Tag Archives: Poetry

A Virtual Interview with Robin Reagler

Background

Thursday, August 12, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event on EventBrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-robin-reagler-tickets-162818493497

Feature Robin Reagler is a poet, educator, and leader living in Houston, Texas. Over the past 22 years, she transformed Writers inthe Schools (WITS), a small grassroots organization, into a national literary movement with 40 sister programs across the US. She retired in September to focus on her own writing. Since then, she found publishers for two new books of poems. Into The The, winner of the Best Book Award, was released on March 21, World Poetry Day (Backlash Press). Night Is This Anyway, will be published by Lily Poetry Books (March 2022). Reagler is the author of Teeth & Teeth, selected by Natalie Diaz, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize (Headmistress Press, 2018) and Dear Red Airplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012, 2018).

She earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. She has published poems in PloughsharesNorth American ReviewPleiadesCopper NickelIowa ReviewColorado Review, and Zocalo Public Square. Her essays have appeared in books, newspapers, and journals. The Other Mother: Letters from the Outposts of Lesbian Parenting was named best Houston parenting blog by Nickelodeon in 2009.

She has helped shape dozens of new literary organizations and has volunteered on national boards. In 2018-2019 she chaired of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Board of Trustees. Currently she is the Board Chair of LitNet, the national advocacy group representing literary organizations and publishers and Board Secretary for the equity-based Justice Hub Charter School.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

RR: My first memory of poetry is my mother reading nursery rhymes to my sister and me. I remember that I had a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson on my bedside table. One of the poems, “Block City,” was about building imaginary worlds.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA, and a Ph. D. in Creative Writing?

RR: Getting an MFA was, for me, about becoming a better writer and finding a community of writers. Getting a PhD was a career-focused decision. I hoped to teach in a college and that seemed like the best path forward. As it turned out, after I finished my doctorate, I chose to work with Writers in the Schools (WITS), an education organization with a K-12 focus, for 25 years. Now, after taking a year to focus on my own writing, I will be teaching college. Finally!

CH: How would you describe your experience at Iowa? What has been the biggest gift of doing these programs? The biggest drawback?

RR: The great gift of going to a program like Iowa is that I got to meet so many amazing poets and writers. Those friendships continue, even though we live across the nation. Having friends who support each other as writers and as people is the greatest gift for me. The biggest drawback is that when I went to Iowa it was not a diverse community, no matter how you define diversity. And the writers we studied were not very diverse either. This was in the 80s. It may be quite different now.

CH: Tell us a little about Dear Red AIrplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011 and 2018) and its re-release.

RR: When I submitted Dear Red Airplane to Seven Kitchens, I felt certain it would win their contest. It did not. I couldn’t believe. I’d been rejected many times, so it’s weird that I was surprised, but I was. A year later I got an email from the editor at 7K, Ron Mohring. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the poems and asked if it was still available. That is how the chapbook was published the first time. It had a small print run and sold out quickly. The second printing was done through Seven Kitchen’s Rebound Series.

CH: I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Teeth & Teeth (Headmistress Press, 2018), and was profoundly moved by its weaving of desire, grief, and identity. How did you select the pieces in this chapbook? How did you go about sequencing the poems?

RR: When I wrote the poems in Teeth & Teeth, my father had passed away and my mother was in hospice. The manuscript was selected by Natalie Diaz for the Charlotte Mew Prize. I mention that because I was influenced by Diaz in creating this collection. Her poem “Grief Work” was especially compelling to me. In my grief, I wrote the poems feverishly. I discovered that grief contain more than I had ever imagined—emptiness, anger, loss, rage, desire, love, and even hope.

CH: In Teeth & Teeth, I was really struck by the sense of the line in the poems, and by your use of whitespace and monostich stanza. How do you approach the use of whitespace in your poems?

RR: The line works musically in Teeth & Teeth. The white space provides silence, a key component to that music. In a monostich stanza, the words are isolated. Each line might be the last.

CH: Tell us about your most recent work: Into The The (Backlash Press, 2021) and the forthcoming Night Is This Anyway (Lily Poetry Books, 2022). How do you see the trajectory of this work with respect to your earlier books?

RR: Poems don’t necessarily get published in the order they were created. Into The The contains some of my earliest work, as well as some recent poems. Of the group, I think of it as first, chronologically. Following it, I would place Dear Red Airplane, then Night Is This Anyway (although I’m considering a title change), and then Teeth & Teeth.

CH: I understand you recently retired as Executive Director for Writers in the Schools (WITS) to focus on your own writing. How has this change made a difference for you? What is your writing life like now?

RR: I left Writers in the Schools so that I could focus on my own writing. It has made a huge difference in my writing life. Both Into The The and Night were accepted early in the year. I finished another manuscript that I’m sending to publishers now and am hoping to complete another in the coming months. So having this time has enabled me to BE a writer.

CH: You continue to be involved as a literary citizen. In your view, what are some of the gifts of literary citizenship?

RR: I’m very devoted to the literary community, and I have enjoyed being a part of it. Although writing itself is a solitary act, writers have a great deal to offer one another. Through my activism in organizations such as the WITS Alliance, AWP, and LitNet, I have connected with incredible, dedicated people. We are stronger together and able to serve the public in new and engaging ways.

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

RR: Right now, I am reading Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar.

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 Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, January 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Debra L. Winegarten is a poet, biographer, and publisher, and is on the faculty of South University. A sociologist by training, Debra is a past president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society. She has written two Jewish-themed poetry books, There’s Jews in Texas?, winner of Poetica Magazine’s 2011 Chapbook Contest, and Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From.

Debra’s biographies include Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) and Katherine Stinson: the Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000). Oveta Culp Hobby has received a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America as well as the 2015 award for best Biography from the Texas Association of Authors, and was a literary award finalist for the WILLA award from Women Writing the West. Katherine Stinson was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s “Book of the Year” award in the Biography category.

Debra is currently working on an adult biography, Zvi Yaniv: From the Mysterious Island to Nanotechnology, and a biography of two Texas women. Meeting God at Midnight by Ahuva Batya Scharff, the first poetry collection  published by Debra’s publishing company, Sociosights Press, received the 2015 Best Poetry Book award from the Texas Association of Authors. Sociosights Press will be publishing its first children’s book, Almost a Minyan, in 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first get interested in becoming a writer? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

DW: I have always loved to write. My first published poem was in the third grade, the Temple Emanu-El synagogue monthly newsletter printed my poem, “God is Everywhere.”

I first seriously thought of myself as a writer when I received a contract from Eakin Press in 1996 for my book on Katherine Stinson.

CH: You wrote your first book, Strong Family Ties, as a co-author with your mother, Ruthe Winegarten. I knew Ruthe, and always appreciated her sparkling intellect as well as her commitment to writing women’s stories. How was it to write this book with her? How did that experience shape your growth as a writer?

