Laura Villareal

“Part of why I became a writer was because I’ve always admired the way artists can transform imagination into art. It’s magic!”

Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022)

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

I think the title poem “Girl’s Guide to Leaving” (first published on Radar Poetry) is a good invitation into the world of the book.

Why did you choose this poem?

Once I wrote that poem, I felt like a book was taking shape. There’s something both scary and thrilling to know you’re working towards a manuscript. At the time, I wanted it to be a second chapbook but my dear writing friends gently guided me towards the idea that it was a full-length.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Folklore, storytelling, mythmaking

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?

For me, it wasn’t writing the last poem for the book that made me feel like the manuscript was complete. It was when I wrote a poem that felt like a new project all together. There was the sense that I was moving forward and away from writing towards Girl’s Guide to Leaving.

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

Choose an existing poem, then write the opposite word for each one in the poem.

Sometimes there is no opposite word, so the prompt forces you to think metaphorically. To find an opposite for a word without an obvious answer, you’ll begin considering things like: texture, color, shape, emotion, or relation to other words. The prompt helps me consider words more closely and begins tuning my brain toward seeking metaphor where there might not be any (yet). Though there will be many sentences, phrases, and lines that have become nonsense after you’ve completed the exercise, there are inevitably some that are resonant and open for expansion.

This is a prompt I learned from KB Brookins which I enjoy doing when I’m looking at a blank page and feeling blocked. I want to take a moment to promote KB’s writing—their debut Freedom House (Deep Vellum Publishing) is coming out in April. I highly recommend folks preorder it!

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

My editor, Sheila McMahon, was wonderful! We went back and forth on copyedits twice, which helped me consider the manuscript as a whole and rethink some small but important language choices. We reviewed the book again after it was typeset. She was my main contact throughout the process.

For the cover, the UWisc Press Art Director Jennifer Conn had me send examples of book covers I liked and some potential artwork that I liked. I had an artist in mind, Ale De la Torre, whose work is on the cover. The book’s designer was Jeremy John Parker. I didn’t get to work with him directly but got to speak with him briefly later on.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection that explores the power of naming and our connection to the natural world.

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

Oh man, I wish I could draw or paint! Part of why I became a writer was because I’ve always admired the way artists can transform imagination into art. It’s magic!

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

Write bravely. Revise until the language surprises you. Try to think of everything you write as an opportunity to learn something new about the process and to become acquainted with yourself as a writer. Tune in to what brings you joy.

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Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

https://www.lauravillareal.com/

Megan Nichols

“As I was raising my toddler… I was being raised too – by people on my street, by old and new friends, by Arkansas, by a culture I felt both outside of yet influenced by.”

Animal Unfit (Belle Point Press, 2023)

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

Rind


After he was scooped
out of me
like the most delicious red
of a watermelon
I wanted to flee
still splayed open
so that what was left
swimming inside
could slink out
onto the operating room floor.
I did not want to remain
a bowl for tragedy
pouring itself daily
into my son’s rooting mouth.

Rind” first appeared in Feed Lit

Why did you choose this poem?

It appears early in the book and inspired the cover. It’s a good representation of the book’s main preoccupation: Can one avoid passing their errors onto their child?

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I was obsessed with understanding what it means to be an unfit mother and what it means to be raised by one. How does one make themselves a fit mother or friend or human (or human animal, which my son was learning is what we are).

I was interested in how grief and time rewrote my memories and perceptions of past relationships. Those shifting narratives created a lot of dissonance for me and I feared how my child would perceive me as he grew older. How would he remember me if I died young?

Becoming a mother made me want to forgive every misstep my parents had made, not so much out of genuine empathy and understanding, but out of a superstition that suggested that if I stopped judging them, my son wouldn’t grow up judging me.

I didn’t understand (I’m not sure I do now) how to carry all the truth and contradictions at once: People are flawed, forgive them. People have harmed, don’t excuse this. You are flawed, forgive yourself. You must do better, don’t become complacent.  

I was also obsessed (and continue to be!) with my neighbors and with the general idea of “found” or “made” family. As I was raising my toddler at the time, I was being raised too – by people on my street, by old and new friends, by Arkansas, by a culture I felt both outside of yet influenced by.

I was surprised to see how little “raising” I was doing for my son, or rather, how much is done by family and friends. Our neighbors, friends, cousins, community are responsible for so much of his happiness and personality. I’ve been lucky (and I hope thoughtful) when it comes to who he’s surrounded by – which I believe may be my greatest duty as a parent. Perhaps more influential than anything I say to him is who I chose to include in our lives.

What’s the oldest poem 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?

The first poem is the oldest and was also my first poetry acceptance (“Outside, in the bright light” published by Pretty Owl Poetry). Every time I read that poem I am surprised I still enjoy it. Given enough time away, usually I find I don’t care for what I’ve written. I think “Outside, in the bright light” was the first time I wrote something honest.

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

With immense help from poet Jessica Lohafer. She suggested the title after workshopping my poem “Summer Vacation” and reading the line “We’re not being hunted but we are animals unfit.” She helped me arrange the poems. She’s been my coach and mentor for years, and truly I wouldn’t have started publishing if it hadn’t been for her guidance and support.  

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

“What You Need to Know” was written while my son and I were staying with a friend who had had a pretty rough fall. I began the poem one night while listening to my son and friend sleep. The poem is a kind of ode to the street I live on and perhaps a kind of prayer to what I most want to worship.

This poem is also meaningful because it was published by Iron Horse, who I had received previous rejections from. I’m a huge fan of the journal and their poetry editor, Geffrey Davis. So much of why I submit poems is simply the knowledge that editors I admire may read them (even if they ultimately reject them). When an acceptance comes from a writer I really respect, it’s all that much more meaningful.

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 book ends with a sonnet crown titled “Describing the soul to my son.” I finished it after I finished the book and the publisher was kind enough to add it in, even though the contract had already been signed.

