Under Pressure: Alan Chazaro

2020, Under Pressure

Alan Chazaro is a half armadillo half chameleon Mexican American poet. His poetry collections, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019) and Piñata Theory (2020), are available from Black Lawrence Press. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and writing about the NBA for HeadFake.

Here, Garbriella Graceffo talks with Alan Chazaro about candy, social justice, Frank Ocean, graffiti, and the inspiration behind his debut collection.

Interview

Gabriella Graceffo: How long have you worked on Piñata Theory, from conception to the upcoming publication? 

Alan Chazaro: The oldest poem in the book was written about ten years ago, when I was an undergrad student in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. I was a community college transfer just barely figuring out that I had a voice. That poem (“Veracruz”) was the seed I needed to plant for the eventual book to grow from. 

GG: Your previous book, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover, featured disparate topics and experiences like an eclectic mixtape. Does Piñata Theory do the same with many types of cultural candy all bound into one book-shaped piñata? 

AC: I like the way you put that, thank you! I think it has some of that fragmentation for sure, but I also think the body of Piñata Theory is more solidly held together. It’s like the album to the mixtape; there is still a good variety of soundscapes and frequencies of experience, but where Frank Ocean didn’t have the literal space as a chapbook to explore other topics more deeply, I wanted Piñata Theory to pick up where I left off and push further beyond the colorful surface exterior. Just as an example, I really didn’t look at anything regarding citizenship and dual-heritage with Frank Ocean, but Piñata largely lives in that broken in-between space of what it means to be a U.S. citizen who enjoys the sweet privileges of that, while living with many others who only held the struggles of exclusion and undocumentation. You’ll also notice a lot more of Mexico in this one, from my time living there as an adult, and from memories traveling there as a pocho boy and teenager. That’s the kind of stuff Frank Ocean just couldn’t fit. 

GG: Since we’re talking about piñatas, what is your favorite type of candy? 

AC: I like anything that’s the opposite of chocolate to be honest. So, like, anything chewy, and sticky, and hyper-sugary, and sour, and gummy. Usually when I’m at a party with a piñata I’ll only seek out the Laffy Taffys and stuff like that and just ruthlessly leave all that other junk on the floor. 

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

AC: I keep a journal but not for poetry. It’s literally to remind me to do basic things because I can be really spaced out, like: follow up on interview; call your pops; pay grandma’s bill; the kind of stuff that I will mindlessly forget or wait until the super last minute to do if I don’t physically see it written down in front of me. With poems, I’m definitely a take-notes-on-the-phone kind of person, then I’ll shift over to my laptop when I can. I like to start with whatever ideas hit me in the moment by just noting it on my phone and writing the first things that come to my mind, usually jotting down the idea of a concept or title if anything emerges, especially if I’m on the move and I know the momentum will be lost if I don’t capture it like a Pokemon in the wild. I’ll just stop walking and type. Before smartphones became universal though I would definitely be the type to write on loose scratch paper, receipts, even my hand if I had to, just because…. I WOULD FORGET. It drove/still drives my wife crazy.

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

AC: Bruce Snider was my first professor in my first class, first days at the University of San Francisco MFA. He told us that if the writer doesn’t have any moments of surprise themselves, then the reader probably won’t either. It sounds so simple, but it’s something I actually go back to constantly, because since then, I’ve become better about letting my conscious self slowly erode on the page while I’m writing and entering a more stream of consciousness state, and when I feel that moment of surprise, I know it’s something that will more likely resonate with readers because it resonated with me, and I felt it. Before that I think I would approach poems more literally, thinking I was in control and that I should steer the poem in the direction I wanted to by choosing certain words or aiming for a certain feel, but I realized with Bruce’s advice that I was more of a passenger who could arrive at an unexpected place, and it’s a feeling I’ve enjoyed arriving at ever since. 

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

AC: I’m the type to just get up and walk around the room when I’m writing to let my ideas breathe. Need to move, run, or play a sport if I can during the week, too. Anything physical. Being in tune with my body on a daily basis goes hand in hand with my writing for sure. 

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 it in different languages and if so, does translation take away or expand the inspiration? 

AC: I try to keep my senses open to everything, which can be a problem, so I could literally be having a Zoom conversation with a former student and he might say something that will hit me in a certain way and then I’ll suddenly wander off into thinking about writing a poem in my head, but I’ll reel myself back in because I want to be as present as possible in those situations. But to answer the question, it really happens anywhere at any time, it’s just a matter of how much attention I can give it in the moment to give it to let it grow into something more. Music, of course, is also a tremendous source of inspiration for me (shout out Frank Ocean). 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer? Or would you make a multimedia piece, something that evokes synesthesia like your poetry? 

AC: Definitely visual art. I grew up doing graffiti in California as a teenager, so I still have some muscle memory with aerosol. Graffiti is a cousin of poetry in my mind, and I miss doing it. Random story: the first time I ever met my father-in-law, he asked me to paint a mural in his family’s living room. It was bizarre, since I’d just stepped inside his house for the first time ever, and he’s a traditional Mexican man with rosaries and La Virgen all over the house, but he bought me all the paints the next day and asked me to depict a downtown skyline, so I spent a few afternoons on two ladders, covering the whole surface. I won him over by painting a dope, golden sunset row of silhouetted buildings in the front room above his TV. That was such a son-in-law test moment, but it’s still up in his house after 13 years so I think I won him over. 

GG: What are some things you learned from creating both your debut book and your second collection? Do you have some advice you could give to writers putting together a first collection? 

AC: Definitely don’t rush it. I feel like there is such pressure these days to have a collection and to feel validated by a published body of work, but I wanted my first collection(s) to be a reflection of where I was at that moment, however long that took me to express. Whatever that looks like for you, at whatever stage you’re at, in a way that honors you, your voice, your community, and your needs, I think you’ll know when you have something that you’re excited about and hella proud to share. It’s not a race to get to that point. It can be fun too, and if it ever becomes stale or feels flat, just give it some space and try something else you enjoy before coming back to get in your groove again–that’s where the patience, sports, and other stuff comes in for me. I’ll go days, even months without writing a poem, but whenever I get back to it, it just feels so unforced and necessary, and that’s my favorite place to be when I’m creating. 

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

AC: Body. Break. Gather. Those are the three section titles for the book, but also, I think they reflect all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from. We all have to learn how to hold our space; we will all inevitably be shattered in small and large ways; and we will be tasked with picking it all up and seeing what’s inside. 

Also, on a separate but not-so-separate note, continue to fight for justice, not just by sending out Tweets but in real, meaningful ways in whatever capacity you are able to. Defunding the police means redistributing the exorbitant amounts of money unnecessarily funneled into the militarization of law enforcement, and I believe we must redirect those funds more equitably into other community needs, like education. Our public schools have been shit for so long, and only less than 3% of teachers are Black or Brown men of color–not because we are incapable, but because the conditions are so unlikely to attract and retain us in this field. We are severely overworked and underpaid more than most other comparable professions, and the few of us who exist in those spaces are pushed out. In Oakland, for example, “about 20% of the city’s entire budget — more than $318 million — goes to policing. That’s nearly double the amount of any other city department”, and barely a fraction of a fraction of this goes into our students. Think about that. Think about how much goes into creating fear and brutality through police officers when we could be creating empathy and understanding in our classrooms. I guarantee that more quality teachers would remain in the classroom–from all backgrounds–if the wages were respectable and districts had more money to allocate. Stay involved in your local community, especially after this moment passes, and keep applying pressure for institutional changes like this by making demands and using your political voice to support however/wherever you can. Much love and solidarity from the Bay.

