Tag Archives: Sharon Olds

A Virtual Interview with Amanda Johnston

Amanda Johnston will be the featured reader Thursday, December 13, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of two chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key, and the full-length collection Another Way to Say Enter (Argus House Press). Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle, Pluck!, No, Dear and the anthologies, Small Batch, Full, di-ver-city, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism.

The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, a cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She serves on the Cave Canem Foundation board of directors and currently lives in Texas.

The Interview

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

AJ: Reading. When I was a child, my mother gave me Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I believe it was the risk he took to be daring and surprising in his poetry that pulled me to the page. His subjects and narratives in his work was at times naughty and out of the ordinary. I loved it! I can’t say that I wrote outside of school then, but those poems still excite me today and I turn to them when I forget to have fun with the lines and turn to the unexpected.

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

AJ: I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005 while my husband was in the Army. I worked at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College and started writing with a group on campus and helped with the campus journal, The Heartland Review. That’s when I felt the drive for more. I wanted to read more, write more, and learn more about poetry and the literary world. Shortly after that, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets and was awarded a Cave Canem fellowship. These communities encouraged me to continue writing and to publish professionally. This is when I started ‘doing the work’ seriously on and off the page.

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Southern Main?

AJ: The Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine was the only program I applied to. My friend and Cave Canem faculty, poet Patricia Smith, attended Stonecoast and taught there after graduation. She encouraged me to apply. I learned a long time ago that if Patricia tells you to do something you do it because it will probably change your life for the better. It did! Stonecoast has an incredible faculty, and as a student, I was able to work with Joy Harjo, Tim Seibles, Aaron Hamburger, Ted Deppe, Jim Kelly, Alexs Pate, and Annie Finch. I also took advantage of their study abroad program and attended a summer residency in Dingle, Ireland. Most of all, the program allowed me time to selfishly focus on myself and my writing. I needed that uninterrupted time to listen to the voice within and learn additional tools to help it rise to the page.

CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

AJ: During the program, I took traditional form and cross-genre workshops that broadened the scope of my reading and writing. I wanted more and I needed to understand prosody and apply the study to my work so I could break it down and build it back up. I learned scansion and meter. I learned form. I love to break apart forms and mash them up with others in new ways. The freedom to take control of form and structure, along with time, was the greatest gift. I gained this whole world where other writers were just as curious and focused on the work as I was. That gave me strength and support to continue writing and push my work.

The biggest drawback? It is a financial expense, but one worth making. My husband and I discussed it like buying a new car. Do we need it? Yes. Why? To get to work! I certainly got to work and I would advise anyone considering their MFA to really consider the work they need to get to and how the program as a whole will help them accomplish their goals.

CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?

AJ: I applied to Cave Canem in 2005 and was offered a fellowship that year. I applied because Nikky Finney, a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, encouraged all of us APs to apply. I didn’t know much about it, but again, Nikky is one of those people you better listen to if they give advice.

After attending my first Cave Canem retreat, my life was truly changed. I moved back to Texas that summer and only applied to jobs that would support me creatively as a poet. The home my family chose had to have an office and quiet spaces where I could read and write. Being a Cave Canem fellow reinforced my commitment to poetry and broadened my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Over three years of retreats, I studied with Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afaa Weaver, Cyrus Cassells, Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Erica Hunt, Patricia Smith, and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Guest poets during the retreats included Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. My life changed. My world changed. I couldn’t get enough.

I stayed after graduating to work as retreat staff and served as retreat coordinator until 2017. I now serve on the board of directors. My life is dedicated to Black poetry and supporting marginalized groups across the literary landscape. Becoming a Cave Canem fellow lifted me up in such a way that I can’t image not having this opportunity for others. My writing is stronger because of this house and my dedication to the community is unwavering.

CH: Tell us a little about the Affrilachian Poets. How does this community nurture you as a writer?

AJ: The Affrilachian Poets is a collective of poets from the Appalachian region. Poet Frank X Walker, a Danville, Kentucky native, coined the term in the ‘90s when he didn’t see people of color included in the definition of appalachians. He didn’t see himself. Along with other founding members, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, and others, they formed the Affrilachian Poets to give voice to their experiences and the experiences of other people of color from the region.

In 2004, while living in Kentucky, I was inducted into the APs as part of the second generation, the first group of inductees after its formation. As an AP, I was able to explore my writing and history wholly without restraint. I felt free writing in community with others who looked like me and understood what it means to be Black in America and daring to write about it. Because of the Affrilachian Poets, Kentucky will always be my poetic birthplace. My time there with them gave me the foundation I needed to carry my work forward with pride and purpose.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Way to Say Enter. How would you compare the experience of putting this full-length collection together vs. that of composing your chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key?