The book is preoccupied with grief and resilience and parenthood, and so of course is the crown. But the crown is written more directly to my son, to a child, and is a sort of grief manual – a summary of whatever wisdom I think I have gathered regarding loss.

It felt like a more hopeful ending. And it felt as though I had become a real “adult parent” by the end. “Look at me, giving advice to my child, instead of second guessing, instead of running to an elder for the answer.”

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

I started writing the poems that appear in this chap at the end of 2019. Many poems were written outside while I watched my son play in the kiddie pool or with neighbor kids. Poems were edited while he slept or while I waited at school pick up – at least in the beginning. As he got older I was able to take online classes. The first from Hugo House taught by Gabrielle Bates, which inspired many poems in the chap. I also took “The Sonnet” taught by Gregory Crosby from Brooklyn Poets, which was also very generative. Throughout the process, I sent poems to Jessica Lohafer every other month or so. She helped me define my tastes and understand my instincts.

I am very lucky to have made poetry friends online who I regularly exchange work with. I’m included in some editing collectives and poetry chats. Community has played a large role in the chapbook, both in terms of content and in the writing process.

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

Casie at Belle Point Press has been very patient and generous with me. I was worried we wouldn’t find a cover because it turned out I only knew what I didn’t like, but had no helpful ideas about what I wanted. Eventually I decide to smash a watermelon in the driveway, and Casie picked the best photo from that experiment. She made all the right choices about editing, font, layout, etc.

My friend and poet Skanda Prasad made astute suggestions about the inside layout that I passed on to Casie. I’m terrible with details, particularly when it comes to visual things, so this chap could only exist with the help of others. In no universe could I have done it alone.

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

I am so proud of what publishing my book represents to me – commitment, selfhood, a kind of watered-down bravery – but whenever I remember that others may read it, I feel embarrassed. Creative writing is vulnerable and I’m humiliated to be perceived as a person who not only feels, but ruminates on those feelings (which is to say, a person at all?).

What I want is for someone to ask if I wrote the book in jest so I can say “Yes, absolutely!”

Unless of course they like it, in which case, obviously I’ve always been sincere.

What are you working on now?

I’m trying to read more. I’m attempting prose.

What question would you like to ask the next author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What books do you return to when you feel uninspired or disillusioned?

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Megan Nichols is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Animal Unfit (Belle Point Press, February 2023). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry reader for Variant Literature and River Mouth Review. She lives in the Arkansas Ozarks with her son.

https://megannicholswriter.com/

Mandy Moe Pwint Tu

“Write towards danger.”

Monsoon Daughter (Thirty West Publishing House, 2022)

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

I grew up – for the most part – in Yangon, Myanmar, where I spent long hours in my grandfather’s study reading and reciting English poetry. I think that’s where it started, that somehow those words seeped into my very being, and took root without my knowing. It wasn’t until my early adolescence that I decided I was going to write seriously: writing was the only thing I was certain of at the time, and it’s the one thing that I’ve consistently kept up. I grew up under a military regime, where poets, writers, and artists were persecuted on a regular basis, so my family wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, but I had found my calling and I was determined to stick with it.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

Really, it’s just chaos. Coffee mug, laptop, bottle of water on an increasingly cluttered kitchen table.

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

The centerpiece (although really, it’s a little off-center) of Monsoon Daughter is a nine-page poem called “Monsoon Daughter Tries Narrative Therapy.” Let’s just say it really gets to the heart of things – I don’t think it necessarily invites the reader into the world of the book, but it certainly explains the world while simultaneously expanding it.

Why did you choose this poem?

I think it’s one of the best poems I’ve written to date. It’s certainly one of the longer poems–if not the longest poem – I’ve written, and writing it allowed me to tackle the grief of my father’s passing from multiple angles while bringing home the fact that his loss, especially in the light of our estranged and complicated relationship, does not define my life although it leaves a void, an ache, a scar.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem in the book is “Orange Peel,” which is fitting (another poem in the chap!) because it’s about my grandmother. I don’t remember much about writing it – except, perhaps, oranges.

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

I wrote down all the titles of my poems that I think have some thematic thread running through them, and then I let my narrative brain get to work and put them in an order that follows, on some level, Freytag’s pyramid. Which poems are my instigating event, my rising action, my climax, my falling action? Is there a resolution? Can there be? One of my professors, poet Hastings Hensel, once described a characteristic of my poetry as ending in a “meaningful whimper.” Which poem, then, was my ultimate meaningful whimper? Turns out, for this particular chapbook, it was “Afterlife.”

MONSOON DAUGHTER was almost a no-brainer, almost a cop-out by way of a title, because my Burmese name Moe Pwint Tu loosely translates to “like the rain.” I was named after the rain, and since the chapbook deals primarily with my relationship with my father, this title just made sense.

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

I won’t go into too much detail, but “Almond Cake” means a lot to me. Its backstory involves – shockingly! — an actual almond cake. Or rather, slices of almond cake and a person who is arguably one of the best human beings on this planet.

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?

I revised “Afterlife” last; it’s the final poem in the chap. It was an interesting experience revising it, because writing that poem was more of an excavation to get it to what I believed was its final form. But within the context of the other poems in the chapbook, I found myself reverting to and settling on a version of the poem I wanted to write in its earliest stages. Funny how poems work.

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

My favorite revision strategy is to simply stare at a poem until it tells me what it wants. This also works with longer projects! I suffer from what I call “project brain” so often I’ll be thinking about the poem or the project every waking hour, and the trick is realizing that if something I’m trying isn’t working, it’s because the poem doesn’t want it to work.

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

It’s been such a blessing working with Josh Dale at Thirty West. His comments helped me revise the poems in the chapbook to their final and best forms; I had substantial input on the cover image (the Monsoon Crocodile was my idea, and he brought it to life), and I made him try out five different fonts before we settled on this one.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a series of poems responding to Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” poem. I like to think I’m wrestling with Kipling’s ghost but really, his ghost is just in the corner taunting me until I get these poems written. My hope is that they will serve as the backbone for my full-length collection.

