Thursday, November 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Feature Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a writer and educator who believes that creativity is a powerful tool for personal and social transformation. She is author of Catastrophic Molting (Flowersong Press, 2022), Even the Milky Way is Undocumented (Unsolicited Press, 2020), the limited edition chapbook Endless Bowls of Sky (Placeholder Press, 2020), and numerous peer-reviewed essays (GeoHumanities; Education, Citizenship, and Social Justice; UC Press, Imagining America, SUNY Press, Writers Project Ghana). Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, ArtPlace America, Zócalo Public Square, Entropy, Tilt West, Boom CA, Yes Poetry, and are featured on Google Arts & Culture. Amy has been nominated for an Emmy Award, three Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction, a Rainbow Reads Award, and was a finalist for the Nightboat Book Poetry Prize. She has edited two books amplifying community voices: Et Al: New Voices in Arts Management with Genevieve Kaplan (Illinois Open Publishing Network, 2022) and Arts = Education (UC Press, 2010). Her teaching career has spanned research universities, community centers, K-12 schools, arts organizations, and spaces of incarceration.
CH: I’m delighted to welcome you to the Bookwoman 2nd Thursday series! I want to start by asking about how you became interested in poetry and writing. What’s your first memory of poetry? Was there a particular early experience that drew you toward writing it?
AS2: My first memorable exposure to a poet was witnessing Maya Angelou read to friends from her new book And Still I Rise in a loft in San Francisco. I was a tween, and still wondering how to become a woman in a racist and patriarchal society. I wouldn’t have used those words yet, but I already knew that being beautiful meant being magazine thin, wealthy, Christian, and blonde. I was none of those things.
Some people have seen la Virgen de Guadalupe in a tortilla. I saw Dr. Angelou in her natural flow, and it was a sacred experience. She was wearing a head wrap, canvas cargo pants, and stood tall as a woman possibly can, and must. She was a living tree. She enjoyed herself. I immediately knew that being a woman could become a noble endeavor. Her voice and song and dance made me think, If that is what a woman could be, I could become one too. From the very start, “being a poet” has meant being a subaltern woman in her natural power.
I learned much later that my lineage is grounded in poetry, but a kind of verse that hegemonic society doesn’t recognize or name. My mother’s first language was Hebrew — one of the many ancient languages of the world. After reading a book on poetic form that didn’t mention any Jewish or African poets, I asked my mother if we had a poetic tradition. She is 90 and has translated the mystical writings of Abram Abulafia who wrote poems in the form of mandalas. She said, “of course we do,” and started singing the Shemah. Both she, and Yonatan Perry (an Ashkenasi and African American Rabbi), helped me see that our culture was born in song, verse, and meditation. One thing I love about ancient languages is the connection between poetry and music. Both Hebrew and Yoruba have tonal or musical notation and tropes. For us, language is culture and faith, and reading and writing are also singing and listening. While I was never told this in school. I came to this from family and friends. We were never without poetry. We are made of it.
CH: I understand your creative career began in dance, performance, and capoeira. How have these embodied expressions influenced your writing?
I spent most of my life using movement to recalibrate my body vessel. I am a retired dancer. My regular writing practice begins with yoga asana or walking. Moving and writing are wed for me.When the new book, Catastrophic Molting, came out this September, I prepared for the launch by going into the studio everyday like a dancer would rehearse. I improvised dancing to each poem. I made images and short videos with them. I made collages. I wanted to create an experience where everyone could be inside the book together as a performance. The launch became a performance with live music, song, voice, dance, and imagery. That is an example of me being in my nature. If I could, I would always perform to music and I would always dance with the poems.
CH: In addition to your Ph.D. and M.A. in urban planning from UCLA, you hold an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University and a B. A. in Latin American Studies from UC Santa Cruz. What influenced your decision to study writing at Antioch? How did it change your writing practice?
AS2: At the time, I didn’t want to live if I could not write. It felt necessary. Pleasure came from doing something I had always wanted to do. In an immigrant family, I was always pushed to do something reasonable yet revolutionary — something to help society but also ensure my self sufficiency. My mother famously advised that if I wanted to be an artist I must also be a plumber. That all comes from a fear of poverty, which I ingested at a young age. Maybe that’s also a psychic remnant of the trauma experienced by certain generations of Jewish people. Rationally or not, one fear’s that history’s shoe could drop at any moment —the next catastrophe, the next migration, the next exile. Fascism is always around the bend.