AJ: Another Way to Say Enter is the gathering of many years of writing into a meditation on my personal journey of womanhood. It’s not soft. It’s not pretty. If anything, I hope it’s honest and carries the places that hurt toward healing. I hope readers find the poems in this collection and know that they are not alone.

It took time and the support of an incredible editor, Teneice Durrant founder of Argus House Press, to see this book become reality. It didn’t follow the business of production. Putting this collection together took patience and compassion and I’m thankful she was able to offer that to me and my book.

GUAP and Lock & Key were personal projects that I arranged and produced. I had complete control. Each of these projects were necessary to make way to grow and enter the next phase of work. AWSE is only a year old, but I can feel the seeds starting to take root for what’s to come. It’s all part of the process of listening and staying present with the work.

CH: How has your experience teaching at Stonecoast influenced your writing?

AJ: Being that I attended Stonecoast, I want to provide the same experience I received as a student for my students. This means I read a lot! I dive into what they are interested in and that often opens up a new world of work to me. Creating coursework for workshop and individual intense study requires I offer my knowledge and experience, but stay open to the riff and flow of each student’s own needs and growth. It keeps me on my toes and I learn so much in the process. They inspire me and it makes me hold myself accountable to them and my own work. I fully believe you must practice what you teach! 

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

AJ: Anything by Lucille Clifton because she gives me permission to write short poems that cut and love deeply. And anything by Sharon Olds because she gives me permission to write the personal, intimate, experience through my own lens without blinking.

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

AJ: On my desk right now are Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez and Monument by Natasha Trethewey

 

A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.

A Virtual Interview with Griselda Castillo

Background

Griselda Castillo will be the featured reader Thursday, June 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX

Griselda Castillo is an unapologetically bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is a first-generation American and explores her Mexican-American heritage and identity in much of her work. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Spark + Blink, Unlikely Strangers, Chachalaca Review, and the di-vers-city anthology.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What is your first memory of writing?

GC: My first memory of writing goes deep. I don’t remember how young I was but I remember watching the cool important people writing. The scientists on TV, the news anchors shuffling white paper, David Letterman’s note cards. Were they blue?

As a kid, I would pretend I was a scientist taking notes that were really just scribbles. I would play news anchors with my little brother. We wrote stories about what had happened at the house or in the neighborhood that day and reported them later. Top stories were us making fun of our other siblings and stuff.

My first memories of poetry are more ambivalent. Kinda like my poems, surprise! I remember the initial complicated feelings that pushed me to frustration and thinking just say what you mean. Get on with it. I also remember seeing my sister write poems with abandon. And how she was the only one in the family who I ever saw writing more than their homework. She shared them unabashedly too. She used to call the radio station, recite a poem to the DJ…and get it played live on the radio! Fearless. Those are my two first memories of poetry as an art form.

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

GC: Probably in college. I was a theater major at first but quickly questioned if that was the right path for me. I was very disappointed in the lack of diverse roles and the rigor of the major was sort of ridiculous to me. Having come from a fine arts high school, I expected something a bit more… well collegiate. But it felt too chaotic for me.

I took a poetry and politics class that was taught by 3 professors who lectured and discussed with students during the same one class. We read and learned about Vietnam, watched Apocalypse Now and read Douglas Anderson, The Iliad and The Odyssey. I felt my world shift. I saw with eyes for the first time. Through the cross pollination of all of that media, I got Vietnam. It was a thing in our consciousness. I also began to understand how I could convey what I contained in a controlled context. And how, when a poet can articulate all those things well, it feels powerful. It moved the important things within you. I’ve always asking myself: How does this poem mean to get to where it wants to get?  And then we sort of figure it out together.

CH: Your bio describes you as both poet and creative nonfiction writer. How do these two passions inform one another?

GC: It’s the pearl and oyster scenario. With poetry, there is always this nagging particle. Something I mull and mull and ignore but can’t get rid of so I roll around until it starts to form. With creative nonfiction, it’s more about the oyster. There is more of a process or narrative, more thinking , more flesh and shell, more story. Can’t have one without the other.

CH: How has growing up along the border shaped your writing? How does place figure in your work?

GC: Border towns are…interesting places. But you don’t know that until you leave them. While you are in a border town, you are blinded by the border town drama. Almost everyone is brown, all the business signs are in Spanish, everyone speaks Spanglish: in other words not great English or great Spanish. Menus are in Spanish but everyone orders in English. It’s a bizarre spot.