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

Write towards danger. Read extensively. Steal unabashedly (with attribution). Keep writing.

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Mandy Moe Pwint Tu is a writer and a poet from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in Longleaf Review, West Trestle Review, perhappened mag, and elsewhere. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and is a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Her debut poetry chapbook, MONSOON DAUGHTER was published by Thirty West Publishing House. Find her on Twitter @mandrigall.

https://mandytuwrites.wixsite.com/mmpt

Kyle Vaughn

“I reject lines, reword, definitely rearrange, fill in, and hope that some lines come to me as gems to keep.”

The Alpinist Searches Lonely Places (Belle Point Press, 2022)

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

Since I have young children, I often do my initial writing at a coffee shop, which allows me uninterrupted time. I begin in a notebook and like the tactile feeling writing by hand gives me.  Music is important to help me focus and approach a meditative state. When it comes time to type and edit, I have a simple desk at home with my computer and a pile of books, usually a mix of favorites and to-be-reads. Currently in my to-be-read pile are Jenny Xie, Mahtem Shiferraw, and Alejandra Pizarnik. And my constant companions are Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Ghalib, Mirabai, Franz Wright, James Wright, Anne Sexton, and Frank Stanford. On my desk, I also keep some stones and driftwood from the Pacific northwest. Above me is a vintage 70s hanging lamp.

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

Why did you choose this poem?

The first poem in the book, it sets the tone for looking at nature as a doorway into exploring questions of the beloved. As an imaginative, introverted person, I often feel disconnected and isolated though I desire, very much, to make deep connection in both spirit and body. Nature presents a paradox as much as love does, one of flux, connection and disconnection, though the ultimate goal is unification. I like this poem’s tenderness and while it is decidedly grounded in the real world, it is also transcendent at the end, perhaps greatly influenced by my favorite poem, James Wright’s “A Blessing.” 

What obsessions led you to write your book?

The mysteries inherent in love and being a human being. Casie Dodd, the editor of Belle Point Press, perhaps said it best on the back cover blurb in regard to these poems: they are “love poems with a touch of the surreal.” Love and essentially deep human connection, to me, are questions of both spirit and body. I find a stunning parallel in nature. Just as we would ask about a beloved, can nature ever be truly perceived or experienced?

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

As far as older or newer poems in this chapbook, almost miraculously, this book was primarily composed between sometime around October 2021 to March of 2022, with a poem or two maybe going back to the summer of 2021. I have absolutely never finished such a concentrated project in that span of time before. By contrast, while much of my upcoming full-length collection was written in 2021, some poems go back almost 20 years! In October of 2021 I had written a couple of the poems here and after a trip to the Pacific Northwest, then wrote the poems here that are obviously inspired by those places. From there, I realized that while I was exploring the tensions of desire, love, and isolation, I also had some themes of place that were weaving through in an exciting way. This led me to reflect on the places I am from, too, and how they became “personal terrains,” as Casie Dodd says of the poems on the back cover.

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

In these pages, you’ll see an assortment of words and phrases which eventually became the poem “The Complete History of the Lyric” in the book.  The first five words actually came from Ó Bhéal’s Five Words contest, in which writers are to use five given words as the genesis for a poem. This is not unlike my initial process, which often comes in fragments and begins to take shape over a few days. I reject lines, reword, definitely rearrange, fill in, and hope that some lines come to me as gems to keep. In the example below, I am quite glad I jettisoned the image of the earth as an accordion! Didn’t fit the spirit of the poem.

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

Because of the way I compose in fragments, much of my revision strategy has had to lie in finding connections and pulling disparate parts together. While this doesn’t make my poetry easy, I feel it important to keep its spirit of surprise—what Robert Bly called “leaping poetry,” letting the poem contain wild associations. Federico Garcia Lorca speaks of very similar things in his duende theory. I find this same spirit in ghazals, which have influenced my writing so much.  I love the willingness of a poem to take more in while remaining compact.

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

I couldn’t have asked for a better experience than working with Casie Dodd at Belle Point Press.  She has done massive and incredible work to get the press off the ground. And while the press has a mid-south focus, it feels so large and relevant to anyone anywhere. She has a keen editorial eye for a wide variety of work, a professional spirit, and a kindness and generosity that has made the process absolutely wonderful. I am also so grateful to Casie for working with me on the cover and letting me ultimately use one of my own images, a photo of a storm I took in Waco in the mid to late 90s. Especially this being my first book, I wanted it to feel wholly mine, and the cover image being something that I, too, had created, seemed an important part of that process.

What are you working on now?

I have a full-length poetry collection, Calamity Gospel, due out tentatively on January 31, 2023 with Cerasus Poetry. Watch my website for details! The editor and I are currently working on the cover. 

After that book comes out, I plan on returning to some photography work for a bit just for something different. In the past, I have primarily worked with film and Polaroid, but with rising costs and a shrinking salary, I plan on exploring digital for my upcoming projects.

But I also am slowly, slowly working on three different poetry projects, though those are not on the front burner as of the moment: a chapbook of two-line poems, a chapbook of poems inspired by unusual blues and country music lyrics, and a collection of poems inspired in part by Mirabai and in part by the legend of the bird of Solomon. 

I definitely have a problem focusing on one project at a time.

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

I did pick up photography about 15 years ago during a time I felt I couldn’t write. It has fed me so much, and has also informed my writing and vice versa. It was almost ironic when my first book ended up being a photo book, though my aim has always been toward poetry. I love the outwardness that photography allows me. Being an introvert and feeling isolated is sometimes compounded by writing, though writing often needs that solitude. Photography allows me to interact in ways that stretch me.

