Ashley M. Jones

“I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.”

Jones

Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017)

dark / / thing (Pleiades Press, 2019)

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

I’ve been writing for a very long time—when I was growing up, my mom stayed at home with me and my siblings, and we were steered, quite deliberately, toward reading, writing, and art. I remember what a fun day was like when I was three years old—after dropping older sister off at school, we’d come back and I’d watch PBS while Mom did whatever moms do in the morning. Mr. Rogers and Big Bird and Arthur were my friends—they taught me how to read, write, and be kind; then, after breakfast, Mom would show me how to do something. Maybe it was tying my shoes. Maybe it was writing my name. Maybe it was reading. Then, for playtime, I’d either do something artistic (Mom would make us homemade PlayDoh, or I’d color or draw), or I would read.

As I grew older, I kept reading, but when I went to school, writing became a part of my regular life. We had to write our own books and publish (read: laminate) them for school projects very regularly at EPIC Elementary School in Birmingham, AL. Back then, I wanted to be a writer of novels, but I eventually landed on the shores of PoetryLand (that’s Campbell McGrath’s term, not mine) and haven’t looked back. I attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a Creative Writing Major from 7-12th grade, and I went on to major in English with a Creative Writing Concentration at UAB (the University of Alabama at Birmingham). My undergraduate thesis director and good friend Jim Braziel encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, and I ended up at Florida International University on a Knight Fellowship, and, well, here I am! Teaching and writing for a living.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

That’s actually a hard question to answer, as I write in so many different places. What I’m about to say is in no way meant to create a hierarchy of writing styles or practices—I don’t believe in hierarchies in any facet of my life, and certainly not hierarchies that continue to serve a patriarchal, my-way-or-the-highway view of art. There is no one size fits all for anything—certainly not art. I write wherever I can—sometimes that means I write at my desk at home, on a pad of paper while I’m sitting on the couch, as a dictation to Siri while I’m driving, on a scrap of paper while I’m at dinner or at a reading. So, the way the space is decorated has a lot less to do with my process than the space I create in my mind to let the poetry happen when it’s time for it to happen. I don’t write poetry every day—that’s never been my process. I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.

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?

Representative poem…hmmm, from MCG, I’d say “On Martin Luther King Day, a Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County,” and from DT, “Xylography” or maybe “Dark Water.”

Why did you choose these poems?

I tried to choose poems that reflect the nature of each book—MCG is a book about home and history, and I wanted to choose a poem that seemed to bridge the two. “On Martin Luther King Day, A Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County” is a golden shovel variation (using end words only, not the full poem) after Lucille Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” which is my favorite poem (and she’s my favorite poet). I needed her guidance through this piece because the situation was so horrific—my good friends Tina and Jim Braziel told me this story about their former neighbor’s disgusting method of commemorating Martin Luther King Day, and I felt the full weight of this racist act, so I needed backup. What better backup than my favorite poem by my favorite poet? What better support than a poem which tells me, despite what people might do or say, that I’m “some damn body!”

“Xylography” is one of my favorite poems I’ve written, despite its sadness. I wanted to use a nontraditional form to illustrate the facts—the disproportionate number of lynchings of white vs. Black people was best shown, I thought, in a graphic form. This is representative of the second book, and really of my whole project when I write poetry, because it uses form to support content, and it’s telling a story which could be easily obscured by the white patriarchal history we’re taught and told. “Dark Water” is similar—it uses the ghazal form to highlight the idea of the body as it relates to darkness/ otherness/ worthiness to live.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I’m eternally obsessed with Black people, the South, religion, women, and history, and that has manifested itself prominently in both of my books. Both of them are primarily focused on telling stories of Black women, Black people, and me—a Black Southern woman.

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

I actually don’t know if I can confidently identify a misfit—each poem has a purpose, and each poem contributes to the multifaceted story I’m trying to tell. I’m Black, yes, and I’m very concerned with Black liberation in America, but I also think about collard greens and boys I like and music and and and and–

Did you have any rituals while writing these poems? What were you listening to when you wrote these poems?

So, as I’ve said, my writing process is pretty sporadic, but one thing that remains true for most of my writing sessions is that I try to listen to music. The type of music varies depending on what I need, emotionally, for a poem. When writing the poems about my grandmother, I listened to gospel music—my favorite of all time is “I Won’t Complain” by Rev. Paul Jones, but I also remember listening to “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” by PJ Morton, which isn’t technically a gospel song, but it has a certain sound and message of encouragement that I really needed while I wrote about her and grieved her passing. Other times, I just put on whatever music I’m loving at the moment and that’s what I write to. If you want a sort of top ten songs of the moment, I’m happy to give it.

I’d like that! What are they?

1. K.R.I.T. HERE – Big KRIT
2. Bad Idea (feat. Chance the Rapper) – YBN Cordae
3. Vehemence – Thad Saajid
4. Lord is Coming – H.E.R.
5. Say So – PJ Morton & Jojo
6. Not Just Knee Deep – Funkadelic
7. Playground – Steve Lacy
8. Riverside – Kirk Franklin & the Nu Nation Project
9. Black Man – Stevie Wonder (and, who are we kidding, the whole Songs in the Key of Life album)
10. Enough – Fantasia
Bonus: Yesterday (Donny Hathaway’s version)
BonusBonus: Simply Beautiful – Al Green

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 so very fortunate in my editorial and production experiences so far. Both presses I’ve worked with have been so supportive and careful with my work, and I’ve only worked with female editors and publishers, which is such a gift. I don’t feel like I have to “prove” myself or defer to a loud male voice. Hub City and Pleiades have involved me very heavily with the editing process, and both have been so very transparent with each step toward publication. I was able to approve cover images for both books—I didn’t have an artist or even really a specific image in mind for either cover. I had a feeling about how the book should look, and I was able to convey that to both presses, and they supplied me with choices of cover art. I’m absolutely in in love with the art on both books—and they’re both pieces by Black artists! Really a dream. And, both books are in Garamond! My favorite font! And I didn’t even have to ask for it.

What question do you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

Maybe I would want to answer: what are you afraid of? And my answer: I’m afraid people will misunderstand me. I’m afraid people will write me off as “just another political poet.” I’m afraid of a world in which political poetry isn’t always seen as valuable. I’m afraid people will learn things about me that change how they view me. I’m afraid to be viewed as a flat, static being. I’m afraid to not be seen as all that I am.

What are you working on now?

Another book! I’m trying to write more about love/lack thereof and the experience of being a woman. It’s a little scary—I already write about very emotionally charged and difficult topics, but there’s still a level of separation. When I write about my actual body, my actual heart, it gets a little close. People can actually see my face when they read the poem. It’s a vulnerable place, but I think it’s so valuable, especially if I’m committed to the liberation of my people. Our full humanity has to exist, always, if we are to ever be able to live without the white patriarchy devaluing our lives and stealing every avenue we have for joy.

