Under Pressure: Jessica Abughattas

2021, Under Pressure

Jessica Abughattas is the author of Strip, winner of the 2020 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize selected by Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara. A Kundiman fellow, her poems appear in The Adroit Journal, Best of the Net 2019, Tupelo Quarterly, among other venues. She lives in Los Angeles.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on Strip take, from conception to publication?

Jessica Abughattas: The oldest poems are four years old now, so in that sense, four years. In the sense of sequencing and conceiving of a manuscript, I started doing that early in 2018.

SHP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

JA: I mined my manuscript for words or phrases and ended up staring at the word strip. I wrote a first draft of the poem “Strip” then, and months later rewrote it to resemble its form in the book. So the title came first. It’s a command. It’s something the book required from me. I like that it contains “rip.” It evokes place; both pleasure and suffering.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JA: Film.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JA: I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but Jenny Factor encouraged me early on to think of a book as an art object. It helps me not to over-identify with it, its praise or criticism. I’m not the book I published at 28 any more than I will be the one I’ll write at 40. I want to continue writing for a long time, so I try to counter self-limiting beliefs with the reality that I’m evolving. It doesn’t serve me to obsess over what I think I ought to have done differently.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JA: Good pressure. Even when there aren’t deadlines, I impose them to help me generate. I still procrastinate to meet them, but that’s not the point.

SHP: Your book interrogates desire in many ways. Could you tell us about the power of desire, or the engine behind many of these poems?

JA: This book’s mantra is “I want.” Pleasure can feel empowering when you’ve been subject to states of disempowerment, whether it be due to dysfunctional relationship/family dynamics or persecuted identities. To own it, state it felt like something I was taking back. But desire, the craving and longing for pleasure, brings suffering (“It infuriates me that he’s good at living”). It is suffering, to ruminate on possibilities and lack. The speaker contemplates desire and pleasure, what of it belongs to the self. Ultimately, there’s pleasure to be found in what is. (“I love my misery. / I give thanks to it.”)

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

JA: Outside in nature, driving, in the middle of my work day, first thing in the morning. No sense of a pattern yet. While it’s a nice idea to wait for inspiration to find you, I prefer to be in the habit of writing all the time, even if it’s just jotting down a sentence that I thought of in the middle of a chore. A lot of my drafts begin in the Notes folder on my phone.

SHP: What advice would you share for those sending out a manuscript now?

JA: Let everything be up for negotiation, be willing to re-envision poems, titles, and sequences that have been considered “done” to you. Mess everything up and see if you still agree with your choices. When you solicit outside feedback, try everything on, but trust your gut above all else.

Facing rejection, remember your expression is your gift and you were meant for kindness. Let the mother archetype inside say “They are wrong” if that’s what it takes to keep going. Find close readers who appreciate you. June Jordan’s mantra “I will love who loves me. I will love as much as I am loved.”

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JA: Spiritual practice, in any form, whether grounding myself with movement, visualization, or standing outside in the sun and noticing the sensory pleasures of nature in my yard. Even contemplative reading, or contemplating what feels tense or stuck in my body. Mind-body connection has been a healing force that has propelled my writing. When I was younger, I wrote from a place of panic, anxiety, and discomfort, but I’m learning to attend to myself rather than beating myself up to be productive. It’s not easy to do.

SHP: If you could describe Strip using a 3 song playlist, which songs would you choose and why?

JA:Perfect Places” by Lorde, because indeed, what the fuck are perfect places? “Scott Street” by Phoebe Bridgers for its sense of humor. “Lucky” by Britney Spears – self-explanatory.

Order Strip here

Under Pressure: Kelly Grace Thomas

2021, Under Pressure

Kelly Grace Thomas‘s debut collection, Boat Burned is out now from YesYes Books. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets 2019, Los Angeles Review, Redivider, Nashville Review, Muzzle, DIAGRAM, and more. Kelly currently works to bring poetry to underserved youth as the Director of Education and Pedagogy for Get Lit-Words Ignite. Kelly is a three-time poetry slam championship coach and the co-author of Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform, Classic and Spoken Word Poetry (Literary Riot), currently taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Kelly has received fellowships from Tin House Winter Workshop, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the Kenyon Review Young Writers. Kelly lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Omid, and is currently working on her debut novel, a YA thriller, titled Only 10.001.

Here, Kelly Grace Thomas discusses bodies and the storm behind Boat Burned.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long did working on Boat Burned take, from conception to publication?

Kelly Grace Thomas: Overall, Boat Burned took about three years from conception to acceptance. When I say conception I mean that I put pages together and called it a book, however looking back it was nowhere close to finished: there was no backbone, cohesion, or arc. But you don’t know what you don’t know, right? From the first submission, it has had seven different titles and 50% of the poems have changed. 

It wasn’t until I wrote the “Boat of my Body,” that I really understood what/who the book wanted to be. The overarching metaphor of women, the body, relationships as boats, unlocked it all. Once I had the right metaphor or vehicle I then saw a clear direction and shape. In “The Creative Habit,” Twyla Tharp talks about how creative words need a backbone. Without the metaphor of boats, Boat Burned had no backbone and couldn’t stand on its own. Once I realized this, everything changed. 

GG: Where did you get your title inspiration from? Have you always been interested in boats or was there a particular appeal to Vikings or sailing as a child?

KGT: I have always come to poetry to feel but more importantly, understand. Writing is a process where I translate the world around me, myself, and those I love. When I started the collection I didn’t like who I was as a person, more specifically as a woman, but I didn’t know why. I felt weak (even though I wasn’t) and apologetic (I was); I was looking for power outside of myself, I knew there was a reason beyond my own insecurities. I don’t believe it is ever as simple as that. 

I was in a Korean spa in Los Angeles and I was taking off my clothes and I thought to myself, what if all us women take off our clothes and we are something different besides humans underneath our clothes. I thought, “I would be a boat.” So matter of factly. I sat down and wrote “The Boat of my Body.”

The poem spoke about the performance of gender, the ownership of women’s bodies, and the weight that is placed on them to be (and carry) so many things. It was important that I reclaimed my power. I thought about the distance and adversity I felt with my own body, like we were separate, almost adversaries. Where did that come from? I said to myself, “I never want to feel like this again, there is no turning back, the suffering (eating disorders, abusive relationships, addictions, financial issues) has to end. But it can’t unless I understand what caused it in the first place. I asked, “What was I trying to protect myself from?”

In essence, I had to burn down the old idea of me. I have always loved the saying “Burn the Boats,” meaning the only choice is to move forward, to go back is death.  I have had a really close relationship with boats, I used to go sailing with my family every Sunday after my parents were separated. When I was ten, we spent a month sailing from New Jersey to Florida to help my father relocate to Florida after my family went bankrupt. I also used to race sailboats when I was young. The ocean, and particularly sailing, is a place of quiet introspection where the world was quiet enough that I got to ask the question I needed to ask. 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

This is such an interesting question: besides writing, the medium I am closest to is photography. I take a lot of pictures, it’s my love language. So much of poetry is focusing on one moment or image, zooming in or zooming out. A shift in perspective. A door or an invitation. I adore photographs for the same reasons. Annie Leibovitz has a Master Class on photography that I can’t wait to take. 

