Tag Archives: Ocean Vuong

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 Susan Niz

Susan Niz will be the featured reader Thursday, July 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Susan Niz’s first poetry chapbook is Beyond this Amniotic Dream (Beard Poetry, Minneapolis, 2016). She has a second chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press (November 2019). Her short work has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, The Write Launch, Chaleur Magazine, Typishly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Carnival Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Blue Bonnet Review, Two Words For, Belleville Park Pages, Ginosko, Cezanne’s Carrot, Flashquake, Opium Magazine, and Summerset Review. She has been featured in live poetry shows in Minneapolis. Susan writes across genres. Her novel Kara, Lost (North Star Press, 2011) was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award (MIPA) for Literary Fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Education, raises kids, has been a grassroots community organizer, and conserves Monarchs. She recently relocated from Minnesota (having survived the Polar Vortex last winter) to the Austin area where she will delve into new creative and literary projects and enjoy the sun and warmth.

The Interview

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

SN: In second grade, I got very excited to write a story about a girl who took a car trip with her family.  I loved the way ideas became words that tumbled sloppily across the line, down the page, that a story could go somewhere, that it could be read and re-read aloud. I had a teacher who gave us these spiral notebooks with blue covers. Writing time was a special event and that white space between lines became a place of focus where I could put some of myself, which was better than keeping the pain of my isolated home life inside. Later, when I was thirteen, I had another spiral notebook with a blue cover. It became a secret place to feed lines of hot ink in unraveling scrolls of angst and wonder and loneliness. I called it poetry. I had a lot of questions! I then copied some of my angst in Sharpie inside the entire back of a denim jacket (along with song lyrics from The Cure). This writing thing was mine. It was uncontrolled, it was limitless, and the page always listened. I was hooked on this outlet.

 

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

SN: I studied writing and poetry in college as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take classes from some outstanding writers, but I wasn’t ready for the work of revision and I wasn’t yet able to access my voice because I carried a lot of shame from a very turbulent teenage experience. I gravitated to language study, learned Spanish, and became a teacher. I even abandoned journaling and part of me was missing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally found the focus to undertake a big project: a semi-autobiographical novel about a sixteen-year-old runaway. I dove into this in a time that I was waiting for a family and worked on it for several years, finally publishing it after my first daughter was born. I also wrote short fiction and published a few pieces. I published one poem that was written based on an image from a dream that I had. About a year later, the journal asked to reprint my poem in an anthology and I got motivated to try more poetry. It felt mysterious to me and for a while I thought my poems had to be conceived in my dreams! Eventually, I gained more of a flow to writing effective poems. I really developed my poetic voice through a series held in Minneapolis called the New Shit Show. I read at the open mic several times, was asked to feature, then submitted my first chapbook, Beyond This Amniotic Dream, to Beard Poetry. My first chapbook is about the two events of my father dying and my second daughter being born, which happened two weeks apart. I experienced delayed grief in order to be a present mother, and writing the poems finally processed the loss.

CH: I know that you write fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SN: I like to write across genres. In addition to poetry, I write short nonfiction essays, which are autobiographical. I wrote a second novel that did not get published because the revisions required would have taken too much time from my second and final baby. One thing that works with poetry for me is that it can be written in bits and pieces, unlike fiction which for me requires long stretches of focus. I think a big thing that defines me as a writer is that my writing is largely autobiographical. Even the idea of a persona poem is something I have not yet tackled. I plan to continue to keep writing across genres.

CH: How has your life as a community organizer and parent shaped your writing?

SN: As a parent, I learned to write sleep-deprived and all hours of the day, which made me a more adaptable writer. It made my writing time much less frequent when my kids were little, but luckily I stuck with it slow and steady and was able to create work and publish occasionally which added up over time. As a community organizer, for a long time I struggled with the idea of writing creatively about Resisting, instead of only more personal topics. I felt that as a white, straight, cis-gendered ally, I had to consider perspective carefully and not try to write a story/poem that wasn’t mine to tell.  I think I finally bridged this when I wrote poems about school shootings, a topic that touches me personally because I am a parent. I also use nature imagery to bridge topics. For example, a poem about stitching the wound of a snowy owl (What passes through flesh/ Is forever) is about sexual abuse. Having found a way to enter writing of Resistance, I feel more freed to continue to write about topics such as immigration issues, as my husband is from Guatemala. Writing poetry also made my campaign and advocacy writing more effective and emotionally connected.

