Tag Archives: Slough Press

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 Donna Snyder

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

Background

Donna Snyder publishes work in literary journals and anthologies throughout the United States and on-line, and has presented readings in Sitka, Alaska, Venice and Santa Monica, California, Boston, New York City, Denver, and throughout New Mexico and Texas. Her book reviews appear in Red Fez, the El Paso Times, and other venues. She is a contributing editor to Return to Mago, an international webzine which since 2012 has featured a continuing series of her poems based on the divine feminine principle and the role of women in world culture. Her poetry is featured monthly in VEXT Magazine, a webzine of international art and literature.

Virgo Gray Press released her chapbook, I Am South, in 2010, which was resissued in 2014. In 2014, Chimbarazu Press published her collection Poemas ante el Catalfaco: Grief and Renewal. NeoPoiesis Press will publish her book Three Sides of the Same Moon in 2015. She is working on a poetry collection for Slough Press.

Snyder’s work as an activist lawyer advocating on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities has garnered multiple prizes and recognitions. She founded the Tumblewords Project in 1995, and continues to coordinate its free weekly workshops and other events.

The Interview

CH: I gather from your biographical sketch that you’ve been in the El Paso area for some time. How long have you lived in El Paso? Where else have you lived?

DS: In my early thirties, while living in Santa Fe, by some fortuity I joined a series of writing groups led by established writers Miriam Sagan, Joan Logghe, Judyth Hill, and Natalie Goldberg. I wrote mostly stories, linked together by recurrent characters and place. Joan gave me a bilingual book of poems by Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo. This book changed my life, introducing me to a type of poetry that appealed to both mind and heart. Another factor was moving to Las Cruces, where I read each week at an open mic. No one there had a preconceived notion that I could only write fiction, so I started writing more poetry. Once I began the Tumblewords Project, weekly workshops that focus on writing on the spot and reading aloud, I found poetry was easier to create in that format.

CH: Living in a border city offers unique opportunities and challenges. How has living on the border influenced your work? What kinds of collaborations occur between artistic groups on the two sides of the border?

DS: Living aqui en la frontera, here on the border between Mexico and the US, has had a major impact on my poetry. I speak, write, joke, argue, and think in el idioma fronteriza, that is, Spanglish. The sound and rhythms of Spanish permeate my writing, without conscious thought or intent. This area is or was home to some of the greatest Chicano/a writers: Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Ben Saenz, Arturo Islas, Denise Chávez, Pat Mora, Ray González, Ricardo Sánchez, José Burciaga, Lalo Delgado, Juan Contreras, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Sergio Troncoso, Daniel Chacón, Ana Castillo—the influence is pervasive.

As for bi-national collaboration between artists, from its inception Tumblewords has been a tri-state project, with participants from New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, incorporating Mexican writers, artists, musicians, actors, and playwrights into workshop presentations, performance events, and art shows. For years a young man rode his bicycle across the international bridge every Saturday to write in the Tumblewords workshops. There have been other bi-national projects, such as Free Hole Slam and BorderSenses, to name just two. Moreover, through collaboration with universities and arts groups on both sides of the border, Tumblewords presenters have been from throughout the US, from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York City and Washington D.C., from throughout Mexico, as well as from Chile, Peru, Cuba, Hungary, Jamaica, and Hungary.

CH: The last two decades, the news about Juarez has frequently been terrible: the murders of hundreds of women; the rise of the drug cartels and violence associated with them. How have El Paso’s literary and artistic communities responded? How have ties between the artistic communities in Juarez and El Paso been affected by the changing social landscapes on both sides of the border?

DS: The Juárez terrors-femicides and narco wars-and the post 9/11 difficulties imposed on border crossers have reduced bi-national projects to some extent. Everyone in Juárez has been affected, and consequently also friends, families, and colleagues throughout El Paso. Many artists I know are also activists. We demonstrate on both sides of the border, on the bridges, in front of the consulates. Our writing and art serve as testament to the lives lost, the disappearances, the terror endured, the anguish suffered.

CH: How has your work as an activist lawyer influenced your poetry?

DS: Working as an advocate for indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with mental and physical disabilities blew the borders of my small-town-Texas mind to smithereens. I was able to attend college and law school courtesy of scholarships, loans, my tips from waiting tables, and support from my family as was feasible. Nonetheless, working for and with my clients and colleagues provided a much more direct understanding of the cruelty and stupidity of racism and other forms of exclusion. All of my experiences increased my awareness of the defining differences and commonalities of diverse cultures, and expanded my concepts of the nature of reality, spirit, religious beliefs, philosophy, surrealism, and more, all of which has undoubtedly fed my writing.

CH: 2014 has been a busy year for you, with the reissue of I Am South by Virgogray Press and the publication of Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal by Chimbarazu Press. And Three Sides of the Moon is coming out in 2015 from NeoPoiesis Press. Tell us a little about these books.