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

Take risks. See the world. Live life. Write something wild and edit it later. Let your writing be full of a dream-logic that gives it the mystery inherent in poetry. Read widely and with joy. And not to offer a shameless plug, but there is much great writing advice in my poetry exercise book Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Writing Exercises, which includes essays as well as the exercises themselves! 

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Kyle Vaughn is the author of the full-length poetry collection Calamity Gospel (forthcoming, Cerasus Poetry, 2023), the poetry chapbook The Alpinist Searches Lonely Places (Belle Point Press, 2022), Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Writing Exercises (NCTE, 2018), and is the co-author/ co-photographer of A New Light in Kalighat (American Councils for International Education, 2013), a book detailing Urmi Basu’s work to fight human trafficking in Kolkata, India. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Journal, A-Minor, The Boiler, Drunken Boat, Poetry East, Vinyl, the museum of americana (2022 Best of the Net nomination), and The Shore (2021 Pushcart Prize nomination). 

https://www.kylevaughn.org/

Fizza Abbas

“Write fearlessly and stubbornly. Never judge your ideas or yourself for coming up with those ideas.”

Bakho (Ethel Press, 2022)

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

I’ve grown up in Karachi, Pakistan, listening to the melodies of legendary singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Nayyara Noor, Mohammed Rafi, Roona Laila and Geeta Dutt whom my mom was very fond of. Therefore, very early on, I developed a love for good music and poetry. But at that time, I wasn’t really familiar with the English language; however, I always had a passion to learn the language. Slowly and gradually, I developed a habit of reading English books, articles and children’s encyclopedias that helped me grasp the nuances of the language. Eventually, I got to read the likes of Khalil Gibran, Sylvia Plath and Alexander Pope which inspired me so much that I started expressing my thoughts in the form of words.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

My writing space is absolutely disorderly and messy. lol. I feel the messier it is, the more ideas I get to write on.

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

The Unburnt Toast

Why did you choose this poem?

The poem touches upon a couple of subjects like poverty, the struggles of a single mother and the misuse of foreign aid by leaders of third-world countries. I believe it will connect with a wider audience because these are the kind of problems that we all have been facing in one way or the other.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

My initial goal: to get published in 50 journals. Now the number has been exceeded to 10,000.

What’s the oldest poem 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?

“Rejection Letter.” After writing this poem, I realised this is my voice and this is exactly what I want to talk about. As for the memories, as the name rightfully suggests, I had received a rejection email from a zine I was expecting an acceptance from. Lol. Then I realised, the mag is not alone in rejecting me, I’ve been rejected throughout my life, in one way or the other. Then the trail of thoughts went on to me questioning my very creation. It was quite weird, and a ride in self-flagellation, to be honest with you.

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

The arrangement wasn’t an issue at all. For some reason and without any extra effort on my part, each of these poems tied so beautifully together that I was in awe. The title, however, was a deliberate choice. ‘’Bakho’’ is an Urdu word which means ‘’A girl with unkempt tresses’. My mother used to call me Bakho as I would never comb my hair like she wanted me to (read: would not comb at all). Therefore, in order to embarrass me to do so, she would call me Bakho. (Now that is a different story that even this nickname didn’t have any impact on me, and I continued behaving the same way.). So when I was thinking of titles, I thought my life and the themes of these poems are as disorganised as my hair are, so why not call Bakho a Bakho!

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

‘’Room 411’.’ I wrote this poem to share my grief as a daughter who had recently lost her mother. The title refers to the hospital room where my mother spent her last few days.

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

Honestly, there is no process. I write whenever any line or idea comes into my mind or I come across any social issue that I feel I need to talk about. I try in my poems to voice the concerns of those who don’t have the privilege to do so.

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

It was amazing! My editor Sara Lefsyk has been super-supportive. They took my input in everything, from the cover image to the overall arrangement of the book. Here, I also want to thank my husband, Waqas Rabbani, who is an incredible poet himself (though he doesn’t call himself so) for designing the Cover Art for my book.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently revising another collection of mine, as well as, focusing on the Interview Project that I started last year to help both established and emerging writers talk about their journey and the milestones they achieved over the past few years.

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

Drawing, perhaps. I also liked to dance though but I’m not physically fit; however, if I ever get the chance, I’d learn ballet. I’m a toe-walker so I guess that would help me.

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

Write fearlessly and stubbornly.  Never judge your ideas or yourself for coming up with those ideas. Don’t, don’t let anyone tell you what you should and should not write about. Remember, it’s your story and you’re the best at narrating it.

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Fizza Abbas is a writer based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is fond of poetry and music. Her work has appeared in more than 90 journals, both online and in print. Her work has also been nominated for Best of The Net and shortlisted for Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition 2021. She has also authored two books, Ool Jalool (Fahmidan Publishing) and Bakho (Ethel Press). Aside from writing, she runs a YouTube channel where she interviews poets and zine editors. She tweets @fizzawrites.

https://fizzawrites453993256.wordpress.com/

Renee Emerson

“Most of my writing takes place in a composition notebook while I’m sitting on the floor somewhere quiet….”

The Commonplace Misfortunes of Everyday Plants (Belle Point Press, 2023)

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I have five children at home, and I homeschool, so my writing space isn’t much—just a small, roughed up desk once found on the side of the road in the corner of my bedroom, and a bookshelf choked with my favorite poetry books. But there’s good light from the windows, and, to be honest, I rarely do much more than editing while sitting at the desk. Most of my writing takes place in a composition notebook while I’m sitting on the floor somewhere quiet (often next to my bed and a pile of clean laundry) while the kids are playing.

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

With Kit, Age 7, Outside the Hospital

After William Stafford

We would walk out those glass doors
sighing open so easy at last,
the way the windows never moved
in the higher levels of the ICU,
and spring was just for looking at,
raging as it was with fair blue skies
and dots of daffodils between streets.

