Yalie Kamara

“…all of the power in the world lies in details. If I am able to accurately render the beauty of people who belong to an identity group that is systematically marginalized, then I may be able to restore some of the imbalance of prejudice and challenge people to think with their heart first.”

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A Brief Biography of My Name from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, Tano (Akashic Books, 2018)

DE and MS: Your chapbook is called A Brief Biography of My Name. How much of the content is about your life, and how much is imagined or taken from the experiences of others?  Are the poems autobiographical?  Are you the speaker in these poems, or do you imagine your readers also becoming the speakers? 

This whole book is about my life and some of the places, people, and events that have informed it. I am the speaker in the poems. I think the poems are written in a way that makes a reader want to enter through the door of the story, so in that sense, they may feel inclined to implicate themselves in certain poems, which I think is great. That’s how I enter stories and poems. Even if they are not my own, there are points of deep resonance that really motivate me to continue reading.

DE: I know that in Nigeria, where I come from, and many other countries like Sierra Leone and the United States, there is some resistance from family and friends when you say you want to be a writer or an English major. When you knew that you wanted to write, did you face any resistance from your parents and relatives? Where there any books, persons or events that influenced your decision?

This is a fabulous question. To be honest, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. There was a lot of pressure placed on me to achieve the “American Dream,” which I understand, in retrospect, with a greater sense of empathy than I did growing up. There was the expectation that I’d either be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. But I could never really get down with math or science, and I wasn’t compelled by the idea of law. Law was my last hope—I tried and tried to be interested, but it never clicked. I did all sorts of thing to sort of close off the poetry path—I earned a master’s in French Culture and Civilization, did volunteer management work for a nonprofit, directed a college readiness program at a college, all sorts of things. But writing just kept rearing its head every step of the way. It was kind of inescapable. I don’t know how much my internal struggle showed on the outside, but I am so happy that I let writing win.

There is a documentary called Poetic License about the US’s first youth poetry slam that I happened to stumble onto during my 11th grade spring break in 2002. I had never seen anything like it and was so unbelievably moved that I wanted to write and not stop. That was the turning point for me. It was the first time I’d seen young people my age writing poems and having venues to share them. I’d never seen young people with so much artistic agency. Following that, I began to attend poetry and spoken word workshops through Youth Speaks; I slammed for the SF Bay Area team at nationals for my junior and senior year of high school. This is also how I came to learn about 826 Valencia and work with them as well. I am still taken by how what seems like a coincidence changed the course of my life. I actually think I’d rather call that a blessing.

When I was younger, I think my mother was a bit dubious about this pursuit, because she was unsure of my overall commitment to writing and because of its seemingly impractical nature. In spite of this, she really came around to supporting me a long time ago. And for that, I’m extremely grateful. My sisters Fatmata, Kai, and Jenneh have been really supportive and kind as well. I think they all trusted me. As for the rest of my family, they trusted me because my mother, who is the matriarch, gave me her blessings! Even if they don’t understand every aspect of this journey, they see that it’s one that I’ve been on for many years. I’m now a PhD student in English Literature and Creative Writing, which is a sweet deal—I will become a doctor, but through the study of poetry, so really everybody wins!

DE and MS: How did you first get published and what was your reaction to it?

One of my first poems was published in My Words Consume Me: An Anthology of Youth Speaks Poets, which was published in 2003 by Youth Speaks and 826 Valencia. I was ecstatic to have my poem published in a physical book alongside youth poets that I had come to know from writing workshops and spoken word events put together by Youth Speaks. I felt really proud to be able to flip through such a beautiful and bold book and see my poem alongside some of my youth heroes. I’ll always be grateful that adults took the time to honor our voices in the way that they did. Before then, it was hard to imagine young people as published authors. Being a part of Youth Speaks, 826 Valencia, and this anthology have been some of the driving forces in my desire to support young artists.

MS: In your previous interview with Speaking of Marvels, you said you would like to ask other writers, “Did you ever want to give up on your chapbook? Why did you persist?”  Now I would like to ask you the same. Did you ever want to give up? What made you keep going?

Thanks for asking! I didn’t have the desire to ever give up on the chapbook. I was really honored and blown away that my chapbook was chosen to be a part of this collection. As you may know, New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set is published yearly and highlights the work of select emerging African poets.  I was really excited to be part of this chapbook set that represents voices from the African diaspora (there are ten other poets included in this collection that are from Sierra Leone, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Sudan, and South Africa with ties to US, the Caribbean, and Germany). I was pleased to work with Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes, two multi-genre artist/scholars that I’ve long admired, so this felt special. The whole editing process happened quite quickly with the publishers (African Poetry Book Fund out of the University of Nebraska and Akashic Books out of Brooklyn). I didn’t want to give up because I saw the enormity of the opportunity and felt honored to receive such a fantastic platform to share my work.

DE and MS: Also in your interview, you said that you are “excited about writing that doesn’t estrange itself from vulnerability.” Could you explain what that means for you?

What I meant by that was I really appreciate and enjoy poetry that doesn’t obfuscate the emotional content that is at the core of the writing. I like poetry that doesn’t run away from its own truth.