DW: I had a lot of fun writing the book with Mom. We travelled to Dallas once a month on the weekend for a year and interviewed Dr. Hawkins. Mom “let” me do the brunt of the work as well as keep most of the money we made doing the book. She served more in an advisory role and really stayed in the background and just kind of made sure I was on track. Doing the book gave me confidence in my own abilities as a researcher and author and really set me on the road of my own writing career.

CH: You’ve published multiple books of poetry and biography. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

DW: Whenever I introduce myself, I always say, “I’m an award-winning author.” I think of myself as an author rather than a writer, somehow for me the word “author” carries more authority and doesn’t seem somehow as confining to me. I write non-fiction of all sorts, memoir, biographies, even my poetry is quite autobiographical, and when it’s not about me, it’s often based on my experiences or a snippet of something that I’ve observed in my travels.

CH: Your poetry chapbook, There’s Jews in Texas? (Poetica Magazine, 2011), won the 2011 Poetica Magazine Poetry Chapbook Contest, and you’ve followed it up with Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From (Sociosights Press, 2014). What inspired you to write these books? How widely did you distribute the manuscript for There’s Jews in Texas? before it was selected by Poetica? What influenced your decision to publish Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From with your own press?

DW: One of my best friends, Ahuva Batya Scharff, saw the call for submissions for the Poetica Publishing chapbook contest. The theme was anything having to do with “contemporary Jewish poetry.” She sent me the link, said, “You write contemporary Jewish poetry, you ought to enter.” I thought about it for about a second, decided she was right, and put together a manuscript for the contest.

I didn’t distribute this manuscript widely, I felt like it was “beginner’s luck,” it was the first chapbook I had ever put together, the only place I entered it was this particular contest, and I won the national prize!

As it turned out, people loved “There’s Jews in Texas?” and I kept hearing the complaint, well, not really a complaint, but more like a whine that it was too short and people wanted more from me. Now of course as an author, that’s the kind of “problem” one wants to have—people wanting to have more of your work. Since I had such good successes with “There’s Jews in Texas?” from a marketing viewpoint (I think the book is in its third or fourth printing now), I decided it would be smart to stay with the same genre and niche market.

Dos Gatos Press published the title poem, “Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From” in one of their annual Texas Poetry calendars, so I used that poem as the jumping-off poem for the second book in the series. I decided to publish the book through Sociosights Press because I learned from “There’s Jews in Texas?” that if I maintained control over the printing/publishing/distribution of the book, I would also make more money. It’s interesting because I don’t really do much to market “Jewish Grandmothers” the way I did with “There’s Jews in Texas?” and yet, the book sells consistently in its own quiet way and I’ve already paid for the first print run of 500 books.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve had a good deal of success with writing biography. Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000) was a finalist for best biography of the year from Foreword Magazine, and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) recently won a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America. What excites you about the genre?

DW: I really love writing biographies of Texas women for middle school students, in particular for girls. The educational research shows that by the fifth grade, girls choose “books” or “boys.” I want them to choose “books” AND whatever. I remember the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I read the entire row of biographies in my school library, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And it was tough because the majority of the biographies were about men and the great things men had done, and there was almost no literature on women. So, I’ve made it my mission to follow in my mother’s footsteps and continue bringing stories of amazing Texas women into the limelight.

CH: How do you select the subjects of your biographies? Of your poetry books? What are you working on now—biography? poetry? something else?

DW: For the biographies of Texas women for middle school students, I go to the Texas Education Agency’s online curriculum to see which women are required learning for seventh grade social studies, where Texas history is taught. I try to pick women who have not only significance in Texas history, but have national prominence, as a way of expanding and broadening the people interested in reading my books.

I have two biographies in the works. The first book is set in San Antonio and is actually two biographies in one, where I’m juxtaposing the lives of two fascinating early 20th century Texas women’s lives and the places where those lives intersect. The other book I’m working on a proposal for right now involves a famous Texas female politician who has not yet had a biography written.

In terms of poetry, I’m putting the finishing touches on the third in my Jewish poetry series; this one entitled, “Have Torah, Will Travel.”

For the past 15 months, I’ve worked together with Dr. Zvi Yaniv, an Israeli-American inventor with over 300 patents on his book, “My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology: An Adventure through Time and Very Tiny Spaces.” We are submitting his manuscript to publishers right now.

CH: You’ve long had Sociosights Press, but you’ve recently expanded your role as publisher. How would you describe the mission of Sociosights Press? What has inspired you to turn more of your energy toward publishing? Has your training as a sociologist influenced your work as a publisher?

DW: The mission of Sociosights Press is “Transforming society, one story at a time.”

I’ve turned more of my energy towards publishing because people keep coming to me with projects they want published, and since I’ve done 6 books, I have a lot of experience I can offer to people just starting out. My training as a sociologist has influenced my work as a publisher to the degree that I’m interested in using the books I publish as a way to bring out marginalized voices whose stories have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

CH: Ahuva Batya Scharff’s Meeting God at Midnight (Sociosights Press, 2014) garnered the “Best Book of Poetry” award in 2014 from the Texas Author’s Association, and I know it must be gratifying to see your work as a publisher being acknowledged in this way. Does Sociosights Press have projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

DW: I’m super-excited about a book that the Press will publish either in 2016 or 2017. Lori Sales Kline has written a delightful book, Almost a Minyan, which is a coming-of-age story of a young Jewish girl. I had the good fortune of meeting a masterful children’s illustrator, Susan Simon, when I did a workshop at the Highlights Foundation several years ago. I managed to talk Susan into illustrating this book, which I’m pretty sure is going to win major Jewish children’s book awards.

I also have the honor and privilege of publishing Sacred River: Poems from India, a chapbook collection from Shubh Shiesser, an Indian-American feminist role model whose poetry shines with stories “bucking” the patriarchal world in which she was raised.

CH: What writers inspire you? Who are your strongest influences?

DW: I can quote Dr. Seuss. As a child, I read all the Newberry Medal award winners. I particularly love Madeleine L’Engle’s book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Lately I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs, my two recent favorites have been [Joan Didion’s] “A Year of Magical Thinking” and Leah Lax’s “Uncovered.”

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

DW: The most recent poetry book I’ve read is my wife and heart partner Cindy Huyser’s award-winning chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. I don’t read a lot of poetry books, I am usually exposed to poetry by going to readings. I’m lucky and blessed that Austin has a terrific community of poets and wonderful venues and support for poets, from Poetry at Round Top to the Austin International Poetry Festival, to splendid weekly and monthly open mic sessions all around town.