She would grip my hand
as I led her to our car,
pocketed in the dingy maze
of parking garage. Would she
ask every question, as I buckled
her in, of home, family, the life
she was beginning again,
like an Easter Sunday, like an Easter
lily, with her pale eager face?

I would grip the steering wheel
and drive as fast as I dared,
my child unaware of the death
that pursued her, and I pretending
it wasn’t with us even there.

Why did you choose this poem?

I wrote this poem after reading William Stafford’s poem “With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach”; I also had a child named Kit, except she didn’t make it to seven years old but died at six months old from a heart condition. I was moved by Stafford’s poem, which, to me, was about how a parent will go through any difficulty that they must go through for their child. In my version, Kit and I are leaving the hospital at long last; but even then, death is inescapable. That is something that a mother has to live with, even with a child who isn’t terminally ill. So my “With Kit” poem is really the crux of this chapbook.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Why some plants (and people) grow and live and thrive, and some plants (and people) do not (no matter what you do or do not do).

What’s the oldest poem 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?

The oldest poem in the book is “Warm Weather, Arkansas,” a poem about growing up in tornado alley, likely written sometime when I was in college (so fifteen years ago now). I grew up in Tennessee actually, but was addressing the poem to my husband from Arkansas, hence the title. Tornadoes are kind of funny in how they strike, and everyone from the area where I’m from has stories about how a tornado mysteriously destroyed one thing and spared another. A baby left alive in a corn field completely decimated right down to dirt, that kind of thing. I included this poem in the collection because I think it says something about the chaotic nature of calamity—how some, though maybe deserving, seem to be spared from tragedy, while others who try to do everything right have their houses flattened.

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

“Family Therapy” was written about my family and my time with Annie’s Hope, a nonprofit in our city that ministers to grieving kids. We participated in their two month, once a week program directly after Kit died, and I think it was my first real exposure to how common grieving is, how many people go through these horrific losses and have to continue on with their lives. We sat around and ate pizza together and learned about parenting our four young children at the time through the grief of losing their sister.

The first poem in the collection, “Grapefruit Tree in Cubicle,” is also a special one; my dad was a brilliant engineer, charming story teller, and, in his last days, overcome by alcoholism, but he could grow absolutely anything, anywhere. Long after he had been laid off from that engineering job, the grapefruit tree was three-feet tall, growing in the corner of his home office.

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

“Do You Still Pray” is different stylistically in that it is more repetitive, somewhat of a list poem, compared to the others in the collection. It also only refers to plants in passing (“bury them to dissolve in the garden”) whereas many of the other poems directly deal with plants. I included it toward the end of the collection, in a spot where the reader has perhaps begun to understand the weight of loss in these poems, because it is a poem of spiritual despair; a poem about continuing to pray when none of the prayers have been answered how one would hope. While I would say most of my poems offer a glimmer of light at the end, this one ends on “no one / can help you; no one/ can help you.”

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

I wrote half of these poems in the month of April, 2022, as a write-a-poem-a-day writing challenge with my friend and fellow writer, Heather Cadenhead. About halfway through the month, I began to notice themes of growth and death emerge that I felt I could shape into a mini-collection.

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

Casie Dodd, the editor at Belle Point Press, has been wonderful to work with. She sent me a few options for the cover and did a beautiful job putting this chapbook together; the font is gorgeous. She’s an attentive and detailed editor, and also good at promoting the chapbook, which is a quality hard to find with small works like this one.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a full-length collection about the loss of my daughter Kit, who died in 2019 at six months old due to a congenital heart defect. Many of the poems in the chapbook indirectly (and some directly) touch on this experience; the full-length collection I’d say stares it full in the face.

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

1) Read as much poetry as you can, every day.
2) Write every day, by hand, in a notebook.
3) Stay curious and don’t be afraid to mess up.

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Renee Emerson is the author of the poetry collections Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014), Threshing Floor (Jacar Press 2016), and Church Ladies (Fernwood Press 2022). She is also the author of the chapbook The Commonplace Misfortunes of Everyday Plants (Belle Point Press), and the middle grade novel Why Silas Miller Must Learn to Ride a Bike (Wintergoose Publishing 2022). She lives in the Midwest with her husband and children.

https://reneeemerson.wordpress.com/

Sara Moore Wagner

“I have always had an urge to locate myself in stories.”

Tumbling After (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022)

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

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem represents the main aspects of the collection as a whole—the way motherhood and domesticity split and rearrange women, and the way I was also rearranged by the move into the position of “housewife.” It also is both persona and confessional. I like to blend the two, to comment on how we make ourselves based on shared cultural traditions—how we situate the self in the history of self-making and identity. It also sets the tone of the chapbook—that it will be about a split, a tearing of the self from something else. Rumpelstiltskin is interesting to me because he is that trickster character, which is typically reserved for male characters. I wanted to turn that on its head.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

This book came from the desire to understand, as a woman, the vilification of myself and of other women who make choices outside of what is considered proper behavior for a wife and mother. I have always been drawn to myths, fairy tales, and stories we tell over and over again, particularly to how women are represented in a kind of communal societal narrative. As I was writing Tumbling After, and my forthcoming full-length debut Swan Wife, which shares a few of these poems, I had a real desire to explore various male and female characters, from Rumpelstiltskin to mythic monsters like Lamia and the Empusa, relating them to the self, to make sense of my own narrative journey into single motherhood. I have always had an urge to locate myself in stories.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem is “Gertrude Complex.” The book came in pieces over a long period of time, but this first poem holds a lot of its themes. Gertrude from Hamlet is a figure who is seen as a “bad” mother. If you think about Gertrude, we, as an audience, never know what motivates her. From the outside, she seems “frail” or weak, driven by a desire to maintain her own lifestyle. When I wrote the poem, I remember the distinct feeling that that was bullshit. As mothers, we do what we can for survival. I think she did try to protect her son, in “low and shadowed” ways that the audience might not see. And of course, we mainly see her reflected in the male characters. The Gertrude in me is a mother who is more aware of the human condition than her child, but is also one who must, to a certain extent, mislead her child in order to make it all ok.