DE: While reading the poem “Space,” I wondered if there was ever a time that the letter “I” was deleted from your name and no one noticed. If this incident occurred, how did it affect you?

Yes, thanks for asking! I usually share that it’s based on a true story whenever I share it at readings. I removed the “i” from my name for a long time in 1st grade. For several months, at least. It didn’t make me feel cared for. It felt as though my name wasn’t significant enough to be preserved. I am kind of shocked that I was compelled to even conduct this type of social experiment as a child, but it taught me a lot about some of the limits of adults’ concern for details.

DE and MS: Your brother Jonathan and your nephew are two interesting characters in the chapbook. The poems “I ask my brother Jonathan to write about Oakland and, and he describes his room” and “Sweet Baby Fabulist” show us race from the perspective of a teen and a child. What was the motive for telling their stories? 

I think all of the power in the world lies in details. If I am able to accurately render the beauty of people who belong to an identity group that is systematically marginalized, then I may be able to restore some of the imbalance of prejudice and challenge people to think with their heart first. Or to correct behavior that decreases the quality of someone else’s life. More than this, though, I think it’s important to create mirrors through words. I want to gift members of my community (I mean community in terms that transcend race and biology) with portraits of themselves that show their complexity, beauty, and dignity. To see yourself in art that is honest and celebrates you, I think, can make walking this life a little easier.

DE and MS: Is the poem “Three days before my baptism” about motherhood and the pain of abortion?

The poem is  about spiritual transformation. Spiritual transformation is a part of my brief biography, and this brief biography chronicles parts of my life story, and these stories are the lifeblood of my identity.

DE and MS: Several of your poems end on a triumphant note, the victory of you taking control of your identity and your body (“A Brief Biography of My Name,” “Space,” “Pest Control,” and “Three Days Before My Baptism”).  Were those poems ways for you to claim your identity, or were they expressions of your triumph after you had already done so?

This is a fantastic question. I think that every poem I write is one about trying to find home, which I think is a synonym of identity. I think while they do have a triumphant tone, they capture the spirit of a particular moment. I’m trying to render the emotion of a particular moment.

Life is always changing, so I’m invested in rendering the most accurate depiction of a moment. It so often feels that we are in states of constant physical, emotional, and spiritual evolution and regression, and the comfort that writing provides is the account of an understanding of a particular time. The aforementioned poems and others make my world a little easier to navigate and my hope is that it resonates for other readers in a similar way. I also hope that it inspires writers to document their life’s journeys. Sometimes the triumph is in completing the poem and archiving the moment more than the content of the poem.

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Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American writer and native of Oakland, California. She is the author of two collections of poetry, A Brief Biography of My Name (Akashic Books/African Poetry Book Fund, 2018), which is a part of the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tano) series, and When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017). She was a finalist for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow. She is also a Callaloo Fellow in poetry. She earned an MA in French Culture and Civilization from Middlebury College, an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) at Indiana University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, where she is a Yates fellow. Kamara’s poetry, fiction, interviews, and translations have either appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, Vinyl Poetry and Prose, Pop-Up Magazine, Black Camera: An International Journal, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhereIn between her studies, she worked in the field of social justice specializing in educational access and arts facilitation. She has lived in France and Brazil, and has a particularly soft spot for Oakland, Washington DC, and Paris.

Laura Da’

“The book itself came from a place of terror, fear, gratitude, and a strong desire to survive.”

Laura Da'

Instruments of the True Measure (University of Arizona Press, Suntracks Series, 2018)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I started writing poetry as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Coming into my voice and vision in an inclusive, indigenous space has informed my writing life and given me the support and inspiration to continue.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I like writing in many different spaces. I live in a small home and don’t have any designated office or writing desk. I love to work in public libraries and other random quiet spaces. I am much more productive when there is a factor of novelty to my writing routine.

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Yes, the following poem, “Nationhood,” opens this collection and introduces the major concepts of the book:

nationhood

Why did you choose this poem?

I chose this poem because it juxtaposes loss and beginning, confounds tenants of identity and simplicity with challenging observations and questions, and presents an alternate possibility to both a physical grounding and a dominant narrative that is often seen as static.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

This book came from an obsession with American mapping and surveying and the way that measurement was a tool for colonialism and violence. It is also about the ways that the traumas of the past ripple into the present.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The poems in my book follow a narrative trajectory as they trace the lives of two symbolic figures through the American West, but that is interrupted by short, tight lyrical poems and longer prose poems that charge through linear time. I want the book to tell a story that honors the chaotic truth of multiple narratives.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story? What’s the back-story?

Back-story is my king. All of the poems in the collection ride a number of different stories and turn one another into context, but I think the longer prose pieces like “Pain Scale Treaties” and “Parting Call” represent new territory for me in that they are rooted in my own personal back-story. I wrote about a third of this book on dialysis, waiting on the organ transplant list. I’m deeply grateful to be recovering from a transplant now, but the book itself came from a place of terror, fear, gratitude, and a strong desire to survive.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

The University of Arizona Press published both of my books, and I can’t say enough about how collaborative and supportive they have been.  Finding a compatible press is one of the luckiest things I have encountered in my writing life. I say lucky because there is so much pressure to publish that I believe poets often feel compelled to move through the process in a manner that is informed by scarcity and intensity instead of reflection. The production process for both my books was engaging and satisfying. The cover art is actually my husband Jarrod’s work (www.jarrodda.com).