As an artist, I struggled to feel that my creative impulses could be a responsible choice. Making art was a way to practice freedom of speech and to animate freedom as a verb. In retrospect, I should have just read Sylvia Wynter much sooner. Freedom of choice came with my father’s death. Life is not forever. Do what you love before it is too late. We can be in our nature and still do good in the world.
Studying at Antioch taught me the habits and discipline of a writer’s life: how to establish and keep reading and writing practices and goals. The MFA taught me to row my own little craft out on the water. It also placed me in a field where I could see other people writing, not necessarily the way I envisioned it, but something semelhante. It was good to be around people who share a passion for reading and writing. It also gave me Gayle Brandeis, who is a goddess of a person, and it gave me my first serious writers community.
CH: Your limited edition chapbook Endless Bowls of Sky came out from Placeholder Press in 2020. I understand the work of Nigerian-British poet and novelist Ben Okri is the source text for these erasures. How were you first exposed to Okri’s work and what made you choose it for this project? What was your process as you created these poems?
AS2: I made the chapbook when I became ill with COVID 19 before the invention of a vaccine. My life was suspended. I was afraid and felt powerless. Both the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman, have creative agency in Okri’s The Famished Road. I read and read. I xeroxed random pages from the book and made erasures with a Sharpie. I also woke from a dream with the image of a calabash being cut in half, as if the planet had broken open. I used the visual elements of the half bowls of erased lines to accompany the poems. When I realized that I was finally mending — that I would live —I saw myself taking photos of flowers from the garden and placing them in my eyes, ears, and mouth. The graphic chapbook is a combination of all of these elements, the erasure poems, the bowls, and the collages with bodies and flowers. I learned that if I only had a few weeks left to live that I wanted to spend it writing and creating.
CH: Also in 2020, Unsolicited Press published your first full-length collection, Even the Milky Way is Undocumented. Tell us a little about this collection. When did you first conceive of it? Over what period were its poems written?
AS2: Even the Milky Way is Undocumented begins with the birth of my first born. It flows through almost 20 years including a family transition, becoming a single mother, my children growing into adults, and learning to parent myself and find value in my own voice. The last poem “esh” is Hebrew for ashes. Along the way, I went from burning my journals to lifting my words UP.
I worked on many of the poems during the MFA. One day I visited my daughter who was working on a film in Puerto Rico. Poems circled around me like insects around a light. I came home with many new poems, extracted the poems from my thesis, and began to decipher the overarching story. I saw a woman trying to heal herself from an experience that was both magical (creating and caring for life) and traumatic (experiencing betrayal and loss). I wanted to get it all out of my body, and claim authorial rights over my life. I didn’t want to become the sum of things done unto me. I wanted to place myself in the front seat of my life.
In one of the poems, “Autobiography of Air,” a woman comes back to meet herself 27 years later and gives love and respect to her own soul. She speaks in tongues of her burrows and planks. That poem came in the night and I found shards of it in the journal by my bedside when I awoke. This made me laugh and delight in knowing that time is circular, not linear. We can honor our labor and live again anytime that we are ready.
With the new book, Catastrophic Molting, after all the work was done preparing for publication, I felt like a cocoon. I wanted to be the butterfly that emerged from the cocoon of the book, but I wasn’t. I was spun thread. The empty vessel. The book was the cocoon that made it possible. I thought a lot about this. Why am I the cocoon and not the butterfly? But what I came away from the process was: respect the cocoon. Writing is my cocoon. It is where I can dwell in transformation.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of Catastrophic Molting (Flowersong Press, 2022). I’m fascinated to read that the title refers to sea elephants’ collective ritual of loss and regeneration. Was this a project that began during the pandemic? Please tell us a little about this collection.
AS2: Thank you!
The title came from my first journey away from home during the pandemic. After the uprising, I left my old life behind and became devoted to daily practice. I also reduced my teaching load and released my administrative duties at the university. Poetry led me though the pandemic as a companion and guide. After months of seclusion, I went with my children, and my son’s partner, up the Californian coast to visit Big Sur.
We financed the trip with a commission from the poem: “And Still We Are Trying to Dream ” that became an exhibition in Cary, North Carolina. It was used in the first event the city’s public art program produced after being shuttered. They wanted to use the poem, along with key questions that Reva and Itzel had designed with their company Honey and Smoke, to engage youth and families in a discussion about racial justice. I zoomed in for the opening. It was exciting to see how a poem could catalyze a community conversation and help provide a safe space for talking about things that matter. I’d love to do more public art in the future.