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

I knew there was a distinct before and after to this book—the unhappiness/unrest, then the splitting/tearing apart. This mainly related to the Jack and Jill narrative. Jack is a trickster character. No matter how shady and annoying he is, he’s still the spritely Jack. Tricky female characters don’t get the same treatment. Tumbling After nods to the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme, is set in the before and after, and implies the breaking apart of a union of two separate people, so for me it felt really natural to have two distinct sections.

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

I wrote the poem “For Annie Von Behren…” after I took a walking tour of downtown Cincinnati (I live in the suburbs of Cincinnati). During the tour, the guide told a story about Annie—how she would let her husband shoot apples from her head as part of a stage show. When they were in Cincinnati, he shot her in the head in front of an entire audience of people. Later, when he was let off of the charges, people applauded. I couldn’t stop thinking about that story, especially after researching her a little more, seeing her history as a prolific and accomplished actress. I kept thinking—why would you let a man do that? Then it hit me—I have also sacrificed a lot of myself for a man, for his career, for his comfort. We’re not so different. We’ll be the ones erased.

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

In some ways I see this book as the “alternate ending” of Swan Wife. In my complicated romantic history, I left a relationship, had a period of single motherhood, then married my husband, who made me believe in real love. I was trying very hard to get that all in one book, then I realized it’s two stories—one about guilt and rupture (Tumbling After)–and then one about finding oneself in a more traditional relationship, about occupying that role without conforming to stereotypes and more oppressive cultural expectations of what a wife is, which is the heart of Swan Wife. Once I realized it couldn’t all fit in one, I had a choice. I could end Swan Wife with a split, or with the happier ending. Because I felt “done” with those single mother poems, I felt past that period, I let Tumbling After tumble out and become its own thing.

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

It has been a really beautiful experience for me with Red Bird. They were very present in the editorial process, pairing me with a wonderful editor who worked one on one with me. When the book was through that step, they sent me covers hand drawn by four different artists who had read my book. These were all so beautiful. It was difficult to pick a cover, but I went with the more feminine and domestic take on my chapbook, even though they all would have fit beautifully.

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

I think I would like to be asked about the bodily elements of this book. I have always been interested in grotesque realism, as discussed by the philosopher Bakhtin. Fairy tales have been sanitized over time. The woman’s body, when exposed at all, is usually used as a tool for pleasure or gratification. I have a desire to bring back in a bit of the grotesque. Birth is gross, bodies are gross, and in this book, I attempt to not just break down stereotypes about the “good” and “bad” woman or mother, but to tear down that clean image of the mother or woman. We have bodies like everyone, bodies that tear and ooze. It was important to me to highlight some of that.

What are you working on now?

Because I’ll never stop being drawn to persona and to mythic or historical figures, I have been immersed in writing a book-length historical exploration of Annie Oakley. It’s about the beginnings of the American myth, and about how much guns have shaped America. Of course, it is also about gender dynamics. Annie Oakley was an Ohio girl, like me. My mother was a champion sharpshooter, and our family history is riddled with gun violence. I have been working out how to tell Annie’s story, America’s story, and my family’s story, which has been a huge but very fulfilling undertaking. Because I don’t live far from her birthplace, I have been able to visit her museum, her grave, and the Annie Oakley Festival. The research aspects have been really fun. It gets me out of my own head!

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

I would LOVE to be able to paint. I am very jealous of people with that kind of talent. I think a lot in images, which I transfer onto the page using language because it’s really my only medium. I have friends who can do all the things super exquisitely, and I’m so envious. I love to paint, and I do it with my kids, but I don’t have any real skill. I also think the world in general can immediately see the beauty in a painting or piece of visual art—I work hard to bring that to my poems, but it would be nice to be able to convey that instant impactful image.

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

Give yourself time. I made a five-year plan for myself, which has now become a ten-year plan. Don’t expect any instant gratification or success. It rarely happens that way. Put in the work of reading, writing, revising, learning about journals and presses, then tell yourself you won’t worry about failure until x amount of years passes—make it a lot of years—then you can focus on the craft instead of the acceptances or rejections. It’s easy to get caught up in that. I do believe hard work and dedication to craft is what ultimately pays off.

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Sara Moore Wagner is the winner of the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors Prize for her book Swan Wife (2022), and the 2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript Prize for Hillbilly Madonna (2022), and the author of two chapbooks, Tumbling After (Red Bird chapbooks, 2022) and Hooked Through (2017). She is also a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the recipient of a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Sixth Finch, Waxwing, Nimrod, Rhino, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.

www.saramoorewagner.com

Stephanie Niu

“Why not visit the moon to visit the woman defined by her distance from the earth?”

She Has Dreamt Again of Water (Diode Editions, 2022)

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I’m a believer in the power of a little chaos, and this extends to my writing space. Maybe this is my own excuse for keeping a messy desk, but I find that a bit of disarray encourages me to be creative. As I write this, my desk contains three different notebooks (open, or bookmarked with pencils), two different beverages, and one book of poems that is working part-time as a coaster, part-time as muse (Dancing on the Tarmac by Tarik Dobbs; the visual and hybrid poems are cracking my brain open). Sometimes I feel like a DJ at a turntable deciding which thought goes onto which piece of paper; perhaps I prefer it that way.

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

The title poem of my chapbook, “She Has Dreamt Again of Water,” refers not to me but to Chang E’, a goddess from Chinese mythology who flew to the moon after consuming a forbidden elixir. In short, I wrote this poem out of the unexplainable jealousy I felt toward Chang E’ upon hearing this myth as a child; that she got to disappear, be remembered.

Why did you choose this poem?