What are some of your favorite books or chapbooks—perhaps some that have influenced you?

As I was writing this book, I was deeply influenced by James Thomas StevensTokinish, Jennifer Elise Foerster’s Leaving Tulsa, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, and Arthur Sze’s Compass Rose. Books that explore the subtext of narrative and actively dismantle colonialism and racism inspire me because the research necessary for the historical elements of my poetry is often brutally painful.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, etc.) what would it be and why?

I think I would be a very fine actor for some of the same reasons I am drawn to poetry. I have a simmering sense of drama and theatricality hidden under a deceptively mild façade.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

I would encourage any writer to cultivate a community because writing is lonely. Friendships are the best thing I can earn from my writing. Additionally, I would warn new writers to be diplomatic and kind about how they conduct themselves, but shrewd about the motivations of others, particularly those in power. The writing community can shelter forms of abusive behavior designed to discourage or decenter new writers.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

I wish I had been encouraged to probe at the binary between the individual and the collective because I have found my greatest strengths in company and my greatest errors alone.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What do you wish writers did for each other to support a healthy writing community? I would ask future writers what elements of the writing life they find harmful/dangerous/demoralizing and how the community can address them.

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Laura Da’ is a poet and teacher. She is Eastern Shawnee. Her first book, Tributaries, won a 2016 American Book Award. Da’ lives near Seattle with her husband and son. Her newest book is Instruments of the True Measure.

Natalie Sypolt

“I thought about that poor man’s body, stuck under a rock in the river, and what his perspective might have been.”

sypolt

The Sound of Holding Your Breath (West Virginia University Press, 2018)

All of the stories in The Sound of Holding Your Breath are interconnected, taking place in the town of Warm. Where did you find your inspiration for interconnected stories and for the small-town setting?

It seemed natural for me to write about the small town/rural because that’s the kind of space I’ve lived in my whole life. I never really saw these stories as interconnected—they were written over many years and with no real connected arc in mind—but the place always seemed the same, so it became Warm. West Virginia has a history of place names that are often connected to mining, and while my stories are not mining stories, it made sense to me to give the place a name that sounded familiar and possible.

How did you decide on the order of the stories? How did you decide on the stories that open and close the book?

I knew that I wanted “Stalking the White Deer” to be last because it ends with that line “We are our stain, the stain that we made” and that had a resonance to me for the rest of the book, where characters are often confronting and dealing with problems that they have—in many instances—had a hand in creating, and that will remain in some way even after the “story” ends. This story also involved the patriarchs of the Crystal family, and they are a primary focus of the current collection I’m finishing up.

As for the first story in the collection, that was not as easy and I had tried out several different pieces there, for various reasons. The wonderful and generous writer Laura Long offered to read an early draft of the collection, and she suggested starting with a story that involved a young person (and I had several in the collection) because people could easily relate to that. This was excellent advice, and you might notice that the stories at the first part of the book are those involving younger protagonists, and then the collection “grows up” as you progress through.

“Ghosts” is structured to show multiple perspectives on the death of a boy who drowned. Could you say more about this? Did you consider splitting up other stories into multiple parts?

I originally thought about this story a long time ago when I heard a news story about a kayaker who was lost in the Cheat River and whose body had still not been found several days later. I thought about that poor man’s body, stuck under a rock in the river, and what his perspective might have been. I originally had conceived of a story written entirely in that voice, but that just felt too heavy, too uninteresting in some ways. Years later, I was at the Troublesome Creek Writers’ Retreat in Hindman, Kentucky (one of my very favorite places) and I was having lunch in a little restaurant there. There had been flooding all around, and there was a story on the tv about a high school boy who’d been swept away. I then eavesdropped on some conversations, and thought about how nearly everyone in the little town where that boy lived probably knew him or the family in some way. I went back to my room and wrote the first part of the story, inspired by my eavesdropping, and then the other voices just came and seemed to make sense.

When I was an undergraduate, I remember hearing the writer Richard Curry talk about how he would sometimes write a scene that didn’t seem to fit anywhere in what he was currently working, so he’d put those pages away, and then years later, he would be writing something and those old pages would fit perfectly. I always thought that sounded magical, but the truth is, it really does happen. Our brains work in crazy and magical ways.

In “Love, Off to the Side,” Lissy comments that Mae will get her old job back at The Egg, a restaurant mentioned in “Ghosts.” Are these stories tied together in other ways?

The Golden Egg is my favorite place and it comes up again, often, in my next collection. I’m not crazy about coming up with place names—it’s hard to find ones that are interesting, but still feel like they fit—so I figure if you find a good one, use it as much as you can! (Maybe this is why Faulkner set most of his work in Yoknapatawpha County?) The stories are linked by place, as we talked about earlier, but in this collection the characters don’t really seem to know one another, though they might have been at the Golden Egg at the same time.