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

I. Would. Be. A. Tap. Dancer. Period.  Not only because Gregory Hines is my #1 imaginary husband or because Sammy Davis, Jr is my #2 or because Savion Glover is #3, but because I’ve always loved dancing, and tap is such an amazing form of it. I am in tap classes now, and I can honestly say that tap dancing is one of the greatest creative releases next to writing. Who knew so much life could live in an ankle? In the steel-bottomed ball of my foot?

How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

As I’ve grown older, the biggest habit I’ve dropped is caring about what “real” poetry talks about. I say what I want to say, what I have to say. I don’t think about the canon (because I don’t believe in it—it was created to edge out so many of us). What I do focus on is the truth and my own creative expression. I focus on the joy I feel when I find a new way to say something, or when I’m able to recreate my exact feeling or exactly what I saw in words. I’m much more trusting of Ashley’s voice. I care what she has to say and I want her to say it, always.

dark / / thing examines racial trauma in America from the nineteenth century to today. How does the order of poems in the book add to or complicate its historical narrative?

It’s actually very similar, the ordering strategy, to the first book. In both books, in all my work, I’m very concerned with the interplay of past, present, and future. It’s easy, and it’s safe to say that history moves in one direction, that our past is always our past and never a part of our present or future. It’s safe to be able to say, “slavery is over, so it will stay frozen in 1865.” But what’s harder, what’s more true, is that history is always at play, that we’re always struggling with the same issues. I may not be enslaved in America in 2019, but the effects of slavery, the systems that were set up, the attitudes that were established, are all still very real in my life and in the reality of our country. In my book, there isn’t a chronology, and that’s intentional. Sometimes, work is organized by theme, which means histories can be crossed and arranged out of chronological order. Sometimes, I arrange according to feeling or mood–and sometimes, I’ll put a poem in place to serve as a dismount/breather from another poem.

Religious themes show up in dark / / thing multiple times, often in relation to the body. Is there a connection between the physical and the divine that you could say more about?

In my life, yes, there is a connection between the physical and the divine. In my life, God shows up in everything–I find that connection on a constant basis. I don’t think it’s useful for me to spell out all my specific religious beliefs, but I’ll say: for me, in my life, all my life, the presence of God has been real. In poetry, in my grandmother’s laugh, in the vegetables my dad grows in the backyard, in the way a student discovers her own magic, in the still Alabama morning. I find it hard to survive the world without finding the ways in which God cuts through all the mundane and murderous things in this world. And yes, that connection also exists between my own body and the divine. There’s something glowing inside of me–the will to keep living, the drive to do good by the world and its people–there’s plenty of divine in that. I’m glad to know that it’s showing up in my poems, too–poetry is part of my effort to connect to God, too.

What are your techniques for weaving personal experience with history and culture? Does the form of a poem influence the perspective you use?

I guess my weaving technique has a lot to do with how I view history/ culture/ personal experience–as I said before, I think history is always at play. I often say that we all carry histories with us, always, and that is true in the poem, too. For example, in the poem “Uncle Remus Syrup Commemorative Lynching Postcard #25” I have created a history based on historical fact. I knew that the facts about lynching and lynching postcards would be easy to ignore as “bygone” if I didn’t add a beating heart to it. Or if I didn’t use the form to convey the big, real, ever-present hurt of this practice in the past and present (also see “Xylography”). So, I created a more personal story–personal, not in that it’s my personal story, but personal in that it takes abstract factual information and makes it have skin, blood, teeth. It’s also true that I do the same sort of blending with my own personal histories and larger histories–I guess the real key is that each poem needs to have a heartbeat, something with which the reader can relate on a human level.

The form of a poem absolutely impacts the poem and the poem’s perspective–using those same two examples, Uncle Remus and Xylography, you can clearly see that the form does a lot of work in the poem. It isn’t a background element. Instead, the form works, I think, equally, with the content. With “Uncle Remus,” the form is working in two ways–there’s the shape of it, for one. It’s a prose poem, in a block form, reflecting the shape of a postcard. The repetitive nature of the text creates an inescapable picture show (pun intended–pictures just like the photographs of lynchings) of horrors. In “Xylography,” I wanted to present the facts in a way that would show, visually, the disparity between the number of white lynchings vs. black lynchings in the US. The bar graph format seemed perfect for that, and the footnotes allowed me to create those personal stories based on the facts.

You have a gift for ending your poems on brutally poignant notes. One of my favorites is the end of “Who Will Survive in America”: “but not even our spectacular, crystalline glitter makes it easier / for them to believe that we have any inalienable right to breathe.” Do you even begin with the end of a poem in mind, or do you find that the writing process guides you to the right ending?

Thank you–that’s really kind of you to say. My favorite poems eviscerate me with their ending lines, and it is something I strive for in my own work. As far as how the endings come about, it depends–sometimes, I do have an ending already in mind. Other times, I only have a line in mind, and I’m not sure where it goes–I have to construct the puzzle/poem around it. Other times, I see the whole shape of the poem at once, and I have to quickly write what I can see the clearest (beginning and end, usually), then fill in the rest.

The last poem of dark / / thing, “Think of a Marvelous Thing / It’s the Same as Having Wings,” reminds me of rap and Peter Pan. What are your intentions behind correlating these cultural objects?

I still distinctly remember writing this poem–I was sitting outside my sister’s job one night, waiting to take her home after a long night of working on the newspaper. Her office was right across from a housing project, which matters because the poem considers this Black man riding a bike and how his life is so very different than Peter Pan’s or a white young person’s. As I sat there, this Black man came speeding down the street on his bike, his shirt billowing that beautiful balloon that lets you know he’s at bike-flight speed. You know the feeling, like nothing can touch you, nothing can ever go wrong or hurt you as long as there’s more road and breath in your lungs to fuel the pedals. When he disappeared at the end of the street, it occurred to me that no matter how marvelous those wings are, this world will always find a way to clip them, especially if you’re Black.

Do you want the reader to go through a process of finding hope for America’s future in dark / / thing, or be left unsatisfied with the slow progression of American values? Or both?

Definitely both. As a marginalized American, my entire existence is that balance of hope and unsatisfaction. We can’t make change if we aren’t hopeful, but that hope, I think, should be rooted in a deep dissatisfaction for the status quo, and a desire to make hope a tangible thing, finally. I want the reader to learn and feel and yell and cry and at the end, realize that these stories are all true, that they don’t have to keep happening if we would begin by acknowledging them and affirm that our country was built on this horror.

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

I would tell any student or any non-student interested in creative writing to work on her relationship with herself. Hearing your own poetic voice is so much of the journey when you’re just starting out. It will take time, and there will be moments where you feel like you just don’t know who you are on the page, but that’s why we expose ourselves to so many kinds of writing. That’s why we join writing groups or writing programs—to meet other writers in person and on page, and those writers and pieces of writing will be, as my dear friend, Dr. Lisa Nikolidakis says, “a door or a mirror.” The doors might not be pieces of writing we love, but they will lead us somewhere. The mirrors validate what we are and they help us hear that faint inner voice, reaching for the surface.