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 Ken Fontenot

Poet and novelist Ken Fontenot will be the featured reader on November 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Ken Fontenot’s most recent book of poetry, Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006 – 2013, was published in 2015 by Pinyon Publishing. He is the author of the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, which has been reissued by Alamo Bay Press in 2015. His poetry collection In a Kingdom of Birds won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best book of poetry in Texas in 2012. Fontenot’s translations of contemporary German poems have appeared widely. He recently translated Wilhelm Genazino’s novel, Women Softly Singing. A native New Orleanian, he lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? To engage in longer fiction? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KF: I started writing at twenty-one, but I was a late bloomer considering many, especially women (via my experience), start writing seriously at eight or nine.  At that age they are no virtuosos, but they still have an advantage over those who begin later by having more years to develop as writers. By the age of twenty-one, they already have significant gains, in reading as well as writing.

My own writing grew out of psychological needs, in my case the need to overcome clinical depression.  And in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, three famous poets–Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni–gave a reading at Tulane University, and I was in the huge audience.  I was impressed, knowing this was my calling.  My first publication that spring was in the Tulane newspaper, a bad imitation of Ginsberg’s “America,” but in retrospect, from my limited and naive viewpoint as a beginner, I was still as high as Mount Everest.

CH: You have published both a novel (For Mr. Raindrinker) and two poetry collections (In a Kingdom of Birds and Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006-2013), as well as good deal of work in translation. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

KF: Rilke said, that for a poet writing fiction, some great and undeniable event must happen to make him/her willing to engage in the struggle of spending several years at prose. In my case, it was a stint in a mental institution, which I consider seminal in my growth as a writer and as a human being.

I identify myself as a writer engaged in Southern regionalism with a cosmopolitan outlook. Many writers are hacks.  If they don’t write for money, they write for prestige.  Even Shakespeare was a hack, albeit a good one.  But neither money nor prestige is guaranteed.  Yet, on a deeper level, authors write because they have to, because they can’t stop. Like smoking. And we can be as little certain whether what we write will last as we are in guessing how many years we still have to live. I have lost much of my ego, so I write simply because the outer world I live in–its people–have encouraged me to keep going.  In 1990 one of my former German students at LSU in Baton Rouge told me, after 12 or thirteen years of study beyond high school and qualifying as a surgeon, that he now has a “trade.”  And that’s how I feel with poetry:  I have a trade.

CH: How did you first become interested in translation? How have you gone about finding work to translate?

KF: My academic credentials are in German language and literature.  The fact is, every time I encounter the German language, I translate it in my head, whether it’s spoken or written.  That’s just what people do who practice a second language (in my case third, the other being French). Translation, then, especially of the literature I admire, becomes something else to do when I’m not able to do my own poetry.

I’m not interested in translating German literature written before, say, 1960.  Many other translators have done so in a definitive way.  Most of those poets (including women like Droste-Hülshoff or Else Lasker-Schüler) are now already fully transcultural.  The German poet Ludwig Steinherr (b. 1962) is a friend, still alive, and I like translating him because he is an innovator in his unique poetic language that continues to evolve.

CH: How has translation influenced your poetry and prose? What are its gifts? Its challenges?

KF: Translating seems to me at times to be impossible work.  First, the act of interpretation must happen, both what the original author says and how that author says it.  How much should one adhere to the original, and how much stray from it in search of a brilliant rendering in the target language? Are completely free renderings (versions) allowed? Puns are practically impossible to deal with, and one move might be to replace them with doable puns in the target language.

The process of translation involves such a concentration in language use that I almost always come away with either memorable words or memorable syntax.  And who can say where these things will pop up in my own poems, albeit unconsciously.?

Really the only problem which translations don’t solve concerns the cultural atmosphere in which a poem takes place.  A reader won’t necessarily understand the local things endemic to that culture.  But then so many poems in English need footnotes to their allusions in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.  I see no difference.

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?

KF: Robert Hass said in a poem, “all the new thinking is about loss.  In this it resembles all the old thinking.”  Loss, transformation, a great astonishment at simply being alive in an often beautiful world: all these inform my work.

With respect to images, the sun, the moon, and the struggle between light and darkness in both the physical and the symbolic senses–these things occur frequently.  Animals show up a lot.  In Just a Trace of Moon, music is a recurring theme, a leitmotif around which the collection is built.

CH: Your novel, For Mr. Raindrinker, was recently re-released by Alamo Bay Press. How did this re-release come about?

KF: For Mr. Raindrinker was originally published in 2010 by Chuck Taylor’s Slough Press, then located in College Station, Texas.  Mick White assembled that text to be sent to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company.  Mick went on to Alamo Bay Press where he showed the novel to the director, Pam Booten.  She liked it enough to reissue it with new artwork on the cover, artwork done by a painter with a gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  Her name is Mina Zavala Lanzas.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet? How has your work in poetry influenced your prose?

KF: Originality results from the complexity of influences.  One woman I mentored said she was afraid that by reading someone else, his or her style might somehow have a detrimental effect on her writing.  I said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It doesn’t work that way.  Just read.  Keep reading and the influences will sort themselves out in their own manner.”

The theory of the writing process is no secret.  Read something, then write something.  Read something else, then write something else, and show, by what you have written, what you have learned. Of course, it’s not quite so simple.  The processes of seeing, remembering, and experience with the world must come into play.  To continue to test the limits of syntax and diction: that’s what I shoot for.

Since my novel claims to be lyrical, there are individual poems in there–two or three.  But a parataxis is included even in the prose itself. In two sections, for example, I make use of the list device Whitman was so fond of.

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

KF: I have read so many poets intensively that if I started listing them, I would leave most of them out.  Some are Robert Bly, James Wright,  Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, those American poets of my father’s generation.  Too, there’s the New York School of Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

Foreign influences include Tranströmer, Ritsos, Apollinaire, Desnos, Jacob, Jozsef, Vallejo, Lorca and all the Spanish surrealists.  Of course there are my exact contemporaries as well as the roughly two generations born since I was born.  It’s so hard to keep up, but I do my best.

The influences in my fiction have been mostly the German writers and filmmakers I encountered doing coursework as an undergraduate and graduate student.  In Raindrinker I tried to create a unique first-person narrator with all the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

My favorite books have to do with classical music and jazz:  The Lives of the Great Composers, Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz, and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

CH: What projects are you working on now?

KF: At the moment I’m writing as few new poems as possible.  Rather, I’m going back to poems written since 1996 or so and seeing if I can breathe new life into those which are not beyond repair.  Revision means much to me.  I belong to a poetry critique group that meets once a month.  There I can get great feedback on how my poems strike other poets, who often happen to be the ideal readers, too.

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

KF: I’ve most recently been reading the collected poems of Frank Stanford who died so young at 30. Actually, I know writers in New Orleans, former friends of Frank.  His poetry is filled with narrative localisms of rural Arkansas along with surrealism.  It’s quite good.  I met him once, I think, in the spring of 1978 at the home of fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist, living at that time uptown in New Orleans’ Garden District.

A Virtual Interview with Logen Cure

Poet Logen Cure will be the featured reader on October 8, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for October’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Logen Cure is a poet and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015); Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015); and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Her work also appears in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Dallas-Fort Worth with her wife.

You can learn more about Logan at www.logencure.com.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer?

LC:I’ve always loved words. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents took us to the library for fun. My great aunt was an English teacher her entire career; she introduced me to many of my favorite poets. I am fortunate to have a supportive family. They’ve always valued my work and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Thanks to them, I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t consider myself a writer.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA? How did you choose the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for your program?

LC: To be honest, I hit my junior year at Texas A&M and realized I had no idea what I wanted to do with my English degree. I talked with my English professors about my options for grad school. I wasn’t aware MFA programs existed until I started having those conversations. My mentor told me she didn’t think a PhD program would be the right fit for me and essentially dared me to apply to as many of the top MFA programs as I possibly could. So I did.

At that time, UNCG was ranked in the top ten. I visited Greensboro and found that it is just relentlessly gorgeous. I had a connection there, Alan Brilliant, the founder of Unicorn Press. I took a class on bookmaking with him at A&M shortly before he moved to Greensboro. Those things made UNCG my top choice of the eight programs I applied to. Strangely enough, it was my only choice; I got seven rejections and one acceptance. I was fortunate to be accepted at all, given how competitive those programs are. I was one of six poets in my year.

CH: How did your writing change in the course of obtaining your MFA? What were the MFA program’s greatest contributions to you as a writer? What were its biggest drawbacks?

LC:I never set foot in a poetry workshop before my MFA program. As an undergraduate, I took fiction courses because I saw prose as my weakness. I had poet-friends and regular readers I could depend on for feedback, but the immersion in workshop was a big change for me. I am a slow writer by nature, so the structure and expectations of workshop forced me to adapt. I learned to not toil too hard over the first draft; just write it. That alone changed my writing significantly. My work took turns I never expected.

The greatest contribution would definitely be the time. During those two years, I had the space and support to make poetry my first priority. Before that, poetry was something I madly pursued between other obligations. That was a tremendous and life-changing gift. I made lasting connections with people whose work I am still learning from; I was introduced to authors and ideas I’d never considered; I worked hard on poems that still make me proud today.

The drawbacks: I was 22. I know I could have gained more from the experience had I been smarter and more mature. I’m better at networking and advocating for myself now. If I could do it again, I would take full advantage of all the available resources. I wish I had learned more about the submission and publication process. I wish I had asked more questions to my mentors and the writers they brought in to visit us. I wish I had gained more teaching experience.

I think it all happened the way it did for a reason. My MFA helped me get my foot in the door as a higher ed professional (I’m an academic advisor and creative writing instructor), so my post-grad-school life has been pretty great.

CH: How do your three chapbooks (In Keeping (Unicorn Press, 2008), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press, 2015), and Still (Finishing Line Press, 2015) relate to one another? Tell us a little about each.

LC:In Keeping is a spoken word chapbook and CD. It was originally conceived during the bookmaking class with Alan Brilliant. In 2006, I self-published a book, Something of a Mess. Another member of Al’s class partnered with me to create In Keeping as a companion to Mess. Together we selected the best spoken word pieces, then recorded and edited them. Al decided to move forward with the project via Unicorn and my first chapbook was born.

Letters to Petrarch and Still were written largely during my MFA years. Together, they’re pretty much my master’s thesis. I started working on Letters to Petrarch my senior year at A&M. I took an independent study to research and read Petrarch’s Canzoniere and other works, so I arrived at UNCG with this very clear goal in mind. The poems in Still were the result of my mental breaks from Letters to Petrarch over the years. The poems in Still were not written with the idea that they would occupy a book together.

Petrarch was the 14th-century Italian poet who popularized the sonnet and romantic love poetry. The Canzoniere contains 366 poems, composed over decades of his life, all centered around a figure he calls Laura. The story goes that he met Laura once, maybe from across a room, and fell in love with her instantly and permanently. There’s speculation that she was either a figment of his imagination or a real woman who was already married when he met her. Either way, this was not someone he knew personally. All the love poetry tropes we think are cliche now—her lovely eyes, her lovely hands—that’s Petrarch. His poems are complicated: he loves her but he’s furious with her; he praises her then blames her; she is at once an angel and his captor. So here’s a guy who not only changed poetry as we know it for a woman he never knew, but also managed to render perfectly so many of the feelings I had about my own love and loss.

I had so many questions in response to that. How could the work of a 14th-century sonneteer resonate so deeply with a modern-day queer woman poet? How could he feel all these things for someone he never spent time with? How much does anyone ever really know anyone else? To what degree are we all figments to each other, even in our most intimate relationships? I think everyone has a Laura—someone they love in this big, overwhelming way, even if it’s doomed or impossible or unattainable. I decided to tell Petrarch the only thing I knew about that he didn’t. I conflate my Laura with his and recount for him a single day spent with her. The poems alternate between letters and prayers corresponding to the canonical hours, which is how Petrarch would have conceptualized time. Petrarch also wrote a lot of letters, including one to posterity—me, you, everyone. I thought it was the least I could do to write him back. Letters to Petrarch is far and away the most challenging project I’ve completed thus far.

Still, like I said, wasn’t originally conceived as a project. I realized I had enough poems to make a second chapbook. When I sat down with what I had, I found the poems were not as disparate as I thought. The speaker in these poems is grappling with coming of age, trauma, loss, and identity. I won’t lie, some of the poems in Still are pretty bleak. The book is certainly more optimistic near the end. Fun fact for the Austin audience: the collection opens on a poem called “Sixth Street.”

CH: What would you describe as your obsessions as a writer? How do these obsessions figure in your chapbooks?

LC: I’m definitely a confessional poet. The poems and poets that have meant the most to me come from that tradition. Confessional poetry at its best can be liberating, life-changing. I’m obsessed with several questions surrounding truth-as-liberation. How do you be yourself? What is honesty? What can I do with my voice? How can I make connections with the world, other poets, and readers? How can I tell stories and render emotion in an accessible way? My chapbooks are all different iterations of the attempt to reach out for connection.

CH: How did you go about find publishers for your chapbooks?

LC:I was fortunate to encounter Alan Brilliant and Unicorn Press so early in my writing career. In Keeping was a very right-place-right-time situation. Letters to Petrarch is sort of a peculiar project. I wanted it to come from Unicorn because that’s part of what they do—publish peculiar projects—but also because Al has been such an influential force for me. Unicorn Press makes books by hand; they always have. Letters to Petrarch is a gorgeous, artfully-made hardback chapbook. I am honored and humbled to be a part of Unicorn’s venerable catalog.