There is a line in “Handlers” that intrigues me: “They’d just jump in the car, grab Shep and Ellie, stop at Montgomery Ward to buy a cheap white dress off the clearance rack and head to Garrett County, Maryland, where blood tests weren’t required.” Is this characterizing Garrett County as different from Warm?

I live in Preston County, West Virginia, and Garrett County, Maryland borders us. My parents and a lot of aunts and uncles got married in Garrett County in the 70’s and 80’s because Maryland didn’t require blood tests, so they could get married quicker and cheaper.

You teach at Pierpont Community and Technical College. How does your writing inform your teaching? Do you ever talk about your writing and publishing experiences with your students?

I teach mostly composition courses and technical writing right now, so I don’t really talk much about my own work (though I did share with them when the book came out in November because I was so excited). I do come from a family of teachers—my mom recently retired after 40 years in elementary education and my aunt taught for almost as long as a high school English teachers–so certainly their experiences and just knowing them informs my writing. I have a number of characters, both in this collection and in the next, who are school teachers.

Are there any stories that you wanted to include in The Sound of Holding Your Breath, but did not make it into the final version of the book?

A couple. I originally had several more flash fiction pieces in the collection, but I had very good advice to remove them because they seemed to break the flow of the rest. I also had a story called “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train” which is set at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. I love the story, but it just did not make sense with the rest of the collection, in setting, character, or theme.

You say in an interview for Shelf Life that you do a lot of revision in your head. How much do your stories change throughout revision and editing? Was there a specific story you drastically revised?

I think this varies from story to story. “My Brothers and Me” and “The Sound of Holding Your Breath,” for instance, are pretty much unchanged from when I wrote them (I hate admitting this, and not something I advise). “Diving” is probably the story that changed the most. I was asked to do a fair amount of changing to that story by the editor of Kenyon Review before it was published, and the changes did make it a better story. (In the originally draft, the narrator’s brother beat him up, instead of him throwing himself against a tree, as in the current draft).

Do you have any new stories that you are working on?

I’m finishing up my second collection, which is a linked collection of stories, most still set in Warm. I’m also working on a novel.

Why did choose “Get Up June” as a story title? I know June’s father grabs her ankle and tells her to get up while he is hallucinating, but what does this title suggests as the story continues and exposes the truth about him?

I like the idea of embedded titles—titles that come organically because they are a line taken from the story—so that was part of it. I also liked the idea of a girl telling herself to finally get up, stand up for herself, stop taking her father’s b.s.

“What Would Be Saved” stands out because it is short and does not seem to give much detail about the characters like your other stories do. Did you have any second thoughts about including it or other stories in the book?

No, not really. I think that story does still speak to the tragedy and the resiliency of human existence that the other stories in the collection do. I’m happy with how the book turned out for the most part, though a writer never stops writing and rewriting. Every time I do a reading, I want to edit the story I read. And sometimes I do.

What happened to Josiah in the story “Flaming Jesus” while he was on the run? We find out that he had been working on a fishing boat, but how did he get there? Did you ever consider writing “Flaming Jesus” from Josiah’s point of view?

No, I don’t think so, and I don’t really know what happened to him or how he got there, just like our young protagonist doesn’t. It wasn’t Josiah’s story; it was her story, and I wanted to explore this idea of how our stories are changed by those who come into and out of our lives when we’re young. Often that’s something we only really see or understand when we’re older and looking back.

Was there a certain person or group of people that inspired a character or characters in any of these stories?

Oh, my family definitely inspires a lot of my writing. “Handlers” is especially inspired by my parents and my dad’s love of the CB radio when I was a kid. Some of the stories, like “Diving” and “Ghosts,” are inspired by news stories. “Love, Off to the Side” was actually inspired by a song, and “Lettuce” was inspired by the CD Wright poem (“Everything Good Between Men and Women”) that serves as the epigraph for the collection.

Could you discuss the line, “Of what are you capable? My brothers and me” at the end of “My Brothers and Me”? The dialogue around the campfire between the siblings seems to suggest they will break Jeff out and go on the run with him in order to prevent him from committing suicide. How did you decide on this ending?

I never really thought about them breaking Jeff out. I think it would be more likely that they would try to help him take his life, which is what he asks of his oldest brother. I wrote this story after a summer of tragedy in my area. There had been several incidents where people had been killed in a domestic violence or murder/suicide situation (including one of a young mother who was shot in a Walmart parking lot by the father of her ex, while her child was in the car). In each case, I was interested in rhetoric that came out afterwards about how “evil” the murderer was on one side, and how surprised everyone was on the other side, because the killer had always been such a good person. No one is ever all one thing or all the other, and at the heart of it, I think we’re all capable of pretty much anything, given the right circumstances. The ending of this story is the narrator coming to that realization about her family, and about herself.

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Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in Preston County, West Virginia. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Pierpont Community & Technical College. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs, Glimmer Train, Appalachian Heritage, and Superstition Review. Natalie is also the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers award, the Betty Gabehart Prize, and the West Virginia Fiction Award. She is an editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and works each summer as the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop. Her first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, was published in 2018 by West Virginia University Press.

