Arlene Naganawa

“I imagine writing to someone who is quiet.”


The Ark and the Bear (Floating Bridge Press, 2016)

 What’s your chapbook about?

The Ark and the Bear is a blending of two worlds. One resembles the “real world” of the United States in the 1960s and 70s and the other is a mythical, fairy-tale world. In both worlds, young people struggle to make sense of the events and forces that surround them.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

Many of the prose poems were written in a short period of time, somewhat concurrently. The poems were written for a class I took at Hugo House in Seattle. Deborah Woodard, the teacher, had us read Russell Edson’s work as well as other prose poets, and the little stories started as free associations. The poems were revised many times, however, and rearranged. Some of the poems were rescued from an earlier (failed) manuscript and retooled for this chapbook.

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 Jesus Boat” was the catalyst for all of the poems in the “real world” series. It was inspired by a prompt that included Martha, the last passenger pigeon.  For some reason, I loved that pigeon. The rowboat in the yard was a real boat, and the neighborhood girls did play in it one entire summer.

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

Arranging the order of the poems was difficult. I knew it should start with “The Jesus Boat” and “Saved,” but after that it was Now what?   I wanted the fairy tale poems to be interwoven, so I kept shuffling and mixing until the order felt right. The process was more gut feeling than intellectual.

Did you intentionally write toward a book of prose-poems or did it evolve into one? Was there an earlier version of this book that was lineated?

The poems were originally prose poems, which is interesting, because I had never written any prose poems before the class about it. I wrote a few prior to “The Jesus Boat,” very quirky pieces.  One, however, featured a father who turned into a bear, and that initiated the fairy tale sequence. So the manuscript started as prose poems. There are some lineated poems in the chapbook, and they were added a bit later.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The editors sent me three cover sketches and they were all lovely. Ultimately, they made the choice, but they kindly asked my opinion.

What are you working on now?

I think I’m working on a series of poems from the point of view of a man who cannot speak. I’ve written a few. It’s interesting to consider what someone who does not talk thinks about. Would his responses to the world be more intense, more careful? I’m not sure why this speaker is a man instead of a woman; sometimes I have no control over my work.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

It might be a good idea to think of a theme or narrative arc before writing. It helped me generate the poems. Most poets probably have recurring themes in their work; they can look through their poems and see patterns. They could group these and have the basis for a manuscript.

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

It would be interesting to address the relationship between pop culture and poetry. Will poems that heavily reference pop culture (Snapchat, blogs, Instagram) endure? I’m curious what writers have to say!

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

The world is childhood/adolescence/mythic. Maybe mostly girls inhabit it? I’m not sure…

What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?

Mute (maybe)

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

The same images appear and reappear throughout my work. I’m not sure I like that. Here are some of my repeaters: birds, trees, rivers, animals. It used to be scarecrows. Once The Scarecrow Bride (chapbook) was published, I stopped writing about scarecrows. So the chapbook alleviated my scarecrow problem, although I still enjoy seeing them in photos and in urban gardens.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Russell Edson, Marie Howe.

Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?

I’m not sure. I imagine writing to someone who is quiet.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Sometimes an image inspires me. I’m not prolific, so I don’t get to the page very often. I take classes because there is homework and I think I should do my homework, so I’ll try to write something to address the assignment.


Arlene Naganawa is the author of three chapbooks, including Private Graveyard (Gribble Press) and The Scarecrow Bride (Red Bird Chapbooks). Her work appears in Calyx, Pontoon, Crab Orchard Review, Caketrain, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review and other publications. She is the recipient of Seattle Arts Commission Literary Arts Awards. Her poetry has appeared on Seattle Metro buses and in a Rapid Ride Poetry Station.  Ms. Naganawa teaches middle school humanities and lives in Seattle.


The Jesus Boat

We discovered one June morning that Mr. Sand had moored a rowboat in his yard under a weeping willow. His three daughters were too bouffant and glowing to play outside anymore, so Linda, Sandy, Jackie and I became the crew, shipwrecked our entire before-sixth-grade summer. We named the boat Martha after the last passenger pigeon. Our teacher had told us that Martha died in 1914, a romantic and war-torn time. And we were sailors on a foreign sea. One afternoon, after we’d all fallen asleep in the Martha, I woke up to see that the sky had turned bruise-gray, pigeon colored, with a faint peachy orange bleeding through the clouds. Oh, no, I thought, this is when the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to have Jesus, the sky strange and whispery. But it was only the end of something, not the beginning, and that is the way it was that whole summer.

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