Order Piñata Theory here!

Under Pressure: Tatiana Ryckman

2020, Under Pressure
Image of cover for The Ancestry of Objects along with author Tatiana Ryckman
The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman

The Ancestry of Objects, Tatiana Ryckman

Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the novel, The Ancestry of Objects (Deep Vellum Books), as well as a novella, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), and two chapbooks of prose, Twenty-Something and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live. Tatiana is the Editor of Awst Press and has attended residencies at Yaddo, Arthub, and 100W Corsicana. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Lithub, Paper Darts, Barrelhouse, and other publications.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did The Ancestry of Objects take to write, from conception to publication?

Tatiana Ryckman: Seven years? Oof, now that I say that, I’m not sure it’s good enough to have taken seven years, but there it is.

I wrote the first draft in two weeks in 2013. I was at Yaddo for a month with writers and artists much more established than I, and I felt an obligation to that space and the community of people there to produce as I never had before. That desire was facilitated by having someone else think about my meals and the fact that there was, essentially, nothing else to do. I spent six months or so on revisions and then started sending it out.

Nothing happened. I moved on. I put out a couple of chapbooks, I wrote another novella that came out in 2017, and upon returning home from the release party I fell into a deep depression and decided (in a very indulgent and unofficial way) never to write again. I threw away my writing desk. I gave up and it felt very grand.

About a year later Will Evans from Deep Vellum reached out and asked if I was working on anything. I wasn’t (see aforementioned petulance), but I said I had a manuscript I could dust off. A sent him a draft in February of 2019 and he generously offered to publish this weird, 17,000 word manuscript that I hadn’t worked on in five years. He suggested a light edit. You know, develop a few of the themes with a well-placed sentence or two. By the time I sent him the final revision in September it was 30,000 words. And that was more or less the end of it.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: Deadlines are the best. I love a deadline. I wish I had deadlines for everything… reading books, responding to emails, finishing breakfast… How else can you be sure things will get done?

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

Tatiana Ryckman: Other than recording my dreams, writing is far from a daily ritual, and I’m not sure I actively do anything in service of writing for writing’s sake. I have a very strict morning routine that I would say is important to my continued existence, and is perhaps in that way important for writing. Before getting out of bed (often before I’m even actually awake) I write down my dreams. Then I do yoga while reciting the rosary. Since Covid I’ve added a very lenient version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pandemic at-home workout. Then the day devolves into a mixture of snacking and looking at the internet. I’ve also instituted a “3-mile something.” Walk, run, bike—it doesn’t matter, but I have to leave the house, and I have to do it for three miles. Walking is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: My first semester of grad school at Vermont College of Fine Arts I worked with Diane Lefer. I reported to her that I was sitting down every day and making myself write for hours, and I sent her many shitty stories. In one of her generous and thoughtful letters in response to my work she said (something like) “where does this macho idea of writing come from? Why force yourself to write when you don’t want to? Go ride your bike.” If she didn’t say it directly, it was strongly implied that in order to write about life, you have to have one. That advice, along with an amazing reading list, broke my idea of what a story had to be, and how stories came to be, and that was certainly a gift to my writing.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: I try to keep little notebooks on hand, which means that my notes are never in one place, and usually forgotten at home, and then I end up writing on a gum wrapper or receipt (because gum doesn’t really come in sticks any more, have you noticed this?), and then I find these bits of trash months later, abused at the bottom of my purse, or tucked like a bookmark in the pages of an abandoned novel, or wadded at the bottom of the cupholder in my car. It’s a delicate system that I take great precautions against changing.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: Like… everyone? Beatriz González, Bob Thompson, Ebony Patterson, T Fleischmann, LK James, Claire Krueger, T Kira Madden, Patrick Madden, Prince, Oscar Wilde, and others.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: Installation. I have many ideas and none of the tools.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Could you discuss the form of your book a bit more? (You use “We” and white-space a lot and I’d love to hear about this process.)

Tatiana Ryckman: The “we” happened on its own. Though I had to acknowledge at some point that writing in first person plural should serve some purpose. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the narrator struggles to find her own voice and identity, and the echoes of her grandparents scolding her “we don’t do that,” is also indication some internal conflict about to whom she belongs. There may have been a week where I re-wrote the ending switching from “we” to “I”, deleted it, re-wrote it, and deleted it again. Ultimately that indication that “now everything’s fine!” felt too heavy-handed, and fundamentally dishonest, so I didn’t. But I think that experience of going back and forth about who she is is fundamentally who she is. There is an additional implication in the “we” that I prefer to leave ambiguous.

As for white space… that may be an authorial tick of mine. I tend to write episodically, even in my longer writing, and white space helps demarcate shifts between those episodes, whether the episode is a scene, a revelation, or a mood.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe The Ancestry of Objects in three words, what would they be? Why?

Tatiana Ryckman: Hm… all that comes to mind is “dour.”

Under Pressure: Dorsey Craft

2020, Under Pressure

Dorsey Craft’s debut collection, Plunder (Bauhan 2020), won the 2019 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Poetry Daily, Southern Indiana Review and elsewhere. She currently lives in Lake City, Florida and serves as Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. Visit her here.

Here, Dorsey Craft discusses the pirate Anne Bonny, the inspiration for Plunder, and how Charleston and the routines that inform her process.

Interview

Gabriella Graceffo: How long did you work on Plunder, from conception to publication?

Dorsey Craft: The oldest poems in Plunder are about five or six years old, but most of the work took place over the past three years. 

GG: Where did you get your title inspiration from? Does the word plunder have several meanings to you?

DC: My friend and I were studying and decided to procrastinate by renaming my manuscript. All of my favorite titles of recent poetry books were one-word titles, so we actually plugged “pirate” into an online thesaurus and got synonyms. I loved the way that “plunder” sounded—and the way that it echoed the “l” and “r” sounds that were so present in the poems already. And Anne certainly does a lot of plundering in the poems—she enjoys material luxury for sure, but her plunder is also very much about a chaotic kind of feminist resistance. In the poem “The Pirate Anne Bonny Goes Through Her Lover’s Pockets,” I wrote “This is your way, to search before learning / what to find” and I think that Anne and the contemporary speaker are both reaching for something uncertain and undefinable. 

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

DC: I thrive with deadlines and pressure. I honestly don’t know if I would ever get anything done without them. I try to psyche myself out and set deadlines for myself, but it’s never quite the same. 

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

DC: Reading is pivotal—I read a lot of literary magazines and new collections of poetry, but also older texts and prose. This summer I am plugging away at the Old Testament and Middlemarch, but I’ve also been reading new collections by Marianne Chan (All Heathens), Traci Brimhall (Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod), Kathryn Nuernberger (Rue), and Justin Philip Reed (The Malevolent Volume). This year has busted up a lot of my usual routines, but having coffee, walking my stubborn dog, and jogging are still always on the schedule. 