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

KGT: I have been blessed to have so many amazing mentors that to think of a favorite is too difficult, but the first thing that comes to mind has to do with my relationship with language. I studied and did some private editing with Shira Erlichman and she spoke about the element of surprise in terms of language. She calls it “peanut butter and fireworks.” 

I love that poetry breaks the rules of language, that you can make an adjective a noun, change syntax, grammar, and parts of speech. I love that I get to play, even with the heavy stuff. Surprise, whether in subject matter or language is what keeps the reader going to the next line. We are (usually) creatures of habit, we come to art because we want to feel something new, or get a new take or a familiar feeling, even if it’s just a simple metaphor that burrows in the heart.  

GG: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

KGT: As an Aries from New Jersey, deadlines and competition help me thrive. I’m extremely goal and project-driven, I love having a carrot I’m working towards; without one I feel a bit aimless. It’s strange, and perhaps unhealthy, to say, but I prefer pressure, though it does give things a sense of urgency. I could work on a line, a poem, a collection for hours, thinking, and overthinking, each line. When I have an end goal, or timeline, I know I need to move strategically with more precision. 

When Boat Burned was accepted to the next round of YesYes Books’s Pamet River Prize, I was extremely driven. I had two months to send in my “finished” collection; it was the deadline and being so close to the finish line that drove me. For two months I wrote about four hours a day, I replaced about a third of the poems in the book in that short time, knowing the book had to be as strong as possible for that deadline. Every day I woke up and thought “it can be better.” I wrote up until midnight of the submission deadline. Above my desk reads a quote that says “Don’t stop until you’re proud.” It is my mantra. 

GG: Boat Burned explores women as vessels and the water surrounding them as their experience, sometimes whelming the boat while other times seeming becalmed. Did you try to organize certain experiences together or did you design the reading experience to be more turbulent?

KGT: That’s a great question. I wanted to feel how one feels when floating in the ocean, or on a sailboat. There are moments you think, this is the most calming, freeing experience I have ever had, and other times where you are terrified, being held under, looking at eight-foot waves and thinking, how will I possibly survive? You realize: I am so small. You also realize: I have the power to survive this and anything else.  I feel the same way about womanhood. The conversation around the role of women is changing for the better, but there are still men (governments) who try to dominate and weaken women. 91% of women hate their bodies and (many times) women’s value is based on their bodies, how they look, and what they can do. I’m proud to be a woman, but I can’t say it has been smooth sailing, if you’ll forgive the pun. The same goes for the relationship to my family. I’m 39 and have had a full life. I’m so blessed that I have parents who are divorced and best friends, but I often feel like a character in a novel. We have dealt with so many emotional struggles (divorce, eating disorders, bankruptcy, infidelity) and external struggles (outrunning hurricanes, sharks, almost sinking in the middle of the ocean, eviction). This has shaped who I am, which of course influences my writing. 

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

KGT: I think I find inspiration in two ways. First is reading, reading, and more reading. I pride myself on being a poetry mechanic. When I find a poem that undoes me I take it apart to see what makes it run. Then I try to rebuild that element, whether it is a turn in language, a form, a specific structure, using my own work. Of course, crediting any poet who has influenced this process. 

I also think poems come when I invite in quiet. The world is undeniably loud. In my head, poems follow me around like small children at my feet. They are constantly trying to get my attention, but the emails and deadlines and bills are screaming and often much louder. However, once I spend some time away, in nature or on the water, I hear them and listen to what they want to say. 

GG: What are some things you learned from creating this debut book? Do you have any advice you would give to writers putting together a first collection?

KGT: My story is different than others because I don’t have an MFA and was entirely self-taught when Boat Burned was picked up. I learned what I learned through reading. I think to be constantly reading is one of the most important things you can do. I have a few things I would recommend

1. If you have a dream press, read as much of their catalog as possible. I went to a YesYes Books reading at my first AWP where I saw readings from Danez Smith, Azia Barnes, Ocean Vuong, Fatimah Ashgar. I was floored and thought: this is my press. This is who I want to publish my first book. My brain was on fire with the poems the poets were sharing. I went to their booth and bought their entire catalog and read every book. I wanted to be clear on what kind of voices they were looking for and study the poems of these poets I so fiercely admired. If you are trying to place a collection, really think about the poets or writers a press you admire is publishing, ask yourself how can I learn from this?  Why this press? If the answer is because they are the best, encourage yourself to think more personally towards your work. 

2. Think about how the manuscript will change the reader and change the writer. As readers we should never end the book in the first place where we started. We need to learn and experience something new. There should be an arc, a change in thinking, a perspective shift, a journey. If that is not present in your manuscript, examine why. 

3. Look for linchpin poems. When I was writing Boat Burned I would lay all the poems out, think about the narrative being told, especially through the ordering, and think about where there were holes from the stories I hadn’t told. What poem(s) do I need to build towards the arc or transformation?

4. Be patient. Be scrupulous. I get so annoyed when I hear poets complaining about rejection. Yes, it hurts, but the first time you sat down to write it was because you loved to write. Don’t get hung up on the results. And for the love of the universe, do not let them define you. Sure easier said than done, but if you are only in it for the results, publication, recognition, ego, ask yourself why. I also think manuscripts get submitted before they are ready. I know mine did. Hire an editor, see where it can be tighter. If you can’t do that, trade with a friend or put it in a drawer then come back a month later with new insight. I was told it takes about 3 years for a collection to get picked up, so I thought it would be at least that, I expected a lot of hard work and a long wait, but because I love the act of writing, I knew it would all be worth it. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

KGT: Oh I love rituals and routines: I have a whole process in the morning that I love. I wake up, make coffee, practice Spanish while it is brewing, go outside on the ground and do Thai Chi, journal, pull tarot cards, and then dive into work. I try to write first thing in the morning and have a writing routine. My goal is to write before I start work; I’m currently answering these questions at 7:15AM sipping my coffee at half an hour after sunrise. I find that if I wait until the end of the day, I have given all my energy to something else. I think that journaling really helps. The book The Artist’s Way talks about the importance of morning pages and I believe that as writers we need space to really get out the junk–the worries, rants, questions, life compliments, blessings before we come to the page. I think of it like watery ketchup. When you put ketchup on a burger, you need a few squirts to get all the water and weak ketchup out; this is journaling for me. 

I think writing rough drafts without an outcome allows you to create with no consequences. How freeing! One thing I love to do is just set a timer, take a prompt or a line, and write for 10 minutes. There are usually a few lines that I really love in it, not a poem, but a start, which will get me to a first draft. 

GG: If you could describe Boat Burned in three words, what would they be? Why?

Stormy, innovative and intimate. This was a really tough question for me because there are so many words that I could use. There are the words I hope it is, the words readers might say, and the words I’m confident I can use. 

Stormy because it mirrors life. My experience has been like weather. The real tough stuff makes you question your power, the control you have, and what you would hold close. But storms have edges, you can see them coming and you know when they will pass. You find yourself defining who you are in the squall of it all. 

