Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

A Virtual Interview with Sequoia Maner

Seqouia Maner will be the featured reader Thursday, February 13. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Sequoia Maner is a poet and Mellon Teaching Fellow of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University. She is coeditor of the book Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, January 2020). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been published in venues such as The Feminist WireMeridiansObsidian, The Langston Hughes Review and elsewhere. Her poem “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland” was a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and she is at work on a critical manuscript about the history of African American Elegy.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?

SM: I’ve kept journals since I was a girl for song lyrics, poems, and intimate thoughts. I was a quiet observer as a child (still am if I’m honest) and writing was how I processed / articulated in my own special way. I think there are many reasons I was drawn to libraries, books, and music. I spent a significant portion of my childhood in foster care & this special bond with books was a way to process trauma. Books opened worlds for me & libraries have always been a singular refuge. Also, I am sensitive to sound, an auditory learner, so music and poetry play significant roles in my life for mediating the world. I have always been just dazzled by the possibilities of language.

CH: When did you start to think of yourself as a poet? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SM: I didn’t have people in my life who wrote for a living & I didn’t even think to dream that I could someday write books like Morrison, or Angelou, or Shange. Those were writers; that couldn’t be me. It wasn’t until my college experience at Duke University that I first called myself a poet but, even then, I didn’t realize a career for myself as a writer. I knew that I would write poetry for a lifetime as a personal self-care ritual, but I was open to career paths, studying chemistry & photography, relegating poetry to the sidelines. As an English major, college was the first time I studied major writers and eras, learned form and structure, and wrote with a close circle of writers. Before then, my writing had been for myself, you know. I started to experiment with public performance in the form of spoken word & collaborations with other artists—even still, I never called myself “a writer.” After college I moved home to Los Angeles, California & was working in an interesting & lucrative career field but I was writing bullshit for corporations and yearned to truly create from a place of intention. So, I enrolled in a PhD program, sold most of my things to move to Austin, TX and never looked back. Now, I am a writer.

I refer to myself as a poet and scholar, giving equal weight to both. Teaching in the classroom plays just as central a role in my life as wiring literary criticism and poetry.

 

CH: I’m currently reading Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, which of course you recently co-edited. Encountering its discussions of elegies that refuse both consolation and narrow boundaries of time and location has been quite an enriching experience for me. How has the experience of editing this book influenced you?

SM: Oh, it has been beautiful and heavy. I’ll simply say that this project has reaffirmed my dedication to working against oppression and violence in all of the spaces I inhabit.

CH: I recently read your poem, “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland,” and first would like to congratulate you on it being a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. I love the way this poem uses etymology and definition to explore alternation of meaning as it investigates and grapples with its subject. The poem is in the form of a justified block of text in which phrases are separated by a slash (“/”), which made me think of the way poems with line breaks are quoted within prose. How did you arrive at this form for the poem?

SM: Thank you. I am so humbled to have been named a finalist—its beyond my dreams!

I have to tell a quick story about this poem! I first wrote this in response to Kenneth Goldsmith’s abhorrent, offensive reading of Mike Brown’s autopsy report as “poetry” to a Brown University audience in 2015. I was so distraught by Sandra Bland’s death. We were the same age. Her arrest and jailing happened two hours away from where I live, on a road I drive often. She was an outspoken activist. She loved black people. She believed in the transformational power of education. She was resilient and inspirational. I didn’t know her, but I feel like she was my sister. She is my sis and I loved her. So, I read every damn word of her autopsy report. Gosh, this was on Christmas Eve (morbid, I know) and I was in a work session with my homegirl, painter Beth Consetta Rubel, and we was vibin. I was in the zone. I wrote this poem in two hours & have never edited it since. It came out in a trance & I remain astounded that I am able to honor her in this way.

This was my attempt to recapture the beauty and brevity of Sandra’s life / to honor breath / to breathe / to acknowledge an afterlife / to unravel the structures that bound her / to identify all the ways one can asphyxiate: miscarriages – economics – policing – mental illness – black womanhood in a white supremacist nation / to release her from all that shit.

Yes, this is an etymological poem that pivots along the varied meanings of “ligature” and “furrow.” I was thinking about how the language of the autopsy report tells us everything and nothing… the language is useless in reviving the dead, useless in telling the truth of it. Although it is a poem about meaning, I think it is a really a poem that reaches beyond meaning, if that makes sense.

Last thing I want to say is that poem was chosen by Patricia Smith as finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks prize. I submitted it for this purpose alone. I knew that she was also writing exquisite “autopsy poems” & I hoped that she would get it. She got it. I am so honored to have had her read and anoint this poem.

CH: How do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

SM: I have no balance, really. I’ve been in a dry spell with my poetry for too long & I’m really frustrated. I am in the early stages of my career as a professor in a tenure-track role & this job is all encompassing. There are teaching demands, publishing demands, and service demands. This means that for the past year or so I’ve been focused on other kinds of writing: I published the co-edited book, two essays, and a couple of book reviews. I try not to be hard on myself for producing less poetry because shame is useless and debilitating. I try to tell myself that I am building other muscles for the time being and will be stronger when I rec-enter poetry in my life. I am headed to the James Baldwin Conference in Saint Paul de Vence, France for a creative writing workshop in the summer & I am so excited to rediscover my poetic voice.