Still is published by Finishing Line Press. I learned about the press from an editor that rejected me, actually. I received a printed form rejection with single hand-written line at the bottom: “Try Finishing Line.” I submitted the manuscript to a Finishing Line contest. I didn’t win, but the editors wrote to me and said they wanted to publish my book anyway. Finding publishers has been a combination of dogged persistence and random luck, I think.

CH: Of the authors whose work you first encountered during your MFA, which are your favorites? How has their work influenced your writing?

LC:Oh, there were so many. I was introduced to the work of CK Williams and had the opportunity to see him read. Same with Ellen Bryant Voigt. I went to AWP one year, where I saw Natasha Trethewey. I read Lynda Hull, Anne Carson, Robin Ekiss, and Terrance Hayes, among others. Good writing comes from good reading. My MFA taught me about the value of imitation as a generative and educational process. When I read, I’m always looking for ways to raise the bar on my own work. How do these poets do what they do? How can I do that?

CH: As a poet, I find community essential for giving me critical feedback as well as to help me expand my exposure to published and performed works. Post-MFA, how have you found community that has supported you as a writer?

LC: Yes, I agree that community is essential. I won’t lie, I had a hard time post-MFA. I burned out for a while; didn’t write a single word. After we moved back to Texas, it took some time for me to start writing again and find my people. I scoured the internet for readings, critique groups, and open mics around DFW. I finally attended an open mic in Dallas where I met a few people to cultivate friendships with. Those connections lead to more connections. You just have to show up. Support people. Engage on social media and promote each other. Say yes. Yes, I will read for you. Yes, I will teach that workshop. Yes, I’ll spread the word about your publication. Yes, I can help you make this event a reality. My DFW community is gracious and wonderful; I am so thankful to have found it. I do my best to branch out and find my people where they gather. AIPF (Austin International Poetry Festival), for example, where I met you, Cindy!

CH: What’s your next project? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

LC: I’m working on a full-length manuscript right now. I grew up queer in a super conservative West Texas town. The project includes a coming-of-age arc alongside poems about my hometown and the desert. So you’ve got these growing-up moments through a queer lens, like prom and learning to drive a standard car, next to poems about bizarre desert creatures, weather, historical events, etc. The common thread is survival in a harsh environment. My project is research-heavy. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years. I’d like to have it completed and find it a home within the next 5 years.

Right now, I’m a full-time academic advisor and adjunct instructor for Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. I love both jobs, but I am super busy all the time. In the next 5 years, I’d love to have a full-time teaching gig and only have that one job, leaving more hours in the day for poetry.

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

LC: I keep coming back to Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler lately. I’m trying to spend time with books that are a similar concept to my desert manuscript. Smith writes in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, shows us New Orleans and some of its characters. She incorporates true stories and excerpts from the media. The book is heartbreaking and difficult and I learn something different every time I pick it up. I highly recommend it.

A Virtual Interview with Cheney Crow

Poet Cheney G. Crow will be the featured reader on September 10, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for September’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Cheney Crow began writing as a young girl in Washington DC.  She earned her BA at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2014 she completed her MFA in poetry at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, The hiatus between arts degrees included more than a decade in Europe, a PhD in Applied Linguistics, and many years of teaching at UT.

In the last year Cheney’s poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, the online journal Human Equity through Art (HEART), the arts magazine Terminus, and Tupelo Quarterly, where her poem was a semifinalist in theTQ7 contest, and will be included in the anthology Best of Tupelo Quarterly. Her ekphrastic poem “Execution at the Temple” was selected for honorable mention in the 2014 Maine Media Character Contest. Last fall Cheney gave a workshop called “Claiming Collective Wisdom” at the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival. In 2016 one of her poems will appear in the Texas Poetry Calendar.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

CC: I first remember writing in second grade, a “book” (based on Nancy Drew), called “The Mystery of the Hidden Staircase.”  I bound the pages by hand, drew a cover illustration and took it to school, where I added a library-style card that allowed my classmates to check it out. About the staircase – IT was hidden, but not in the sense one might think — one day it was missing! Ah, suspension of disbelief…

CH: II understand you spent many years as a sculptor. I also know that you have a PhD in Applied Linguistics, in addition to your arts degrees (including your MFA in poetry). As an artist, how would you describe yourself?

CC: I don’t believe one chooses art;  I believe art imposes itself, announces itself as a compulsion, something that must emerge. The form art takes is personal, and might be based on opportunity.

For me it was dance and music early on. I began writing songs as a 10-year-old, when I got my first guitar, so if you don’t count my spontaneous public ballet performances for my parents’ friends or my highly vocal enactments of my mother’s favorite opera arias (death scenes of the female leads in Madame Butterfly, Tosca and La Bohème)…I’d say performing music for wounded veterans air-evacuated to military hospitals in the DC area was the beginning.

By the time I was a senior in high school I was writing essays about the role of the artist in society.  The main argument of these essays was that the artist has a responsibility to society.  In a world where total annihilation was possible, I argued that the artist must present work that the public can both understand and participate in — that public interaction with art creates a dialogue necessary to society.  All this before I considered myself an artist.  I was preoccupied with the anti-war movement, politically active, working summers at the Capitol.  I got permission to spend the first anniversary of MLK’s death in my dorm room meditating and reading Gandhi.  I was a high school senior.

I still believe all those things. The critical decision in my life was the shift in focus from politics to art as a vehicle for change.  This happened when I was in my early 20s — I realized the inconsistencies and the ephemeral nature of political movements and attitudes; I began to believe that change can only come one person at a time. I looked to what lasts over centuries, and can change a life.  The answer was art.

Until this time I was performing music, learning sculpture, but my focus had been political. When I chose sculpture as a way of life, it was also because the pursuit of art is an evolving question; each piece leads inexorably to the next, in ways grossly evident in sculpture; one can begin with a two-ton piece of stone and keep revising until it fits in a pocket!  The challenge is stopping.  That’s true in all arts.  Carving stone, your second draft is a new sculpture, begun with what you learned by the end of the first one – how it should have begun, or what should be altered, how or when it should end.

CH: For me, image and sound in poetry can inform it in a way that seems similar to material choice in sculpture. How would you describe the relationship between sculpture and poetry? How does your experience as a sculptor figure in your work?

CC: Sculpture in stone is a full-body experience.  That’s not part of poetry, but all the rest of sculpture is: choice of subject matter, line-by-line decisions, rhythm of form and coherence of line, a certain inevitability that should emanate from the piece — the need not to have a favorite side, section, or line.