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

DC: I have always aspired to be a journal keeper, but the construct of writing for just myself is too strange. Official journal entries feel like I’m performing “me” for me. But I definitely jot down images and lines that occur to me in my phone or computer all day long—and sometimes in paper notebooks back when we were still going to school in person. 

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

DC: This is actually in the acknowledgements of Plunder, but my favorite advise was from Jillian Weise just after I got accepted into my MFA program. I had gotten in off the waitlist and I was going straight in from undergrad. I said “I’m worried I’m not good enough,” and she said, “You’re just going to have to get over that.” It was excellent advice, and I’m still following it with varying levels of success. 

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?

DC: Morning is best for me—my mind is fresher when the day hasn’t started weighing me down yet. Usually inspiration starts with reading, but the poem doesn’t always happen immediately. I will sit down to write, read a whole collection of poetry and feel like nothing is going to come. Then I’ll lie down for bed that same night or go outside to get some sun and write a sonnet in my head. Chatting with my poet friends is also helpful for me when poems are in a germination stage. 

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

DC: Plunder had to change shape several times to find what it was really about. In spring of 2017 it had more poems about family and the American South that were trying to coexist alongside the poems about gender and Anne Bonny. I wanted it to be working because I wanted to be done.  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write enough good poems about one theme to make a book, so I kept trying to juggle. One of my classmates in workshop told me it was really two or even three books, and I finally accepted that I was going to have to streamline it and then write more poems. Almost all of my favorite poems in the collection were written after that point. So my advice would be not to be afraid of your subject or to doubt your ability to sustain it over time. 

GG: Plunder braids together personal narratives, stories focusing directly on Anne Bonny, and poems that put the pirate in conversation with famous literary characters. Is there a particular structure you used to make them all connect?

DC: The connections were forged as I exhausted different avenues of the Anne Bonny series. I wrote the first ten or twelve focusing only on Anne in scenarios that were historically plausible, but our knowledge of her life is very narrow and often based more in legend than fact. Even her death is murky—we know she was imprisoned in Charleston, SC and sentenced to hang, but we don’t have a record of her actual hanging. I took this as permission to imagine her in more mythic or contemporary scenes, which helped to really solidify the relationship between Anne and the speaker. Once I could show the speaker and Anne Bonny playing video games or on a road trip, their relationship became much more concrete and the manuscript really came together. 

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

DC: One of my words would be “lush.” The Anne Bonny poems really allowed me to get carried away by language, and I love the way that the stacking of euphonic sounds echoes the pirate’s tendency towards accumulation. Another word, certainly, would be “feminist,” since Plunder explores, and hopefully extends and interrogates, canonical feminist texts. The last word has to have something to do with the ocean—maybe “salty,” but “salty” as in it tastes like the sea, not “salty” as in “I’m still salty about that thing you said in 2015.” 

Order Plunder here!

Under Pressure: Michael Torres

2020, Under Pressure
Image of the book cover An Incomplete List of Names alongside author Michael Torres

An Incomplete List of Names, Michael Torres

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Michael Torres talks about the genesis of his debut collection, on being REMEK, and his inspirations.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo:  How long did working on An Incomplete List of Names take, from conception to publication?

Michael Torres: First book timelines are tricky to chart, I think, so I hesitate to say that I worked on this book for twelve years even though the oldest lines were written around 2008. Back then, in community college, I couldn’t have imagined that An Incomplete List of Names is exactly where I was going to end up. It makes me think of building a boat on the water: you begin with a surface that at least keeps you afloat and moving further out to sea while you design and tie together pieces. All of it happening at once. Then, when the boat is complete, you’ll realize that the boat is now equipped to take you somewhere you’ve been headed this whole time. So, for me, there was twelve years of imagining, twelve years of acquiring skill and building, twelve years of practice runs and failure—all those book contests and open reading periods coming back as rejections. And if we’re going to stick to this wild metaphor, I’d say it wasn’t until 2016 that I had a hold of the wheel and suddenly there was a captain’s hat on my head. But even then there were the winds, the weather, a crew to feed.

SHP: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

Michael Torres: An Incomplete List of Names was first just a section title in the poem “Elegy with Roll Call.” It came to me toward the end of grad school in Minnesota, though the first draft was written on a visit home to Pomona, a week before 2016’s AWP in Los Angeles. I felt a gang of pressure about completing the thesis and getting everyone’s story from where I grew up into the book. I included in that poem a list of names of homies I used to kick it with, homies I painted walls with. I mimicked what we did as graffiti artists when we’d spray paint the names of everyone in the crew. It was an act of solidarity. It was a record. In trying to get everyone included in the poem, though, I ran into the fact that the list would always be incomplete: some of those homies died or got locked up, others I lost touch with. In this way I could not, with certainty, account for some of them. When I took a look at the entire collection I noticed that that’s what was going on throughout the collection: Naming. Preserving (or at least trying, desperately, to preserve) the stories attached to those names.

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

MT: I’ve more or less kept up a writing ritual created in grad school so that I don’t necessarily need a deadline. However, I like to think I’m good under the pressure of a deadline because I hate not getting done what I said I’d do. Deadlines helps me get into the zone, if you will. When I was submitting the manuscript for consideration, every deadline was a chance to revise/re-imagine/re-evaluate the manuscript. I submitted it forty-plus times over four years before it got picked up.

I once used the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Poetry Prize deadline to write a whole bunch of new work because at the time I thought the first book was done. The deadline gave me a summer to create a chapbook’s worth of something different than everything the book was doing, which excited me. I wanted to learn how to be independent of that first manuscript. All this to say, I wrote a crappy experimental chapbook that was ultimately rejected. Over the next year, though, I took those crappy pieces and created the All-American Mexican series, which are among my favorite poems that I’ve written. They seemed unlike the book but when I threw them in the mix, it made the collection more muscular, more layered.

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

MT: I’m a runner. Outdoors. All-season. On days I don’t make time for a good, long run, I at least go for a walk. Both have the ability to create a clearing in my mind where I can work on a piece on a sort of meditative level. Another thing I do—and maybe this is not as much ritual as it is tactic—is an imagined interview. When I’m struggling with a piece, I go outside, and in my mind conduct an interview focused on that piece. The invented interviewer asks questions like: How did you come to write this piece? Or, what is it you were trying to say? Or something like: How did you arrive at this ending? Beginning? This particular image? While I do worry about demystifying a piece, or like, “figuring it out” before it can fully develop on its own, I enter these interviews wanting to answer in earnest and a willingness to think through that answer. The process of this thinking-through had often helped move the piece along.

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

John Brantingham, professor, mentor, and who also advised the creative writing club at my community college, told me that when submitting work for consideration to “Send it, and imagine it getting lost in the mail.” This was snail mail days, but even as we moved into the digital era and Submittable came around, I found this tip helpful. It was a sort of compass that always pointed me back to the work, the writing of poems, which was the most important part.

In The Bread of Time, Philip Levine (whose work I was put onto by my mentor, poet Christopher Buckley) talks about the lasting advice his mentor John Berryman gave him: “You should always be trying to write a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

I love this quote because it simultaneously inspires me to grow but also keeps me in check so that I don’t travel in circles in my writing. Plus, as I’ve come to understand it, it makes me feel more comfortable with failure and failure’s lessons.