Christina Seymour

“I am most drawn to the act of looking-out, feeling what I feel, and making sense of this inner/outer tension.”

seymourWhen is a Burning Tree (Glass Lyre Press, 2017 Lyrebird Award Winner)

Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?

color 2

Why did you choose this poem?

I chose “Colors of Mountains Are Grass and Tears” because it is a poem inspired by the artwork of Eileen Shaloum, the cover artist whose work I discovered during a writing exercise at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. My favorite thing about being a poet is discoveries like this, and the result—different arts informing each other’s modes of meaning-making.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I am most drawn to the act of looking-out, feeling what I feel, and making sense of this inner/outer tension. Along with this, I am drawn to the ways in which people speak about concepts—love, loss, identity. On many levels, I am just trying to figure myself out. This process can lead to both confusion and clarity, which becomes a way-of-writing, itself.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

The poem, “Pajama Drawer of Adolescence” attempts to capture adolescence, which I don’t often do, and it has a quickness to its story that my shorter poems resist. It also names someone, which I don’t tend to do. For these reasons, I could call it a misfit. Adolescence and pajama drawers can feel very misfit-like, too.

Pajama 2

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The last poem in the book, “Truth Color,” is sort of a beginning, one of the earliest memories and most fragmented poems in the collection. It is an elliptical response to the first poem’s image of an obsessive Ophelia. It relinquishes literal reporting to intuitive processing, which leads the speaker to a mature objectivity and, again, a poignant moment of connection with a being outside the self. Because of this arrival at clarity from fragmentation, it felt like an ending.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it? 

My favorite way to revise is to read the shaggy lines to myself over and over and ask, “what am I trying to say?” Then, I write it, say it, write it, say it, and choose the wording that has as little trying as possible.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

Glass Lyre Press does exactly what they say, prioritize the quality and integrity of the work without rushing. They are authentic, patient, careful, and open to my ideas.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

I like thinking about tone as colors, as a sort of style-diagnosis. I would call this an orange and lavender book. My students have called my teaching style “robin’s egg blue” in the past, so maybe there’s some of that in there. I am interested in what people see.

What are you working on now?

I have always been interested in the fragmented manuscripts of women since my work on Mary Moody Emerson’s almanacks. I am also interested in visual artists’ inclination to destroy or set fire to past work, as a way of reinvention. I am working on engaging those threads, as well as exploring abundance, the self, connection, free thought, and innocence.

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

I love this question because I think we can become so inundated that we freeze up. I try to listen to music that rings true to me in the moment. I like to be reminded of sensitivity, slowness, and subtlety. I try to read with that intention.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

For students of creative writing, I would say, listen to the whims that brought you here, read the poets that speak to you and challenge you, and get to the work of writing! Also: don’t be afraid of form.

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Christina Seymour is the author of When is a Burning Tree (Glass Lyre Press, 2018) and the chapbook Flowers Around Your Soft Throat (Structo, 2016). Her poems also appear in The MothNorth American ReviewCimarron ReviewThe Briar Cliff Review, Wick Poetry Center’s exhibit, Speak Peace—American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings, and elsewhere. Her work received the Russell MacDonald Creative Writing Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and the AWP Intro Award. 

www.christinaseymour.net

Chuqiao Yang

“I was on a train in Shanxi and saw some huge construction sites somewhat enclosed by walls of brick.”

Yang

Reunions in the Year of the Sheep (Baseline Press, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

My parents encouraged me to keep a diary and invent stories growing up. My mother is a writer too and has always been passionate about art and literature. As a result, I’ve grown familiar with expressing through writing poetry and stories.

How did you decide on the title poem?

“Reunions in the Year of the Sheep” was first published in Canthius magazine. Karen Schindler reached out to me about working on a chapbook with her after reading this poem, which I will always feel very lucky about.

I think the poem sums up the overall tone of the chapbook in that it draws on friendship, forgiveness, and self-awareness, which were themes I explored at length.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks?

I think Shelly Harders collection Remnants (with Baseline Press) is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.

What’s your chapbook about?

I wrote a speech about my chapbook, posted by Meet the Presses.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem in the collection is “Postcard.” I wrote it over a decade ago. I was on a train in Shanxi and saw some huge construction sites somewhat enclosed by walls of brick. As the train reached a higher elevation, I saw beyond the brick walls to the countryside past the construction. There were small tombs, like mounds of clay in the earth, either unmarked or marked by unassuming headstones. It was a bit of a culture shock.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

“Turning the Tide” and “Roads Home” were significantly revised for the chapbook. Everything to an extent was, but those poems took a long time to sort out. I think I have more to do with them still.

What are you working on now?

I am working on my first poetry manuscript and a novel.

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

I go home and hang out with my cat or go for a long walk or exercise.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What keeps you humble?