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

I wish I had been told, when I was younger, that there is no one way or right way to be a writer. We all have different processes, and that’s okay. If you don’t write every day, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fine. If you read 10,000 books a year, fantastic. If you closely read 3 books a year, fine. If you work in academia, great. If you don’t, that’s fine, too.

Whose work helped you write this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Life inspires me. My work can’t exist if I’m not participating in the world. I can’t simply muse on a leaf, I have to encounter the leaf in real life and the leaf may lead me to a memory or a question or a problem or an epiphany about myself or my society. I’m inspired by the conversation that all art really is—I want to be in community, in conversation, with others, and writing is my way to do that.

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Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University.  Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, The Sun, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, and The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her second collection, dark / / thingwon the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is Second Vice President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

www.ashleymichellejones.wordpress.com

Nicole Walker

“Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.”

Walker

The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (Rose Metal Press, 2019)

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

I was born in SLC, Utah. A place where “Place, capital P” looms large. The Wasatch Mountains tower. The Great Salt Lake can be seen from outer space. All roads flow from the central LDS Temple, which sits at the very center, ground zero. The numbers of streets begins from there. At the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young and his followers emerged, an entire park is named “This is the Place.” My favorite bookstore, The King’s English, is at the corner of 15th East and 15th South. Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.

Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?

“In 2001, my sister Valerie had a baby. Before that, she had a frog. The frog came in a plastic box full of water and nutrients. Natural Aquatics frog aquariums can house up to two African dwarf frogs in a 3.8 x 4.1 x 5-inch plastic tank. You need to feed the frog one to two pellets per week. Change the water twice per year.

It is the perfect product for those who don’t want a pet but kill their plants. Plants turn brown and brittle when they die. Frogs just sink to the bottom of the tank, blend in with the good-for-frog bacteria-producing gravel. Good for frogs. Good for decomposing dead frogs.”

Why did you choose this excerpt?

This book is an Abecedarian. David Carlin and I cowrote the book. We chose the format because it was one way to try to capture the everythingness that the climate crisis suggests without, you know, capturing everything. Every letter is illustrative, if not representative. In this excerpt, “Frog,” my choice for the letter F, I get to take the cliché of the slow boiling of a frog who doesn’t recognize how hot the water has gotten, make a planet-metaphor, and try to capture some of the tenderness for the planet, for the frog, for the babies.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Climate change. Dogs. Cats. Flying. Well, I guess most of the table of contents includes my and David’s obsessions. Bacteria. Plasmodia. Chickens. Catastrophe.

What’s the oldest essay in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

David and I began discussing a collaborative writing project when I was teaching a workshop in Melbourne. When I first arrived, we took a walk along the beach where the posts meant to hold up the shoreline are moved back a few feet every year to keep the rising tides from stealing ever more of the sand hills. We tossed back and forth more examples of climate change affecting our towns—burning forests in Flagstaff where I lived, penguins washing up on this same shore. We are every emotion about the crisis. Horrified, frustrated, despondent, curious, even a little amused, in a gallows humor kind of way. We decided what our project would be. An attempt to write a different kind of book about climate change where horror and warning weren’t the only topics. We’d also talk about plasmodia. And sleep. By the end of our week of walking, working, and talking, we sat down at David’s long, kitchen table and started to write our essays with the letter A. David wrote “Atmosphere.” I wrote “Albatross.” I went home to Flagstaff and the next week, we moved onto “Bitumen” and “Bacteria.”

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

Knowing full well we couldn’t address everything there is to write about climate change, we thought that by making an abecedarian, we could write about particular and peculiar topics, paying equal attention, since the alphabet isn’t really hierarchical, to some of the biggest and smallest climate change considerations. There is a bit of chanciness to the topics—we often wrote what came to mind when we focused on the letter. But we knew that there were important ideas to cover—that one of the problems with the anthropocene is the human-based scale. We wanted to go beyond that which is easily noticeable and measurable by paying attention to the tiny things, like plasmodia and bacteria, and attention to the things we pay no attention to, like bitumen.

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

There’s something a little predictable about an alphabet. Guess what comes after O? That’s right. P!

When I got to Z, I was so sorry to see the book end. Also, I already had an essay named after my son Max in the middle of the book. Wasn’t it too predictable to end it with an essay about my daughter, Zoe? So I called the essay “Z.” But really, it’s about my daughter, Zoe.

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

“Catastrophe” is super weird. An Abecedarian might demand etymologies. And climate crises demand hypocrisy. “Catastrophe” does a poetic job meeting those demands.

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?

Although the approach seems epistolary, we had a method where we would send each other our lettered essays simultaneously. So my Bitumen is not a response to his Bacteria. We wrote our essays and uploaded them to the G Drive. We would sometimes get out of sync and sometimes peek at each other’s. I like to break the rules. In fact, I have a whole series at Essay Daily where I get to talk about just that.

Are there any alphabet books or writers who use the alphabetic sequence that you might recommend?

As I was describing The After-Normal on a flight to Connecticut to the guy sitting next to me, I showed him the interview. He did the A is for Apes, B is for Bee—So many books for kids that go A-Z! He had this great idea to take the book into some classrooms and get the students to write their own A-Z about climate change. I thought, what if we assigned each kid an A? I’m going to email my elementary school teacher friends to see if we can organize such a project.

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

This book started as a somewhat tongue in cheek survival guide. I wish someone would ask, how are we going to survive the climate crisis? The answer is, we might not. But as we either go down in flames (or ice, as Frost says) or find a way to repair the hole we’ve ripped in the ecosystem, I hope that we still find things to love and appreciate, that we do a better job of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, that we find ways to collaborate on the big enterprise of making the anthropocene a little less anthropocentric.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book about choice. It uses different kinds of trees as a lens through which to see how we make decisions based on individual needs versus collective ones. Truly, it’s a way to talk about apple trees and aspen trees and how migration is sometimes a great privilege and sometimes a desperate move. It begins, “The trees are moving west.”

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

I think creative writing is the best major you can imagine. You learn how to give constructive feedback. You learn how to receive constructive feedback and work it into your revision. You get to delve deep into other people’s minds and your own soul. You are an innovator. You are a philosopher, a historian, an observer with as keen an eye as a scientist. There is nothing you can’t do with a degree in creative writing. You may have to create your own path, but we’ve got a plan for that.

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NICOLE WALKER is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Emily Mohn-Slate

“See who is speaking to you, who is giving you permission to try something totally new.”

Feed

FEED (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019)

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

So Easy

A woman forgot her baby in the park. People found it
murmuring in the bushes, called it Fairy.
I want to keep sleeping when his yell slices twilight —
not feed the baby, whose appetite is unfeeling, total.
The baby grunts, spits — I want to be alone,
but it would be good for me to go out with the baby.
If I keep walking, he keeps sleeping.
A woman at the park’s edge holds honey petals
to her nose, breathes them the way I breathe
the baby’s furry head. A woman left her baby in the car,
rushed to work — her baby overheated & died.
I forget things so often now. I never forget my glasses.
It would be so easy to forget the baby.
Old bikes lie on porches, washed in yellow light,
exhausted. I hover two fingers above
his chest, search for breath. I love to hear
the baby’s slight gasp when I turn on a light —
I study his open mouth, flick the light on
& off & on until I can’t. I forgot my keys,
my jacket. A woman drove off with her baby on the roof
of her car. Did I fasten the buckle around
the baby’s soft waist? I didn’t want to come out today,
but it is good to smell the oily pizza boxes at Pino’s,
to dodge the garbage truck lumbering
down Hastings Street, men hanging on by a tiny crescent.
They found her baby at 45th and Cholla
on the highway line, alive, not even crying.
I had a hat once that I loved, red and blue wool.
I lost & found it in a Shaw’s parking lot, mashed down,
brown with exhaust. I washed it by hand,
hung it up to dry. The baby licks the stroller harness,
wets the rip-proof vinyl to a deeper red.

—published originally in The Adroit Journal, Issue 13

Why did you choose this poem?

“So Easy” is the first poem in my chapbook. It introduces the reader to the world of the chapbook. A world in which mothers are barely holding on, trying their best to keep going while sleep-deprived and depressed, making mistakes large and small. A world in which danger is ever-present. In which a new mother is struggling intensely yet finding beauty in a small moment like “the baby’s slight gasp when I turn on a light.”

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

Here are just a few of my favorites:

Stacey Waite, the lake has no saint (Tupelo Press)

Jennifer Givhan, Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press)

Nancy Reddy, Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press)

Chen Chen, Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press)

Joy Katz, White: An Abstract (Bonfire Books)

Jennifer Jackson Berry, Bloodfish (Seven Kitchens Press)

Daniel Shapiro, Heavy Metal Fairy Tales (Throwback Books)

Tiana Clark, Equilibrium (Bull City Press)

What’s your chapbook about?

FEED is about the experience of early motherhood. A time that is full of fear, anxiety, and exhaustion as well as beauty, joy, and tenderness. The speaker of each poem is trying to find something to hold onto, someone to speak to, out of this intense experience in which she often feels invisible, afraid, and at sea. The chapbook tracks the speaker fighting to move toward the light, often failing, sometimes reaching it, tenuously.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“So Easy” was the poem that sparked the chapbook. I was up in the middle of the night feeding my son, reading the news on my phone when I came across a story about a woman who left her baby on the roof of her car. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mother and the baby. I fell into an internet wormhole in which I learned of another woman who had left her baby in the park, and another woman who left her baby in the car by accident because she didn’t usually do morning drop-offs on a particular day, and her baby died. I had recurring nightmares in which I did these same things. I was trying my best to take good care of my son, but I was also struggling intensely. I felt the nightmare realities of these women as my own. The poem came in fragments over the next few days, most of it written on my phone while pushing my son in a stroller to get him to nap.

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

The title was obvious once I pulled my poems together—the poem, “Feed,” was just staring me in the face—the dark heart of the chapbook. This poem gets at the struggle to continue to write as a new mother, how impossible it feels to wrest any kind of space to feed your own creative impulses and your child’s ever-present needs.

The arrangement of the chapbook came more slowly. I played with a few different orders and sent it to my close readers for their thoughts, which was immensely helpful. I had a few different versions ready to submit for chapbook contests of various lengths and the version that Seven Kitchens Press accepted was the shortest version, and also my favorite.

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 chapbook?

My experience with Ron Mohring at Seven Kitchens Press has been outstanding. Ron works very hard to design each chapbook—he chose the layout, fonts, etc. He sews each copy by hand with beautiful thread. I found the cover image and Ron was on board with it right away. The artist, Daviea Davis, is the mother of a former student of mine, and her work often explores the female body. This mosaic, “Meeting the Aunts,” reflects the book’s mixture of tenderness and ferocity so well.

What are you working on now?

I’m working now on my second poetry collection and hoping that my first full-length collection will find its home soon. My new collection delves into technology and social media, attention, kindness, and parenthood.

I’m also working on two prose projects: the first is a book of essays on motherhood, the body and aging. The other is a book about The Madwomen in the Attic, a community of women’s writing workshops based at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA that I’ve been part of for almost ten years. This book asks the questions: How does writing change people’s lives? How does it create change in the world?

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 have a fraught relationship with social media and the internet (is there anyone who doesn’t?), especially the feeling that as an emerging writer, I must be “visible” online in order to prove that my work exists and matters. I look to writers I know who are good at staying grounded in the writing itself, and manage to be part of various literary communities without promoting themselves all the time or giving the majority of their time to social media. I’ve deleted my social media accounts many times, but have always come back on because of the real relationships I’ve made there with other poets, writers, and editors whose work I admire. But to stay on and survive, I have all kinds of little strategies that help me, including not having notifications on my phone, hiding my phone while I’m writing, and setting limits for how long I read the news or scroll on social media.

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

I always tell my students what Jan Beatty told me, “Don’t give up. Just keep writing no matter what.” It seems simple, but I’ve found that it is very hard not to let my writing time be consumed by other tasks, other people’s needs, or to let the negative voices in my own head crowd out my belief in my voice and my work.

I also tell them what Major Jackson challenged us to think about at Bennington: “Who is in your poetic family tree? How have they shaped your work and vision?” You can’t figure out what your work is doing unless you know where you’ve come from, and you can’t know where you’ve come from, or who you’re in conversation with, unless you’ve been reading widely—actual books and chapbooks, not only the newest poems being shared on Twitter (although it’s good to also do that, if you can). You need to read poetry books and chapbooks and see who is speaking to you, who is giving you permission to try something totally new. You need to read outside your wheelhouse, someone whose work scares you, to see what is possible for you.

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Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript has been named a finalist for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize offered by Kent State University Press, and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University, is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

emilymohnslate.com

Cynthia Robinson Young

“If it haunts me, I write about it.”

Migration (Finishing Line Press, 2018)

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

I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, was in honors English, minored in English, moved to Berkeley and was part of the writing scene there, learning from great African American writers such as Wanda Coleman and Alice Walker.

How do you decorate your writing space?

Postcards, news articles, pictures of my kids, acceptance and rejection slips!

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?

I write in a prose-y style in which I attempt to make my work as accessible as possible to those who think they hate poetry. I became a poet because of poets like Nikki Giovanni, who wrote poetry I could relate to and understand.

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

Prologue: Message from Egururu

We don’t see a shadow unless it’s already been cast.
We saw our elders passing through the Valley of the Shadows,
the Shadow of death. We smelled decaying flesh, saw
bloated bodies. We recognized them nonetheless,
our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles, our babies unborn.

The ocean Atlantic was transformed.
It is the River Styx, running crimson, running
blood Red. We see their reflections in the water.
We want to turn away.
We cannot. We have to look.
We have to
see.