CH: What is your writing life like?

SN: Usually slow and steady, but I feel like my move to Texas has helped it pick up momentum. I carve out bits of time to jot notes or record poem ideas using voice to text if I’m running around, then write them out late at night. When I can keep an observant view of the world around me, I get more ideas for poems. When I can read more and hear other poets read live, I write more poems. When I have time and want to produce more, I read a favorite book of poetry and engage in a read-write-read-write cycle, drawing inspiration from the poems. I’ll generally write new poems for a few months, then revise, then submit, and repeat.

CH: What inspired the title of your forthcoming chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk? How did you arrive at this sequence of poems?  

SN: The title speaks to the potential absurdity of the connections I attempt to make with nature. I went to Mustang Island last year with my family. A naturalist had set up a tent and table to show beach-goers some of the sea creatures. I get extremely excited about this stuff. The moments of learning the names of animals, of witnessing them in the wild, are thrilling to me and make me feel very alive. I just moved to Texas from Minnesota, and I’ve raised Monarchs the last several years and I miss them a lot, but I’m planting milkweed and hope to see them in September. The winters there were very hard for me, and warmth and wildlife and time outdoors means I am not in hibernation, which became increasingly brutal to endure. An earlier draft of this chapbook was called “Measure My Wingspan in Words,” which is a line from a poem that is in the book. Maybe that title worked would have worked as well. I write poems about motherhood, which I think sounds saccharine, but I write about the harsh and dark corners of motherhood after a difficult childhood, and with nature often as a refuge and a vehicle for emotions and metaphor.

CH: By the end of this year, you will have published two poetry chapbooks since your novel, Kara, Lost, came out. What are you working on now? Where would you like to be five years from now?

SN: I have been writing a few poems and also short non-fiction pieces. Maybe next I would like to publish a full-length book of poetry or of the essays. Maybe I feel like I can be a little more patient about that now. I’m also working on planning for a poetry workshop that I’ll be leading at several local libraries this year called “You are a poet.” It’s for beginners and all levels. I want to feel prepared with a whole bunch of writing exercises that I probably won’t have time to squeeze in. If I do it well, the participants will do a lot of writing and I’ll do not too much talking. (Please like “Susan Niz Writer” on Facebook to find out where to join a workshop.) In five years, I hope to feel part of the poetry community in Austin. My writing goals have shifted from lofty aspirations to more finding what is fulfilling, challenging, rewarding—without boundaries. I will regather my strength to use my writing abilities to continue to Resist. I think we each need to focus on developing whatever our individual superpower for protest may be—whether it’s organizing, speaking, writing, leveraging and sacrificing privilege, gathering resources—and hone that power, or we’ll get tired of screaming.

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

SN: Making time to go be a part of live poetry is so important. Nature experiences are a given in my life, but following them up with writing is necessary. Establishing boundaries with my kids for them to be more independent and allow me time to read, write, get out. That is the hardest, but easier with time. I think, too, setting goals and having some ambition and also self-love and patience when it comes to setbacks. I’m looking on the bright side of life in between writing poems. Poetry writing can be emotionally painful, but finding joy and ease in other areas of life is important for self-renewal.

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

SN: Jim Moore, Larry Levis, Adrienne Moore, Louise Erdrich, Laura Kasischke, ee cummings, Ocean Vuong, Federico García Lorca, W.H. Auden, Danez Smith, Kendrick Lamar

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

SN: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, and also Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir, Jill Bialosky

Cindy, thank you for this opportunity to reflect!

CH: You are more than welcome.

 

 

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.