When I left for school, I experienced great culture shock and was exotic. The latter was not a great feeling. I learned about people’s weird relationships with their parents and other people and also realized how poor my schooling had been at times. My grammar is still terrible! I was writing more sterile poems during that time because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a Hispanic writer. Didn’t want to become gimmicky. I was also young and didn’t have the experience or reading brain needed to write the kinds of things that painted my interior self.

But then I got homesick and homesick for the Mexican-ness of what makes up my “poet home.” In hindsight, I realized the richness from where I came and found fertile earth. The search from my severed roots led me to an understanding of the how the border weaves in and out of my identity and writing.

CH: How has your experience as a first-generation American shaped your work?

GC: I think it’s that border town bizarreness again. When you are in Laredo you’re a not really Mexican. When you are not in Laredo, you are very Mexican to others. And to make things even more confusing, when I say Mexican, I really mean Mexican-American. It was odd growing up as an American in a Mexican home that happened to be in America. I think that propels the treatment of identity in the poems.

CH: As a bilingual poet, you live with the music of two languages. How has this influenced the sonic landscape of your work?

GC: This is an area I am still developing an ear for. I write by instinct and nostalgia, always enamored with image. So the sounds in my poems flow like underground rivers. I feel them more than know there are there.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer? What paths have you taken to deepen your skill?

GC: This is a hard fucking thing to do. I am still learning how to nurture myself so I can nurture my writing. It’s hard. I am sensitive, combative, but want to take care of everyone. I’m sure my husband loves that about me! 🙂

But when there is cause for a poem, I get tunnel vision. It sit down to work for hours at a time, doing intense editing, handwriting draft after draft, until I leave it to rest for a while. What I am getting better at is coming back to them quicker. Writing in stints vs bursts. I feel more enjoyment from the writing when I can write that way. I also self-imposed a sabbatical at my brothers house one time to finish something. I want to do more of that. Removing myself from the world to write. Just writing that felt good.

CH: What is your writing process like? How do you make room for writing in your life?

GC: I ruminate a lot. I like to see stuff. Remember. I talk about ideas with Jim. Pull stories out of the depths of my parents. Then I get to work. Making room for it is tough though. I write for a living and the demands of that sometimes leaves little stamina for myself. I want to balance that a little better. Make enough money to be able to.

CH: Tell us a little about Five Voices One Brush. How did you get involved with the project?

GC: I never thought I would be a part of this amazing collaborative. I read poetry with Terry Dawson, a man with a very groovy past, and Joe Morales who is a Grammy winning musician. Joe puts together the trio, Terry puts together a very diverse set of poets and Chris Rogers does live painting to it all. It’s very cool and we hope to get the word out about it some more.

I write much differently for that. More of my performer side comes out. The outfit, hair and make up. I let the poems go loose for Five Voices One Brush and imagine the jazz band when I’m building my sets. The amazing thing about the collective is that it’s the poets that anchor the show. The jazz follows the poetry. We never rehearse! Yet it all works out. It gives me the most prized feelings: freedom and confidence.

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

GC: I love Saul Williams, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath less and then more again, John Berryman, Robert Haas.

A Virtual Interview with Usha Akella

Usha Akella and Varsha Saraiya-Shah will be the featured readers Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Usha Akella has authored four books, scripted and produced one musical. Her most recent book, The Rosary of Latitudes is published by Transcendental Zero Press with a foreword by Keki Daruwalla. Her poetry awards include the Open Road Review Poetry Prize, Egan Memorial Contest Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize and the  Wine Poem Award at Struga Poetry Evenings.  She was selected as a creative ambassador for Austin in 2014-15. She has been invited to many international poetry festivals in Colombia, Macedonia, Nicaragua, Mexico, India, Turkey, Slovakia, Slovenia etc. In August 2015, she organized the first South Asian Poetry Fest ‘MATWAALA.’

She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, NY and Austin. The caravan provides free readings at senior homes, women shelters and hospitals. The NY chapter has offered more than a 1000 free readings and the city of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. She will pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, UK in the Fall of 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first become interested in writing poetry? What is your first memory of writing?

UA: I do remember the magical moment. I was very young; perhaps a fourth grader or fifth, studying in St. Anns, Hyderabad, and my English teacher Mrs. Eva read a poem about ‘The Naughty Boy’ by John Keats. That poem was an arrow and found its mark. I knew in a kind of dim witted, inchoate sense that that’s what I wanted to do too- write hypnotic sounds like that. I took my pen to paper for the first time. Rereading the poem, I am struck by it again- for I am much like that boy in the poem- it was really a metaphor for my self-I use the words marvel, wonder and bewilderment to describe my state of mind in response to life. Who knew!

