Review, The Texas Observer, Denver Quarterly, Great Weather for MEDIA, Washington Square, 32Poems, Tahoma Literary Review, and Sweet: A Literary Confection. Find out more about her poetry here: alexandravandekampppoet.com.
CH: What is your first memory of reading poetry? How did it engage your interest?
AvdK: Believe it or not, I think Shel Silverstein’s was one of my first poetry books that I remember engaging with in any memorable way—Where the Sidewalk Ends. The humor and rambunctiousness of those poems, and their sense of permission to write on all kinds of quirky topics made an impression on me. There are poems called “Band-Aid” and “Sleeping Sardines,” and ‘Rain,” which begins with this wonderful surreal premise: “I opened my eyes/And looked up at the rain,/And it dripped in my head/And flowed into my brain,/ And all that I hear as I lie in my bed/Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head.” And the poem’s surreal logic continues from there! Who could not love a poem that has the word “slishity-slosh” in it? The drawings that go with these poems also created a wonderful and imaginative world that I could revel in.
CH: What’s your first memory of writing poetry? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
AvdK: I think I was always a scribbler and have distinct memories of these black-covered journals with blank pages that I would earnestly fill up with worries, fears, jottings and more from age 8 and up. I think I started to identify with myself as a writer when I was about 9 or 10 because of an assignment to write on a summer experience, and I ended up writing about a waterfall in Vermont I discovered while visiting a friend’s ski house. The waterfall was massive, and I could stand on a rock ledge beneath it and breathe in the water-house it created with the cascading muscularity of the water all around me. It was like the coolest of hideaways. I wrote a piece that tried to capture the magic of it all. My teacher praised me for it, and the satisfaction I experienced while getting these words down on the page was when I first glimpsed the power of words to capture and save what was precious to me.
CH: I understand you studied at Johns Hopkins University and received an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. How did your undergraduate work inflect on your decision to go on to receive an MFA? How did you decide on that path?
AvdK: Johns Hopkins University is first known for its amazing medical school, which is in downtown Baltimore, but its undergraduate campus in the northern part of the city has some wonderful humanities majors, and a great English Department, and I was lucky enough to major in “Writing Seminars,” which combined creative writing with philosophy and other humanities areas. I took poetry seminars with wonderful poets like David St. John and Peter Sacks, who later married Jorie Graham and has gone on to become a groundbreaking visual artist, to name just a few of the poetic mentors. This was when I first experienced the writing workshop model. I was brazen enough to ask Peter Sacks if I could enter a poetry workshop in my second semester of freshman year, and this was a class with upperclassmen—much more experienced poets than myself. I was clearly out of my depth but learned so much from hearing the other poets share their work and offer feedback and criticism on their peers’ poems. This was when the language of poetry-making first became apparent to me.
I think another key part of my time at Johns Hopkins was my junior year abroad in London. I had never traveled outside of the country before, and it was a life-changing experience to be at University College University of London for a year surrounded by the sights, sounds and textures of London. I was exposed to all kind of British poets, learned the difference between Ben Jonson and Samuel Johnson, and had to write essays every two weeks for my tutor, Helena Sand, who was Oxford-educated and none too impressed with my essay writing the first few months I was there. (I was far too busy traveling on the weekends to other parts of Britain and enjoying the liberation of a Pass/Fail grade system). However, when I hunkered down to write on Keats and wrote something with my full attention a few months into my year there, she seemed to think I had some potential and was a wry and steadfast intellectual guide for me.
But the travel and time abroad helped me learn so much more about how I wanted to be in the world and gave me my first inklings of the life I wanted to live—one with travel, writing, and creative journeying at its core. I ingested the city of London and loved it. I also took advantage of the Brit Rail pass for students, which allowed me to travel to Spain, France, and Italy relatively inexpensively. I will be forever grateful for that time of discovery and travel. I also think my time at Hopkins cemented my decision to be a poet and helped me see the benefits of the workshop model. I also was able to take a class senior year on poetic form with David St. John that had graduate students in it. Once again, I learned a great deal from writers more seasoned than myself and wrote my first villanelles, pantoums, and more. This showed me how the intensity of a close-knit writing community, and the regimen of a Master of Fine Arts, could be a path forward for me to learn how to live a writer’s life.
CH: What changed in your writing as a result of your MFA studies?
AvdK: I went to graduate school relatively young, at age 25, and learned a great deal from my peers—some of them who later became revered poets such as the wonderful Joanie Mackowski–but I was lucky enough to have writing workshops with Heather McHugh, David Shields, and David Wagoner, editor of Poetry Northwest. Although Wagoner intimidated me, it was a life-changing moment when he asked me if two poems I had written for his workshop could be published in Poetry Northwest. It made me think I maybe could do this thing called the poetry life. I also loved learning about the Northwest poets, such as Theodore Roethke, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Linda Bierds, and others. I was fed by the Northwest backdrop itself and wrote many poems that were inspired by the moody tones and gray palettes of that region. I seemed to find my voice in that new world. An East Coaster to the core, I did not know the difference between a Douglas Fir and other pine trees, let alone what a clearcut was and had to learn all about the spotted owl and endangered species. So, overall, it was an education on multiple levels.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of your third full-length poetry collection, Ricochet Script. How did this manuscript come together?