Virgogray Press, located in Austin, first published I Am South as a chapbook in 2010. Michael Casares had read my poetry on-line and asked me to send him a few dozen poems. He chose the ones he liked, put the poems in order, chose a title and voila! This year Virgogray reissued I Am South as a perfect bound book.

Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal also came about by the publisher’s invitation. Guillermo Echanique, a performance poet from Brooklyn, started Chimbarazu Press by releasing a few digital books. He, too, was familiar with my work from reading it on-line, and had seen me perform in New York City twice. After my husband died suddenly at age 54 in October 2013, Guillermo contacted me with the concept and title, part Spanish and part English, like my poems. The first half addresses grief born from personal bereavement, public tragedies, and catastrophic events. The second half of the book reflects recovery from grief through creativity, productivity, and loving relationships.

Three Sides of the Same Moon is slated to come out next year from NeoPoiesis Press, of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. They issued a call for submissions and I sent a manuscript relates to women’s roles as goddess, crone, and oracle, the source of abundance, law, writing, healing, and wisdom, and the erasure of those concepts by a violent and misogynous culture.

My most recent good news is that Alicia Winski has informed me that she wants her press, Seattle-based Nightwing Publications, to publish my next book, whatever it might become.

CH: Talk a little about the collection you’re working on for Slough Press. Are other collections also in the works? Do you see your series in Return to Mago eventually becoming a book?

DS: Chuck Taylor asked me to send him a hundred or hundred and fifty poems. He chose several dozen and sent them back to me with instructions to edit them as I saw fit and put them in order. The manuscript contains earlier poems, and so needs more work than my more recent manuscripts. I have great respect for Slough Press, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and want to transform this pile of papers in a manila folder into a strong collection worthy of publication.

I am a contributing editor for poetry for Return to Mago, an international webzine that addresses the divine female principle and women’s roles both currently and throughout history. The other editors have honored me by publishing a number of my poems that address these issues, several of which will be included in Three Sides of the Same Moon.

CH: You’ve had quite a bit of success finding publishers for your work. How have you gone about identifying candidate publishers for your work? What is your process for readying a manuscript for submission to a publisher?

DS: I have been extraordinarily fortunate that three publishers have solicited manuscripts from me. The book with NeoPoiesis Press is the only manuscript I submitted in competition with other writers, and without denigrating the value of my work, I consider myself lucky to have mine chosen. I have been reading NeoPoiesis authors for almost a decade. I own several of their books. I also have Slough Press books, and scads of other books from small, independent presses and far flung writers. I contribute to anthologies and journals, and have over a hundred publication credits to my name. “Cast your bread upon the waters” is the single Bible verse that has stuck with me these decades after leaving church behind me. If you want to be published, you need to buy books by other writers, support independent publishers, and submit individual pieces of your work for publication.

As far as preparing a manuscript, I begin by combing my computer folders and throwing potential poems into a folder with some general title such as goddesses or physics or raza. When I feel that I have gleaned most of the poems pertaining to the subject, I print them out and read them, revising as I go, then shuffle them like cards, shuffle and read, shuffle and read. The sequence of the poems is fluid, and I’m not sure where it comes from, some intuitive place, I think, more than calculation. I print out the revised versions and read them through. At this point, I create a Word document and copy and paste the poems into that document, hard page breaks separating each poem, and making the font, spacing, margins, and other format matters uniform. I create a prior publication list a page for a dedication and another for acknowledgements, then add pagination and a table of contents. All this said, I’ve only prepared two manuscripts of my own, and one chapbook for another person. So my advice may or may not be of value.

CH: Name five of your favorite poets.

DS: This list can change from day to day, or even hour to hour, but perennial favorites are Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca. At the moment, high on my list would be Will Crawford, Petra Whitely, Phibby Venable, Luke Buckham, Eduardo Galeano (who is technically a historian, but his histories are poetry). Oh, I see I named seven. Math has never been my strong point.

CH: 2015 will be the 20th anniversary year for the founding of the Tumblewords Project. What inspired you to found it? What has sustained you in continuing to be engaged with it?

DS: I modeled it after writing groups in Santa Fe using a series of timed writings, each followed immediately by each person reading aloud what had just been written. After attending my workshop at the first Border Book Festival in Las Cruces, two women from the New Mexico Arts Division took me to lunch and on the basis of a handshake and a subsequent telephone call, I received funding for my first series of weekly workshops. From the beginning prominent writers were willing to both present and participate. In 2001, after the death of my 44 year old partner, I quit writing grant proposals, and ever since have paid presenters by passing the hat. Nonetheless, renowned writers from across the US have been willing to present workshops and give performances year after year.

Tumblewords is a gift to the community, but also a gift to myself. New people continue to come to the weekly workshops I organize, while others have been coming throughout two decades. Writing and reading aloud improves a person’s craft. Hearing other writers read aloud is a learning experience. Weekly participation creates a large body of work and extensive lists of publication and performance credits.

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

DS: Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne