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.”

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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.”

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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/

Todd Davis

“I’m always writing back to the world, to the people I share the world with, the other living creatures, to my dead father, who I shared a deep connection, to whom I told what I saw in the woods at the end of each day.”

todddavis

Native Species (Michigan State University Press, 2019)

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

I’m the grandson of poor, subsistence farmers on both sides of my family, but on my mother’s side, my grandfather stopped farming after the Great Depression and moved north to Naugatuck, Connecticut, to work in a rubber factory. My paternal grandparents had a first and sixth grade education; my maternal grandparents had an eighth-grade education. Neither of my grandfathers read much or very well. My maternal grandmother liked historical novels, and my paternal grandmother liked romance magazines and was a fervent reader of the Bible.

My father was an agriculture major at University of Kentucky but ended up becoming a veterinarian. He memorized poems in his one-room schoolhouse in Kentucky and would often quote them while we worked together on sick or injured animals. My mother taught kindergarten for three years but was a stay-at-home mom after that. She devoured Harlequin romances at night when everyone else was in bed.

I was born in Elkhart, Indiana, on the border of Michigan, and we had 40 acres of woods between Jones and Three Rivers, Michigan. I spent much of my time in the woods or helping my father at the animal hospital. My earliest memories are of being with other-than-human animals, finding deep connections with them. These experiences shaped my perspective as a writer, suggesting to me that the human animal is not necessarily the most interesting animal to write about. The language and cadence of blue-collar working people are what drew me to a plain-spoken poetry, and when I write, I have my grandparents and relatives and neighbors in mind. I hope I write a kind of poetry that they could understand on a certain level, that they would feel welcomed into my poems, not pushed away, like some academic or experimental poetry tends to do to working-class people.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I have a four-foot carved bear in my office that seems to be totemic for me and my writing. At present I’m writing a book-length poem through the perspective of a black bear named Ursus. The poem grapples with climate-change and the sixth great extinction event. I have other items from the natural world on my desk and shelves, too. There’s a wooden wash basin, the kind you would take to the river to do wash, carved out a single piece of wood, that’s been handed down through the family. A tortoise shell, grouse feathers, stones and pieces of wood from certain encounters in the woods. I also have a photo of an aspen grove by Ansel Adams on the wall; a painting by Craig Blietz, a Wisconsin artist who did the cover for my book In the Kingdom of the Ditch; two signed broadsides by the poet Dan Gerber; an artist-proof by Kurt Vonnegut of his pen-and-ink drawing “A Tree Trying to Tell Me Something,” which he sent to me with a lovely inscription, as well as a hand-written letter from Kurt. He was very kind to me and my poetry; he made me think that I might be able to write something worth reading. There’s a church pew in front of the window, a cross constructed of black walnut on the opposite wall that a friend made for me in a high school industrial arts class. And, finally, six bookshelves filled with books by some of my favorite writers. It’s like being in a choir. I may not be a soloist, but when I hear all the voices singing on those shelves, I feel like I can sing along for a while.

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?

Sure. Here’s my poem “Almanac of Faithful Negotiations.”

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Why did you choose this poem?

Native Species begins with an epigraph from William Stafford: “What I believe is, / all animals have one soul.” I chose “Almanac of Faithful Negotiations” because it suggests the kinds of connections I’m making in the book between human animals and other living beings. There are many poems in this book that depict transformations, often magically real transformations, of humans evolving into other forms, other animals, and I’d like to think we are all soulful creatures.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

My obsessions continue to be pretty consistent: death, religion (Christianity and its relationship to other religious systems), love for my family, the natural world, especially the local flora and fauna of my home landscape, the miraculous, the mystical, the ways those things are always wrapped up in a physical world, my attempts to breakdown the dualistic language that suggests we can parse the physical from the metaphysical, the neglected, those who Jesus called “the least of these,” social justice, environmental justice.

What’s your book about?

I find this kind of question very difficult to answer. I’m not sure that as the artist I really know what my own work is about. I can tell you the “things” that are in the book, but I’m sure I’d muck it up if I said what it was “about.” But here’s a description I wrote for my publisher when they asked for marketing copy that might answer a bit of the question.

Davis ushers the reader into a consideration of the green world and our uncertain place in it. As he writes in “Dead Letter to James Wright,” “You said / you’d wasted your life. / I’m still not sure / what species I am,” and, to that end, Native Species explores what happens to us—to all of us, bear, deer, mink, trout, moose, girl, boy, woman, man—when we die, and what happens to the soul as it faces extinction—if it “migrates into the lives of other creatures, becomes a fox or frog, an ant in a colony serving a queen, a red salamander entering a pond before it freezes.” He wonders, too, “How many new beginnings are we granted?”

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

I collect titles. By that I mean that I’m always on the lookout for evocative phrases that might serve as a title. I teach in an environmental studies program and spend a great deal of time talking with students about native and nonnative species. I often pose the philosophical question whether we humans are native anywhere at this point in human history, based upon the ways we live in disharmony with so many other species.