For years, I’d forgotten who the poet was and looked it up this morning to answer the interview. What a delight! It’s John Keats who took my soul again with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as a Grad student in India. Keats and I go a long way! Thank you for starting my morning with this epiphany.

CH: When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer? A poet?

UA: Right around the time the Keats poem fell upon my ears, I guess. My mother says I announced I would be a poet when I was 6. That feels a bit of an exaggeration birthed from maternal pride. I wrote till I was 27 in Hyderabad without the notion of publishing, workshops, open mikes, creative writing programs, journals or mentors in Hyderabad. And I still wrote with no goal, as it was my form of breathing. (literally, as I was a chronic asthmatic while growing up.) The impulse to write was organic. It may be genetic as I come from a family of Telugu writers. No one asked me to write, there were no classes or prompts. I just wrote every day. If your primal response is to seek words to formulate you Self and the world you are a writer.  Through all my disappointment in my life as a poet I always remember that young girl writing for 20 years with no thought of external validation. For whom did she write?

CH: Your success as a poet has been marked by the publication of four collections as well as a number of prizes. What habits as a writer have contributed to your success? What stumbling blocks have appeared along the way?

UA: There’s only one habit- and that is ‘Write’. And the other is ‘Read’. You can’t give up as a poet- that’s a cardinal rule.

I have no fancy terms or guidelines- no favorite place or time, notebook, colored index cards, no inventions of comfort or superfluous embellishments of first world writers. I don’t keep a pot of sharpened pencils or a magical pen. I write anywhere, with anything that is available; Writing to me is a basic drive, it is unpretentious, and I keep it basic.  Maybe it’s my roots. I grew up with very little and we were never sustained by material definitions. Writing and the industry of poetry are two separate things.

I work hard I think, but I am incapable of routines. That’s a personal failing, perhaps. Struggles happen on two levels. Wanting to become the poet you want to be, requires dedication, honesty and work; it gives you a delicious unrest within. My weak links sting like ants: punctuation is a torture and I stumble on prepositions. I have to remind myself constantly about the premise of show and tell.

The stumbling blocks within the industry of poetry is another whole topic. It brings up issues of race, marginality and exclusion. There are walls and doors so politely construed they are invisible but exist. For example, I have been invited in the top tier world festivals of poetry but the local Round Top or most of the universities and colleges won’t acknowledge me as a poet. When you don’t acknowledge you make a person invisible, there is erasure from history, from the roster, from the industry. I am not called in for interviews when I apply for teaching posts or admitted to the local MFA/PhD programs. I’ve given up on the US, in some sense. ‘Matwaala’ was formulated as a very specific need for the South Asian poet to create ones’ own platform. And of course, there has also been support and kinship with some of the community of local poets and the city of Austin. I am grateful to them. I don’t forget these people.

CH: You’ve been invited to a number of international poetry festivals. How have these experiences shaped your sense of poetic community? How have they influenced your work?

UA: The invitation to international poetry festivals has had a volcanic impact on my view of the world and my Self. Since a little girl, I knew somehow, very early on that everything was ONE. Poetry has pushed me into the experience of that truth with these travels. So my poetics and my spirituality is the same. Poets belong to the world.  What I experienced in Medellin and Struga festivals is poetry as a mighty current; as a large open fist in poor countries;such generosity of hospitality can nowhere be found in the US; thousands of people present at opening and closing ceremonies like an olympics of Poetry;a reminder that Poetry is a pulse in the human soul. The industry of poetry is a more recent phenomenon.

Community for me is not local by circumstance. As a mother with a much-traveling husband my ability to physically participate in the local scene has been very limited. So the virtual community of poet friends the world over is my family and source of strength. I’ve learned to live with physical isolation and loneliness.  There is the curse of course all artists experience –being outsider in one’s own; the necessity of exile. I can’t seem to belong to the Indian community in whole either. Poets are always questioning and resisting something in the search for justice and harmony.

Becoming aware of poetics from other countries has been profoundly educative to pitch my own aspirations as a poet and understand what I would like to achieve. Take some Eastern European poets for example- the suggestive power of the poem dominates- that echoes with the Sanskrit concept of dhvani in poetry. There’s a gossamer, cultured and fine effect in poets like Nikola Madzirov. At times I like that. Or to learn that Filipino poetry has a long history of oral traditions is akin to traditions in Sanskrit history. Or the hypnotic  magic via repetition in the ghazal. To be able to make connections is a treasure hunt.  The appeal of Poetry for me as sound or as chant may be rooted in the Sanskrit slokas and hymns that abound in my life.