In the carving process there are many tools, each with a different rhythm, so rhythm is part of sculpture, too. Sculpture shapes my poetry: all my poems begin as image and feeling, not words.  I seek words to embody the image, but I don’t feel a need to be totally clear.  I know that comes from my training in sculpture —“if you have to explain it, you haven’t finished”…

I like making something that engages the reader, viewer, listener, with something recognizable, but with room for interpretation. A sculpture does that: it’s an offering.  A viewer can see it all at once, or look into its lines and shadows, its many angles, its subtleties.  It’s all about discovery, despite the obvious form.

CH: I recall Gertrude Stein attributing the expatriate environment of France with helping her distill and create English anew in her work. Were you engaged in creative writing during your many years abroad? How did your expatriate experience influence your relationship with language?

CC: Goodness, yes (was I engaged in writing)!  Writing has always been how I kept track of my emotional world, which was constantly changing. I have an essay on 2 rolls of floral-bordered paper towels about the nefarious influence politics of the cold war would have on love. I knew everyone at my school would melt if Washington were bombed.  I wrote that essay as a suicide note in seventh grade!

When I moved to France I was 19. I stayed in Europe for all but one semester until I was in my mid thirties. Before email or cell phones.  Eight of those years were in France, six without speaking English.  Although I was fluent in French at an academic level when I arrived (Sarah Lawrence required fluency for working individually with French professors) —I could read and discuss Marx or Plato or Jean-Jacques Rousseau — I was not fluent in culture or identity.

Joining another culture is the ultimate work of translation, finding a “voice” for your self – your cultural equivalent — in a somewhat familiar, but truly unknown environment.  One begins from scratch.  This was self-evident in France and Spain, but England took me by surprise.  A very different language from American, even East Coast/New England American, and a culture far more foreign to my upbringing than France.  I moved to Spain aware of the challenge, and welcomed it.  One becomes a bit of a chameleon, I suppose, fitting oneself to each culture in ways that are most comfortable, with the perennial “get out of jail free” card of being a foreigner if one guesses wrong.

CH: How is your training as a linguist reflected in your poetry? Are there linguists whose work you would cite as an influence?

CC: My focus in linguistics was phonetics and neurolinguistics —  specifically speech production, a miraculous dialogue of the brain with all our articulators, a dialogue that differentiates for each language, each set of speech sounds. The rules that govern them, their order, their melody and rhythm.  I love the discoveries of language at both extremes, the physical and the philosophical.

As influences I’d cite Bjorn Lindblom, Harvey Sussman and Peter MacNeilage for opening my mind to phonetics, neurolinguistics, language acquisition, and speech production, then Wittgenstein because of his interest in the relationship between language, culture and thought, a sort of chicken-and-egg question, since the vocabulary and gestures of each language describe relationships that are often intrinsic to the social and cultural ethos it enacts.  Every bilingual person knows there are thoughts you won’t have in a language that has no word for it – that a language is a doorway to a new relationship with both the physical world and the humans around you.  We’ve all heard about the many words for snow in Eskimo.  It’s that kind of thing: what you can conceive of is limited by the words and concepts we have at our disposal! Wittgenstein says it well. Of course, in German you can invent a word if you need it.  In English we do less of that, use the same word for multiple contexts, like “like”… a paring down of expressive vocabulary is hard at work in our American language. Did Hemingway start that trend with his abbreviated syntax?

CH: What launched you on a trajectory toward poetry? What made you decide to get an MFA?

CC: My mother launched me. She was very musical, and she loved poetry.  She read to me rhythmically. Long before I could read she insisted I learn and recite poems by heart at every occasion: birthdays, holidays, bedtime.

I began writing my own poems in grade school, and never stopped, although I kept sculpture and music in the foreground of my artistic expression.  All that ended with my arm injury, which required a new career and a different arm. Hence the linguistics, which (barely) paid the bills but never fed me as an artist.  When I couldn’t draw, carve, or play music, writing became my primary expressive mode.  The compulsion to art was instantly limited to writing, which, over time, refined itself, but I knew I lacked craft.

Having assiduously devoted myself to the craft skills of the arts I had practiced professionally (music and figurative sculpture), I knew craft was the path to more options, better tools, for what I had to express.  I think that’s true of all arts.  Anyone can have a moment of inspiration that produces something magical.  I’ve seen it happen – a composer who wakes up in the night with an entire piece in a dream.  Lots of musicians talk about that gift.  But writing it down takes a set of skills.  So does improving the work we generate in poems.

As soon as my daughter finished graduate school, and I could quit teaching, I devoted myself full time to learning craft.  I approached it as a beginner learning piano scales. I went to workshops with experienced poets, beginning with a Sarah Lawrence professor, until finally I was working with Ellen Bryant Voigt, founder of Warren Wilson College, who encouraged me to apply. I had taken workshops with three poets who had said the same thing. It was time.

CH: How did you go about choosing Warren Wilson for your MFA program?

CC: I knew Warren Wilson was the right place for me because equal weight is given to craft analysis and creative work. There is a huge analytical focus that forces students to delve deep into a single craft features in one poem, sometimes even one stanza. Working one-on-one is what I knew as an undergrad, and Warren Wilson sustains a blend of brilliance, rigor, and freedom of investigation reminiscent of what I had fallen in love with at Sarah Lawrence.

At Warren Wilson there isn’t just one star teacher; they are all brilliant poets and demanding teachers, pushing students to discovery through extremely hard work. A different mentor each semester helps you design and carry out a program that adapts your individual writing needs and goals to the program’s analytical exigencies.

I could describe my experience as something akin to being pushed out a high window by someone with a net you can’t see. The student body was as astounding and varied as the faculty.  I felt myself a newt among ancient frogs; most of my fellow students were new BFAs or English PhDs, long-time poetry profs.  Very deep water. Thankfully, about a quarter of us were less-versed professionals from non-English-major backgrounds.

CH: Name three or more poets whose work has influenced your own. How can their influence be seen in your work?

CC: My earliest influence was Akmatova.  I began reading her work in college, and it’s obvious now that her raw emotions and compact, image-laden small stanzas shaped what my work would become years later.  More recently, I would say Frank Bidart, for his ability to use multiple voices, the seamless interweave of emotion and idea. Finally, I’ll name Ilya Kaminsky, for what feels like a sprinkling of magic that renders even poems about Soviet atrocities beautiful to read. This brings me to a fourth poet I want to name, my friend and classmate Laura Swearingen-Steadwell, a Cave Canem Fellow known on the slam circuit as Laura Yes-Yes.  Laura said something in a workshop at Frost Place last month about how dark poems need a “release valve.” Just the right word.  What I’m looking for lately.

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

CC: Last Psalm at Sea Level  by Meg Day, who read at Bookwoman in July. Her images are extraordinary, and even her titles are compelling.  The poems themselves are as evocative and other-worldly as some of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s, yet they are grounded in a terse, tense field of reality. Impressive.