Innovative because I try in Boat Burned, as with all my writing, to always do something new. I come to art, like most, to be changed. I create art to be changed. This means that I must constantly challenge myself to do something new every time I sit down to write or revise. I’m a big believer in if I am not growing I am dying; it sounds dramatic but it is true for me. This can be my use of language, subject matter, realization. Even saying “no more” or “enough” at one point was new: I invented the strength that brought me to that point. Invented how to move forward. I love experimenting with language and form. This is why I come to poetry: to play with the alphabet, words, emotionality, images, in a way that makes the grass blue and the sky green. I want to be able to build tiny universes where parts of speech are subjective and leaps in logic are expected. What are artists if not exquisite inventors? 

Intimate because so much of this book deals with deeply personal relationships, beliefs, experiences, and perceptions of the world. I wanted to challenge all those things, or at least unpack them, in front of my reader’s eyes. In poems, I counted the cellulite dimples, examined the mother-daughter body image dynamic, recounted emotional abuse from a past boyfriend, before I had the strength to do it in real life. I’m braver in poetry than I am in life, but poetry usually informs the changes that will come later. The book is about distances and intimacies and having the strength to know which serves me best. Overall, it is a love poem to myself. A chance to sit down and understand who I was and what brought me here. Most importantly, it asks where I want to go. And I hope it invites readers to take the same opportunity, to burn their boats and build anew. 

Order Boat Burned here!

Under Pressure: Naima Yael Tokunow

2020, Under Pressure

Naima Yael Tokunow (née Woods) is an educator, writer and editor, currently living in New Mexico. Her work (and life) focus around exploring black femme identity, kinship and futurity. She is the author of three chapbooks, MAKE WITNESS, published in 2016 by Zoo Cake Press, Planetary Bodies, out from Black Warrior Review in 2019, and Shadow Black, selected by Pulitzer Prize winner, Jericho Brown for the Frontier Digital Chapbook Prize in 2020. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a TENT Residency Fellow & has attended The Home School workshop in Miami. She proudly edits the Black Voice Series for Puerto del Sol. New work is published or forthcoming from bone bouquet, Bayou, Winter Tangerine, Nat. Brut, juked, Diagram and elsewhere.  

Here, Naima Yael Tokunow discusses how she defines inspiration, word clouds, and art-crushes along with her latest chapbook Shadow Black.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Shadow Black take to write from conception to publication?

Naima Yael Tokunow: FOUR YEARS! It was my MFA thesis. I published it almost in its entirety poem by poem, but I had sent it out for a few years and no one wanted it, so I just let it live on my computer for a year. I did a lot of editing in 2019 and felt like it was this new and old book that was ready to try and meet the world again. I decided to only send it out to contests because the book deserved it, and in 2019, it won the Frontier Digital Chapbook Prize!

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

NYT: Deadlines are great for me! I’m a Taurus, so while I’m super hardworking, I’m also very drawn to only do things that are really pleasurable. Sometimes writing doesn’t feel like pleasure (and sometimes it realllllly does!). Editing is my least pleasurable part of the process, so having an outside deadline to finish/polish things is always really good. As an editor, I try to be tender and soft with my deadlines because I know folks can have a lot of shame around not meeting them, and that’s not good.

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

I fall in love with most folks when I read their work. So right now, Aracelis Girmay (The Black Maria). Susan Briante (The Market Wonders). Edwige Danticat (most recently, Krik? Krak!). I also really value my friends’ work, MK (a photographer and multimedia artist) and Lena Kassicieh (designer, potter, visual artist). My husband, Miles Tokunow is working on a durational dance piece on tectonic blackness that has me very excited.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

NYT: I like that you assume that I write every day! That’s very generous. I do not write every day (or even every week, or month, or season). I’m a new parent and we’re living through a national racial uprising and a pandemic, so just like    e x i s t i n g    feels like a win for me. But, what is good for me is good for my writing. I love to go outside. I love to cook delicious meals. I have to shower, put on body oil. I love to clean. Doing these things makes me healthy and able to write when I can.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

NYT: I don’t know if I have a standalone thing. I’ve had some really incredible teachers over the years who have all said a lot of brilliant things. Be a literary citizen. Write in community. Poetry and prose don’t have to look normative to fit within genre. Reading critically is really important, very little good work is produced in a vacuum. You can write what you know, but you should always be stretching to know more, even if it’s just more about yourself. Also, know that your mentors and teachers aren’t gods. It’s okay to not take the edits. Create your own house with your work. Live in there for a long time.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

NYT: Neither! I’m an exclusive computer writer! My brain moves way faster than my pen could ever keep up with, so typing is best for me. I keep a document for my current MS that I save as a new “version” each time I add or edit, and a everything else document for random scraps and bits and unfinished things. 

SHP: When it comes to writing/editing, would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

NYT: Both, I think it just depends on the circumstances. I edit the Black Voices Series for Puerto del Sol and in that capacity, I really am just a curator–just trying to build the space for the writer to share and talk about their work without any formal revision suggestions (each featured writer is also interviewed–check out the series here & submit!). But I also edit full-length manuscripts for Jaded Ibis Press (and I’m currently editing their Black Voices Prose Series, so I’m always looking for full-length or collected shorts prose manuscripts! Submit here!), and in that capacity, I’m much more of a traditional editor, copy & content editing and helping bring a novel to life.

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

NYT: I feel like I’m coming off as a lil contrarian answering these questions, but I don’t really believe in inspiration! Of course, I’m a human person and sometimes a song or a breeze or someone else’s work will get me going, but if I waited to feel Inspired™, I would never write. I write after researching, after thinking a lot about structure for the project I’m working on, after identifying holes. I have a list of poem titles or themes on a note on my phone and sometimes, I’ll just pick one of those. Inspiration feels really romantic and lovely, but for me, a person with a job and a family and it’s just little by little and informed by a lot of planning and prep, which doesn’t feel sexy, but is true. I don’t know, I was raised by two Virgos.

SHP: If given the chance to adapt your chapbook into a music video or feature length film, which would you pick? 

NYT: Oooo, this is a good question. I feel like a visual album would be a good fit. It’s funny because it’s a chapbook, so in theory, a music video would work, but I think that there’s not quite enough space there to do the mourning and raging and healing that goes on in the book. If Jamilah Woods or Solange wanna fuck around and do a visual album–now that would be fun (“fun” isn’t the right word to talk about an album that would be about black women and violence and freedom, but you know).

SHP: If you could describe Shadow Black in three words, what would they be?

NYT: I’m not sure! A while ago I ran the whole ms through a word cloud and it spit out this little poem, which feels maybe like the best description:

Become black body burning, 

girl god hair, light mouth open.

Poem: shadow, skin, teeth.

Download Shadow Black here!

Under Pressure: Jody Chan

2020, Under Pressure

Jody Chan is a writer, drummer, organizer, and politicized healer based in Toronto. They are the author of haunt (Damaged Goods Press), all our futures (PANK), and sick, winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award. They can be found online and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

Here, Gabriella Graceffo talks with Jody Chan on the push/pull of language, Taiko drumming, chosen communities, and the mentors behind her debut collection.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long did working on sick take, from conception to publication? Is there a reason you don’t capitalize your titles?