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

MT: Damn, I love this question because it reminds me of the different ways I’ve tried to save notes and lines from being lost to short-term memory. You ever get a dope line when you’re about to fall sleep and you think: well, it’s so good how can I forget it? Then you wake up pissed because it’s gone. That’s why I write mostly on my phone now. I text myself. For a long while I wrote in mini notepads I bought in packs of three at the Dollar Tree. When I first started taking myself serious as a writer I was working in retail at the mall. I would come home and pull from my pockets folded-up receipt tape I tore off at the register and filled with notes and images that came to me while I stocking shelves.

SHP: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

MT: The upcoming release of my first collection has made me super reflective of home, so I’ve been getting into and connecting with SoCal Latinx visual artists lately, specifically my homie Soledad Villa, and Jacqueline Valenzuela, whose work Soledad put me on to. We’re actually collaborating, and I’m commissioning them to do work in response to An Incomplete List of Names. I’m really excited about these projects because they are all about home. Both artists know the language in the book, can recognize the people in the stories being told. Each artist has their own, distinct style but one I can identify as Cali as well. And maybe that says something about what I want the collection to do, who I want it to reach. In a way, the book is a sort of vessel for my homecoming.

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

MT: For some reason “museum” sets me up to be intimidated. Like, I’d have the feeling that if I didn’t come up with some dope shit for the museum, I shouldn’t do it at all. And that’s interesting because if you put me in that museum, I’d want to rebel against that (perceived) expectation. Just to fuck around, I’d probably enjoy doing some sort of mixed media installation that just takes up a lot of space. Particleboard. Cardboard. Nail gun and rope. Yeah, I’d build something that barely fits in the room, but which can also be folded in such a way that I can walk out with it under my arm once the exhibit is over.

SHP: You begin your book with an epigraph by Larry Levis. Could you talk a little bit about your literary influences, like Larry Levis, and how they inform the book?

MT: I believe it was Sun Yung Shin, while I was part of the Loft Mentor Series, who posed the question in the context of ancestry. I liked that idea: who are my literary ancestors? It offered this connection to a larger web of history. It allowed me to see myself as part of that web as well. It made sense, too, on the level that imitation was a way for the student-of-writing me to try to be in conversation with them and their work.

So yes, Larry Levis for his ability to leave and return to a subject, idea, or image. For how he could turn the lens and address the reader; or change the subject completely without confusing the reader. For how he got me to love a long, winding poem. So much of my book attempts those things. Then there’s Octavio Paz and Labyrinth of Solitude, an essay collection, but still something that spoke to me about masculinity at a time in grad school when I was just realizing that that’s where I was headed. Also, Sonia Sanchez (Homegirls and Handgrenades especially) for her compelling poetic narratives in pieces like “Norma” that allowed me to write some of the book’s “Pachuco’s Grandson” series.

So many others: Philip Levine. Tracy K. Smith. Lorna Dee Cervantes. Terrance Hayes. All of them are in the book.

And if you want me to be really real, Bukowski’s problematic-ass, as I was introduced to him in the stereotypical, old-white-professor-teaching-an-introduction-to-poetry-class fashion early on in my education. Regardless, Bukowski’s work was one of the first times I saw poems made of words like fuck and shit, and not just thee, thou and dost. It sucks that I was already in my twenties when this happened, but it happened. And it was a door I could walk through with words like homies and this foo. So he’s in there too. Still, I suppose it’s good not to deny him. If he is indeed an ancestor of my work then I’m responsible for that as well.

SHP: If you could describe An Incomplete List of Names in three words, what would they be? Why?

MT: “That foo, REMEK.”

In grad school, one of my professors suggested the manuscript’s title be “Love Letter.” I don’t know why that surprised me at first. It was true, ultimately. I’d written a book about the homies, for the homies. And it was love: to focus and pay attention to and ask questions about our relationship, often critically, but with the sense that you really care about what the answers would be. All that I feel for them is in the book—having grown up with them, having left home. So, when I say “That foo, REMEK,” it’s because the book declares it, grapples with it. I can see my homie Jesse saying it, nodding in the direction of the house where I grew up.

SHP: Finally, we published your hybrid piece “On Being REMEK” as one of the winners of our contest a few years ago and it features as a name in your book. Could you tell a little story about REMEK?

MT: Seventeen years old and I’m out on a graffiti mission with a homie. We drive up to this industrial building, scope the spot and see a single security guard on the far side, opposite of the wall we want to paint. The wall faces the street and so is a great spot to catch, but it’s sitting behind a fence with barb wire spiraled along the top. The bottom of the fence, luckily, brushes against a sloping cement meaning we can slink underneath, paint the wall and get up out of there quickly.

We park down the street, wait a few minutes and then proceed to find our way under the fence and in front of the wall. We get to painting. It’s so quiet and security so far away, we think, that we take more time than we need. Of course security sees us, yells, and comes after us. We run around the building. My homie, being faster, slips under the fence first and heads toward his parked car. When I look, security is still far enough behind us that I’m not worried until I slide underneath the fence and can’t come up. My jeans get snagged. I’m stuck. I look back, see security still yards away and so I make the decision to kick off my shoes, pull off my pants, slide out, grab everything and run toward the getaway car in my boxers.

Order An Incomplete List of Names here!

Under Pressure: K-Ming Chang

Under Pressure
Image of the book Bestiary alongside the author, K-Ming Chang

Bestiary, K-Ming Chang

K-Ming Chang /張欣明 (b. 1998) is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House). Her micro-chapbook BONE HOUSE, a queer retelling of Wuthering Heights, is forthcoming from Bull City Press’ INCH series in 2021, and she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, and the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Here, K-Ming talks about the best writing advice she ever received, Hu Go Po, her latest art-crushes, and her recent book Bestiary.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Beastiary take to write, from conception to publication?

K-Ming Chang: Bestiary only took a few months to draft, but the revision process took about two years, and that’s when the book really began to take form. From conception to publication, I’d say it took about two and a half years.

SHP: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

KMC: I always joke that I chose a title I don’t actually know how to pronounce! It’s a word I would never have thought about using. But I remember when I was researching potential ideas, I read a Wikipedia article about how Bestiaries were traditionally Christian texts that illustrated and told stories about animals that usually ended with a moral. I loved the mythological context of it, but also wanted to subvert the meaning of the word by refusing an easy moral, and by focusing on non-Western storytelling traditions.

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

KMC: For me, deadlines are great! I love deadlines. I wish everyone gave me one! It gives me the swift kick-in-the-butt that I need, but I also appreciate a flexible deadline, too. I often give myself fake deadlines as motivation.

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

KMC: Definitely reading and immersing myself in other texts. I’ve also recently started handwriting journal entries, which is a ritual I haven’t done since I was a kid. It’s been very grounding to check in with myself emotionally on a daily basis. It also helps me deconstruct my anxieties and forgive myself for days when I think I’m failing.

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

KMC: My favorite piece of advice is from a former writing professor, Rattawut Lapcharoensap: he basically told me to keep following the language. I think I learned from him how to trust my own instincts – and I also learned from him all the importance and possibilities of revision.

SHP: You write poetry and prose, what is their relationship to your writing and do you draw a line between the two?

KMC: I think that right now I’m in a more prose mode – I’m learning to have faith in myself that I’ll eventually return to poetry, and I hope that when I write prose, I carry my language obsessiveness with me.