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Chuqiao Yang received her Juris Doctor from the University of Windsor. Her writing has appeared in The Unpublished City, 30 under 30, The Puritan, Ricepaper, Arc, Prism, Filling Station, Grain, CV2, Room, and on CBC. In 2011, she was the recipient of two Western Magazine Awards for a non-fiction piece, “Beijing Notes.” In 2015, she was a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her chapbook, Reunions in the Year of the Sheep, published by Baseline Press, won the 2018 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Follow her on Twitter @chuqiaoyang.

Irène Mathieu

“There is no poetry without consideration of the myriad external forces that make us who we are.”

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Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up without a TV, the child of two physician parents who shared a deep love of art, music, history, and literature, as well as science and medicine. My parents made it clear that the dichotomy between the sciences and humanities is decidedly false. Creativity was always encouraged in our house full of carefully curated, multicultural children’s books, and I spent a lot of time running around in the woods with my siblings, inventing games (and even countries and religions). My parents were sticklers for academic achievement, but without the sort of “helicopter parenting” that seems to be so prevalent today. In retrospect, my ample unstructured playtime was crucial to my development as a writer. I knew that I wanted to write from a very young age, and actually started dictating journal entries to my mother when I was two. However, I always had a sense that I would do something else as well. Turns out that something else was to become a doctor (surprise, surprise), albeit with very different medical interests than my parents’.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?

The two are intimately connected. In my job as a pediatrician, I bear witness to the ways in which social inequities impact the developing human body on a daily basis (and try to make a positive impact in the face of such inequities). This is what drew me to medicine. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about the ethical impact of my actions, both professionally and personally. I think that poetry is a way to more deeply explore the self, our place in the world, and our relationship to the world and each other. It follows, then, that there is no poetry without consideration of the myriad external forces that make us who we are. I’ve spent the last few years as a writer trying to name and grapple with these forces and to better understand how they connect me to others.

Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?

sweet things -- mathieu

Why did you choose this poem?

I chose “sweet things” because this poem captures many of the themes in Grand Marronage – New Orleans girlhood, the effects of external and internalized patriarchy, the objectification of women, and the sweetness/niceness/respectability that cloaks all of this and makes it so difficult to discuss for women from a certain generation. Also, my parents visited my great-grandmother in New Orleans just after their wedding. She reportedly offered them a slice of cake after a huge, multicourse meal and several other desserts at various relatives’ homes, arguing that it was “just like water – it’ll go right t’rough you!”

What obsessions led you to write your book?

What was life like for my paternal grandmother in 1920s and ‘30s New Orleans? How did her life change when she and my grandfather relocated to the Washington, DC area in the 1940s? How has my family’s past shaped who I am and where I find myself today? How can I complicate externally imposed assumptions about my identity by exploring the nuances of my family and personal histories? How can I connect to a cultural identity that has been irrevocably transformed over time as people move and cities change? What can I make in the space between how others see me and how I see myself? It feels like that space holds potential energy. How is trauma inherited and survived? How is a traumatic cycle broken? How have my family and I been complicit in the system of racialized capitalism that created this country, and which continues to destroy so many lives? How might awareness of this complicity lead me to deeper and sustained action against that system?

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The arrangement is vaguely chronological, which made the most sense to me as I tried to parse out a multigenerational story. The Alice Dunbar-Nelson poems in the middle section provide a short interruption in an otherwise mostly-linear chronology told through narrators modeled after my grandmother and myself.

“Grand marronage” describes the phenomenon of enslaved and/or indigenous peoples in the southern U.S. escaping from mainstream society to form alternative, liberated communities, often in inhospitable terrain. In Louisiana, this often meant the swamp. There is a poem in the middle of the book called “maron,” which describes the fictional escape of an unnamed young woman from a group of armed men. She runs into the swamp and turns into a fig tree in order to become fully free.

The title is partially a reference to this poem and partially a nod to this history of freedom-making, which I see paralleled in my family’s story as women of color who have been freeing themselves from racialized patriarchy in large and small ways over multiple generations. At the same time, Grand Marronage asks, at what price is this freedom? In what ways are we still not free? What would it take to fully liberate ourselves without inadvertently limiting anyone else’s liberation?

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

Nearly all of the poems have meaningful origins. I spent a lot of time mining family stories that I’d heard for years, as well as interviewing my grandmother to learn more about her life. It was important to me to title some of these family stories “myths,” because I was very conscious of how generational selective memory alters history. Sometimes a story communicates more about its teller and his/her socio-cultural investments than it does about factual occurrences. What about the stories that are forgotten, or are deliberately omitted from the family narrative? Doesn’t their absence also shape how we see ourselves? I guess I was really interested in how family mythology is perpetuated through both stories and silences.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

I have been using my own artwork for all my book covers, and I don’t have that much art, so selecting the cover image was pretty easy! I found the silhouette of a woman’s head from an Internet search of open-access clip art. One of my publishers, Alyse Knorr, designed the layout using these images. Working with her was an extremely easy process, and she was very receptive to my suggestions along the way.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up my debut young adult novel (stay tuned!). I’m also writing more poems. I loved writing around a set of themes guided by very specific (hi)stories for Grand Marronage, but right now I feel more like focusing on individual poems, instead of writing toward a larger project. I’m finding that stories emerge from the poems and the themes and obsessions declare themselves anyway. It’s refreshing to reverse the process this way, and I’m curious to see what will come of it.