Jody Chan: The experiences I had that made it possible to write sick span from my birth until the point at which I finished drafting the manuscript itself, which took somewhere around a year and a half, between 2016 and 2017. I won Black Lawrence Press’ St. Lawrence Book Award in December 2018, and the book is coming out in August 2020 — so all in all, between four and 26 years, depending on how you look at it! I don’t capitalize titles because I like the ability to choose which conventions in English to adopt and which to reject; some of these conventions are arbitrary, just as the global domination of English over other languages is arbitrary. I tend to play with punctuation and sentence structure in my writing for this same reason.

GG: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JC: Deadlines are a gift! Accountability to myself and to others — when it’s wanted, and chosen — gets my ideas in motion, and helps me break out of endless self-critique. 

GG: sick features a wide range of styles and forms. When you begin to write a poem, do you feel a particular form is right for it or does it take shape further into the writing process? 

JC: For me, form and content generally emerge in conversation with one another, but I do often find received forms really helpful as a starting place, especially when I’m trying to write something I’m afraid of. Structure gives me safety and freedom, rules to push up against and to fall back on, an inherent rhythm to draw out the specific music of the new poem. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JC: I cook (sometimes), I read, I turn my attention to the outside world, I move my body, I love my friends. I create in community. My chosen kin — the ones who check in on me, send me food and poems, help me hold myself accountable to the person I want to be — are what make everything possible in my life, and that includes my writing.

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JC: In January of last year, I took a poetry workshop with Erica Dawson; she also reviewed sick’s manuscript and gave me generous, incisive feedback. One thing she told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory) was to honour the growth and transformation in my life that makes growth in my craft possible, and vice versa. That means not pushing myself to write what I’m not ready to, if it will hurt me in the process, or if I’m not at the point yet where I can write it well; and at the same time, learning how to take risks and trust in what I do have to offer.

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? Do you find that it comes more in one language than another? Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

JC: I tend to do a lot of drafting in phone notes. Lines, words, phrases can arrive while I’m taking the subway, participating in a protest, making dinner with a friend — especially when there’s a poem I’m actively working on, it tends to take over all the background space in my head — and my phone is one thing I almost always keep nearby.

GG: What are some things you learned from creating this debut book? Did you approach making it differently to that of your earlier chapbook, all our futures? Do you have some advice for writers putting together a first collection?

JC: I wrote almost the entirety of all our futures over a span of two weeks, during an artist residency on the Toronto Islands, about two years after I finished the manuscript for sick. It’s kind of disorienting to have sick come out later, actually, when the poems themselves feel so much more distant from me in time and orientation. 

I don’t know if I’m in a position to pass on advice to other writers — I feel perpetually like a beginner, and I like it that way — but I did learn some things myself. When I first started writing the words that eventually ended up in sick, I felt like I had to lay my whole entire self out on the page. I was so terrified that a reader might find fault with me if my politics weren’t laid out enough — critically enough, radically enough, insightfully enough, movingly enough — in every single poem.

I had to learn to trust that I didn’t have to say everything I would ever want to say in my first collection, let alone in every poem. And I can’t write myself beyond critique, in some kind of radical perfectionism. I can’t edit my past self out of my poems, a self that I’m ashamed of because they weren’t far enough along on their political journey. It’s not possible. I keep learning (hopefully), I keep trying to stay grounded in the movements and communities I come from, and so I keep coming across new thoughts to explore, new feelings to feel.

In part, this is why the long poem appeals to me as a form, and why I wrote all our futures that way. It gave me more space in which to explore connections, contradictions, and questions clustered around a set of themes (in this case, disability, eugenics, climate change, and reproductive justice), without the pressure of needing to come to a quick and tidy conclusion — a pressure that shorter poems sometimes exert on me. 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JC: With an audience? This is kind of a terrifying (but fun) question. The first thing that comes to mind is Taiko drumming, like a participatory piece where people are free to join for any amount of time, and to leave. Maybe this is my imagination’s way of reminding me that I’ve been really, really missing drumming with others during the pandemic. Typically, I drum with a group called Raging Asian Womxn Taiko Drummers twice a week; it’s the place I’ve learned the most about what joy and freedom truly feel like in my body. 

GG: If you could describe sick in three words, what would they be? Why?

JC: Longing, grief, obsession. I think these are basically the three drives of my life, so it’s fitting. I’ve been trying to notice their energy, the information they give me about what’s important to me and where I want to go, without letting them make my decisions for me.

Order sick here!

Under Pressure: Mike Soto

2020, Under Pressure

A Grave Is Given Supper, Mike Soto

Mike Soto is the author of the chapbooks, Beyond the Shadow’s Ink, and Dallas Spleen. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was awarded the James Merrill Poetry Fellowship by Vermont Studio Center in 2019. His debut collection of poetry, A Grave Is Given Supper, has been adapted into an original literary-theatrical performance by Teatro Dallas directed by Claudia Acosta and starring Elena Hurst.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on A Grave is Given Supper take, from conception to publication?

Mike Soto: I started working on the manuscript with a decent idea of what I was doing in 2012. So, I would say about seven to eight hard fought years. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

Mike Soto: The title came from a line of a poem that I was once writing. It was the first title I gave the collection & it never seriously changed. In the end I think I wanted a title that captured the life/death cycle in a succinct metaphor, something that juxtaposed it with the same kind of simplicity expressed in Mesoamerican cultures. With those four words that was the aim. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure?

Mike Soto: Deadlines are part of the game, but the pressure they create seems to be on a pendulum of good or bad, depending on how you handle them. Since there is no such thing as perfection, I feel like deadlines force you to be at peace with the inevitable flaws that a work will have.

Deadlines can also be a test of how consistently you’ve been focused. No one wants to rush to finish something important. You want the rush to be about the details that can take the work to another level, I think. So ultimately, I feel like deadlines are devices for bringing the completion of a project into focus, & very necessary.  

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

Mike Soto: I usually have a few altar spaces that I maintain. I’ve had at least one space dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the folk-saint from Sinaloa who stole from the greedy & gave to the needy, for the duration of my time writing A Grave Is Given Supper. Developing a personal & creative relationship to Malverde, embedded in the maintenance of that space & also meditating in that space & from that space—drove me to write the poems that I did. I don’t think it could have happened another way. The practice of adding (& subtracting) objects from important trips & places, objects that people I’m close to give me, or that come into my possession through a deep coincidence, center my intentions & my writing. I’ll usually light the altar space when I’m working, & then come back to it when I need to take a break or refocus. This practice informs my writing and alters the altar space, & vice versa, all the time. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

Mike Soto: I’d like to share instead some advice that I went against: I was encouraged by a few mentors to play up my cultural identity as a Latinx writer, & also to give myself up in terms of writing about my personal experience. That advice didn’t ring true to the work that I wanted to do. So I’m happy that I went against this advice. Although AGIGS is not a book that I consider to be directly about my cultural identity, & not directly about my personal history, I think those elements are still present, but they exist in a submerged manner. My hope was that this allowed the book to be more of a communal object instead of the expression of an individual.   

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

Mike Soto: I usually keep a pocket journal, a notebook-sized journal, and craft paper taped to a wall. I tend to use a lot of tape when I’m deep into a writing project. I love the freedom of writing with a marker on a wall, it feels akin to graffiti. This is probably absurd to say but I think sitting for long periods of time is my least favorite things to do while writing. I try to balance that stillness with as much movement as possible.   

