“Writing has helped me rediscover myself, the land from where I was raised, and my ancestors who made it possible for me to be here reading, writing, learning, and (re)imagining.”
Re- (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018)
First of all, I (Hope) appreciate the way your chapbook, Re-, is divided into themed sections, and I think the prologue and epilogue are perfectly placed; they frame the other poems in a way that not only makes sense, but gives greater meaning to the collection as a whole. “Nostalgia” draws us into the world of memories and unanswered questions—“if / Nostalgia is all grit / & kindled earth cradled by bodies / of deepening blue, why / must it be so far / from here”–and “Navigation” gives us hope and continuation after we’ve walked through the grief that hangs heavy throughout the collection, with the last phrase, “who we were & are becoming.” The arrangement of this collection seems to follow a series of flashbacks that the speaker has about her grandmother and family, although these flashbacks do not seem to be chronological. Which poem in Re- was the first that you wrote?
Thanks for this thoughtful observation; the chronology of this chapbook is the aspect that underwent the most revision since I began assembling it in 2015. Two friends, Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny and Ben Hahn, read early drafts of Re- and helped me to really think about my ordering process; Elizabeth Dingmann Schnieder, my editor with Red Bird Chapbooks, helped me to refine it. The concept of time is irrelevant to Alzheimer’s disease, and it was important to me that the timeline not be perfectly (or predictably) linear.
As far as the earliest poem to appear in Re-, I believe it was the poem “Why grandma won’t play jacks with me in the backyard.” I wrote this poem sometime in 2011 and it has taken a number of forms since—if I recall correctly, it began as a prose poem. Elizabeth Dingmann Schneider retitled it perfectly from “Grandma’s Answer to Why We Can’t Play Jacks in the Backyard.”
For those earlier publications, what was the publishing process like? You’re published in Glass, Barzakh, Fog Machine, Gramma, ATTN:, and Acentos Review. How did you decide what and where to submit? Many writers, especially first submitters, go through a good deal of self-doubt and hesitation before thrusting their work out into the world. Were you always confident in your submissions?
My earlier submissions were not as well-researched as I now would have liked them to be. I didn’t realize at the time how widely I needed to read to familiarize myself with literary journals and small presses, but I do commit a greater amount of time to reading now. I pay attention to where writers I admire are published and make notes—it’s an ongoing process for sure.
I’ve been in a sales position for my day job for two decades now. Rejection isn’t anything I take too personally, so I think this experience helped reassure me once I began submitting my work. Just because someone says “No” now doesn’t mean it’s forever, and over time you learn how to refine your approach/process/work. So much of submitting work is about timing. You just have to keep putting yourself and your work out there.
Besides being a writer, you are also associate editor of MIEL. How do you balance those two modes of creative work?
Editing seems to fuel my creative work. I’m exposed to (and challenged by) new narratives, forms, ideas, and modes of thinking. I think editing other writers’ work has improved me as a writer, and while I don’t feel I’ve ever sought to find a balance between editing and writing, I’ve always considered myself a reader before a writer.
Which piece in Re- holds the most personal significance to you? Have you ever struggled with presenting those parts of yourself to the world? In what ways has the publication of Re- allowed you to grow as a writer in terms of vulnerability?
The poem “Re-” specifically. The memory of that day with my grandmother in El Paso’s Municipal Rose Garden is acute—she was suffused with wonder. I question every day my authority to my subject matter. I want to proceed with as much care and thought as I can in my writing, and this care (and vulnerability) is something Aracelis Girmay has taught and continues to teach me through her work. In her acknowledgements for the black maria Girmay writes: “How do I work inside histories of such violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it?” I want to be aware of the privilege and responsibility I have in recovering and recounting the stories my family could not (or would not) tell.
I (Abigail) was very intrigued by the inclusion of the piece “July 31, 2015”. I know that you are an artist as well as a poet and I wondered about whether this was a very intentional piece created for Re- or more of a spontaneous, art-journaling type of piece that you decided to include?
I created this piece for ATTN:’s open call for submission my friend Rosa shared with me. ATTN: is an event-based print journal from Further Other Book Works. The call from C.J. Martin and Julia Drescher read in part: “On July 31, set aside some time to write/sketch in response to, or to simply document, what has your attention that day. Poems, prose, discussions, reviews, visual work, exchanges, etc… If it makes sense, let it be a collaboration w/someone else—a group even.” I’m grateful my work was included in this project. It was the first time I’d written or made anything in a long while after my grandfather died in November 2014.