CH: What are you working on now? Where do you see your work going?

CC: I have a book-length manuscript that follows something of a narrative arc around a particular theme.  I’ve been sending it out, but I’ve also come to believe it needs a lot more work, or that I’d like to reshape it.

Currently I’m focusing on a series of poems that came out of the two months I’ve spent in Valencia, Spain over the last year, and where I’m returning mid-September. My experience there was equally external and internal.  Living in a city founded long before the Roman empire, in a building with a convent, during months laced with enormous religious celebrations, day-long processions honoring Christianity and Valencia’s Moorish history, it was impossible not to address questions of history and faith.  I believe these poems will become at least a chapbook within the next year. That’s the goal I’ve set for this work.  I never know where the work is going.  I follow it as it comes and then do my best to craft it.  For some poems the process takes years.

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.

A Virtual Interview with Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein

Poet Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein will be the featured reader on Thursday, July 9, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for July’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein is the author of 3 collections of poetry: Peace in the Corazon for which she won the Premio Poesia Tejana, Another Water Bug is Murdered While It Rains in Texas, and her latest book, Te Prometo, which debuted in February 2015. Her work has appeared in the anthologies, This Promiscuous Light, Cantos al Sexto Sol and Penguin Press’s first Latina collection ¡Floricanto Si¡; it has also been featured in the San Antonio Express-News, The Current, Backbeat MagazineThe Texas Observer and by NPR. Originally from San Antonio’s west side, Garcia-Zapata lives and writes in San Antonio’s Art Deco District with her family.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? How did you become interested in writing?

VGK: I’ve been writing since grade school. I first became interested in writing in Ms. Evans’ 2nd grade class where she had us memorize and recite poetry. Before that I became interested in language when my father first introduced me to Shakespeare at the age of 3. This was also when he taught me how to read. Then I was able to sneak into my mom’s bedroom closet and read her original poetry. She was my first influence as a poet who code switches.

CH: You have had success in both slam and page poetry worlds. How do these two worlds come together in you? Do you consider yourself primarily a spoken word artist or a page poet – or some combination of both?

VGK: I feel that I am a combination of both page poet and spoken word artist. This comes together for me in that I only write about what I feel passionate about. Although I respect and admire slam poets, I don’t consider myself a slam poet. I simply read with emotion.

CH: Your new collection, Te Prometo, came out just this year from Paloma Press. Tell us about this book and how you came to write it.

VGK: I started writing my latest collection of poetry, Te Prometo, with the title poem, after I’d been contemplating how I came to be suicidal and enraged. I knew I needed to write in order to heal. At first I had the poems all mixed up and lumped together. Then it started to formulate. The book is in four parts. The first section, El Amor, starts out with an erotic love poem for my husband, “Ode to Your Giving,” and ends with “A mi mujer,” which explores my bisexuality. The second section, La Verdad, is about my paternal grandmother and ends with a prayer-like poem, “La Virgencita Speaks to Immigrant Children.” The third section, La Muerte, is mostly political poems and the last section, El Horror, deals with child sexual abuse.

CH: You have been writing for some time, and Wings Press published your full-length collection, Peace in the Corazón, and your chapbook, Another Waterbug is Murdered While It Rains in Texas, in the 1990s. What was different for you in publishing Te Prometo from the earlier volumes? How has your writing evolved over time?

VGK: It was so much harder to publish Te Prometo than my earlier work. Due to the subject matter and content, publishers were afraid of getting sued. So I felt silenced all over again when it came to any abuse I had endured. As for the evolution of my writing, I spent so much more time editing and revising. Almost a year producing it and getting it ready for publication.

CH: What is your writing practice like? How have you gone about envisioning and creating your books? What have you done to develop yourself as a writer?

VGK: I usually write late at night. I write with a pen in journals. Then if I feel a poem has come from the writing I rewrite the core of the poem then revise it. I don’t usually type until I’m ready to polish and finalize it. After I’ve written something I feel needs to be shared I put all of my time and energy producing a collection to formulate into a book. My first book addresses domestic violence, the second one, mental illness and the third, child sexual abuse. These are all subjects which people don’t like to talk about, and that is what I’m trying to change. I want to create dialogue and awareness. As far as developing myself as writer, I have taken master classes in creative writing with Pat Mora, Gary Soto, Joy Harjo, Martin Espada, and Sandra Cisneros. I was part of Macondo before it was named Macondo.

CH: Your work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including This Promiscuous Light: Young Woman Poets of San Antonio (1996) and ¡Floricanto Sí! A Collection of Latina Poetry (Penguin, 1998). How did these experiences shape your life as a poet? Where do you like to submit poetry (outside of manuscript form)?

VGK: I don’t usually submit my poetry anywhere. I know I should. I’m just terrible about it. The last anthology I submitted to was the forthcoming, Dress Codes co-edited by Tammy Gomez and Crystal Dozier. I’m really honored to be included in this project. Being included in the other anthologies helped shape my life as a poet in that my poetry reached a larger audience.

CH: Name at least three writers whose work has influenced yours. How would you describe their influence?

VGK: There are so many writers who inspire me. Three writers whose work has influenced me would be Sandra Cisneros, Tammy Gomez, and Robert Karimi. All three writers write from a deep and genuine place. The honesty is what inspires me. It gives me the courage to write raw to the bone. I write for people not academia, not for awards but to be rewarded with having an impact on someone else’s life through poetry. I want to give others the courage to share their stories.

CH: If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career—before any of your books had been published—what advice would you give yourself?

VGK: I’m not sure what advice I’d give myself other than to make more time to write more often.

CH: What are you reading now?

VGK: I’m currently reading The Pulse Between Dimensions And The Desert by Rios De La Luz.

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

VGK: The last book of poetry I read was The Possibilities of Mud by Joe Jimenez

A Virtual Interview with ire’ne lara silva

Poet and fiction writer ire’ne lara silva  will be the featured reader on Thursday, June 11, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for June’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Her newest work, Blood Sugar Canto, is forthcoming in 2016 from Saddle Road Press

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? How did you become interested in writing?

ILS: For a very long time. Since I was eight, at least. I was taking an afternoon nap and had a nightmare that shocked me out of sleep. There wasn’t anyone to comfort me, and for the first of many times, I reached for pen and paper to write it all down and get it out of me. We didn’t have any paper in the house, so I ended up writing my story on a brown paper bag.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known I wanted to write. I fell in love with the alphabet my first day of kindergarten. Words and books came soon after. I was a reader in love with every new book.

CH: You have published full-length books of both poetry and fiction, in addition to chapbooks of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you consider yourself primarily a poet or a fiction writer … or does your identity as a writer lie in a different area?