It has recently dawned on me that my own organic poetics would fall South to the border. The rhythms, power of the image and metaphor, outreach, tumult, energy and bread of the form in South American poetry is what I instinctively produce. More and more, I become restless with the contemporary American voice in poetry; the MFA factory manufactured voice. It is too constipated for me.

CH: The Rosary of Latitudes, now out from Transcendental Zero Press, is your fourth book. How did you select the work that became that book? How was the formulation of this book different from your earlier work?

UA: “Rosary of Latitudes” is specifically hinged on travel- inner and outer and the effect of each realm on the other; a place shapes my work, my poem shapes the place; a poem has a convex-concave rhythm. Did Northrop Fry say this? The book was formulated gradually as I traveled; I was stunned and marveled at what I was experiencing so travel articles first became the means to capture details as I have the most short termed memory you can find; I wanted to hold a country in my palms as waters to gaze in; the book got longer and bigger in its concerns- identity, immigration, home, self, memory. But it reflects what is in all my work- I am looking for my Self everywhere, for home.

CH; When I think of your work, what often comes to mind is its strong spiritual bent—for instance, the poems of Kali Dances, So Do I bring with them resonances with the ecstatic Sufi poems of Rumi. How do you see the presence of spirituality in your poems?

UA: I come from India. I cannot escape religion or spirituality or mythology; it’s dislodgable. My sensibility is shaped by it. The Vedantic  quest for the self is perhaps the underlying anthem to my work. I look for reference points from my cultural heritage. My poems seem to broadly fall around two poles- Kali and Rumi. Poems of transcendence from the centering self with underlying Sufi joy, bewilderment and marvel. And poems of immanence, of the body, rage from the black goddess, poems of activism, fighting patriarchy, racism, gender inequality. These are my obligation to write as a woman, my duty to the planet. I am peaceful now in the acceptance that both strains are a vital part of my soul not contradictory, but complementary.

CH: Among your many accomplishments, your founding of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, New York and Austin, Texas stands out as a way to extend poetry’s reach in the community. How did you first arrive at the idea of a Poetry Caravan? What has kept you working on that project?

UA: The poetry Caravan was birthed in the knowledge that Poetry is a great healing power. And I must take it to people who are incapacitated to experience its joy or avail of opportunities; that poets can make a difference every day and need not win a Pultizer to be validated as a poet. I wanted poets to feel this empowerment. When I read to a senior (sometimes there is just one senior waiting for you) I come back with a peace and validation unlike anything. It leaves me with the basic awareness of what poetry is and can do. Touch one heart at a time. Make bridges. Alleviate loneliness. The very quiet and true mission of poetry.

CH: India has a strong tradition of poetry, one that you have helped extend both through your own work and by contributions such as organizing the MATWAALA South Asian Poetry Fest in Austin in 2015. Which Indian poets have inspired you? If you were to recommend two Indian poets whose work has not received the attention it deserves in the U. S., who would they be?

UA: There are so many great voices in Indian English Poetry both in India and abroad. I have to spill out names in a long tongue to do justice but you’ve asked for two. I will mention two names of senior poets -Keki Daruwalla and Dilip Chitre. Fabulous anthologies have come out in recent years acknowledging so many poets Sudeep Sen’s Harper Collins anthology, “Dance of the Peacock” etc. I feel a sense of pride for all of them.

CH: I understand you’ll soon be at Cambridge University, UK, working on a Master’s in Creative Writing. How did you decide to embark on this path?

UA: Cambridge was destiny I guess. I don’t have the luxury of going away for long term studies as I am a mother.  UT Austin was my first choice as a mother-poet. I unfortunately had a very unpleasant experience in the application process that I don’t want to elaborate. If we are to walk guided by the wounds in our life, we would be paralyzed. Jack Hirschman says broken-heartedeness is the sign that the heart is alive. Poetry is a finally an inner guide and sustains us irrespective of outward signposts of success and failure.

It was my husband who discovered the low-res programs in Oxford and Cambridge and so here I am on the threshold of 50, going back to school fueled by the desire for knowledge. I found the interview process intense and fair, fair even when I was rejected by Oxford last year.

CH: Please name a few of your poetic influences. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

UA: I read multiple books at a time- a schizophrenic method. So here is what’s happening now- Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, John Burnside, translations of Urdu poetry, Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. Also some drama and short stories on the Cambridge reading list.