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

KMC: It’s perfect that you mentioned this, because though I started to journal a bit, I almost never have a notebook with me when I need one. I usually send emails to myself, or write on whatever is available.

SHP: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

So many people! Helen Oyeyemi, Jenny Zhang, Marilyn Chin, Myriam Gurba, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, so many others!

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

KMC: I’m so hopeless at most mediums! I’d definitely choose some kind of storytelling method, either writing or an oral history or oral storytelling project of some kind. Or maybe it would just become a dance party!

SHP: You write incredible prose that evoke myth, could you tell us your favorite stories/myths growing up?

KMC: Yes! I loved the Hu Gu Po story growing up, which is a story about a tiger spirit who lived inside a woman’s body. I also loved the Monkey King story and consumed many versions of it, in movies and cartoons and books. I loved mythology of all kinds, including fairytales, but my favorite stories all included animals. There was a myth about a crow that pulled the sun across the sky, which was another one I loved.

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

KMC: In three words, I would say that Bestiary is a queer love story. (Love of many kinds!) I was interested in queering all kinds of things, family and belonging and place, and at the heart of all of it, I hope that the love in this book is visible. It’s about familial love, queer love, and a love for language and storytelling, too.

Order Bestiary here!

Under Pressure: Todd Dillard

2020, Under Pressure

Ways We Vanish, Todd Dillard

Todd Dillard‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Fairy Tale Review, Booth, The Boiler Journal, Electric Literature, and The Adroit Journal. His debut full-length collection of poetry Ways We Vanish. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter, and works as a writer and editor for a hospital. 

Here, Todd Dillard discusses literary cities, baking bread, tension, and the best writing advice her received from Jericho Brown.

Interview

Bina Ruchi Perino: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

Todd Dillard: One of the poems in the collection is titled “Ways Things Vanish”, and deals with a son dying and mother calling his name. Ways We Vanish is kind of like an inversion of that—the book is about people, which is why the “we” is there, but also the book deals with my mother’s passing, in some ways it’s like a son calling his mother’s name.

BRP: How much impact did your surroundings have on the imagery and setting of your collection?

TD: My attention to setting is twofold: first, I want to ensure the things happening in the poem–the sensory details–are actualized by the text. The poems in this collection are perhaps less cerebral that the work of other poets, and this is linked to my second answer: I need the physical world described in the poems to be very real, or appear to be very real, because I need the reader to be present and also surprised when something impossible happens. Many of the poems are fabulist or speculative in that way: simple, sensory settings or scenes, into which something alien or impossible descends. Were the poems less focused on scene and setting and the senses, there would be too much confusion, I think, when the weird arrives. It’s kind of like how going outside your comfort zone first requires you to know/identify/describe your comfort zone. 

My background is pretty split between the suburbs of Houston, the country of Texas, and the cities of New York and Philadelphia, which is why the poems are split across rural and urban settings. Ultimately though, what I want to do is establish something familiar for the reader, to invite them in to a safe space before I take them somewhere new. (I hope!) 

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

TD: I tend to avoid deadlines. I’m aware they exist! But it’s sort of like being aware solar powered cars exist. They seem nice and useful, but I take the bus.

This is different than my time management, which is fairly rigid with regards to writing: wake up at 6:15am, read the last thing I wrote, read and edit on the bus/subway from 6:45am to 7:15am, read and edit and write during my lunchbreak (11:45-12:30 or so), read and edit and write on my commute home (4:00-4:45), edit when I can after my kid goes to bed or while I’m at the gym (7:30ish-8:30ish), edit right before bed (11:30), then start all over. Every weekday is like this. I don’t always edit or write during those times, and I try to read instead if that’s the case. I mostly take weekends off; that’s for family.

The result is a lot of bad poems or poems that need a lot of reworking! But there are some good ones too.

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

TD: It’s so interesting you say “art-wise”! Because I’m reading a case study of the Russian neuroscientist A.R. Luria, and it’s not artful at all, and yet it’s artful in many unexpected ways. The study deals with the fractured memory and perception of a veteran who had a bullet lodged in his brain.

I’m also reading Aase Berg’s poetry collection With Deer, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson. It’s weird and interesting and at times horrifying and always several orbits outside of my comfort zone. I maybe get about 70% of what’s going on, so it feels like a verse version of a mirror maze in a creepy fun house. It’s exhilarating!

I’ve also started reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I haven’t read it in over a decade, so I just feel due for a revisit. Also… I try to keep at least one excellent novel or story collection in the rotation of stuff I read at all times. A good novel is a safe harbor to me.

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

TD: Jericho Brown was a PhD student at the University of Houston when I was in undergrad, and I had the very good fortune of being in one of this poetry workshops. (He was brilliant then, he’s brilliant now, truly he’s one of our best!) And it’s funny, I’ve had so many great writing professors and connected with so many great writers in my life, but it’s his advice that’s stuck with me the most: JUST SAY IT. Because so often, I think, poets have this impulse toward the beautiful and pretty, to playing dress up with nouns by wrapping them in metaphors and adjectives and ribbons and lace. But that can interfere with the thingness of the thing. If it’s worth writing about, let it be itself! If it’s worth saying plainly, say it plainly!

BRP: What is your favorite literary city and what makes that community special?  

TD: I think I am going to say Houston here, though it’s a pretty even split between Houston, New York City, and Philadelphia. There’s a lot of nostalgia attached to Houston, since it’s where I grew up—I remember going to Notsuoh’s and Helios (previously The Mausoleum) for slams and open mics as a teenager. Then there’s the community around Gulf Coast and University of Houston, with their reading series, and First Fridays over by the Rothko Chapel. Of course there’s still Brazos Bookstore. And for years I worked in the Alabama Theatre Book Stop, which has sadly closed down and turned into a Trader Joe’s or something. There’s a lot of thriving writing culture and creativity in Houston, especially in the Montrose area, and I was really lucky to be a suburban kid who had access to such amazing art and writing. Favorite eateries and bars: Late Night Pies, House of Pies, Niko Niko’s, Poison Girl, The Ginger Man, Whataburger.

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

TD: I love making bread! Poetry is bread! It has such a small smattering of ingredients, but with the right craft and the right practice you get this amazing, soul-filling meal. There are at least as many kinds of poems as there are types of bread.

I also used to play clarinet, up through college. Music is a big part of my life—I’m not playing clarinet these days, but I still play guitar almost every day, and I sing to my daughter every day. My love for music appears as more than prosody in my poems. I love the use of register, of resonance and differing patterns of rhythm and speech, sure, but I also love the emotional and imaginative landscapes lyrics explore, and try that in my poems. I mean, have you ever read the lyrics of a Bush song? If that’s not permission to write whatever the hell you want, I don’t know what is.

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

TD: I read at least one poem of mine before bed and when I wake up. This is in part to keep myself engaged with my work, but also because the person I am when I write before bed is not necessarily who I am when I wake up. I like to think there’s an ongoing, tripartite collaboration there, between my morning, my day, and my night selves.

Other stuff… it’s hard to say. Do I consider being a dad and raising my kid and being a partner to my wife a ritual? No. But it has the semblance of ritual, there are patterns there, and there’s comfort in patterns and routines, especially as these routines are what permit me to find time to write.