CH: Who are some writers that changed the way you looked at language and writing?

SM: I return to Langston Hughes at different stages in my life. He is so deceptively simple, so pure in his love & hope for black people, and unabashedly critical of oppressive power. Hortense Spillers and James Baldwin are master essayists I look to. Evie Shockley & Douglas Kearney are some of my favorite contemporary poets—I think I share their experimental sensibilities. Brenda Marie Osbey & Sonia Sanchez teach me the power of chant and repetition and pacing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and John Milton have taught me something about formal rigor and beautiful images. Steinbeck’s opening pages of East of Eden rocked my world as did so many of Morrison’s openings—Paradise, Sula, and The Bluest Eye come to mind. I consider two books my literary bibles: Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems and Zora Neale Hurston’s Collected Letters. Both of these writers teach me about authentic voice & the unabashed celebration of black womanhood.

CH: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m working on two monographs. The first is a critical study of Kendrick Lamar’s work. The second is what I’m calling a critical history of the African American elegy.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

SM: Fiction. I have about four novels on my nightstand at the moment. I adore the detective novels of Chester Himes, the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler. I return to Baldwin/Morrison every other summer, reading their respective bodies of work in full. I love everything Kiese Laymon has written. Right now, I’m about halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is marvelous.

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

SM: Right now I’m toggling between Chad Bennet’s Your New Felling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, Faylita Hicks’s Hood Witch and AI’s Vice. Additionally, I’m teaching with Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, so I’ll be reading nearly the entire volume over the next few months.

A Virtual Interview with Leticia Urieta

Leticia Urieta will be the featured reader Thursday, January 11, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, Texas. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

The Interview

CH: What brought you to poetry? What is your first memory of it?

LU: My grandma was a poet who wrote in English and Spanish, but was unpublished. As I got older, she gifted me several books of poetry by Pablo Neruda, and encouraged me to write in both languages. Because of this, I became more interested in experimenting with poetry and reading more in the genre at school.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself?

LU: I don’t like to limit my writing to labels or genres per say-it makes life unexciting if I feel I can only identify with one genre or style. However, much of my writing is a hybrid of genres and styles, and I explore Tejana identity and womanhood in my work because that is what feels vital to me right now.

CH: You recently completed your MFA in Fiction writing at Texas State. What was this program’s greatest contribution to you as a writer? its greatest challenge?

LU: I think what I took away from that experience was the mentorship of other graduates and friends, such as Sarah Rafael Garcia, who brought me into the community at Resistencia Bookstore and provided me with the opportunity to become the program coordinator in Austin of the youth writers workshop that she founded called Barrio Writers. I also sought out support from professors like Jennifer DuBois and my adjunct reader and friend Natalia Sylvester, who always met my work where it was and worked with me to make it better.

CH: How does your work in fiction intersect with your work in poetry?

LU: Studying poetry and its forms has helped me to think about the structure of stories and how I enjoy emphasizing images and experimental language in fiction to the points where I think the genres merge, and some stories feel like extended prose poems and some poems feel like ongoing narratives. I think that often these distinctions are arbitrary. I want to write something engaging, that feels meaningful to me, and ultimately the form will be dictated by the content of the piece.

CH: Tell us about your recently-completed mixed genre collection. How long did it take you to write? How did you decide on the mixed genre expression?

LU: The collection is called Las Criaturas. It took me about six months to write all of the stories and poems in it. All of them explore the word “criaturas,” which in Spanish has several meanings roughly translated as “baby”, “animal,” “monster,” and “creation.” Most of the stories, both in traditional structures or poetic forms, explore traditional storytelling influenced by fairytales, fables and the indigenous stories of the feminine across multiple cultures. As a mixed woman, this representation of hybridity feels very right to me. I was reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ seminal work “Women Who Run With Wolves” and that work greatly influenced the subject and structure of the stories.

CH: How does place figure in your work?

LU: My novel, which is still in progress, is heavily influence by place because it is about a Mexican woman marching in Santa Ana’s army during the Mexican-Texas war in 1836. That physical movement of the characters across space and time is central to the narrative, as is the spiritual space that the heroine and narrator inhabits in the afterlife. I have completed, and plan to complete further research on the subject. What is challenging about this process is that so little is written about these women, called “soldaderas” who travelled with the male soldiers during the war. This, however, also gives me quite a bit of freedom to invent and play with space and time as I imagine it, which is energizing.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets and fiction writers?

LU: I both love and hate this question. There are those writers I go back to over and over: Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison. I try to read widely. I am a multifaceted person, and want to read multifaceted books across many genres.

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

LU: I am currently reading “Lessons on Expulsion” by Erika Sanchez, which is fantastic. I read a little every day. When I read collections of poetry, I want to take my time with each poem.

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.