AvdK: I have Laura Van Prooyen, editor of Next Page Press, to thank for the creative spur she provided when she asked me if I could show her my next manuscript for possible publication by her new poetry press, based in San Antonio itself and focused on poets writing their second or third books. I did not really have a completed manuscript at the time—maybe 40 pages done out of a possible book of 65 pages or more. However, with Laura’s guidance, I honed the book, wrote new poems to fill out the main themes, discovered poems from my last few years of writing that I had not first considered including, and went through a rigorous editing process. Through this process, several people read my book as a whole, and I received comments from Laura and fellow assisting editors, Sheila Black and Joni Wallace, as well as consultants Tina Posner and Judy Jensen.
Each poet offered their keen eye and perspective on my poems. While I did not take all of the advice offered, I did benefit from much of it and, often, just the experience of seeing how others experienced my poems helped me rethink them in new and earth-shattering ways—all which helped me push the book further. Laura was kind enough to let me know that when she first read my draft manuscript, she counted 40 uses of the word “bird” in the manuscript! Now I had not intended my book to be so “bird-centered,” as much as I love the avian species, so it made me think about what I wanted to write towards as I edited the book. And I realized the key issues for me in this book were aging, our relationships with the body as a life companion, and the slippery fact of time itself, let alone other obsessions. I also love the title, how it suggests the uncanny and not-always-in-our-control narrative a life becomes, and Laura helped me come up with this after plucking the phrase from one of my poems in the collection.
CH: I so enjoyed reading Ricochet Script and wonder if you might comment on two poems: the ars poetica “Preferences,” and “Ghazal with Birds and Breath,” which astonished me with its fresh take on the ghazal form.
I love that you think “Preferences” is an ars poetica! I have a fascination with list poems and how they allow the writer an opportunity to compile into one space a wide range of thought, imagery, and leaps in imagination. I think of a poem as a mini piece of architecture with all kinds of fixtures and details dangling and working together in one room or space, and list poems are supreme for allowing you to mesh together disparate items. The writer need only come up with a wide enough “reason” or premise for the list and then their poem can take off from there. “Preferences” was inspired by Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful, wry, and world-weary list poem entitled: “Possibilities,” which truly provides a space where all kinds of ideas and items can live together in one space, from her statement “I prefer cats” to her declaration “I prefer conquered to conquering countries.” Now there is a lot of distance in terms of registers of thought and emotion between those two items in Szymborska’s list!
About my “Ghazal with Birds and Breath,” it was my first ghazal, and, to be honest, I see it as a very corrupted version of that form. I was trying to end each couplet with the word “bird”—this was an intentionally bird-centric poem. However, I did have to bend the ghazal rules a bit as I found my lines becoming too long or awkward with this prescription embedded into it. And I have my poetry group, the “Little Death Poets,” to thank—we often meet at a wine bar in San Antonio called Little Death! This group is comprised of writers Sheila Black, Jenny Browne, Laura Van Prooyen, Amie Charney and Eileen Curtright, and it was their idea I try to write this poem in some kind of form since it was on the body itself in many ways—the ultimate form we contend with in life.
The earlier draft had hints of writing on the body, human breath, and birds but was a bit all over the place. So, for the first time in a while, I took a stab at formal verse. I was also inspired by Emmy Pérez’s exploded version of the ghazal in her book: With the River on Our Face. I knew there was a precedence for opening up the ghazal form and found this inspiring. Whenever I work in form, it always helps me use language in new and different ways and, therefore, come up with new ideas as I contend with the form’s playful “cage.” So, even though this is not a strict ghazal by a long shot, the use of the ghazal forever changed it.
CH: It seems you’ve had a full-length collection out roughly every six years, with The Park of Upside-Down Chairs (WordTech Communications) in 2010, Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press) in 2016, and now Ricochet Script. How have your interests changed as you’ve moved from book to book? What’s remained the same?
AvdK: I love that you noted this, Cindy, because it is true that my book-making pace seems to be every 6 years. I see myself as a rather slow book-maker! I think, over time, I have become more obsessed with the sound of words and their physicality on the page, and this has guided my writing process more and more. This all kicked in during my writing of the poems that comprise Kiss/Hierarchy, and I found it very freeing. So, over time, my poems have become less narrative and more overtly associative with this reliance on the sound of words to guide my “poetry logic.” I will now allow a word’s sound to influence the words I use after it in playful ways I do not think I would have been comfortable with earlier in my writing life. For example, in my poem “Noon,” in Ricochet Script, there is a line about this midpoint in the day as a “sugar packet/ of dust crushed by the sun….” I don’t think I would have thought of using “crushed” in these lines if I had not already come up with “sugar” and “dust,” so the assonance helped me find this image. I am not the only poet doing this, for sure, but I find I more deeply trust the unknown in my poems through leaning into sound, and this has allowed for more humor and surprise to enter into my writing process. I also think I am a very visual poet, and this has remained the same throughout my three books.