In the poem “Preservation” you write about “chiaroscuro / of the rebirth into one’s younger self.” I (Abigail) am slightly familiar with chiaroscuro as a term in reference to contrast in visual art. Could you expound upon your decision to weave this theme into your work, and in this piece specifically as “the rebirth into one’s younger self” in relation to memory?
I attended the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” exhibition in 2016; the poem arrived after spending a good deal of time with Pollock’s black paintings then walking out of the museum to encounter a wisteria, much beloved by my grandmother, in full bloom. I wish I could say I was more intentional with this poem, but it was a gift, really. I can say that Pollock’s work in this exhibition had me thinking about William Utermohlen self-portraits each year for five years after he received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His final self-portrait was in black and white, and just to see the regression of color and perspective over that short period still saddens me.
Your poetry is full of vivid, metaphoric imagery, much of which is nature-centered; in what physical places do you find the greatest inspiration for these beautiful and creative connections? Was it ever difficult for you to find balance between direct storytelling and this more nature focused metaphoric expression in the writing of Re-?
I’m very fortunate in that both of my grandmothers’ homes were places of absolute wonder for me as a child. They both loved growing things and feeding people. At my desk I keep photos of rooms in both their homes, so these spaces, or the sensation of them, always surround me while I work.
Some of the more imagistic and metaphorical pieces from Re– were written after daily walks I’d go for in the neighborhoods of Montpelier, Vermont while completing my last residency at VCFA. I’d signed up for a collaborative workshop given by Bob Vivian and Richard Jackson, so we were to complete work daily to exchange and discuss during each session. I’d often return from my walks with the poems mostly composed in my mind and then work to send them to my workshop partner Scarlet Michaelson, who’d write something in response.
One of our favorite aspects of your writing is the attention to detail and the magnification of small things that you employ so beautifully throughout the pieces in this work. “Uninvited Guest” with its magnification of the spider web, and the focus on the detail of the pie in “Lacuna” are two that come to mind. Is this attention to detail writing something that has been intentionally developed over time or something that has always been a part of your writing process?
Thank you for sharing this. I’m an observer of small things, especially insects, snails, or fragmented things. I also try to really take in moments and document the details of them so I won’t forget them; I found myself really doing this because I didn’t want to lose anything my grandma said or did. Maybe my impulse toward writing with such detail comes from my deep love for Naomi Shihab Nye’s work. Her poem “Making a Fist” is never far from my mind. Her collection Transfer is a moving work in memory of her father.
I (Hope) like that you occasionally use code-switching, especially in the title poem, “Re-”—for example, in the lines “yellow amarillo ri ri ri re” and “Forever in Spanish is siempre re re re re re re re.” How do you decide when to include Spanish as part of a poem? Who would you name as influences in the bilingual aspect of your writing?
Eduardo Corral’s gorgeous collection of poetry Slow Lightning helped me believe in my languages, the use of them together, after many had discouraged such “code-switching” if you will. It is natural to me and therefore feels natural in my writing. I don’t ever try to force Spanish into my writing. I think my connection to Cecilia Vicuña’s work always has me thinking about the wonder and flexibility of language in any tongue.
Your website states that you’re from El Paso, and you talk about Socorro in “Grandma on faith as fieldwork”: “Driving through Socorro, cotton bolls glowed in the light of the moon. These are what I wished upon.” Your experience of the Southwest and living on the border clearly influences nearly every aspect of your writing. Have you ever wished that you were from somewhere else? Do you use writing as a way to come to terms with your roots, or is it a natural outflow of your upbringing?
At one point in my life, I wanted to be from anywhere but El Paso. After living in Dallas for almost a dozen years and then returning to El Paso over ten years ago, there’s virtually nothing that could get me to leave the city. I’m grateful to call this place home. I’m continuously learning from the people I share space with. I’m in love with and terrified of the desert. When I am away from home, I’m longing to be home. Writing has helped me rediscover myself, the land from where I was raised, and my ancestors who made it possible for me to be here reading, writing, learning, and (re)imagining.