Several years ago, I wrote a poem, with the title “Native Species,” that recorded a man’s transformation into a whitetail deer. This idea is a provisional answer as to how we humans might become native again, living closer with our home ground, living in concert with the very earth that sustains and makes our lives possible.

As for the arrangement of the poems in the collection, when I have around 100 poems, which usually takes about three years for me to write, I set them out on the living room floor and begin to see how they talk to each other. There’s a chemical reaction between poems when they are placed side-by-side. I enjoy this process. It’s similar for me to playing with line breaks in a poem. Different work gets done with different placement. Eventually I have to be at peace with the arrangement and send it to the publisher, but up until the point of the final galleys, poems may change places in the manuscript.

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

“The Turtle” is a poem that was written while I fished a remote section of a stream where I had encountered an ancient snapping turtle several times. The turtle would move across this series of small rapids each spring to climb the bank and bury her eggs. I developed a relationship with that turtle, a love for her endurance, for her perseverance to see that her eggs, her offspring might have a chance.

One year during the time that turtle would be laying her eggs, the horrific and tragic shooting and murders of African-American parishioners at a church in South Carolina took place. I am deeply plagued by our refusal as a nation to address issues of gun violence—(and I say this as a hunter and an owner of six firearms, which I use for hunting). I am deeply plagued by the continued racism that underlies so many of our institutions and systems, as well as by the disenfranchisement of many youth and the violent acts they commit. I am outraged by the overt ways racism has reared its head over the last few years. I wonder how many lives must be taken before we gather together to do something to try to prevent these events.

I don’t know if this poem is successful, but it was my attempt at connecting different creatures—the human and that turtle—with sacred stories and the forces that converge to bring about hate and what hate produces. I still hear those voices weeping when I fish that part of the river.

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

When I was a younger writer, I listened to more music when I wrote. I don’t listen to music as often now when I write; I find I become more distracted by the music and less involved in the poem.

But when I did listen to music while writing some of these poems in Native Species, it was Peter Gabriel’s Live Blood, an orchestral reinterpretation of many of his more famous songs. There is something about his voice for me that is primal and his use of myth and sacred stories resonates with me.

As for rituals, I am a fairly steady writer, trying to take time most days to work on poems. That means sitting down at my desk after breakfast with a mug of green tea, flavored with lemon and honey, looking through my journal for lines or images or stories, gazing at paintings or photographs, and reading poems by others. These are the catalysts that bring lines to me.

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?

Oddly enough, it was the book’s title poem, “Native Species.” It was originally a longer poem, a lineated poem in stanzas. I cut significantly, turned it into a prose poem, and changed the ending. I did this with the help of two poets, David Shumate and Chris Dombrowski. It caused me some worry because I’d lived with that poem for nearly two years as it was. But I saw the weaknesses that they perceived and after the revision felt better about what the poem was doing. After that revision, the book seemed “done” to me. Or at least as “done” as any book or poem can ever be.

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’m so grateful for my working experience with Michigan State University Press. This is my fifth book of poetry with MSU Press and my sixth book overall with them. In this age, such a long relationship feels like an exception, a true gift, and I do not take this relationship for granted. They are a special press with so many special people helping bring my book to fruition. The editorial and production process with MSU Press is orderly and professional, really quite efficient. While they have the final say for the cover image of my book, all six of my books have a painting or photo that I suggested. I think that’s because the editors and design people at the press truly understand what I’m trying to do with my writing. I’m a lucky, lucky writer.

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

At fifty-three years of age, having read most of my life, having been involved with English departments for the past thirty-five years, I have so many, many books and writers that influence me. But for the sake of this question, I’m going to name some. This is a pittance of the entirety and will inevitably leave out a book or writer I adore. But here goes:

William Stafford, The Way It Is; Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass; Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Maxine Kumin, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief; Philip Levine, What Work Is; James Wright, Above the River; K.A. Hays, Dear Apocalypse; Robert Wrigley, Earthly Meditations; Nancy Willard, Swimming Lessons; Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey; Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories; Sherman Alexie, The Toughest Indian in the World; Pattiann Rogers, Eating Bread and Honey; Rick Bass, For a Little While; John Irving, World According to Garp; Rose McLarney, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains; Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec; Alison Hawthorne Deming, Temporary Homelands; Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems 1974-1994; Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Michael McGriff, Home Burial; Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Lucky Fish; Wendell Berry, Farming: A Hand Book; Jack Ridl, Broken Symmetry; Kathleen Norris, Dakota;  Li-Young Lee, Rose; Chris Dombrowski, Earth Again; Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke; Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss; Mary Oliver, Twelve Moons; Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It; Brady Udall, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint; Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks; David James Duncan, The River Why; Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange; Raymond Carver, All of Us; Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares; Jane Kenyon, Otherwise; Karen Russell, Swamplandia; Charles Wright, Appalachia; David Shumate, Floating Bridge; and Mary Rose O’Reilley, Barn at the End of the World. And at this point I cringe at the number of books and writers I left out……

What might these books suggest about you and your writing?