Anyway, we borrowed my brother’s SUV, and drove up the coast. Tall trees. Lichen. Seals, Seagulls, seaweed and tide pools. We witnessed the catastrophic molting of thousands of sea lions that gather each year on the coast. I was awestruck. As soon as I read the naturalists’ signs explaining why sea lions were resting together on the beach, I knew I wanted to make catastrophic molting into a poem or a book. Catastrophic Molting described how the pandemic and uprising had felt to me.
The themes of the new book are illness, uprising, war, and recommitment to futures. They are summed up in two questions that guide the work: What have you had to let go of? What new fur (or skin) are you growing? The themes are difficult for a reason: we are shedding and becoming something new. The last four poems of the collection are finally able to move with this new energy into the world. They carry a kind of patience, self awareness, and devotion. This starts to happen with “Cease Fire,” and the confidence of “New Moon in Cancer” that speaks of “wanting and knowing how to be.”
CH: These three books coming out in two years suggest a period of prolific creativity. How have you created the space in your life to do this work? How has it transformed you?
AS2: When I respect myself, and allow myself the time, I am naturally prolific. My idea of a good day includes moving and writing. Creating is a ritual for living my best life. I love learning. Study, travel, and the creative process excite me. These practices have shaped the woman I have come to be.
Coming to this understanding feels like a renewal for me later in my life. I’m an extrovert who learned habits of codependency early on. I spent years prioritizing everyone else’s needs, wants, and dreams over my own. Writing helps me redirect this tendency and focus inward like I should. Inward is also outward. It’s just an “outward” where I am included in the story and not made to be invisible.
A friend in the Ifa tradition once described my hyper-external focus as an overdeveloped quality of Yemanja (the mother of the fishes). Yemanja is my small mother, but my crowning Ori is cared for by Oya (the winds of change). Over time, I have learned that I am a healthier and happier person when my creativity is at the throne of my life in a leadership role. I can do other things, but I prefer engaging with the world as an artist. I’m happier that way. I feel closer to the bone, and closer to my truth.
“Being prolific” is just me allowing myself to live and be as I actually am. I am prioritizing what the creative process has to teach me. When I honor my imagination, and grant it the space and grace to be, creativity brings me into the world alongside everything and everyone else. Being different is not a problem. It is not irresponsible. It is a gift and a superpower.
CH: In your bio, you state that you believe “creativity is a powerful tool for personal and social transformation,” and it seems to me your role as educator places you at that nexus as well. How has your work as an educator informed your work as a writer?
AS2: I have taught for over 30 years now. Teaching has been a way to remain curious, to cohabitate with ideas, literatures, and histories in a socialized way while investing in the next generation. In many ways, my heart lives in community. I teach because I love people. It is a way to do the necessary work of healing, decolonization, and decarbonizing in relationship. I teach to be a good mortal member of an ancient and interconnected world. I teach because I can (even as a mere momentary flash of consciousness, ideation, and sentiment). Teaching is a joyful investment in futures beyond my reach. I will always teach. It is one of the ways that I love.
CH: In the work you do at this intersection of creativity and social engagement, who are some of the poets to whom you turn for inspiration?
AS2: I read like most people eat. I want to always be open to inspiration. The public library helps me do that. The public library is the most radical (and, as a result, my favorite!) social institution that I’m aware of. Everywhere should have one.
If you mean by inspiration, keeping company with the dead, I consistently return to the voices of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Thich Nhat Hanh by listening to them read their own works. They have entered into my walking meditations and are a part of my personal biosphere. I study poets and poetry from my bookshelf, the library, and friendships: Rabindranath Tagore, Aimé Césaire, Cesar Vallejo, Yehuda Amichai, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyaaka, Aracelis Girmay, Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, Gioconda Belli, Efe Paul Azino, Gloria Carrera, Eleuterio Exaggat, Manuel Bolom Pale, Jenise Miller, Luivette Resto, V Kali, Leonora Simonovis, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, Matthew Zapruder, Dan Bellm, Gayle Brandeis, A’bena Awuku Larbi, Katleho Kano, Raymond Antrobus, Dami Ajayi, Aremu Gemini, Jolyn Phillips, Mbali Malimela, the list goes on…
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
AS2: I just returned from communing and performing at two wonderful literary festivals in West Africa: the Pa Gya! Festival in Accra, Ghana run by Writers’ Project Ghana, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival in Nigeria founded by Efe Paul Azino. The first two poetry books I’ve read that came home with me are October Blue by Obiageli A. Iloakasia and Woman Eat Me Whole by Ama Asantewa Diaka.