Charon is disguised as Slave trader,
captaining the Middle Passage. He has stocked the ship
with desperate souls. We are praying for ascension, to fly,
But if not to fly, to die and be lifted
up and away. We pray
for death descending. We fling
the only thing left. Do we not own our lives? We fling them overboard,
into the warm water grave. The waves wait patiently
for us. The rest of us remain below,
buried in the bowels of the ship’s living hell.
……
While George Washington was forging a new nation,
our elder parents were birthing the firstborn of our American family.
Her name was Egururu.
Our blood runs through Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire,
and here in America.

Through tobacco and cotton fields, through thick and thin treed forests
our elder father, our elder mother, they found
each other, their bodies, their spirits came together,
warming the North Carolina soil.

It was here that Egururu was born
and given the only gift she could keep—her name.
Not caring about the gift, her master gave her his chosen one
and she was reborn Charity
without even a surname until she married and
became a Gatling only because her husband
was owned by one.

My name is Egururu,
No matter what they call me.
When you say my name, you tell my story.
So she told all of her children about the Shadows,
and we repeated it to our children, and so on,
and so on. And now,
come closer…
for we are telling it to you.

Why did you choose this poem?

It is an introduction to what the work is about—the story of the first person on the paternal side of my family that we know of whose parents migrated here from West Africa.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

I don’t usually read chapbooks because my favorite poets have full-length books!

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

I wanted to write a story about my family’s migration, and tell some of the stories they told me, as well as stories that I created while reading about them at Ancestry.com

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The poem that inspired the rest of the chapbook is entitled “Nancy Beal: 1820.” When I found her on Ancestry.com, I was so excited! She was the one who got me wondering about the rest of the stories of my ancestors who had no voice. I wanted to try to give them one in my chapbook.

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

It is divided by generations, and  then the title just describes what it’s really about.

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

Probably “Legacy” means the most. It’s about my father, who passed away when I was 9 years old. It’s also an old one, but I wanted to include it because I love it.

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?

The last poem I wrote and kept working on is the “ Epilogue: Migration.” It is my last word and I wanted to get it right, so I kept editing it to try to tell the truth and leave my own soul feeling satisfied.

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 chapbook?

Finishing Line Press gives the poet a lot of freedom with the cover and design, so one of my daughters took the cover photo, and my other daughter did the back cover photo. Finishing Line Press designed it and it looks great!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a chapbook about being in a family of males. I’m concerned about them being endangered right now. I have five sons, and eight grandsons, and it’s scary out there for Black males.

How do you contend with saturation?

I write a lot about what I hear in the news that concerns me. If it haunts me, I write about it. But I have to turn things off. I get in a loop and find I’ve been on Facebook for an hour and I don’t have an hour to be on Facebook!

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

Take classes, workshops. Learn how to write. Join a writing group so your work can be critiqued.

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Cynthia Robinson Young is an adjunct professor and a graduate student in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Poetry South, Sixfold, and Catalpa, and has been anthologized in two volumes of Across the Generations and the forthcoming Waves. She is the author of  the chapbook Migration.

I have an author’s page on Amazon.com where my book is being sold.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

“I write the people around me, people I know. This is my world. These are my friends and family. These are my ancestors.”

whitedancingelephants

White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books, 2018)

What were your favorite parts about the process of writing and then publishing the collection?

I really loved following my impulses, writing with an intense focus on the fraught and dramatic moments between characters that from the outside can seem so calm.

Which, if any, authors influenced your writing of these stories? How so?

Grace Paley remains such a guiding influence, mainly in terms of how clearly she marks territory for the people she grew up with, the people she heard in her head. This was a model for listening to working-class South Asians in Flushing, Queens, which is on the one hand an incredibly culturally diverse and culturally rich place (the kind of place bored Manhattanites troll for “authentic” food) – on the other hand, a scene of sacrifice, relative poverty, shame. I remember friends commenting on how I lived two blocks from public housing, five blocks from the pawnshops and Western Union, etc.

Many stories in White Dancing Elephants depict characters dealing with traumas such as miscarriage and rape. In “Orange Popsicles,” the main character Jayanti sees a “container of orange popsicles, exactly the same color and shape as the one she’d had in the emergency room… sitting on the foldout metal table. The sight of them had made her nauseous enough to flee, to stand nearly an hour waiting for her train” (121). Was it difficult to write about the traumas these characters experienced, and did you have to distance yourself while writing them?

It’s always very challenging to titrate how “close up” to be to certain kinds of suffering that have been sensationalized or exoticized historically. It’s always going to be challenging to figure out how to show enough respect, yet at the same time be fearless, and in the end, because it’s not an intellectual “figuring out,” but really instinctive and ancient, the wish to tell the shameful secrets, to describe what the perpetrators want forgotten, to subvert oppression simply by saying out loud – I have to write and then before publishing, pray.

As I read the collection, I noticed that each story uses a different point of view. For example, “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” uses second-person point of view while “Jagatishwaran” uses first-person POV. How did you decide which POVs would work best? Did you decide on POV before you wrote each story or was it a trial and error process?

Sometimes it is trial and error but in an enriching sense and I usually discover something else that can be used later in other form, in another story, by writing from a different POV than the story turns out to be told from. I love POV. I love being inside a character’s head and thoughts. I would definitely say that multiple points of view are compelling and enchanting to me – from Isak Dinesen’s omniscient third person narrator, to Dickens’ sly, theatrical, editorializing third person in Hard Times and elsewhere, to the stark and outraged first person of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, to the incredible second-person narrative of Mohsin Hamid’s recent book How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, etc. One particular aspect of first person I love is how diverse it can be, how it can encompass third person, as well as (by quoting a letter, for example) some aspects of second person. I think the stories reflect my love of experimentation and play.

White Dancing Elephants deals with a variety of current issues such as sexual harassment and fear of deportation. The story “Newberry” touches on the state of America today when the character Anthony speaks to his employee Marco about his possibility of being deported, saying, “It’s the Trump age, what can you do” (151). Were these issues something you wanted to purposefully address with your stories, or did they evolve from the characters?

I think it doesn’t necessarily matter if a writer starts with situation versus character. Wherever you start, you’re going to have to deal with both. A completely static character who never gets into any present-tense situations (or immediately-proximal third person past, like “He got into a bad situation last month”) can’t really sustain a reader’s attention. Similarly, a character who is a mouthpiece for a situation doesn’t compel the reader either. Characters and events really commingle on the page and for me every story is some kind of examining and unraveling of the idea that “character is fate.”

White Dancing Elephants wonderfully balances imagery, dialogue, and characters’ thoughts.  Do you have any tips for beginning writers on how to achieve such balance in their own stories?

The main advice I have is: 1) Be really happy for any praise like that (thank you!) and 2) know that you can’t “chase” such external comments about your work, but just have to keep at it.

As a practicing physician as well as a writer, how do you reconcile the seemingly opposing subjects of science and creative writing?

Really good science writing is worth taking a look at for budding fiction writers. I strongly recommend recent books by Sue Halpern (on butterflies, for example) and by Edmund O. White (a naturalist who wrote magnificently about ants). Read Darwin – that’s enchanting. As is The Lives of the Cell. I see real continuities between the natural world and literature. A recent poetry collection that made me remember this most keenly is Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Barry Lopez also writes beautifully about the Arctic and nature – really poetry. Rick Moody as well.