Many poems in my chapbook explore the tension between distance and intimacy, especially within family. Chang E’ is a character I feel both distanced from and drawn to, and I wanted to explore this tension in a more personal way. I love the possibilities poetry offers for different ways of engaging with ideas that defy traditional narrative, plot, reality. Why not visit the moon to visit the woman defined by her distance from the earth? In a similar way, many of the other poems in my collection transport the reader directly into a place or emotion that is otherwise faraway: the benthic zone of the deep sea, the bottom of a dammed lake that contains a drowned town, inside the consciousness of a pelican.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem in my collection is “Freeway.” I began it at the start of 2018. Although it’s further in time from some of the other poems in this collection, the poem felt like a natural fit with the images of physical geographical distance, silent sea creatures, and diving.

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

When I was working on manuscript order and individual poem edits, I kept getting stuck making the same revisions, doubting them, undoing them, doubting, redoing, etc. Around this time, I saw an image on Twitter that freed me by allowing me to look at revision in a different light. The image contains a slightly rusty sign, likely in a diner or some other food establishment, with red text in all-caps that says:

IS IT HOT ?

DOES IT LOOK GOOD ?

ARE YOU PROUD

TO SERVE IT ?

After seeing this image, I asked myself these three questions about each poem, and it became obvious what I needed to do. One poem needed to be more hot. Another needed to look better. A third, I was already proud to serve.

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

Write, write, write. (Are we surprised?) One of the most helpful things I was told by my first poetry mentor, when I kept asking about publishing, prizes, etc., was this: the young poet should be in their studio. Meaning: nothing else really matters, yet. Though I fail often, I strive to keep this in mind.

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Stephanie Niu is the author of She Has Dreamt Again of Water, winner of the 2021 Diode Chapbook Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Georgia Review, Southeast Review, and Storm Cellar, as well as scientific collaborations including the 11th Annual St. Louis River Summit. She lives in New York City. Find her online at https://stephanieniu.com/poetry or on Twitter as @niusteph.

Katie Manning

“Writing is often done alone, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.”

How to Play (Louisiana Literature Press, 2022)

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

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I love games! My family played a lot of games when I was growing up, and my spouse and I have so many board games, card games, dice games… so I started using games as prompts. The poems aren’t about the games, of course, but the games were the springboard into the poems.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The first poem I wrote in this collection was “Scrabble with E.B. White.” I was actually playing online Scrabble with my best friend from high school, Krystin, and the words we were using seemed strangely connected to Charlotte’s Web, so that prompted the poem. Over the next decade, I wrote other game-inspired poems and put them all in a folder, but it was a back-burner project, never the work I felt pressured to do. These poems only became my primary focus last summer when I pulled them all out and said to myself, “I think I could pull these together into a chapbook collection now.”

How did you decide on the title of your book?

How to Play might be the only working title for a manuscript that has ever made it to print! I usually change the working title right at the end of the process, but this one still felt right. It’s taken from the words that are at the top of the instructions booklets for most games.

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

I love this question, probably because I’m always partial to misfits. 🙂 I think of “Scheherezade’s Last Words” as the misfit of the Table of Contents because it doesn’t have the name of the game—Tales of the Arabian Nights—in its title. The game gets a shout-out in the epigraph instead.

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

Louisiana Literature Press was the first place I sent this chapbook because I love their publication model as a teaching press, and they did not disappoint. From the wildly affirming letter of acceptance sent by the editorial team to the collaborative process and great communication with Jack Bedell, I’ve had a great publishing experience.

I told them early on that I had an idea for the cover, and they told me I could run with it, so I got to hire one of my former students, Mark Garcia, to create the knolling image with game pieces and design the cover. Mark even came to my house to photograph some of the game pieces that he didn’t own. This is the most involved I’ve ever gotten to be with one of my book covers, and I’m so thrilled with the result!

What are you working on now?

My new project-in-process borrows language and techniques from Charles Darwin: animal observation, questioning established knowledge, openness to discovery. I’m writing poems that chart an evolution of survival through one lifetime, capturing trauma (miscarriage, parent death, etc.) and the life that continues after trauma. This project holds particular fascination for me because I was raised in a Christian tradition that often portrayed Darwin as a villain, but as an adult, I’ve found that Darwin’s work (and science more broadly) points me toward the divine.

I’ve also started looking for a publisher for Hereverent, a full-length manuscript of poems that I created using the Bible as a word bank. I took biblical language out of context in protest of those who take that language out of context and use it as a weapon.

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

Oh, I love this question! My high school days were spent doing more choirs, musicals, and plays than anything else. I was first chair viola in 8th grade, and I took up bass guitar in my twenties. I still actively sing in choirs (or did pre-pandemic), and I lead music at my church. I started creating poems when I was 4, but I didn’t think of that as my primary art until the end of college. So I’ve always been involved with many arts, as many writers are; once in a grad school poetry workshop, we realized that the 10 of us around the table had all been choir kids.

I like to say that when I run out of words, I’m going to take up painting (like Joni Mitchell). I sometimes get ideas for paintings, but I don’t have the skill to create them… at least not yet. I do hope that some time in the not-too-distant future, I really will take some classes and have a long painting phase. (I don’t think I actually have to run out of words to do this, of course).

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

Connect with other writers! It’s so important to find your people. Find writer friends so you can encourage each other, share opportunities, commiserate over rejections, celebrate each other’s successes, etc. Writing is often done alone, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.

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Katie Manning is the founding editor-in-chief of Whale Road Review and a professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of Tasty Other, which won the 2016 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and her recent chapbooks are How to Play (Louisiana Literature Press, 2022) and 28,065 Nights (River Glass Books, 2020). Her poems have appeared in American Journal of Nursing, december, The Lascaux Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, and many other venues, and her poem “What to Expect” was recently featured on the Poetry Unbound podcast from The On Being Project.

www.katiemanningpoet.com

Marianne Worthington

“…I discovered in my research about early women performers in country music… that they had such little control over their own lives as performers.”