Poetry influences: Eliot, Romantics, Rumi; woman poets- Sexton, Kamala Das, Plath, Olds, Mary Oliver;

Absolute favorite- Yehuda Amichai;

Poets who fuel me- Whitman, Octavio Paz, Szymborska, Nazim Hikmet, Keki Daruwalla, Ram Prasad, Mohammad Dawish, Nguyen Thieu, Nikola Madzirov.

And so many poets I like, I hope I will be forgiven as I cannot name so many.

A Virtual Interview with Liza Wolff-Francis

Liza Wolff-Francis will be the featured reader for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, June 9, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Liza Wolff-Francis is a feminist poet and writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She was co-director for the 2014 Austin International Poetry Festival and a member of the 2008 Albuquerque Poetry Slam Team. She has an ekphrastic poem posted in Austin’s Blanton Art Museum by El Anatsui’s sculpture “Seepage” and her work has most recently appeared in Poetry Pacific, Edge, Twenty, Border Senses, the Di-verse-city anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival, and on various blogs. She has a
chapbook out called Language of Crossing (2015, Swimming with Elephants Publications), which is a collection of poems about the Mexico- U.S.border. Every day she eats both popcorn and dark chocolate and she currently lives in Albuquerque, NM.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you start to think of yourself as a writer?

LW-F: I began writing in a Ramona Quimby diary when I was twelve. At thirteen I had a diary named Felicia, which I named after a popular red haired girl in seventh grade. I confided quite a bit in that diary. From those diaries on I always wrote, but I’m not sure I really took myself seriously as a writer until about ten years ago and at that point I really knew I needed to keep consistently writing. It became so important to me that I couldn’t not do it.

CH: What was your first exposure to slam poetry? How did you go about getting involved in the slam scene? How has that experience shaped you as a writer?

LW-F: The National Slam Championship came to Albuquerque in 2005 and Albuquerque won. I went to watch many of the competitions and realized slam could be motivation for writing and also that my writing could improve with community input. Plus it seemed fun. I began to read my poetry, then to memorize it, then to compete. I was suddenly surrounded by community and art and felt a real push for creativity. Slam has opened my ears to many voices I might not have otherwise heard. It has also shaped my poetic voice to always be conscious of an audience.

CH: What motivated you to get an M. F. A. in Creative Writing? How did you go about choosing Goddard?

LW-F: I wanted to get an MFA to be able to write better, especially in fiction. I chose Goddard because it was a low residency program and it was liberal. I wasn’t able to move somewhere else and liked the adventure a low residency program afforded. I found Goddard at AWP (when it was held in New York) applied there and nowhere else, got in and went. It felt like the perfect school for me.

CH: What changed in your writing as a result of the M. F. A.? What was its single biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

LW-F: The MFA focused me in on my writing even more. I believe it helped my writing improve. It also introduced me to many wonderful writers I would not have otherwise known. I enjoyed my experience but I don’t know that everyone has to get an MFA to be a writer or to improve their writing, that was just something I wanted for myself.

CH: There often seems to be a schism between “stage poetry” and “page poetry,” but you have inhabited both worlds. What has been your experience moving between these worlds?

LW-F: This is always an interesting question and one that continues to come up. I love both performance poetry and page poetry. I think some performance poetry is really meant for performance and that is where it really shines and there is definitely some “page” poetry that would be enhanced if the reading/performance of it was improved. That said, if there is a meet in the middle coming together of the two, I think it can reach more people, bring people together, and be really fun and dynamic as well as improve the craft. At this point in my life I have people from both camps in my life and enjoy that. I definitely think slam poetry has made poetry more accessible to voices of people of color and that I think is not only necessary but amazing.

CH: I know you identify strongly as a feminist poet. How does your feminism shape your poetry?

LW-F: My writing is informed by the fact that women’s voices, writing, and work is undervalued and often dismissed and ignored. My writing voice adds another woman to the canon of writers and often advocates for gender equality both directly and indirectly.

CH: Tell us about your new chapbook, Language of Crossing. What inspired these poems? How did you decide on collecting this group of poems for the chapbook? How did you go about finding a publisher for your work?

LW-F: I work with Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S., who are primarily Mexican. I have heard many stories over the years about border crossing and have seen the effects that undocumented border crossing has had on people. I wrote a play on undocumented border crossing from interviews I did in Los Angeles after 9/11 about people’s experiences crossing the Mexico-US border and at the time wanted to bring attention to the issue. When teaching a workshop in southern Tucson at a border conference, I began to write poetry about the border and border crossing and the fence. I was seeing these issues still present and that people are still dying at the border. I wanted to call attention to the issue from a poetic perspective hoping people would be able to feel compassion and learn about the humanitarian crisis that has been and continues to be going on there. I wanted to help push education about immigration- hoping eventually there will be even more of a push for immigration reform. Swimming With Elephants Publications sees the issue as important and one that has been silent; they were excited to publish the chapbook and raise awareness about the issue.