Many of the poems in this collection use the stream-of-consciousness technique, especially “Perseveration”: “the the it’s the / now see how / now see how it’s the / air / air the air.” Personally, I think this is an intriguing technique to explore grief and memories, because those two things defy our attempts to organize and understand them; they muddle or are muddled by our thought processes. And that scattered, rule-defying feeling that stream-of-consciousness gives is especially powerful when talking about memory loss. But when it comes to putting the natural flow of our thoughts on paper, we tend to want to structure those thoughts, as if to give shape to our psychological landscape as well. So, as a writer who uses this technique frequently, does stream-of-consciousness writing come naturally to you or is something you had to learn?
Jack Myers, my undergrad mentor at SMU, offered many stream-of-consciousness writing exercises in his classes, and it wasn’t until reading your question here that I realized how much those exercises must have made their ways into my being. I know he’s sitting somewhere feeling delighted about this. He was always reminding me to believe in where the poem wanted to go, as opposed to where I thought I wanted it to.
It seems that it would be difficult to edit a poem that is designed to mimic unstructured thought. For those stream-of-consciousness poems, what does your revision process look like?
I tend to overwrite and then cut because it’s easier for me to do this than to try to write more after I’ve put the poem away for a time. I like to give my first drafts time—a couple of months at least—before revisiting them for revision. I find this distance allows me to be more objective during the revision process.
A follow up question about your art—how has visual self-expression helped to highlight and support your work as a writer? Was there any difficulty in creating such smooth integration of the two within Re-, and were there other visual pieces that potentially were going to be included in this work that had to be cut?
There weren’t any other visual pieces under consideration for Re-, although at one point I regretted not creating a cover for it, even if it was temporary. I was very particular about the cover art and I’m grateful for Sarah Hayes’ patience with me at Red Bird Chapbooks, so in the end a miniature photograph—about 1 inch by 3 inch—I’d discovered of my grandmother (and who I think is my Uncle Jr., her first child and son) made the cover, which now seems to me to have been what this collection wanted all along.
Can you tell us about the cover design of Re-? Who are the people pictured in the cover photograph, and where was the photo taken?
I’ve been sorting and reordering two small boxes of photographs my grandmother kept in the entryway to her home. Based on the other photographs I’ve grouped with the one from the cover, I believe it was taken somewhere in or around El Paso, more than likely in the lower valley where my aunt Honey (Esther), the sister with whom my grandmother was closest, lived. The black and white nature of the photograph speaks to that of memory, or the chiaroscuro, if you will.
What authors and poets have influenced your writing? What are you reading now? Do you have any reading suggestions for young poets?
Naomi Shihab Nye for her wondrous narrative abilities, Ralph Angel for his lyricism and white space, Cecilia Vicuña for her raw and honest approach, and Aracelis Girmay for the tenderness in her poems as well as her asking the difficult questions in her work, but more importantly about her modes of work. My reading suggestions would be endless, but if I had to choose one to start with, I’d recommend Teeth by Aracelis Girmay. I’d also recommend that beginning poets read outside of their comfort zone(s). Read books by poets whose style(s) and subject matter(s) unsettle you—ask questions, examine their process, write poems that model or engage with their work.
When it comes to the writing process for you, are you more of a sporadic writer who survives off of inspiration or do you have set times daily, weekly, etc. in which you sit down and work on your craft? How do you manage your writing time with editing work and art?
I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am a binge writer. I’ve tried daily poem writing, but I find myself mostly procrastinating when I set out for a month to be more consistent. I do journal daily, but the poems tend to come sporadically and usually in a period of a few weeks and then the quiet settles in. I’ve learned to trust the quiet periods and focus on reading, which always leads me back to the writing. I’ve also learned to know which time of day is best for me while reading, writing, editing, making: early morning. The phone isn’t ringing, the inboxes are quiet, and no one expects my attention. If I allow myself thirty minutes to an hour most mornings, I feel productive at the end of the week. One Saturday a month I work solely on revisions or submissions.
What do you want readers to take away from your work?
I’ve long been concerned with the authenticity of the speaker, and while this remains a concern in my work and the work of other writers I read, these days I find myself most grateful for any moment of connection with a reader.
Andrea Blancas Beltran is from the El Paso/Juárez borderland. Her work has recently been selected for publication in About Place Journal, Scalawag, A Dozen Nothing, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Fog Machine, Gramma, Pilgrimage, & others. Her chapbook Re- was published in July 2018 by Red Bird Chapbooks. (un)learning, a collaborative project with Melissa Matthewson, was published by Artifact Press in 2016. You can find her @drebelle.