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

Mike Soto: Stephanie Adams-Santos‘ poetry. The films of Bi Gan. The photos of Jim Goldberg. The photo-sculptural work of Dayanita Singh

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

Mike Soto: Probably plants, I would shape the experience of every room with plants. If there was no natural light (lame) in the museum, then I would use lenticulars as a medium and shape the experience of every room with lenticular prints of some sort. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Could you talk about the organization of the book? Parts of it are inspired by Jodorowsky’s El Topo, right?

Mike Soto: Yes, AGIGS borrows several narrative & metaphysical elements from El Topo, & I wrote the two protagonists as Topos in the making, in lineage with the black-clad protagonist of Jodorowsky’s film. Like El Topo, there are also four showdowns in AGIGS, poems where Topito, the protagonist, has a gunfight with an avatar of Death. But these poems are meant to stage phases of an inner transformation, as opposed to being duels with a master as in El Topo.  So, AGIGS is not a faithful retelling, but you could say it’s in lineage with El Topo, in terms of having similar metaphysical, aesthetic, & narrative ambitions. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe A Grave Is Given Supper in three words, what would they be? Why?

Mike Soto: Despite, Death, Yes. I think the book’s energy draws on Topito’s and Consuelo’s journey to seek a kind of redemption, or enlightenment, despite the culture of violence around them. That word “despite” always seemed like the essential verb of the book. Finding, against all odds, that indelible Yes. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Finally, which character do you identify with the most in your book or in El Topo?

Mike Soto: In El Topo I identified not so much with the El Topo himself but with the series of transformations that he undergoes. I wanted Topito in AGIGS to go through a similar series of transformations. I guess I might be interested in going through some of those transformations myself. 

Order A Grave is Given Supper, here.

Under Pressure: Roberto Carlos Garcia

2020, Under Pressure

[Elegies], Roberto Carlos Garcia

Poet, storyteller, and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia is a self-described “sancocho […] of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists.” Garcia is rigorously interrogative of himself and the world around him, conveying “nakedness of emotion, intent, and experience,” and he writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-diasporic experience. His third poetry collection, [Elegies] is available from Flower Song Press, and his second collection, black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric, is available from Willow Books. Roberto’s first collection, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press.

His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, The BreakBeat Poets Vol 4: LatiNEXT, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, The Root, Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Gawker, Barrelhouse, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others.

He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books Publishing, A NonProfit Corp.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: This book is titled [Elegies]. Could you talk about the genesis of this book and how it’s in conversation with your previous collection, Black/Maybe?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There are definitely some intersections with black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric: family histories, formative childhood experiences, poems exploring the post-colonial third world nature of the hood. [Elegies] is also in conversation with my first book, Melancolía, which leans towards the metaphysical. The true genesis of the book was my grandmother’s death from complications due to Alzheimer’s. I wrote a series of elegies for her that became a chapbook. When I submitted it to Flower Song they asked for a manuscript and here we are. As I assembled the book it became evident that I wasn’t just eulogizing my grandmother but also other beloveds, past versions of myself, stereotypes and myths, other consciousness(es). But I’m also praising life lived, the book is as much ode as it is elegy.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Tell us about the mixtape poem and how forms like the elegy and essay inform your work.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I basically wanted to break the constraints of the cento. It is already a great form but because I write essays and fiction, I had a host of lines from each genre floating around in my head that I wanted to put into a poem. And then the song lyrics! So, I decided to break the rules and come up with a new form, the mixtape. When I was a kid mixtapes were everything. I remember first hearing Nas’s classic, “Halftime,” on a mixtape.

There are some things that you can’t say in a poem, you need an essay or a short story, and vice versa. I am a poet and I consider myself a writer, as such I embrace the challenge of writing in any genre. I am inspired by so many wonderful writers and they move me to the page to use my art in multiple genres.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you? Maybe it’s a way of putting form on time and content.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There’s a wonderful tweet out there that goes “If you give me a deadline on a writing project, I’ll give you a clean house and an eight-course meal.” Lol. There’s definitely an element of procrastination involved with deadlines but at the end of the day you’re either going to write it or you’re not. A part of me believes the writer makes their mind up about that well in advance. Then there’s the professional element of the whole thing that creates pressure. You don’t want to be known as that writer, unreliable and what not. The stigma associated with that creates even more anxiety and pressure. I guess I hate deadlines but they’re a necessary evil sometimes. I’m not answering this question very well.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I read a lot. I need to hear other voices in my head. Perhaps that’s an old school approach but it is an essential part of our craft. I enjoy reading those “Art Of” interviews in the Paris Review. Sometimes the questions are just as good, if not better, than the responses. I meditate, that’s a must, and I work out. I believe it’s important to feel the body mind connection through physical work. And music, I have to have music.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of great advice. One bit of advice that stands out to me today is by the poet Anne Marie Macari, who as I was nearing graduation from my MFA told me that “writers write.” I’ve carried that with me ever since. You can take breaks and recharge, but eventually you have to get back to that blank page and write. Writing is a commitment, a practice, a Way. Recognizing and honoring “writers write” is respecting your gift. That stands out to me.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I don’t journal, but I know I should. So many writers journal as a practice and swear by it. I’m not a creature of habit that way. I do keep a dream diary and I find that far more interesting. Looking back through a month’s worth of dreams is a wild ride. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise these days?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: John Murillo’s Kontemporary American Poetry. Great poetry by one of our best and brightest.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Painting. I love visual art in any medium, but painting is my favorite. I painted at least ten pieces, four of which are in my office on campus, and the rest are sitting in my basement.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What does the 5-track mixtape for this book look like?

Roberto Carlos Garcia:

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” by Gang Starr

Me Gritaron Negra” by Victoria Santa Cruz

La Zafra” Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz

Sometimes” by Raphael Saadiq

I Miss U” by N II U

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe [Elegies] in three words, what would they be? Why?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Love. Memory. Legacy.

This book really came out of love. My love for my grandmother and my sister, for the people in my life, for the people I’ve lost, even versions of myself, ghosts and shadows, that I’ve shed over many years and turning points in life. The book comes from loving myself too.

Memory plays an important role in this book and it permeates all the poems. Memory ties into legacy and legacy ties into the elegies which a dear friend told me read like odes at times.

Check out [Elegies] here.

Under Pressure: Melissa Wiley

2020, Under Pressure

Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy, Melissa Wiley

Melissa Wiley is the author of Skull Cathedral, a book interweaving thoughts on the body’s vestigial organs with autobiographical fragments, which won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest and was judged by Paul Lisicky. She has also published the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena. Were she more coordinated, she would have become a trapeze artist and joined the circus. As it is, she struggles to say what feels true but believes the struggling is what matters. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Nashville Review, American Literary Review, and others.

Here, Melissa Wiley discusses vestigial anatomy, the firehose of language and thought, and her writing routines.


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did working on Skull Cathedral take, from conception to publication?

Melissa Wiley: All told, it took me almost two years to write. Though I tried to stay focused, I also wanted to approach each essay with as minimal of an agenda as possible, allowing any associations around a given vestigial organ or reflex to coalesce into a narrative without me forcing one into being. 