CH: Like many women, you have many roles, including mother, partner, professional. How do you fit writing into your life? What is your writing practice like?

LW-F: My writing practice at this time in my life fits in where I can fit it in. I try to write every day, though that doesn’t always happen. I write best early in the morning so when I can, I wake up and go to a coffee shop or hide out in my office at home for a couple hours before work. Days that I can’t do that, I write at night. I know it is impossible for me to leave writing behind so I make time for it where I can. I feel happier when I write regularly.

CH: Please name some poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work been shaped by theirs?

LW-F: There are so many poets who have influenced my work over the years, including local poets who I have read with, through slam or at open mics in different places and of course some of the bigger names as well. It’s hard to make a total list so I’ll just name a few who I have been enjoying recently like Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Patricia Smith, Robert Haas but I have also enjoyed Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and many more. Truthfully, there are some poems and poets that call to me at different times and have influenced my writing more at different times, but I think every poem I have ever read or heard has influenced me in some way. It’s that power of poetry.

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

LW-F: Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage.

A Virtual Interview with Susan Rooke

Poet Susan Rooke will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 14, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Susan Rooke writes poetry and fiction, and has had dozens of mainstream and fantasy poems published in both print and online publications.  Most recently her work has appeared in Concho River Review, Naugatuck River Review, Red Weather, Kentucky Review, The Avalon Literary Review, inkscrawl, and the anthologies Pushing the Envelope: Epistolary Poems (ed. Jonas Zdanys, Lamar University Press 2015), and Twice Upon a Time (Kind of a Hurricane Press 2015).

A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee, her poem “All Hallows” (which first appeared in Melancholy Hyperbole) was featured for Halloween on “Freshly Pressed” (WordPress.com). Her writing career began much longer ago than she would care to admit with a contest-winning fantasy short story in The Twilight Zone Magazine. She hopes to publish her fantasy novel The Space Between in the coming year.

The Interview

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

SR: My older brother Bob induced me to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth when I was pretty young—7 or 8.  He thought I would enjoy all the paranormal aspects, especially the three witches.  Reading that play was huge for me.  There was great rhythm and rhyme plus deliciously creepy atmosphere.  I learned all the witches’ lines by heart and chanted them in portentous tones at odd moments.  I took to wearing a black hooded cloak with black plastic toads stitched to it and skulked from room to room, peering around doorframes.  Around this time I read Poe’s “The Raven” too.  I began writing poetry, and also wrote my first short story.  Unsurprisingly, it was a spooky-house-at-the-end-of-the-lane type of story.  But actually thinking of myself as a writer?  Believing in that identity?  That didn’t happen until a couple of years ago.  Despite a lucky publication history it’s taken me a long time to own it.

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?

SR: I guess the fear of darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is at the heart of much of my work.  But that fear manifests in lots of ways.  My obsession with it ranges from death/illness to what I hear in the night to observing what happens as my husband and I grow older together.  For me, perhaps the most frightening darkness of all is represented by the question “What lies ahead?”

CH: In your bio, you mention that your writing career began with a contest-winning fantasy short story in The Twilight Zone Magazine, and that you have a fantasy novel, The Space Between, that you hope to publish soon. How does your poetry relate to your interest in fantasy?

SR: I think my interest in fantasy was the genesis of all of my writing, whether fiction or poetry.  The poetry I write falls into several broad categories.  Speculative/fantasy, memoir (whether real or imagined) and observations of nature are the primary ones.  But there is plenty of overlap.  I think somewhere at the foundation of each of my poems is a brick of speculation.  At least one.  Sometimes quite a lot more.  And sometimes a poem is just out-and-out fantasy.  For instance, one that’s coming out soon (in an anthology from Kind of a Hurricane Press) is called “The Queen’s Confiteor.”  It’s Snow White’s story told from the POV of her mother (the woman who in later versions of the tale morphed into her stepmother).

CH: How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you see yourself primarily as a fiction writer or poet? Do either of those labels fit?