I also shine my boots a lot. This might be weird, but I have two pair of beautiful boots that I try to take care of. Something about plunking down and cleaning boots, stripping them of wax, cleaning, polishing, building those sealant layers back up… it feels ritualistic, holy. There’s a way to do it right, and you have to study and practice until you get it right. My boots literally carry me to all the places I need to go, so this care, this sense of practice feels important to me. There’s a good chance I’m going to go home tonight and give them a once-over just because of this question!

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

I put notes in my Notes app, transfer them to my Notes software on my PC, rework them there, paste them and email them to my beta readers or paste them into a Google Doc and send my beta readers screenshots, tinker some more based on feedback, save the final versions in my Google Docs file and copy from that file into a Word document when I’m ready to submit or print a packet of poems out to edit by hand. The numerous applications are useful to me, seeing my poem in many variations I find very helpful when editing.

BRP: If you had to describe Ways We Vanish in only three words, which would they be and why?

TD: I’m going to resist the urge to send some sort of image-based lyricism and say: “And then I—” 

One of the tensions of the book, I think, is that it’s a collection in motion, it’s origin story and life story and afterlife story and once upon a time and happily ever after and backyard Ragnarok—and this is in tension specifically with how the book, is, by nature of being a book, contained. It tells a story, yes, but that story stretches into robots on Mars, magic, ghosts, fatherhood, grief, and beyond. It (hopefully!) shows that one thing comes after the next, and even if the sequence of things doesn’t immediately become a story, the trajectory of all things in one’s life becomes its own story. I was a son. And then I was survivor. And then I was a wreck. And then I was haunted. And then I was loved. And then I was a father. “And then I—”

Order Ways We Vanish here!

Under Pressure: Marlin M. Jenkins

2020, Under Pressure
Picture of Marlin M. Jenkins along with cover for Capable Monsters

Capable Monsters, Marlin M. Jenkins

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and currently lives in Minnesota. The author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020) and a graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA program, his work has found homes with Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Waxwing, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. You can find him online here.

Here, Marlin M. Jenkins talks Pokemon, art-crushes, online gaming, and his writing routine.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Capable Monsters take to write from conception to publication?

Marlin M. Jenkins: The oldest poems in the chapbook were written in August 2016 at Vermont Studio Center. These poems, in particular the Pokémon series of poems that make up the backbone of the chapbook, became part of my MFA thesis project in early 2017, and then after some time away from the project I re-imagined it as a chapbook. In some ways, the poet I was when I drafted the earliest poems feels really distant, but it felt important to me to take some time after my MFA to process and take some space away before jumping back in.

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

MMJ: Depends! I usually really struggle with being on time for anything, so usually they just add stress! But sometimes if there isn’t a deadline nothing will get done at all. 🤷🏾‍♂️

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

MMJ: Visual artist Maria Krutz (who did the cover art for the chapbook! check out her work on Instagram @meyyomafa); music artists Noname, Anderson.Paak; Sarah Bonito, Shy Baldwin, and Powerline (yes I realize the last two are fictional, I still stand by it!); voice actor Xanthe Huynh; and I very much consider what Brian David Gilbert does with Polygon’s Unraveled series to be art and I love it and love him.

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

MMJ: On a good day, I make a fruit smoothie and play a video game (not necessarily together). Recently, I’ve been playing at least a few rounds of a game online each day, and that bit of interaction with real humans, even if only through the control of digital characters, is a really beautiful thing that I love—as much as I love words, often I feel more inspired by the ways we can communicate entirely without them, and online gaming is one of my favorite modes of that in action. I also like to always be immersed in some type of fictional world, so there are lots of stretches where I’ll watch a couple episodes of a TV show (often an anime) each day.

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

MMJ: To hang out with my poems! And to focus on the work, and play the long-game. (Shout out to Tarfia Faizullah, who’s taught me so much!) These things help me stay attuned to myself and my own voice and they help me keep perspective, making sure the career aspects don’t distract from the art.

SHP: Do you keep a journal? Where does your composition take place?

MMJ: I’m a huge proponent of journals! Though in honesty I’m pretty bad at keeping a dedicated journal. But, I do take notes regularly, whether those are in a designated notebook or on random scraps of paper or on my phone, and I do as much drafting as possible—sometimes even second drafts—by hand. Usually for 2nd or 3rd draft, I’ll type it up, print it out, and then work in pen again. Huge fan of working with paper and hard copy.

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

MMJ: This is maybe a cop-out answer, but I stand by it: I like to consider myself whatever is needed for the situation! I like my role (and what I call myself) to be porous and adaptable and overlapping and intersecting and all that. That’s where the fun happens, I think.

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?

MMJ: I really believe that inspiration is something that you cultivate; or, at least, if inspiration isn’t cultivated per se, we can ready ourselves for it, creating circumstances for its best chances of success. I write down lots of quotes from things I love—whatever’s interesting, whether or not it feels like it’ll inspire a poem later. I draw a lot of inspiration from video games and TV and music and other writers. When I go to museums, I take a notepad with me and take notes (and pictures if they’ll let me). I go to movie theaters a lot. I’m not always looking to be inspired toward a poem per se, but I’m always looking for things that inspire my imagination and curiosity, and then when I sit down to write there’s lots of material from all these sources and wonderings to work with.

SHP: If given the chance to design a new Pokemon, what would its most important attributes?

MMJ: Resilience, adaptability, and the ability to live both on its own and in groups. It would probably be a dark/ice type. Small, and active at night. It would be able to heal itself and most of its fighting ability would be based on defense and countering.

SHP: If you could describe Capable Monsters in three words, what would they be?

MMJ: Pokémon is lit. (Get it? Like, video games are literature. But also … lol yeah.)

Order Capable Monsters here!

Under Pressure: Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

2020, Under Pressure

Letters From The Interior, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first full-length collection of poems, Water & Salt (Red Hen) won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Arab in Newsland,  (Two Sylvias, 2016), and Letters From The Interior (Diode Editions, 2019 ).

Here, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha discusses gardening, embroidery, bibliomancy, and the inspiration behind her latest collection.

Interview

Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did working on Letters From The Interior take, from conception to publication? 

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: The very first poems of this chapbook began after some translations of Fairuz songs, while I was on retreat at Hedgebrook in 2015. Meadow cabin in April—the light and the silence gave me so much room to be playful, to listen. New textures and eventually whole worlds emerged from lines I had known and sung for years. 

After the Fairuz-pantoums I began to write the Letters. These poems came together more slowly. I kept working on the poems during my years at the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. Eventually, a full-length manuscript came together, and I’m still refining it. The letters and songs, the rooms in which they echo, however, became Letters from the Interior. 

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

LKT: I love-hate them. Generally speaking, my writing doesn’t follow a strict routine, despite my attempts at creating one over the years. I find there are bursts of time when all the gathering and listening and reading yields poems, and there are silences in between. Sometimes deadlines move the process along, sometimes they create anxiety.

BRP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise? 

LKT: I’m crushing on Palestinian poet Maya Abu Alhayyat. Fady Joudah has beautifully translated several of her poems in the most recent issue of Asymptote and I’m thrilled for English-language readers to get to know her work. 

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

LKT: My morning coffee routine—the same few gestures, the quiet as it brews, the first fragrances and taste. No matter what happens the rest of the day, I have those moments.