The Girl Singer (University Press of Kentucky, 2021)

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

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I thought I would be a musician when I grew up, and for a very long time, I was. I was always able to have a part-time gig as a church musician because I could play the organ. Writing came much later for me when I finally entered college at age 27. I studied poetry and creative nonfiction writing with the late Jeff Daniel Marion at Carson-Newman University. He really encouraged me to think about making writing a more central part of my life. He emphasized the journey, the path of writing rather than an end product—writing as a way to grow and live in the world. It really wasn’t until we moved to Kentucky in 1990 that I started writing with more seriousness once I discovered the vibrant and diverse writing communities that exist here.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I wish I could say that I have a designated writing space, but mostly I write wherever I happen to be at the time. Usually that means I’m either in the comfy chair in the bedroom, on the couch in the living room, at the kitchen table, or propped up in the bed—one of my favorite places to write. I also enjoy writing outside on my porch when the weather permits.

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

Why did you choose this poem?

One of the disturbing facts I discovered in my research about early women performers in country music was that they had such little control over their own lives as performers. Their costumes were assigned to them, their words on stage were scripted, the songs they could sing and the instruments they could play were mostly beyond their own control. But the worst: almost all the women had to take on an assigned performance name. So, Myrtle Cooper became Lula Belle; Linda Parker became The Little Sunbonnet Girl; Alma Crosby became Little Shoe; and Rubye Rose Blevins became Patsy Montana. I wrote “Barn Dance (Chorus)” in their collective voices as both a protest poem and a tribute poem. All the name-nouns used in the poem were actual stage names of these women.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

roots music, country music, folk music

murder ballads

women performers with big hair and big guitars

collecting/remembering family histories

the wildlife that lives around my neighborhood, particularly the groundhog next door who I’ve been watching for about four years. (Year before last, she emerged from hibernation with two babies who played and sun-bathed like puppies!)

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

I had a lot of help with arranging the poems and with titling the collection. Everyone who helped me had a different take on how the poems should be ordered and what the book should be titled, but ultimately, I was able to glean the best of their suggestions. It takes a village, truly.

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

Maybe “Pentecost 1965” has the most meaningful back story because the Acts Man is so deeply embedded in my memory. And I don’t know, never knew, his backstory. He was just always there: riding his bike-tent through the streets of Knoxville. He invoked in me a deep wonder, how to live with unanswered questions, and an odd stability in my place—like a fixture—that grounded me. I will never stop thinking about him.

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?

“My Maternal People” was added late in the process of building the book. I think the poem helped me think about the importance and influence of women in my life and that, in turn, helped me to articulate what the book was really about.

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

I had been compiling these poems over a long period of several years, and I had been sending around the manuscript for a couple of years, but once the manuscript was chosen for the Fireside Industries imprint of UP of KY, I worked really hard to order and to revise the poems. I took several poems out of the manuscript that didn’t really fit the themes of the book, and I spent a lot of time on the floor where the pages were spread out on the rug in my reading room. I wish I could say I have a disciplined and scheduled writing time, but I do not. I tend to work in fits and starts, but even when I’m not actively writing, I am thinking about writing and composing in my head.

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

Here is a prompt I fashioned for a class recently. I use this one myself whenever I’m stuck—particularly the “container” part:

1. Write down an incident that is both a memory you have and a specific place associated with that memory (like: I remember when I fell down the steps at my grandmother’s house). Now write toward making a poem, although you don’t have to give the memory and the specific place equal treatment in the poem. In addition to describing what happened, work for sensory details and/or verbs that suggest feelings associated with the memory. Likewise, help the reader see/smell/hear/taste/touch/ a place. (My grandmother’s staircase was steep; the hallway was dark; I was running when my father said not to; the stairwell smelled like furniture polish, etc.)

2. Make a container for your poem about memory/place by fashioning it like a sonnet. This will help you decide which details are the most important/resonant. You can observe the formal features of various sonnet forms, or you can relax the form and think of it as fourteen related lines. (Thanks to the work of poets like Diane Seuss and Kim Addonizio, I respect the versatility of the sonnet and worry less and less about the “rules” of sonnet-making.)

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

The wonderful thing about University Press of Kentucky is that their people are so talented in what they do. I got emails and phone calls on the regular about when and how the manuscript would be processed and all the stages it had to go through on the way to production. That was exciting and reassuring for me. The press sent me a questionnaire about my preferences for cover art and they took into consideration several photos I sent of various, anonymous “girl singers.” I had also sent a still capture from a home movie my mother had made of Dolly Parton in performance when she was about 14 or 15 years old. The cover artist, Aurora Noctua, used that photo to fashion the girl singer for the cover. I love the cover so much, and I’m so grateful for Aurora’s talent. She was, at the time of the design, a college student and an intern at the press.

What are you working on now?

Like The Girl Singer in the early stages, I have another “pile of poems” that I’m not sure yet is a book, but I am working diligently on making it into a book. I’m continuing to write about subjects that motivate me: loss, illness, family, and the culture of “invisibility” that many women my age experience. I’m also exploring the possibility of putting together a chapbook or collection of flash creative nonfiction pieces. I’ve had several of them published since the pandemic began, and I would love to have them collected.

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

Well, I have a musical background (although I don’t practice that much anymore), but I’m not sure I would want to change paths now. I don’t have the energy for so much practice and performances anymore!

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

In addition to the obvious advice of “read as much as you can,” I would say to find a good writing teacher to study with and find other students who are also interested in creative writing. Get to know your local librarians; write for your campus newspaper; read literary journals—so many of them are online now. Building a writing community is not only supportive but motivating as well.

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Marianne Worthington is co-founder and editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, CALYX, Chapter 16, and other places. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and artist’s grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship. The Girl Singer was released in 2021 and was awarded the Weatherford Award for Poetry in 2022. Marianne grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky.

https://marianneworthington.com/