SR: I’ve never been able to decide the answer to that.  It seems to depend on what I’m working on at the moment, and how well or badly it’s going.  If fiction, and it’s going well, I give myself a congratulatory pat on the back for being such an awesome writer of fiction.  (Please note this is vastly different from being “a writer of awesome fiction.”)  If it’s going badly I ask myself why I’m attempting fiction when I’m really a poet.  And of course the same things happen when I transition to writing poetry.  Until I get my novel published it’s probably easier for me to see myself as a poet because I have more recent publication successes with that.  It’s the discipline that’s done more for me lately.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry, and your Pushcart Prize nominations and Best of the Net designation bear witness to its strength. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet?

SR: Thank you for those kind words, Cindy!  The journey to deepen my craft just boils down to this:  I get older; I write.  Practice is important for cultivating any skill, and writing is no different.  Aging is important for the cultivation of experience.  Between the writing and the aging, I make the occasional observation that serves my work

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

SR: This may sound odd, but aside from early influences I’ve already mentioned, some of my most valued ones for fiction have been cartoons and comic books.  I still turn to them today, because I can always rely on them to take me somewhere magical, which is my preferred state of being.  My mother had several books of Charles Addams cartoons when I was a child.  Now that she’s gone, I have them.  I discovered Edward Gorey back in the early 1960s and he remains a huge favorite!  Also there are the fantastical and marvelous Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comic books, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, E. Nesbit’s Bastable children series, The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis . . . I could go on and on.  Turning from my childhood favorites there’s Susanna Clarke’s amazing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  It’s her first novel, for heaven’s sake, which is very annoying of her.  Neil Gaiman can write great spec fiction all day long with one hand tied behind his back.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which I first read in high school, is still very important to me.  And Ray Harryhausen’s special-effects monsters in the movies will always occupy a special place in my heart!

My taste in poetry is maybe a little more mature (I hope!).  In no real order I take particular pleasure in reading Jane Kenyon, Bruce Bond, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Tomas Tranströmer, Seamus Heaney, Naomi Shihab Nye and Louis Jenkins (his prose poems are so wonderful, the very definition of prose poetry for me).  I turn to collections and anthologies most often because I like to sample the work of lots of different poets.  The Best American Poetry series is an especially good way for me to keep abreast of what’s current here, even though the poems bear zero resemblance to what I’m writing.  My favorite anthology of the past several years, though, has been Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books.  It’s perfect for repeated readings, and many of the poems in it serve as triggers for my own.

CH: What similarities do you see (if any) in the poems that have been Pushcart-nominated?

SR: You know, my first impulse was to say I don’t really see any similarities among them.  Two of them arose from experiences in West Texas, one from what goes on in a suburban back yard.  Two are stylistically more elaborate, one has what I’d like to believe is a deceptive simplicity.  But now I realize they do share something fundamental in common.  They’re written from the viewpoint of someone observing the natural world through a dark lens.

CH: What projects are you working on now? What do you see on the horizon after The Space Between?

SR: I see a lot of confusion and inner struggle.  The first draft of the sequel to The Space Between is already on paper.  I started revising it earlier this year, with an eye to having it completed when TSB eventually gets the nod from a publisher.  And there will be at least a third book in the series.  The problem with long fiction is that, even though I love writing it, it gobbles up so much of my time when I’m working on it.  The characters take over my waking and sleeping hours, insisting that their stories be told.  It may sound a little crazy, but they are very real to me, and I would be letting them down if I didn’t do this for them.  However, at some point I have to strike a balance between fiction and poetry, because I want very badly to publish a book of poetry.  Unfortunately the work that requires will take many, many hours that I just don’t have at the moment.  But I feel a pressure to get it done, because:

  1. I’m not getting any younger, and
  2. If I don’t do it, there is certainly no one else to do it for me.

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

SR: I tend to read from several books of poetry at once, but the one I’ve finished most recently is Stag’s Leap, from Sharon Olds.  All of her stuff just amazes the heck out of me, but she won the Pulitzer Prize for this one.

CH: What advice would you give to an aspiring poet or fiction writer?

SR: Read, read, read.  I think this is especially important for poets.  It’s astonishing how many people who think they write poetry don’t read it.  Seriously?  They have no clue what’s new, or even what poetry is.  Personally, I can’t begin to define poetry, but if I didn’t read it every day I wouldn’t throw as much of my own into the trash as I write it.  Thereby performing a very small service for humankind.

Practice, practice, practice.  I love good books on craft.  For poetry my favorites are the Dos Gatos Press Wingbeats books.  Also recommended are The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet.  Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is very worthwhile for writers of fiction.

Group critiques can help.  If a number of people pick up on the same issues in a poem, you know they might be on to something.

And here’s a tip that works especially well for me:  Before I attempt to write something, I’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes reading work I admire/envy in the genre I’m tackling that day.  It primes the pump..