Beginning in March, I spend time in the garden. Tending to living things, learning, practicing patience and trying to embrace the myriad ways your best plans might not come to pass and what does might be even more magnificent if you look closely, if you let it.

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

LKT: My first mentor at Rainier Writing Workshop, poet Peggy Shumaker, gave us a magnificent send off at the end of our first-year residency. It ended with the sentence: Go forth and lavish! Her talk was about the writer’s time and the work of attention. I have returned to that generous vision of writing so many times. 

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

LKT: I have multiple journals going at all times with different purposes. Some for collecting fragments, some for drafts of my own work, some for words & their etymologies (an idea borrowed from my friend poet Molly Spencer) and a bibliomancy book-of-days, in which I open a book of poems to a page and record that one poem, try to memorize a few lines, just spend some time with it. For my own writing, I always begin with paper and pen, most often in a notebook, but not exclusively.

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? 

LKT: It tends to build. There is usually an initial insight—a word, an image, and idea, or even a sensation in time and place. That sets a series of “awarenesses” in motion—maybe it leads to a question, or even a fragment or a line. 

BRP: How did writing a chapbook compare to writing a full-length collection? Can you compare these experiences? 

LKT: This chapbook was a very different experience for me. My previous chapbook, Arab In Newsland, was written with a specific theme in mind, the poems all speak to the experience of being Arab in a world constructed of and by the news industry. This chapbook surprised me; it emerged, sort of like a nesting doll living inside of a larger work.

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

LKT: I want to say thread and fabric because I’m trying to learn Palestinian embroidery, but I am so incredibly slow I can’t imagine ever creating something that would live in a museum! And museums are complicated spaces. So maybe dance. A body in motion that makes something alive, wordless, and vanishing. Something that cannot be colonized, that walls cannot own or contain.

BRP: If you could describe Letters From The Interior in three words, what would they be? 

LKT: One word I’ve recently learned in Arabic:  زمكان zamakaan, translation: place-time. That and memory, and language.

Order Letters From The Interior here!

Under Pressure: Anthony Cody

2020, Under Pressure
Anthony Cody, author of Borderland Apocrypha

Borderland Apocrypha, Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody is the author of Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, April 2020), winner of the 2018 Omnidawn Open Book Contest selected by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. He is a CantoMundo fellow from Fresno, California with lineage in both the Bracero Program and the Dust Bowl. His poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, The Boiler, ctrl+v journal, among other journals. Anthony is a member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle where he co-edited How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, August 2011). In 2018, he received the Galway Kinnell Scholarship to attend the Community of Writers, and nominations for a Best of the Net and a Best New Poets 2018 via The Boiler. He is a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow at Arizona State University. Most recently, Anthony won the inaugural 2020 CantoMundo Guzmán Mendoza / Paredez Fellowship for his work-in-progress poetry manuscript, The Rendering, selected by Aracelis Girmay. A recent MFA-Creative Writing graduate at Fresno State, he serves as a fellow in the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio created by Juan Felipe Herrera, communications manager for CantoMundo, as well as an associate poetry editor for Noemi Press.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Borderland Apocrypha from conception to publication?

Anthony Cody: The more I reflect upon the origins of Borderland Apocrypha, the less certain of a single, specific origin of where the book first started. The first poem I wrote that would fit within the framework of the book was an ekphrastic poem after seeing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Riding with Death” in 2013. Titled, “Juan Doe Rides with Death”, the poem never made it into the final manuscript, as perhaps it was attempting to do too much within the scope of the manuscript. In many ways, it was retracing disembodied histories and re-examining the self in the unnamed and unclaimed bodies crossing the border. This could be one origin. Another origin would be the archival research work on the lynchings in the southwest following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which began for me at the beginning of 2015, and steadily increased through the summer of 2018. The other beginning would be the experimental style within the collection, this began in December of 2016, when I began using a comic strip writing pad that was 5” long by 17” wide. This new, wider form opened possibilities for what these poems wanted to be, and helped reset my vision to see a new shape that would manifest into a book.

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

AC: Deadlines help me focus. My brain is often a very jumbled and over-extended space that makes things very murky and abstract. Without a deadline, days turn into weeks, and weeks to seasons. Now, with the shelter-in-place order, this can happen to me at an exponential rate. I am exceedingly aware of this time issue, so I often have an email to-do list plug-in, as well as a stickie note app opened to help me stay organized and not lose sight of the work and deadlines. 

By nature, I am relatively laid back, so the increased pressure of the deadline helps me find a balance.

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

AC: For the last few months, I have been doing deep dives with the writing, hybridity, and public performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the mixed media art around climate and topographies of Vero Glezqui, as well as the Dust Bowl photographs of Dorothea Lange.

However, with the recent passing of my dear friend, Pos Moua, I have been revisiting his work. A person of firsts in Hmong poetry in America, I have been revisiting his chapbook “Where the Torches are Burning”, the first Hmong American poetry publication in America by a poet in 2001, as well as his debut collection “Karst Mountains Will Bloom”, published in early 2019. In his pages, I once again hear his tender lyricism and deep mystic inquiry of nature and the self. The wisdom and deep knowing in his writing and his musings allows me to remember to look deep into the beyond of a “burbling brook” to not only see yourself, but every ancestor that came before you. Read Pos Moua’s work. Remember Pos Moua’s name.

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

AC: I am in the process of shifting many of the daily rituals that I have grown accustomed to over the last several years while serving as a fellow in the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio at Fresno State. The studio space allowed me to explore and make in a variety of mediums, and more importantly, collaborate with others to make art and lead generative, creative workshops. These three elements help me continue to ask more from myself, and my writing.

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

AC: I have been blessed to work closely with Juan Felipe Herrera in the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio at Fresno State over the last four years. In 2016, he provided two very distinct pieces of advice that were so profound to my own path at the time. I recall them both very clearly, and both times, I walked up to the whiteboard in our studio and wrote them down.

The first, “Abandon the left margin in your poems.” The second, “write beyond the publisher.” In both instances, he was clear to note the risk in making and being left in obscurity. Yet, for the first time in my life, I felt that I should make poems that spoke to my own internal wildness that I do not outwardly express. In tandem, the advice served as a foundation on which I carried forward in Borderland Apocrypha, and all subsequent writing.

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

AC: Definitely anything I can find. This is definitely related to my use of a 5” x 17” comic strip pad to draft poems and the new paths found using that form for my collection. I would say that I am continually using different mediums to write on. Looking at my small pile of things in my bag at the moment this includes: envelopes, card catalog cards, a recycled envelope, several pieces of newspaper which I have taped together to form a larger piece of paper, and a small phonebook that was delivered on my door last year.

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

AC: Both titles scare me. I would say I consider myself a spacemaker. When I am writing a poem, I try and stay out of the way. In the editing process, I find myself asking the question, how can I make space in this poem to get it to where it wants to exist in the world. I would extend this thinking to my work as an assistant editor for Noemi Press, where I often ask myself, how can I help this collection find a space to exist where it can be most true to the spirit of its making?

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?

AC: I find inspiration in sifting through noise. The sifting is a focusing. I feel most inspired when I have some combination of ten internet browser tabs open, sketching on a piece of paper, music playing, am reading a book or two, drinking coffee, and revising a single line or poems in my head. The accumulation of the noise often results in my most productive time happening toward the late hours of the night and I have had the chance to steadily quiet some of the noise and dive more deeply into the project I have been indirectly working on throughout the day. I am cognizant of the over-stimuli the older I get, and have been attempting to find ways to work in the quiet and discern enabling my own bad habits versus seeking inspiration. 