As an English major, I sometimes find an underrepresentation of people of color and LGBTQ people in contemporary works of literature. However, you include characters in your stories ranging from a biracial, possibly bisexual therapist in “A Shaker Chair” to an Indian slave in “Heitor.” Could you say a bit more about this?

The contributions of multiple writers (from Louise Erdrich to Edwidge Danticat, Victor Lavalle to Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose new collection, Sabrina and Corinna, I’m so looking forward to) in creating space for the stories of diverse queer and people of color cannot be overstated. I write the people around me, people I know. This is my world. These are my friends and family. These are my ancestors. There’s nothing that unusual about that. Hopefully if my work can be crafted enough, I can help you see that these people are like you, and vice versa.

Would you ever consider writing a novel? If so, what might it be about?

I’ve written a novel in the past few years (for which I received a MacDowell Colony fellowship) and my agent is going to hopefully submit it later this year including to editors who have asked to see it, which is amazingly heartening and encouraging. A small excerpt can be read in Slush Pile Magazine here: and  some of the themes – male gaze, feminism, pornography/ prostitution/ trafficking, sexuality, queerness, autonomy, friendship – are encapsulated in this recent essay I wrote for The Millions, here.

 “Adristakama” is set mainly in India and “White Dancing Elephants” takes place in London. However, other stories like “Talinda” and “The Bang Bang” take place in Flushing, Queens. Did you draw on your own experiences for these settings? If so, which place was your favorite to visit or live in?

Always hard to pick a favorite but New York City, the city where my forthcoming novel takes place, the city where I grew up, always takes center stage in my heart (I am so sorry, Red Sox fans! But Boston just isn’t the same). Chennai, India and the Golden Beach come second. Those early mornings, walking along the beach, the colors and smells, the family who loved me for all their shocking traits.

Throughout your stories, you vividly portray characters’ emotions and reactions to their experiences. I particularly loved the passage from “White Dancing Elephants” that says, “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage. I didn’t know how empty rage is, like a bag of bones” (16). With lines like this, you create such rich and realistic emotions. How would you advise beginning writers to work on developing their own characters’ emotions?

It is important to be as honest with yourself as possible; to consider using various forms of writers notebooks and journals to capture how you feel or what you think in a given moment; to look for opportunities where you are able to hear a person, listen to a person (i.e. visit people in a nursing home or hospital through a volunteer organization; volunteer to serve food but also sit with people while they’re eating at a soup kitchen, etc). It is important to hone your ability to be sensitive to what another human being is feeling, what you are feeling, and I believe that this can translate into fiction that develops emotion in a compelling way. But even if it doesn’t directly do this, your reality and your presence in the world will be that much more enjoyable and connected, and you will feel less alone.

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Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and PEN American award finalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. Her work was recently selected for inclusion in Best Small Fictions. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color.

chayabhuvaneswar.com

Brooks Rexroat

“I really love to build descriptions, to try and help someone else see a town or city or farm field or mine entrance in the way I did.”

rexroat

Pine Gap (Peasantry Press, 2019)

I took some time to view your social media platforms and noticed a dog at a computer in your profile photo at Twitter. First of all, what is the name of your dog? Secondly, do you often find comfort in your pet when you are in the vigorous stages of the writing process as well as grading (as the caption mentions)?

Our puppy’s name is Eeyore and his brother is an orange tabby named Tigger. I’m not sure about comfort: having a puppy and kitten sure creates plenty of opportunities to watch conflict-in-action, and so I guess they inspire me that way. But it feels nice to have a furry friend on your lap when grading, because evaluating work is tough, whether it’s an essay from a first-year composition class or a manuscript I’m reading for a friend or anything in-between. There’s something warm and comforting about having a friend around during that process.

In your East Fork interview, you talk about the difference between your journalistic writing and your fiction writing. What was the transition like for you? Also, in your present creative writing, do you find yourself reflecting on your journalism days for inspiration or for capturing a certain part of what you are writing?

It’s been a good while now since I was a practicing reporter, and so the specific connection is a little frayed, but in both sorts of writing I like to start with the observable. In journalism, those initial observations led me to questions I would then verbalize in order to facilitate the source’s telling of their own story in the clearest, most powerful fashion possible. In fiction, that observation sparks questions I’ve got to answer myself in the form of an invented character’s action or speech, their connection to a certain place, or their interaction with other characters. So, in both forms, it’s really a detailed handling of questions and what they mean and where they lead.

In a previous interview at Speaking of Marvels, you said that the question you would ask other writers would be, “How much time do you spend naming characters?” I would love to know your answer to this question. Do you spend as much time contemplating the names of your characters as you do the other parts of your craft? Are there any names in Pine Gap that have a symbolic meaning or that reflect the characters?

My naming strategies depend on the story. I tend to spend more time naming characters in shorter works, because there’s restricted space and I need each element of storytelling—from names to setting to minute actions—to carry more weight. In Pine Gap, the names all came from gravestones in the Harlan, Letcher, and Pike Counties in Kentucky. While I was doing research and exploration in the region, I spent some time looking at real names of families similar to the one I wanted to represent in the story. A few of the given names also came from documents on display at the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky. For me, the names in this story were less about invention and more about placing me into a context. I’ve lived in Appalachia for a good part of my life, but most of that time was on what would be considered by a lot of folks as fringe Appalachia, so researching and exploring names was a tool to get deeper into my understanding of towns more central to the region. The one name that really has secondary meaning is Enoch, the father character, whose biblical namesake is known for “walking with God.”

In the past, I have heard from opposing sides that writer’s block does or does not exist. What are your thoughts? If writer’s block does happen to you, how do you overcome it?

There are moments when writing comes easier and more naturally than others, but one of the things I learned writing for a living in a newsroom is that it’s a practice as much as it is an art, and it’s just something you work through whether it feels good or not. Every writer has their own process, and for some, the deal is to just keep struggling through until the passage works. For me: if something not going particular well in a particular writing session, I’ll just drop it for a while and move on to something else. If composing is rough, I’ll switch over and edit something that already exists. If that’s not going well, either, I’ll switch to submitting work or doing paperwork or booking readings—there’s always something else, and if one thing’s not working, I’ve got no problem with switching off in order to stay productive. Writing out of order can help too—sometimes we feel programmed to write the start first and the end last, but my brain doesn’t always work that way, so it eliminates a lot of frustration when I feel free to hit the return key a couple of times and work on a different scene.

From the beginning of Pine Gap, faith seems important to your characters; for example, it informs the interaction between Jamie and her sister Rebecca. When Jamie almost says a curse word, her sister gives her a look, and Jamie later offers her opinion on the matter: “Personally, I think the Lord gives us a free pass on language when it comes to talking about you” Does your writing draw on your own experience with faith or belief?