BRP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

MW: The title comes from the essay concerning the sinuses, though I should probably add that this essay hardly mentions them explicitly, except for a paragraph. As I wrote this particular piece, these cavities were still always there, hovering in the back of my awareness, offering new layers of meaning for the sequence of events at hand. Without some level of consciousness of these hollow spaces, I don’t believe I could have written this essay as it stands, by which I mean I never could have connected certain threads of thought and veins of existence. When choosing a title for the collection as a whole, I realized all of the essays functioned in this way, with the vestigial organ or reflex informing the content rather than serving as the primary content itself. Throughout the book, the vestigial remnants operate much like negative space in a visual work of art, highlighting the subjects in the foreground, bringing them into focus.

But to go back to the sinuses for a moment, I found them particularly emblematic of the underlying meaning that I was trying to convey from so much disparate material. Just as you sometimes hear people say it’s the space in between the notes that creates the music, for me the cavities of the sinuses represented a space through which a sense of sacredness could pervade material reality. Thoughts and memories can elicit so much pain, especially when tied to loss or regret, and a lot of this book is about finding a way out of pain or a better way to live with it. So I found it deeply comforting to realize the source of so much of our capacity for anguish—all the thinking that goes on inside our head—itself houses empty spaces, which is to say breathing room in essence. The title is meant to speak to that potential for respite from a place as crowded our heads can be. Though I’m not religious, I also love the palpable hush that comes with stepping inside of holy spaces, with entering any room that has been designated for the purpose of communing with holiness alone. So the title Skull Cathedral ultimately serves as a way of reminding myself of the fact we contain all of the spiritual wisdom we need inside of our own bodies, however these bodies may appear, whatever their limitations.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

MW: I have to impose deadlines on myself in order to feel as if I’m making any progress. This feeling, if not the reality, seems to be key to moving past all the rejection that comes with submitting new material, with not being so weighed down by it. This book, for instance, I completed more than three years ago and submitted for as long, which of course has made its forthcoming publication through Autumn House that more meaningful.

I’ve also been writing for long enough now to appreciate that no project ever adheres to my own timeline, no matter how strictly I might keep to it. Creative flow has its own innate rhythm, though I think it’s important to push this a little, to make yourself write as often as possible, ideally every day. The act of writing even a single sentence works much like a muscle for me; it atrophies without being stretched or pushed toward some exertion. 

Setting deadlines is also often the only way to make myself move past the draft stage, to force myself to clean something up, placing myself in the position of a reader rather than a writer. This inevitably leads to excising masses of content, which is never the fun part for me. This purging of excess material amounts to more than half the process, maybe as much as eighty percent. Because I don’t have an agent or anyone else nudging me to keep producing more work, deadlines encourage me to engage with a piece to its finish, completing the cycle. That said, they can also convert what was once a little lighter-hearted affair into something more like a job, with some of its same tedium. So far, though, I see no way around this.

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

MW: I work as a freelance editor and writer from a home office, so partly because it would be far too easy for me to stay in all day, especially during the Chicago winter, I try to walk five or six miles a day as well as practice some form of meditation, though I’m hardly ever successful with the latter. Any attempt to quiet my mind still seems extremely worthwhile to me. There has never not been a time when too much chatter, internally or externally, has not hindered me in some way, has not left me feeling depleted. So even if I can’t get out and walk as much as I would like on a given day, I try to at least watch my breathing for a few minutes, to take some conscious pauses. It’s not much, but it helps. I wish I could say I also cooked a full and lovely dinner or invited more variety into my life by practicing a craft like sewing or gardening to counteract all the wordplay, but I’m so lazy that way. At the end of a normal day, I usually just want to walk to my nearest falafel place, observing the expressions of all the faces in passing, before settling into a book.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

MW: Five years ago, I attended the Writer’s Hotel in NYC, and Richard Hoffman, who led the nonfiction workshop, likened reading my work to taking a drink from a firehose. In other words, I was overwhelming my potential readers, asking too much of them. I was just starting to write seriously then, and of course I laughed when he said this. All of the rest of the feedback I received in the workshop, though, carried the same message. I was burning to say so much—as I still am—but clearly I needed to learn to control the fire—or the hose, whatever—so people could absorb what I was putting out there without feeling lashed or burned or assaulted in some way. (Gosh, that sounds violent.) Rereading some of the pieces I wrote back then, though, I tend to wince a little, because now I can see what people meant. I like to think I’ve matured as a writer in the years since, that I’ve summoned more power over what used to be too many words attempting to convey too many emotions at once. No one wants to slake their thirst from a firehose, I realize, no matter how parched. I used to feel a little hurt by critique that fell along these lines, but now I get it.

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

MW: I used to keep journals, but they have mostly fallen by the wayside. This has a lot to do with devoting more energy to putting the bulk of my writing into more cohesive shape. When I’m lucky enough to travel, though, I always take a physical journal along, and these can be fun for me to reread. Once in a great while, I will find myself writing on napkins if I’m somewhere (obviously somewhere with food) and a thought really strikes me, if it feels fresh and true, as if it has been waiting for this time and space to surface. I don’t believe every piece of writing needs to amount to a finished product by any means, but a large part of creativity consists in keeping the channels open. So maybe I should start journaling again.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

MW: I wish I had more nature to walk out into, but I live close to downtown Chicago, albeit near the lakefront, and am without a car to easily access more open spaces. That said, environment tends to make less of a difference for me than state of mind. As I was saying or meant to imply before, a quieter mind yields its own peace, and this is where most matters become clearer for me. Any real inspiration I’ve ever experienced has always felt less like inspiration and more like clarity, something along the lines of, “yes, that’s how it is—I can see it now.” 

Sometimes that clarity does come at night when I wake and am unable to fall back asleep, so long as my mind doesn’t grow too restive. Several months ago and before the pandemic disrupted so many aspects of our lives, I was walking back from a yoga class when I looked up into a webbing of bare tree limbs and knew all at once what I wanted my next creative project to be. I knew this without having been conscious of searching for a new project to begin with, especially because I’m currently involved with one that should keep me busy for the next year or so. Still I was grateful for the insight or clarity or inspiration, whose arrival I think must have been related to the calm that came with feeling physically tired and energized at the same time. I’ve felt so excited about having the chance to start writing this new book ever since.

BRP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

MW: I would love to be a musician, mostly because music feels so much more visceral to me than writing. Music cuts through so much clutter—and literally moves people—like no other medium. I’ve played different instruments in the past, but none have ever felt like a natural path of expression; I really have to work at it before any smoothness or spontaneity arises. I’m a little better at drawing and painting, though given 24 hours in a museum, what I would really love to do would be to create a sculpture of some kind. I took one sculpture class in college, when we worked mostly in stone—I can only remember making a single, disembodied rib cage and my arm getting tired—so I would love to work with clay, with something softer. 

This is probably my naivete at work, but I like to imagine that the conscious mind can interfere less with creative flow when the hands are active, so if given such a limited timeframe to create something new, I would love to trust my hands more than my head, to try the experiment. This is a big part of the challenge with writing for me, keeping the mind alert without allowing it to obscure or override subtleties, without allowing it to shift to more exciting topics or erase contradictions. So I’d love to be able to delve more deeply into the hands’ intelligence, though opportunities for that already abound and I rarely take advantage. 