Today, I sat for 10 minutes with the window opened, and listened. I was not hoping for inspiration, but simply seeking an awareness of the moving.

I think this is still a work in progress.

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

AC: I really love this question. The intriguing part is that just prior to the shelter-in-place orders in California, I was in the process of developing an art installation for my current work-in-progress, “The Rendering”, which examines the Dust Bowl and Climate Collapse. Which is all to say, the idea concept has been on my mind.

Ultimately, I would choose sound art to create and give life to the space. More than this, I would want the exhibit to be interactive for visitors, of all ages, to be able to participate, add to, and make it their own. Some of the most meaningful work and experiences I have had in my life have been when given a chance to create alongside artists and other community members, and providing that experience to others would be one of the primary focuses in a 24 hour pop-up museum show.

SHP: If you could describe Borderland Apocrypha in three words, what would they be?

AC: Restorative. Manual. Memory.

Order Borderland Apocrypha here!

Under Pressure: Alyse Bensel

2020, Under Pressure
Alyse Bensel, author of Rare Wondrous Things

Rare Wondrous Things, Alyse Bensel

Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, April 2020). Her poems have recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewPleiades, Puerto del SolWest BranchPoetry International, and elsewhere. Her fiction and nonfiction have been featured at The BoilerEntropy, and Pithead Chapel. She is also the author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body, published by Seven Kitchens Press in July 2018.

Alyse served as the Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review, a literary journal from Red Hen Press, from 2013-2018. Her reviews have appeared in Colorado ReviewPrairie SchoonerLiterary MamaNewpages, and many other journals. Her scholarly work has been published or will be forthcoming in Journal of Creative Writing Studies and the International Journal of Mobile Learning and Organisation.

She currently serves as section editor for Theory, Culture, and Craft for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies (JCWS), an open access, peer reviewed journal. Submissions to the journal are open year-round. She is also a Senior Poetry Reader for Cherry Tree.

Alyse is currently an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference. Questions regarding the conference can be directed to lgrwc@brevard.edu.

Interview

Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did Rare Wondrous Things take to write from conception to publication?

Alyse Bensel: Rare Wondrous Things is probably the longest project I’ve probably ever worked on: approximately 10 years, from 2008, when I first encountered Maria Sibylla Merian’s work at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, until 2019, when I received the news from Green Writers Press that they wanted to publish the collection. Between those years was a lot of research, several radically different versions of the manuscript, and the annual submission cycle.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Do you give them to yourself?

AB: Until recently, I was in school for what seemed like forever, so I always had deadlines that kept me moving forward. I did, and still do, like to make fake deadlines for myself. I do this more for my analytical work like book reviews, and my teaching, especially when it comes to grading work, but less so for writing poems. I do check in on whatever drafts I’m working on once a week, even though I’m less pushy with myself about creating new work or submitting to journals.

BRP: Who are you currently crushing on arts-wise?

AB: So many that when I get asked this question in casual conversation I blurt out ten or more names and then won’t stop rambling. I recently finished a few collections that have stuck with me, especially Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale, Lee Ann Roripaugh’s tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic, and everything Marilyn Nelson has ever written, but honestly, I could keep going. I’ve always been particularly drawn to poets whose work resonates with the historical, persona, and the natural world. I love meticulously researched poetry that has a powerful voice. 

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

AB: Reading every day if I can. Reading (and sometimes yin yoga) is the only activity that I know will get me to write. And in no way does it have to be poetry–I served as a reviews editor for several years and so I read and reviewed fiction, nonfiction, cross genre work, anything. When I love a line or a sentence or an idea I mull it over, scribble a few responses, and keep on going. I know I’m being drawn into a text when my impulse to write takes over while I’m reading.

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

AB: There’s so much my wonderful mentors have given me. One of the most recent pieces of advice came while revising my dissertation, the manuscript that became Rare Wondrous Things. My advisor and dear friend, Megan Kaminski, had finished reading an earlier draft. We talked about it briefly, and then she asked me about my life. I told her how I was in the midst of wedding planning chaos and how the upcoming ceremony was filtering into every aspect of my life. She told me to include that in the manuscript, to let my life seep into Merian’s, to allow myself into the conversation, even just a little bit. That opened up the collection, and my writing. I tend to enjoy my privacy in a poem a little too much, but that often shuts a reader out. I know I need to sometimes spell out what’s hiding between the lines.

BRP: What was the biggest struggle you endured while writing Rare Wondrous Things?

AB: I partially explained this struggle in the previous question, but I also had another, perhaps even larger issue I kept on encountering while writing. Because Rare Wondrous Things is within the realm of the genre of biography-in-poems, I kept on trying to write what I thought a biography-in-poems “should” be. There are so many excellent examples of what you can do when writing about someone else’s life. However, so many excellent biographies-in-poems feature subjects that have fairly extensive written records. The only written records of Merian are her dozen or so letters (mostly business related), the prefaces and captions she wrote for her illustrations (mostly observation-based and descriptive), and bits of gossip or mentions in other brief texts. She did not like discussing her personal life, as far as historians have gathered, and was an intensively private person.

I mention all of this to demonstrate the tension I was having between me wanting more from Merian and the fact she wasn’t going to give me more than I already had. I eventually figured out I had to lean into the missing, the gaps and fragments of her life, if I wanted to write about her. All biography is at least partially imaginary, but I had to go farther than I initially felt comfortable doing in a text. After I decided to bring the imagined into the conversation, the poems went from an interesting idea to a fleshed out manuscript. 

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

AB: My notes are all over the place–my phone, my computer, my planner, random notebooks. I envy the beautifully organized journal. I can maintain order in my daily life with my planner and Google Calendar, but I could never write studiously in a journal. Lately I’ve end up piecing together the fragments I’ve written to see if a poem can happen somewhere in there.

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

AB: It depends on whatever given role I have and what responsibilities are attached to that role. For a while, it’s been more of an editorial role because, when I’m an editor, I am trying to give more specific guidance and feedback to a book reviewer or advising one of my students during a senior project. I’m more hands-on, getting into their work with them. When I’m curating, I’m trying to give space and bring certain ideas together. I think I do this in my teaching, when I assemble certain texts for my students and I to discuss and explore together. 

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?

AB: Typically when I’m reading or listening to others read or discuss someone’s work I’ll get some inspiration. And this may sound cliche, but I do spend a lot of time watching insects and plants and other creatures do things outside, even if I’m inside. On hikes I am always looking at the ground for mushrooms or orchids or spiders. I don’t write about my cats and dogs a lot, but I enjoy watching them. I think this gives me the space to “zone out” and let some ideas or images that have been circulating together click into place. 

BRP: If you had to describe Rare Wondrous Things in only three words, which would they be and why?

AB: Recovering women’s history–because women’s work and lives are still so often ignored, erased, or undervalued. I recently saw someone wearing a t-shirt that read “name 10 women artists,” which I’d like to revise to “name 10 women scientists.” I hope that readers of Rare Wondrous Things will have at least one more name they didn’t have before.

Order Rare Wondrous Things here!