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

I return to what made me feel whole and creative as a child – running around in the woods, going for a swim, making and eating delicious food, reading books, cuddling with my dog, and minimizing my screen time as much as possible. I find spending time outdoors to be tremendously restorative in a deeply spiritual way. When I feel overwhelmed and am brimming over the best remedy for me is usually to go into the forest or to the nearest large body of water.

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Dr. Irène P. Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), selected as Editor’s Choice for the Gatewood Prize and runner-up for the Cave Canem/Northwestern book prize; orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize; and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Irène is a poetry book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine and an editor for the Journal of General Internal Medicine‘s humanities section. A recipient of Fulbright and Callaloo fellowships, she is a member of the Jack Jones Literary Arts speakers bureau.

Alejandra Oliva

Declaration is less a record of the story of these women than what it felt like to be in contact with them, and the way seeing them and talking to them helped reshape my own approaches to God.”

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Declaration (Guillotine, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I started out being really interested in journalism, especially political journalism—I was on my middle school and high school newspaper staffs, I went to politics summer camp in high school, the whole nine yards. When I got to college and started taking classes in polisci, I realized that this was actually really far afield from what I wanted to be thinking about, which was how people lived under politics, and more critically, people’s lives and interiority. I switched my major and ended up in the creative writing and sociology departments, both of which hugely affected my writing. Sociology, and ethnographic practice especially, taught me about basically being an observer and this very particular kind of observation where you’re trying to erase as many of your assumptions as possible when you walk into a space, or observe an interaction. My creative writing professors introduced me to writing and forms that really pushed me to consider what an essay, what poetry could look like: Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Annie Dillard. Both of those, the journalistic and the lyric, explain what I strive for my writing to be.

How would you describe your chapbook’s genre? Did thinking about genre affect how you wrote it?

I would probably describe the genre as essay most broadly. I was pretty self-consciously writing in a way to imitate writers I admired (you can basically still see Maggie Nelson’s structure from Bluets). I think getting into the weeds of it, it’s a braided essay: pulling a few different strands of things together to weave a greater whole out of them. This essay is the result of one of my first experiments with that kind of writing, and it took…let’s say a lot of revision to get it right, but it also felt like the form matched the function I wanted the essay to serve.

I admire your honesty when you write about your faith. What made you choose to write about your personal history and what you felt with the women instead of only the stories of the women in the Our Lady Queen of Angels congregation?

Thank you! I mention in the essay that the piece originally started as a sociology senior thesis. My favorite part of any ethnography is the appendix, where suddenly the researcher peeks out from behind the curtain and says “hi, this is me, this is how I did my research, this is what I did well, this is what I could have done better.” It is a moment that feels like it has the potential of letting us learn about people and social groups that ethnography studies, while also being humble and helping to make clear the framework which has been shaping the study all along. It’s the piece of the ethnography that feels like it has the most potential to move past the racist and ethically awful legacies of these kinds of studies. I kind of also feel like this is where my journalism roots come out a little—it’s impossible to write a totally unbiased account, and one way to balance that is to show the reader, as clearly as I can, where I’m standing as I write. I wrote an appendix/author’s note with my thesis, but I felt like it wasn’t going far enough—in order to present the story of the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels as best I could, I needed to show what kind of baggage I was bringing along with myself, and I think in this particular piece, that meant looking really critically at my own relationship with religion, and especially the hang-ups and anger I had around it.

The funny thing about Declaration is that I finished drafting it about three years before it actually came out in the world, and those three years have marked a sea change in where I’m at with religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was doing a reading a few months ago, and I just felt the anger (at God, specifically,) burning through the words in a way that before I had construed as totally neutral and fair. Granted, there’s some anger in there, especially at the archdiocese, that I still very much feel.

It seems that in Declaration you connect the women from Our Lady Queen of Angels to the tradition of female saints. You write that women saints are often famed for their virginity, “their efforts to make themselves disappear— from men’s eyes, from the earth itself,” and that they are not given voices in their stories, with Mary as the most famous example. Does Declaration grant the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels a sort of voice that was not offered to the saints you write about? What is your role in recording the story of these modern saints?

I don’t think Declaration grants them much of a voice that they hadn’t taken for themselves, actually. If you plug “Our Lady Queen of Angels NYC” into Google, you can see the massive amount of press, videos, articles, etc. that these women have used as mediums to get their voices out. A lot of them are older or date to the time when the church was closed, but still. Someone made a documentary a few years ago, The New York Times covered their protests extensively at the beginning, I was there once when a Wall Street Journal reporter came prior to the pope’s New York City visit a few years ago. That’s part of what impressed me so much about them—they are incredibly media savvy, and even when the media isn’t around, they’re particularly good at making themselves heard and understood.

Declaration is less a record of the story of these women than what it felt like to be in contact with them, and the way seeing them and talking to them helped reshape my own approaches to God.