BRP: What are some things you learned from creating Skull Cathedral? How did this experience compare to creating Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena?

MW: Though the themes are similar, this one was created much more deliberately, with more focus and discipline. From my experience of writing both these volumes, I’ve learned you have nothing to lose from stating the truth as it reveals itself through your own subjective lens and personal set of experiences, though it’s always wise to be sensitive when writing about people other than yourself. Much is sometimes made of a memoirist’s inherent vulnerability, but I actually see no way in which any of us can escape this, in which we can ever ultimately protect ourselves, no matter what we put out there or keep ourselves from doing. Any sense of protection we may feel strikes me as only an illusion.

Whether we talk about it or not, we are all mortal animals forced to grapple with macrocosmic forces beyond our control as well as potentially thornier psychological ones. So I think we are only ever helped by other people—memoirists being only one example—who acknowledge these realities, who help us step out of our protective armor, who help transform our vulnerability into a source of beauty, maybe even consolation. It’s a lovely paradox that sometimes nothing makes us feel as whole as feeling completely defenseless, which is to say unapologetically human. I have felt this way many times when reading books detailing another person’s experience in such vivid detail that I’m left feeling something close to transcendence.

Because no one is immune to cataclysm or revelation, to tragedy or transformation, I would suggest that any memoirist’s writing process begin with a bold embrace of your humanness, while recognizing that you share this humanness with every other person on the planet who has ever lived and has yet to be born. You can always pull back from there, casting a more clinical eye over what you’ve written. You can always shape your explosively messy material into a form in which more restraint might better serve your readers. But start with some fire, I would say. I guess this is my old firehose at work, unwilling to be vanquished. Personally I would have made a lot more progress in a lot less time if I only had a steadier, gentler flow to begin with. So maybe fire isn’t everything. Maybe it’s just emotional honesty, being who you are at this particular point in time. I don’t really trust much else when it comes down to it.

BRP: If you could describe Skull Cathedral in three words, what would they be? Why?

MW: Useless messes matter. The reason I was attracted to the idea of writing about vestigial organs and reflexes—the reason the idea practically walloped me over the head one day—probably had a lot to do with feeling like a useless human being. Even while serving no real purpose on this planet, none at which I have been able to grasp anyway, I’m still alive and have to reckon with that aliveness. I have long passed the point of needing to find a reason as to why I’m here or why anything happens—so much of it senseless, especially concerning those who suffer and those who seem to get away with so much less of it— meaning I don’t care to fight the uselessness, to cling to a sense of purpose that would only be a personal belief anyway, not empirically valid. So for better or worse, I easily identify with these organs in my body that similarly seem of little to no use, that we have already evolved beyond as a species. 

The irony is perhaps that, while writing this book, these vestigial remnants offered real and meaningful import for my life, for how to keep living it without feeling particularly invested in a future, for how to feel more fully alive without the prospect of that life ever amounting to much of anything, without being able to ease much of anyone’s suffering. Through contemplating these few features of our anatomy, I think I came to more peace with the seeming anomie, even brutality, of so much of our existence. Uselessness may not mean anything in the way we might want it to, in the sense that a reason lurks behind it that will come clear at some point—I’m deeply distrustful of all teleological thinking—but for me any real meaning abides in the uncertainty. I have come to feel there is richness in not knowing, in the precariousness of life and its easy slippage into what we suppose to be its opposite. A wonder opens up when no other beliefs, or even hopes, cloud all the contradictions.

Order Skull Cathedral here!

Under Pressure: Sara Lupita Olivares

2020, Under Pressure

Migratory Sound, Sara Lupita Olivares

Sara Lupita Olivares is the author of Migratory Sound (The University of Arkansas Press), which was selected as winner of the 2020 CantoMundo Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Field Things (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Salt Hill Journal, DIAGRAM, jubilat, and elsewhere. She currently lives in New Mexico where she works as an assistant professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University.  


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on Migratory Sound take, from conception to publication?

Sara Lupita Olivares: I started the poems after moving from Michigan to Texas for my MFA where some were part of my thesis. I then moved to Brooklyn, NY for a few years and wrote some of the poems there, and then once I returned back to Michigan for my PhD I wrote the poems that finished the manuscript. It went through so much weeding out and adding in throughout this time and took many shapes. But for a short answer—I suppose about 9 years, which feels daunting to say!

SHP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

SLO: Movement and migration became an important focus for me after leaving Michigan and later returning, as I started to see the ways my own movement felt paralleled to that of my family’s. Part of my family immigrated from Mexico to Texas initially, and during the summers they would come up to Michigan for seasonal work in the fields. Eventually my great-grandfather was offered work in the papermills and so they permanently relocated, and my mom and dad also supported my sisters and I in these factories. In returning to Michigan, I began questioning generational mobility and the ways that the traumas and dynamics within my family still felt audible in various ways. There is also a lot of secrecy within my family, so I think that adds to the narratives and stories being presented, yet partially intangible.

I have been interested in different points of access within these subjects and in looking more widely at movement and migration, specifically with animals and in the natural world. My writing process often involves looking to older texts, usually books with more technical language that give texture to my thought and ways of seeing. One of the books that I was exploring was called The Migrations of Birds (see, plain and technical title) and I was drawn to the logic behind the migration of birds, the shapes they took together in moving, and the invisible presence of wind. I wandered into the title Migratory Sound in trying to encapsulate the fogginess of movement and the ghosts and echoes connected to displacement.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

SLO: When I first see a deadline I think I worry a bit. But I do generally like them, and I am pretty quick about getting things done significantly before the deadline so I don’t lose sight of it. Workshop / submission deadlines give me a sense of accountability and I usually make necessary last minute edits before I know someone else is going to see the work. I think there is a shift in seeing that has to happen when you know something is going to be out of your hands in some way and this has become a large part of my process.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

SLO: I do believe in “a room of one’s own,” or at least a space of one’s own that invites and supports rituals. It is important for me to be in my office around my plants and stones / crystals, to stretch some, and to meditate in the morning. If I try to write before I have meditated then it often feels hard to access anything. Having a clear mental and physical space allows me to approach what I am writing about from a more distanced and observant place. All of this also always involves tea.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

SLO: I have received a lot of gold from my mentors, but something that I often think about is Kathleen Peirce telling me to “get into good trouble.” John Lewis says this too! I think this teaches me to measure risk, yet to maintain a sense of control—whatever amount of control that may be required in each poem. This advice also speaks to what may come to inform the poems and it shows a sense of compassionate risk, yet an inherent curiousity and joy that I wouldn’t want to ever lose sight of.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

SLO: Right now I don’t think I have a journal but in the past I have, so I should get one. I often write on notecards—my partner gifted me a green tin full of notecards from an estate sale somewhere and they are currently on my desk and easy to get ahold of. I will write on scraps if I’m driving or out somewhere, and I try to be intentional with notebooks (I have two that I’m going back and forth with lately), but I usually abandon the notebooks and go back to the notecards. More recently I have also been writing on lineless paper where I can sense white space and linebreaks a bit more. But in each case, I do think that the paper I use conditions the shapes of the poems.