Faith has been a big part of my journey as a person and as a writer; like these characters, it’s something that I wrestle with, something that informs me, and it’s helped me to build and define community. I think this is a fascinating and important moment for people of faith interacting in the broader culture, and there are tough questions to explore. In moments, I think my own questions and concerns, joys and comforts with the idea of faith come through in different elements of each character’s actions. There are times I love the warmth of a faith community, and other times faith means wandering alone in the woods or jumping on a train’s coupling (maybe not literally) and escaping everything I know or think or believe. So, yeah: pieces of that constant tension show up in the way these characters act and wrestle.

How do readers respond to your inclusion of faith in Pine Gap? Are the responses positive or negative?

The book’s too new to have much of a sense of reaction yet. A couple weeks ago, James Mattson visited our campus and read a selection from his heartbreaking, beautiful book, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves. A student asked why he used a great deal of profanity in some sections, and James talked at length about being true to the character’s personality. I would give the same answer for this family when it comes to faith: this is just how this family operates, and I hope faith informs their actions and concerns, their dialogue, their doubt, and of course their hope. Communicating through faith just felt natural for this family as they developed in my mind and on the page.

My favorite aspect about your writing, especially in Pine Gap, is the detailed setting and vividly described characters. I love the beginning: “At the white four-room bungalow owned by Enoch and Miriam Eskill, the droplets strike the pitched tin roof, pinging low tones near the eaves and brighter notes near the capped apex” (1). Would you consider imagery to be your strongest literary element, the one you pay the most attention to?

I really love to build descriptions, to try and help someone else see a town or city or farm field or mine entrance in the way I did. Because they might not see it the same way, and I love the interchange—the thinking about what we all notice in certain moments and why that’s the thing we dwell on. Most of my work deals heavily with the ways in which people and place interact, and the fascinating tool of imagery is a key part of that process.

Who has been your biggest inspiration for writing? What about them and their craft has inspired you? Have you experimented with any of their techniques?

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the ways in which Colum McCann rotates characters so usefully, and so obviously that came into play with this book. Claire Keegan builds the most spectacular sentences, and so she’s a big informing force, too.

Is there a genre you would like to try writing in the future? A genre that just doesn’t interest you?

It’s been a long time since I produced poetry, and I’d like to spend some time on that when I get the chance. I deeply respect science fiction and fantasy writers and the work they’re able to do, but those are genres I can see myself leaving to the experts.

You teach creative writing as well as professional writing. Have you ever thought about teaching your own work to your students?

Depending on the class, I sometimes share an early draft with students and let them tear it up, in order to sort of pre-evacuate the silly dynamic that sometimes forms in favor of the teacher as some sort of expert: fiction is a discipline where everyone brings unique perspective, and I want to make sure students feel like all our observations are equal, because they are. I also try to complete an assignment alongside my students in at least one class, at least once a year, so I keep a realistic check on what I’m asking of them, under the wild workloads and time constraints that are often present in the academy, and I like to share that work with students, too, in order to emphasize the dynamic of equality.

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Brooks Rexroat is the author of Thrift Store Coats and Pine Gap. He was raised near Cincinnati, Ohio at the intersection of the Rust Belt and Appalachia.

He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree in creative prose from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Now based in Owensboro, Kentucky, Rexroat was a 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow in Cassis, France and a 2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Teaching and Research Scholar at Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University in Siberia, Russia.

Ivelisse Rodriguez

“Know what stories are being told, how these stories are being told, and what you can add.”

rodriguez

Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018)

In the title story, “Love War Stories,” you write, “People make too much of love. Everybody thinks it’s all you need, but love is a starting point. There is so much that comes after love, so much that you can’t even imagine” (154). Since this is in the title story and also the final story, is this the ultimate message of the collection? Could you tell us more about this?

This is the ultimate message of the collection. In reflecting on many of the romantic relationships I have seen in real life and on TV, in books, etc., I have seen how people worship at the altar of love and how love is considered the most important emotional feeling in a relationship. But I would venture that there are other emotions that are much more important than love, like respect, consideration, kindness, etc. So what happens when people think that love is the most important thing in a relationship is that as long as they “love” someone, they will accept a lot of atrocious, inconsiderate, and unkind behavior. But you need more than love to have a good relationship—you need all the other factors I noted above. So I do hope that those who read the book will at least reflect on this message.

The story “The Simple Truth” honors Julia de Burgos’ life in a really beautiful way, revolving around a family who has had Julia in the center of their lives for most of their lives. At the end, Maricarmen notes that even if it’s history, the story can change if she tells it, her mother tells it, her father tells it, and so on. Is this why you chose to title the story “The Simple Truth”? Is the simple truth simply that it’s hard to find the truth because stories change no matter who is telling them?

Yes, I chose the title for two reasons.  The first is that the translated complete works of Julia de Burgos by Jack Agüeros is called the Song of the Simple Truth. But really, as I revised the story and came to better understand what the story was about, I saw that it was about the lack of simplicity of the truth. There are several truths that come from different angles and that two or more contradictory truths can hold the same space and exist at the same time. For example, Maricarmen’s father cheats on her mother but also still loves her. Those two things can be true at once. And I was also thinking about how we worship our heroes—which parts of their stories we repeat and uphold and which parts of their stories do we equivocate on and don’t readily acknowledge as it doesn’t fit with this uniform and simplistic identity we have crafted for them.

In life, it is useful to think about these multiple truths that occur at once as it then allows you to understand other people’s perspectives. You don’t have to agree with their perspective or actions, but the understanding allows you to mitigate some of the hurt this other person may have caused.

In “Some Springs Girls Do Die,” you portray death with love in such a beautiful, surreal way. What process led you to the images within the piece, such as “enter him and touch the skin beneath the skin”? How do these images relate to the girl who died?

In this story, I wanted to capture the intense feelings of a girl obsessed with the guy she is seeing, to depict the longing, the desire to penetrate him in a way, so she can get closer to him because all she can have in life are only surface-level interactions as he is emotionally impenetrable. That image in particular is also about the desire for porous boundaries—a way for them to meld together. But that is never going to happen as he is always going to keep her at a distance.

I thought about this intensity of feelings, which are generally unreciprocated as another way that women experience death. She is suffering a slow death via humiliation and loss of self-respect. Her boundaries are being eroded, and she is allowing transgressions to occur which are trampling over her sense of self. I wanted to show this as a living death, as a way women in particular “die” through the loss of self just to have someone love them.

Many of the protagonists in this collection are young, not even out of high school. What led you to explore the subject of love through young narrators who some would argue have not fully experienced love?

That’s a great question! There is the popular notion of love that our culture portrays—it is sweet, obsessive, it is all-consuming, etc. I would associate this kind of love with teenagers and people you see in movies. I think about the middle-aged women who were swooning over Twilight, and I read the book, and I could see why they were swooning because young love has such a sweetness to it. I love The Vampire Diaries (love!) and part of it is because of that idealistic teenage love—which I appreciate on the screen but not in real life. So with my young characters, they have those sweet notions of love, which I want to smash. Most of my stories show that sweetness upturned. With teenage love, we tend to focus on the emotional aspects of it, and see all those feelings as positive, when in reality, they are very destructive. Adolescent love becomes idealized as you get older and are more guarded with your feelings and feel less and less excitement, hope, etc. As you get older, it is harder to conjure up the same kind of wonder and excitement about a relationship as when you were young. Culturally, adolescent love is the way we are taught to love, and I don’t think there are any useful guides or models to teach adults how to love in a realistic and unidealized way.