CH: You’ve been at San Antonio’s Gemini Ink for a few years now, first as literary programs director, and now as Executive Director. Prior to that, you taught at New York’s Stony Brook University. How have the change in place and change of role influenced your writing life?
AvdK: I moved to San Antonio seven years ago with my husband, William Glenn, who had just been hired by UTSA Libraries as Head of Reference Services, and I was all set to continue my career at UTSA teaching writing and rhetoric. I even began to teach part-time in the wonderful writing department at UTSA, but then I met Sheila Black, who was Executive Director of Gemini Ink at that time, and she encouraged me to consider applying for an open part-time position of Literary Programs Director. I accepted after going through an interview process, and that seemed to curve my professional life in a whole new direction.
The key difference between a life in academia and one in the nonprofit world is that I lost my summers for writing. One of the gifts of the teaching life—and believe me it is more than earned by teachers and professors—are those two summer months to dive into projects or life pursuits outside of the classroom. And I do miss that now that I have a job that has no clear summer break. I have vacation time, of course, but not those wonderful two straight months off! I think it has changed me as a writer because I now know not to wait for a perfect “time-off” to write. I have learned to write on the weekends, when I am grumpy or even seemingly rushed by other aspects of my life. I also have found that I enjoy the more “9 to 5” office schedule as well and have acclimated to it more than I ever thought I would when teaching in the university setting. It also helps that I am rarely bored at my job and am working in a field—the literary arts—that I feel a true passion for.
CH: What has been the biggest gift of being involved in arts administration? What would you tell someone who is considering that kind of work?
AvdK: I have met so many amazing writers and that has been a true gift. I have also been able to proctor and enjoy a large variety of Gemini Ink’s public classes on the craft of writing or host authors as visiting faculty and speakers, and this has been a delightful part of my job. My first visiting writer to Gemini Ink when I was starting out in 2015 as Literary Programs Director, was the poet Laura Kasischke, and she taught a Saturday workshop on surrealism, and it was wonderful. I reached out to her a few years later, when I was finalizing Kiss/Hierarchy, and she was kind enough to write a blurb for it, which meant a great deal to me. But, mostly, I remember that workshop and the great gems of wisdom she shared with us on writing and writing strangely in a way that was so freeing and mischievous. She had great prompts, such as writing a poem as if you were a Martian who had just landed on planet Earth and was experiencing everything as if it were utterly unfamiliar to you. She explained it in a fuller, more idiosyncratic way, but the exercise was all about looking at your life as the weird thing it truly was! Other poets I have loved meeting have been Tim Seibles, Brian Turner, Helena María Viramontes, Terrance Hayes, Margaret Atwood and Emmy Pérez, to name just a few.
Another gift has been the San Antonio writing community, which is welcoming and chock full of talent! Getting to know writers like Carmen Tafolla, Naomi Shihab Nye, Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, Sheila Black, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Laura Van Prooyen, jo reyes-boitel, Wondra Chang, Natalia Treviño, and so many others has enriched my writing life in ways I cannot even begin to calculate. And about getting into arts administration. It is a labor of love and definitely not easy at times. I think someone considering this kind of work should know time management is something they will need to grow in, and continue to master, if they want to do their jobs fully and have time for other pursuits, and their own writing life. The key is to never let your writing life sit idle for too long while working on programming all about empowering writers—find the time to tend to your art. It will make you a better arts administrator.
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
AvdK: I am truly enjoying reading Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. What a stunning, emotionally explosive book! Each poem has riveted me. But I tend to frog leap among poetry books and am also truly enjoying reading about poetry itself through Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry. I can find it helpful to step back from poems themselves and read poets’ books on poetry. In fact, I rather nerd out about this! Zapruder has some penetrating stories on his discovery of poetry and, at one point in this book, describes his realization that: “A poem, literally, makes a space to move through. To read a poem is to move through that constructed space of ideas and thinking” (p, 57). I read those lines the other day, and they just lit up a new hope in me that, after not writing poems for a few months, I can get back into my process and just create spaces of thought that can move down the page—it was both simplifying the idea of what poetry-making was, which I found comforting, and then showing its intellectual daring and spaciousness. I have a leaning “Tower of Pisa” comprised of books on my night table—my husband gawks at it in amazement sometimes and he’s the librarian in our house! And this represents one aspect of my reading life: I surround myself with what I hope to read, so there is always an ellipsis in my reading life, the “what will come next.”