SHP: Place seems to play a part in your manuscript. What is your favorite place to visit right now? Can you talk about your relationship to place a bit more?

SLO: I recently moved to northern New Mexico, so I have had a lot of new terrains to explore! I’ve never lived near mountains and it is pretty amazing having these quiet giants all around. My favorite place right now is the Wildlife Refuge near my house. There is a windy field you walk across and blue mountains further away but visible all around you. There are also signs to beware of wild creatures, and I like this sense of mystery in not knowing really what inhabits this space.

Place typically informs my poems, specifically natural spaces and the divisions and lines between the urban and rural. While writing Migratory Sound, I became interested in notions of the idyllic / pastoral and of what exists outside of these enclosed spaces. This contrast became important in looking at my family’s work in the factories and in the fields, and of how in returning to Michigan I began to notice both the prevalence of factories all around, and my family’s deep rooted connection to them—it felt like you couldn’t see one without thinking of the other. In going to nature there is a leaving and return and I am drawn to what becomes suspended outside of these spaces sort of haunting and shaping what occurs within them, and of the question of privilege and access to the idyllic. Natural spaces allow me to be lost for a minute and this is important to me for thinking and creating. I think, however, that this is more complex of a process for minority voices, or as Audre Lorde would say “disenfranchised” voices.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

SLO: I would love to wander around a museum in all hours and nap under a Bonnard painting. If I could create something here, can it be a lot of ekphrastic poems? If poetry isn’t an option then I would paint. I love the sense of layering and overlapping of colors with painting but I’m not sure how to do it or if there is a right or wrong way. I think in my 24 hours I would hover around an Agnes Martin, Matisse, or Bonnard painting and see where that took me.

SHP: You also have a chapbook too. Is there a conversation between that book and this one?

SLO: I have a chapbook Field Things, and some of the poems here are included in Migratory Sound. I wrote this chapbook while living in Texas and I think it reflects that location. This was the first time I had moved away from home and it was also a time when I lost a few important family members. I think it was a moment where I was learning to look at different parts of my life from a distance and discovering new vantage points. I do believe we constantly return to the same subjects trying to get them right in some way, so I think Field Things feels like an introduction to some of the subjects that Migratory Sound goes further into.

SHP: If you could describe Migratory Sound in three words, what would they be? Why?

SLO: Quiet, Shadowed, Periphery. The poems often slip into and out of the physical within the space they occupy and in their way of seeing. I think there is care given to detail but also a love for what is nearly out of sight or sound, though close despite being outside of the frame.

Order Migratory Sound here!

Under Pressure: Malcolm Friend

2020, Under Pressure

Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple,
Malcolm Friend

Malcolm Friend is a poet originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. He received his BA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the 2014 recipient of the Merrill Moore Prize for Poetry, and his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of the chapbook mxd kd mixtape (Glass Poetry, 2017) and the full length collection Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple (Inlandia Books, 2018), selected by Cynthia Arrieu-King as winner of the 2017 Hillary Gravendyk Prize. He has received awards and fellowships from organizations including CantoMundo, Backbone Press, the Center for African American Poetry & Poetics, The Frost Place, and the University of Memphis. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including La Respuesta magazine, the Fjords Review’s Black American Edition, Vinyl, Word Riot, The Acentos Review, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and Pretty Owl Poetry. He is a Poetry Editor for FreezeRay Poetry, and together with JR Mahung is a member of Black Plantains, an Afrocaribbean poetry collective. He currently lives and teaches in Pittsburgh.

Here, Malcolm Friend talks curation, musical influences, and the story behind his debut collection.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple take to write from conception to publication?

Malcolm Friend: Our Bruises was born from my MFA thesis at the University of Pittsburgh. A few of the poems in there were first drafted the year before, during my senior year at Vanderbilt. During my second semester I took a manuscript workshop with Lynn Emanuel, and during the first month most of us in the class participated in a daily grind, writing a poem a day. Only some of those daily grind poems ended up in the chapbook I wrote for the course, but that’s when I first started writing around The Bomba Man and The Blues Man, and started to form the ideas of what I wanted the manuscript together. That manuscript ended up winning the Inlandia Institute’s 2017 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize and was published in 2018, so in all it was around a four-year process.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

MF: Deadlines are very helpful for me. My mind wanders a lot and, like so many other writers, my day job isn’t focused around my writing, so it’s easy to lose track of it and go spells without writing, editing, etc. If I have a deadline I have to meet, that helps me focus and bear down a little bit more.

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

MF: Wow there are so many names I could put here, from Ricardo Alberto Maldonado and Ana Portnoy Brimmer, both with debut poetry collections coming out soon, to folks like Yesenia Montilla and Jasminne Mendez who lately have just been blowing me away with their poems. I also have to give a shoutout to the homie Cameron Barnett. He was a year ahead of me at Pitt and we still send each other work from time-to-time. Everytime he sends me something I just have to step away from the computer for a second. And, of course, I’m really excited for Yona Harvey’s new book coming out this fall..

Outside of poetry, Lianna La Havas just released a new project, so I’ve been listening to that on repeat for a second.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

MF: Honestly, for me, it’s all about remembering to nourish myself as a person, not just a writer. So I have to make sure to take time to do non-writing related things, like cook, spend time with my partner and our rabbits, watch sports–things like that to make sure I’m taking a breath every now and then.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

MF: So this is kind of combination of what two people have told me over the years. In 2016, Juan Felipe Herrera was one of the faculty members at the CantoMundo retreat, and his workshop was based around play in our writing. The next year, as I was working on my thesis, Yona Harvey noticed how I was working with epigraphs, and encouraged me to play around with them a little more—let their rhythm echo through the poems a little bit more. Both of these together remind me to have fun with my writing, and to remember to write around joy when I can.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

MF: When I was in high school and college I used to just write on looseleaf and keep it in a folder. Then for the last year or two in college and first year of grad school I used to have a journal. In the past few years I’ve more so been on the computer, just because of how often I have to be on it anyway and trying to scale down how much stray paper I have to keep track of. If there’s a line I need to remember or that’s just repeating in my head, I’ll take whatever I can find to write it down–a teaching notebook, an index card, a receipt. Otherwise, I just park myself in front of a computer until I feel I can’t do anything else with a poem for the time being.

SHP: When it comes to writing/editing, would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

MF: I guess I’d have to say curator here. I think my work is always trying to see what voices and sounds are being pulled together, to find some sort of harmony out of that mix.

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

MF: It just comes when it does. Sometimes it’ll find me when I’m watching TV or listening to music, sometimes while I’m cooking, others when I’m on the bus on the way to work or the airport. I think that’s just a byproduct of the way my mind wanders. Those connections end up being made at any moment.

SHP: If you could curate the perfect reading experience for your book, name a meal, drink, and 3 song playlist that would describe the book.

MF: Meal- Pernil, tostones, and arroz con gandules

Drink- Palo Viejo gold rum mixed with pineapple juice and guava nectar

3 Song Playlist- “Las caras lindas” by Ismael Rivera, “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder, “Calabó y bambú” by La Sista

Now not really sure if those all go together, but that’s what I’m going with.

SHP: If you could describe Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple in three words, what would they be?

MF: A resounding echo.

Order Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple here!