I’m also not sure that my project in Declaration was one of recording or documenting, or not the primary one. Also, this might be my inner academic talking, but Declaration isn’t particularly historically rigorous. It’s accurate, as far as I was able to determine, but not exhaustive. In my thesis, I did a lot of that balancing work of figuring out who said what, and when, and dates and times and tones of protests, balancing “official” journalistic accounts and eyewitness accounts, which is the work that feels more like being a record-keeper than writing Declaration. However, the thesis remains as a kind of a shadow-text to Declaration, and it didn’t seem as important to document every single bit of their story here.

Is Declaration a reinterpretation or reconstruction of religious experience?

More than anything, I think Declaration is a recounting of a particular religious experience, or set of experiences, or the lack thereof (on my end). There’s plenty of Christian theology that describes the church as the body of Christ, and in that way, when you encounter a church group, for better or worse, you’re encountering something that is both a little human and a little divine. Making yourself vulnerable to that is I think a kind of religious experience, as is the kind of yelling at God’s absence I do. In that way, I guess it’s a reconstruction—we don’t often think of like, a church potluck as encountering the body of Christ, but thanks to the women of Queen of Angels, I think my theology has become really communitarian and human.

You write in the closing paragraph that “The grace of God, the grace you accept is supposed to, as the song goes, make you see.” How is your seeing of the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels informed by grace?

I think part of what writing about Our Lady Queen of Angels meant to me is encountering a profoundly graceful group of people, and then being overwhelmed at what having that grace extended to me felt like. I think the traditional wisdom is that God’s grace can help you see…how much of a sinner you are? And conversely having people’s grace extended to me has helped me better see what we owe each other, as well as the ways that I am falling short of that. But I think the piece this gave me that I don’t think I had before, or had put into relationship with God’s grace, is that having grace extended to you makes you want to be deserving of that grace, makes you want to work harder and be better and bridge the gap between the person you are and the person your community wants you or needs you to be.

How do your theological studies inform your writing?

There are a lot of really practical ways—I’ve got a great community of writers here, faculty is really supportive if you’d rather turn in a weirdo lyric essay rather than a research paper, or even encourage it. I also feel like div school is making me a deeper, more thoughtful writer, in every sense of the word. Thinking about God and religion and the other Big Questions on a regular basis has at once given me a vocabulary to talk about the edges of understanding in a way I didn’t have before, but it also has made me a lot more comfortable with what Anne Carson calls “that emptiness where God would be if God were available.” Not only that but going to school with the approximately half of my classmates who have a capital-V Vocation, especially those headed into ministry or chaplaincy, has been an incredible experience. Watching the kind of care and attention with which they move through the world and witnessing their beliefs in the radical possibilities for communities and caregiving has I think awoken me to different ways of noticing. Simone Weil has this great essay on attention, where she argues that the same kind of attention you use to write a crappy Latin translation (something I’m increasingly familiar with these days) is the kind of attention you extend to the suffering other, and to God in prayer. Divinity school feels like it’s teaching me the practice of attention in a lot of different directions, and I think that comes out in my writing.

What has the editing and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the design of your chapbook?

Honestly the best part of being published is being edited, particularly when it is by superstar-genius Sarah McCarry. She was both incredibly enthusiastic about my work, and really good at seeing all the ways in which it could be better. We also collaborated during a time that was really tumultuous for both of us—I changed jobs, changed cities, and started school, she had the press on hiatus to reorganize and then the election hit us both incredibly hard, but sometimes emailing back and forth edits and questions felt like a lifeline.

The design process was incredible! Sarah and I sent back and forth a few emails about general motifs and colors (Marian blue and gold, obviously), and then she came back about a month after with a few different options from her amazing designer Anna Zylicz.  We picked one, and then a few months after that, I had my chapbooks in hand! The whole final few months kind of felt like magic.

Is where you wrote from for Declaration similar to where you write from for Ojos de Santa Lucia, your “erratically published missive on lady-saints that also circles around magic, femininity, perfume, radical tenderness, the stars, and cloth-bound books”? What do those projects have in common? What is different?

I think that it’s fair to say that both projects are coming from similar places! Both are projects that have helped me work out questions or ideas in my spirituality, have helped reconcile with the Christianity I was raised with, and help take big, complicated ideas or lives that are beyond my understanding and move them a little closer to me. I feel like I’m often trying to work out why an idea or a figure is so interesting or attractive to me, what’s pulled me in.

I think what’s different about the two is that OdSL is really pretty informal. If it’s something personal or that I’m worried about getting wrong, I might have a friend read over it, but other than that, I’m the only pair of eyes on it, and the only one editing it. I can see some of the things I wrote there becoming more formal essays, but for now, they’re a way for me to stretch my legs, try out ideas, and so they’re messy, and a little experimental.

What are you working on now?

One of the things I’ve gotten really into in grad school is the idea of translation and translation theory. I feel like it has the capacity to talk about a lot of things beyond itself, and is really good at, again, pointing out the gaps in language. This has turned into a kind of monster-essay about translation and translators and borders and borderlands.

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Alejandra Oliva is an essayist and embroiderer. She is currently working on her master’s in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.

olivalejandra.com