In my stories, I speak to both the teenager and the adult. The teenagers are obsessive, boundaryless, way too forgiving, etc., but they come to realize that these notions of love actually don’t serve them, and they have to claw their way out of these falsehoods to save themselves. Otherwise, this love we have been taught can kill you.

 “The Light in the Sky” centers around the disconnection of human beings. The speaker feels disconnected from both the baby she is carrying and her mother, who is talking about UFO conspiracies. It almost seems as if there is no redemption in this story, no embodiment of love at all. What prompted you to write this story and include it in this collection?

I read the story differently (which doesn’t mean it is right or the only way to read the story)—I read it as a story about a young woman who is incapable of making a decision. And she hopes that some magical, spiritual, otherworldly solution will arrive to save her. But she realizes that she has to save herself. So this story for me is about agency, and also about how women are told they need to follow X trajectory—marry and have kids. And women perpetuate this to each other even though these women experience such unhappiness in these situations. So there are these cultural narratives where there is a truth that no one seems to proclaim, instead they just follow the party line.

But I want to address the lack of love you note, which I think is really interesting. I see what you are saying, and I have never thought about the story in this way. Maybe the only love that takes place is the love of self when the narrator decides to pursue her own agency, which might be the most important love one can have.

In a previous interview at Centro Voices, you said “I think it is important as a writer to really have an understanding of the type of literature you are embarking on; otherwise, you may not be moving the literature forward in any way.” Do you have advice for aspiring writers on how they can move forward the genre they are writing?

Yes, read in that genre. I think you really have to study what has come before you. A lot of people seem to start writing by writing poems, but they write terrible poems, and part of this is not having enough awareness of craft and the history of poetry. So you need to know what stories are being told, how are these stories being told, and what you can add. For example, I am a scholarly expert in Puerto Rican literature from the continental U.S. and this came about through my PhD program, and so I can speak with authority and have a thorough understanding of Puerto Rican literature. Thus, when I set out to write, I knew what narratives were repeatedly told and what narratives were not being told. For example, reading Puerto Rican literature from the continental US reiterated a Nuyorican narrative, but there are a whole bunch of other Puerto Rican enclaves that I never read about. So it was important for me to write about the Western Massachusetts Puerto Rican enclave as a way to record and tell their stories and add these narratives to the oeuvre of Puerto Rican literature from the continental U.S. If I hadn’t studied this literature, then I wouldn’t have really been adding something new to the body of work. So my advice is to know what you are adding to the type of work you are entering.

How did the idea for this collection come to you? Did the stories slowly unfold over time or did you go into writing the collection with an outline of the stories already in your mind?

The collection did slowly unfold over time. I was writing stories, but I always thought about them as a collection as I was working toward my thesis and/or dissertation. When I write a new story, I start off with a very, very broad idea. For example, with “La Hija de Changó” my only idea was: I’m going to write about a girl who goes to the botánica for her love problems. And from there, I essentially write whatever comes to mind. So I spend weeks just typing aimlessly. Then in the middle of that mess, I start looking for any good ideas or great lines. I pull those out, and keep making a mess for a while. Then when I finally have an understanding of the story, I will outline, and then keep revising from there.

Do you have a routine writing schedule or do you write when inspiration hits? Do you have a specific place you like to write?

I do not. And I really should as that is when I am most productive. I get overwhelmed by (paid) work and have trouble balancing work and writing. I would recommend having a writing routine as that is the only way you move forward and can stay immersed in the story. When I am being consistent, I write an hour a day or 30 minutes a day. When I was just working on my writing and wasn’t doing paid work at all, I could do 5-6 hours a day. And that was a time that I was able to complete a huge chunk of work. I do not write when inspiration strikes. Inspiration is so rare. When you are being consistent, then you just have to do your best because even when you have a terrible writing day, you’re inching toward the breakthrough that is coming. And a terrible writing day, a day when you feel like you did not write in the right direction, can still offer you much as it can show you the direction you do not want to go in.

How long did the editing and publication process take for this book? How is the final product like or unlike what you envisioned all along?

Well, this is a sad and scary story. But don’t let it frighten you. I started the first story in this collection in the fall of 1996 and the book was published in 2018. But let me explain. Six and a half of those years, I was in school. Then, as I noted above, I was very inconsistent with my writing because I didn’t know how to balance writing and work, and I still don’t. Then, I spent a lot of time in abject fear of writing. I would sit down to write, and then this fear would overtake me, so I would just get up and walk away. Anyway, through all these long years, I was learning to become a better writer. And the book was accepted for publication around December 2016. It still needed more edits, but it was minimal edits compared to all the edits I had to make before.

In “Love War Stories,” you write that the narrator’s mother has a library consisting of “Anna Karenina, The Color Purple, Medea, The Joy Luck Club, The Odyssey, Madame Bovary, Native Son, The Scarlet Letter” (156). What books are in your library that are especially significant to you?

I have my top three, and a fourth bonus book. The books that mean the most to me are Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros, and Drown by Junot Diaz. Down These Mean Streets is the first book by a Puerto Rican I read, but it is also a book that resonates decades and decades after it was written. It seems like a timeless story about masculinity, belonging, and becoming oneself. I love Loose Woman because it so touches the heart and shows what it is like to be in a relationship—the desire, the desperation, the loneliness, etc. And I love Drown because it is the kind of book one aspires to have written. It has these memorable lines that gut you and can capture human emotions and experiences. And it is a book that just stands up every time you read it. And my bonus book is The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I will never understand how he pulled off this book. It is basically 600 pages of a man’s obsession. But it never gets boring, it’s heartfelt, and just so profound and moving.

Emotions play a big role in Love War Stories. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

This is a lovely question, and I can answer this in multiple ways, but I will answer it this way—someone who writes without emotions is not a writer I want to read. Could a sociopath or an unfeeling person write a book? Sure. But it will lead to certain types of text. For what I want to write and read, emotions are essential. I am always looking for books that have heart. That really touch me. And when I read books that lack emotion, I find it a waste of time, and I am not sure how I am supposed to connect with a text like that. It is a text I will forget and never recommend to anyone else. What connects the books I mentioned above is that they have a lot of heart. And that is what I want as a reader—a book that wakes up some dormant feeling in me and reminds me of a shared human experience, a book that I can always emotionally carry with me.

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Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut short story collection is Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018), a 2019 PEN/Faulkner finalist and a 2018 Foreword Reviews INDIES finalist. She is the founder and editor of an interview series focused on contemporary Puerto Rican writers. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently lives in NC with her beloved Lhasa Apso, Chocolatte Rodriguez.

www.ivelisserodriguez.com/