ILS: I like being described as a poet and short story writer, but before it’s all done, I want to add essayist, novelist, and children’s book writer. I’m good with WRITER, but I think other people might always think of me as POET first. Which I don’t have a problem with—sound, music, and intensity will always be my first concerns in relation to language. As Jeanette Winterson says in her collection of essays, Art Objects, I don’t think there has to be such a strict division between poetry and prose. It can all be poetry. And it can be prose when it needs to be.

CH: How does your work as a poet influence your fiction? How has your fiction writing influenced your poetry?

ILS: Each of them give me room. Poetry gives me space to be personal and auto-biographical. Fiction gives me the space to be imaginative and to write stories that are like the long and involved story problems that poke and prod at different scenarios and resolutions. They both use concentrated and rhythmic language, but they give me space to enter the other freely. I’m never confused about what a piece is going to turn out to be. Whatever it looks like at the end, whether it’s poetry or prose, it’s free to be what it is.

CH: What is your writing practice like? How have you gone about envisioning and creating your books? What have you done to develop yourself as a writer?

ILS: No practice—other than what I call my guerrilla writing strategies. I write whenever and wherever I can, in as much time as I have. No special time, no special place, no special rituals. I always have a pen and my composition notebook on me, though I much prefer to write on a computer or laptop (mostly cause I can’t read my own handwriting!). I’ve written poems and stories and eventually, entire books this way. My work schedule and my caregiving responsibilities don’t give me the ability to dedicate long hours or entire days/weeks to my writing.  My greatest dream as a writer is a very simple image—a shelf of books with my name on the spine. I point myself in that direction to focus and get oriented.

Each book has been a different journey and a different experience, but each one, at the time I was writing it, was vitally important to me as a person—sometimes as a release, sometimes as a way to figure out what transformation or healing meant, sometimes as a way to strategize my next steps. I think life and writing inform and enrich each other.

To become a writer, I’ve lived. And struggled and rested and had my heart broken. To become a writer, I’ve read voraciously and pursued friendships with others who have also loved language and all the questions this life poses us. I’ve gone to workshops to learn from others and I’ve challenged myself to expand my skill set—as a writer setting words on the page and as a writer living in the world—promoting work, writing reviews and interviews, coordinating readings, offering workshops, all of that.

CH: I have attended workshops where you have had participants throw a grito—a very visceral, powerful experience of embodied voice. How does the grito figure in your work?

ILS: A grito—thrown while sober—is pure voice, pure essence. My thinking with the workshop has been that if you can find the place inside you where your unique grito resides, then you’ve found the place where your unique voice resides. And if you can learn to pull and throw out sound from there, then you can learn to pull emotion and language from there too. So much of the struggle to ‘find’ our voices is actually about learning how to release it from all the constraints that we, our families, others, and our society has put on it.

CH: I understand Saddle Road Press will be publishing Blood Sugar Canto next year. How would you describe this new book? What motivated you to write it? How long did it take you to write it?

ILS: Blood Sugar Canto is a full length collection of free verse poetry that discusses diabetes, family, and individual and communal healing. I was diagnosed as diabetic and started on insulin 7 years ago. I wanted to write about my experience of diabetes and illness—but also I wanted to talk about the need to vanquish fear and all fear-based approaches to healing. I profoundly believe that fear is never healing, that we do injury to our spirit and our lives if we do everything out of fear. I started writing it in the beginning of 2011 and finished it by the beginning of 2012. I spent three more years revising it and looking for a publisher.

CH: How did you find the publishers for furia, flesh to bone, and Blood Sugar Canto? What advice would you give aspiring authors about finding publishers for their work?

ILS: The writing of each book has been completely different—and so has each experience of publication. I actually had a poetry manuscript that I gave up on. I spent seven years sending it out without success. I did put together two chapbooks, ani’mal and INDiGENA from poems in that collection. In 2010, I saw a call for a chapbook contest from Mouthfeel Press. I decided to put together what I would want for a third chapbook, and I decided that if this chapbook didn’t win, I would publish it myself. Furia won. As it was too long for a chapbook, Mouthfeel decided to publish it as a full-length collection.

I wrote one of the first sentences for the short story collection in 1993 and the first draft of the first story in 1996. It wasn’t until 1998 that I decided to jump into the story-telling with both feet.  In mid-2004, I’d finished the first draft of the entire collection. Over the next eight years, I revised it—added stories, deleted stories, tightened the language, transformed the stories. I didn’t keep count but I received at least 20-25 rejections for it, though the rejections became more encouraging in tone with time. I submitted it to Aunt Lute Books in 2011 and heard back in 2012 that they wanted to publish it.

As for Blood Sugar Canto, I spent 2012-2015 revising it and submitting it to different prize competitions and presses. At the end of those three years, I signed a contract with a press. Sadly, we had different visions of the book. Fortunately though I soon found another publisher, Saddle Road Press out of Hawai’i.

I have no idea what the journey’s going to look like for the next book. I am curious to see if it ever gets easier.

My advice for aspiring authors looking for publishers: Read. Find the publishers who are publishing the books you love. Work your ass off learning about the kind of journey you want your book to have and what kind of journey you want to have as a writer. Lastly, trust. Trust that if you hold true to what you believe, then your work will find the right home.

CH: Name at least three writers whose work has influenced yours. How would you describe their influence?

ILS: Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Jeanette Winterson. Francisco Alarcon. Ana Castillo. e.e. cummings. The Bronte Sisters. Lorca. Juan Rulfo. This list could go on for a very long time. They’ve impacted me at every level—from how I think about language and what I think language can do to the choices I make about which stories to tell and how to tell them. I love them all for their brutal honesty and rawness and music.

CH: If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career—before any of your books had been published—what advice would you give yourself?

ILS: For some reason, this is the most difficult question to answer—especially if I have to figure out when the beginning of my writing career was.

At 8 and up until I was 21, writing was succor and escape. I needed it to survive. There is no advice to give myself other than “write.” I didn’t fully commit myself to writing until I was 23. For my 23-year old self, I would say, “Keep on writing, and follow the story you want to write.” I spent many years facing what felt like heated opposition to my way of writing and to the stories I wanted to tell.

Or, if the beginning of my writing career is just before any of my books were published…when I was 34, then I would say, “Hang on and keep on going, because writing books is crazy and wonderful and you’re going to learn so much.”

CH: What are you reading now?

ILS: I just finished Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and while it was wonderful to slip backinto her language, I just wasn’t all that moved or affected by it. (So disappointing.)

I’m in the middle of reading Deborah Miranda’s poetry collection, Raised by Humans, recently published by Tia Chucha Press. Amazingly fierce personal and political poems. Truly astonishing. And I’m about the plunge into Rios de la Luz’s  The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert. I am so intrigued by the description and it was recommended to me very highly.