First, I suppose it demonstrates that I’m affected by prose and poetry equally. Second, these books suggest that I love writers who embrace the body, who are spiritual, who love the people of this world, who love the animals of this world, who celebrate our contradictions, who believe in forgiveness, who wish to defend the persecuted, who never lose sight of joy and the miraculous condition of being alive.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book that is filled with poems—or, as I said earlier, I conceive of it as a book-length poem in sections—that revolve around a character named Ursus. Ursus is a bear, likely a black bear, but I don’t name him as such. He is a bear living in a world radically impacted by climate change and the extinction of other animals and pandemics that affect humans and other creatures. It’s set in a not-too-distant future and has some apocalyptic brushstrokes. I’m enjoying the writing process, being lost in this other world, so similar to our present circumstance, funneling my perspective and concerns without using my autobiographical self as the speaker. Being a bear in the book allows me to see things and feel things I might not as a human.

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

If I had any talent for painting, I would have been a painter. If I had any musical talent, I would have been a musician. I love both of these forms of artistic expression. I fill my life with paintings and music, probably two of the things, when I’m not in the woods, that I crave most. But I did not have talents that would allow for these pursuits. I’m thankful that poetry, at least the poems I write, rely on image and the music language can provide.

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

You’ll be a writer if you are in love with the act of writing. If you desire fame or fortune, then you should exit the room right now. There is no fame or fortune in writing for 99.9% of the people who write. And even for those who win the writing lottery, I doubt that fame or fortune comes without some true costs.

But if you love the creative act of dreaming new worlds, new characters, of writing about true places and people, if you love playing with words, listening to the happy accidents words create, then pursue this passion by reading the very best writers, by reading the work that is being published and praised in the present. Try to learn how these writers have constructed their stories and poems. Imitate that construction. Pay attention to the world. Learn the names for the things you see. Learn how to do physical things. Fill your stories and poems with these physical objects and acts. The metaphors will be built from these physical objects and acts and will then begin to do the hard work of carrying the emotions and ideas you hope to communicate.

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

Hmmm…. I only had one creative writing class in my education. I took a poetry workshop with the Zen Buddhist poet Lucien Stryk. As a result, my mentors or teachers were books. Often, I wish I’d had the chance to do an MFA because of the community I might have been a part of, the connections I might have made.

So as for wisdom, I suppose I’d say realize the most important thing is to show up at your desk regularly. Don’t expect your work to be informed by a flash of inspiration. Inspiration (or the muse) is wonderful when it visits, but that happens so seldom. Think about the number of hours it takes for someone to get good at a particular skill—the ten-thousand hour rule you’ve likely heard about. Then think about the long-haul, the long-marriage with your craft. I’m always inspired by stories of writers who publish their first book later in life. William Stafford was 46 when he published his first major collection, as was Billy Collins. A dear friend of mine, Mary Rose O’Reilley won the Walt Whitman prize and had her first book of poems published at 62.

This is hard for many young people to accept. We are a results-oriented culture. We praise and hold up the young, the savant. But the reality is that most of us are in for the long slog and our talents will accrue over time and we’ll be making much better stories and poems in our 30s, 40s, 50s, or later, than in our 20s.

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

My inspiration is the complexity of the natural world. But that sounds so abstract! The veined colors in the small petals of wood sorrel inspire me, as do the tendrilled blossoms of witch hazel in November. The track of a bear or fisher or bobcat in the snow. The design of a brook trout’s skin. The poems of others who have come before me. Living with Shelly, my wife of thirty years, watching my sons grow and change.  I’m always writing back to the world, to the people I share the world with, the other living creatures, to my dead father, who I shared a deep connection, to whom I told what I saw in the woods at the end of each day. In some ways, perhaps my father is always the person who inspires me to write poems.

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Todd Davis is the author of six full-length collections of poetry, most recently Native Species and Winterkill, both published by Michigan State University Press. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and the Chautauqua Editors Prize. His poems appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, North American Review, and Poetry Northwest.  He teaches environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.

www.todddavispoet.com/

Kathleen Hellen

“Call it a ‘pillow book’ of memory. Call it the myth of a Japanese-American identity.”

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The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin (Saddle Road Press, 2018)

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

What obsessions led you to write your book?

After the Occupation, when I was five, my GI father left Japan under increasing anti-American sentiment and brought his Japanese wife and mixed-race children to the Rust Belt of America, where I grew up. Aside from the challenges of adapting to a new land, a new language, there was the constant struggle to belong, to construct an identity that was half Japanese, half American in the absence of community. That struggle had its parallel in poetry. At the university, I found an absence of poems that spoke to the Japanese experience aside from a few tokens, and none represented the diverse experiences of middle- and lower-class Asian Americans. I hope to enlarge the canon. As Timothy Yu writes in “Making the Case for Asian American Poetry,” it is far easier to find “autobiographical narratives of immigration, assimilation, and identity formation—from novels and memoirs, leaving poetry almost entirely out of the Asian American canon.”

What’s your book about?

Call it a “pillow book” of memory. Call it the myth of a Japanese-American identity. Through the voice of the “hapa,” The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin retells the moment when “the clocks stopped the world went white a thousand winds rushed in”—the first atomic bomb that began my journey to the interior of the self. The collection documents this poet’s emigration from Tokyo to the “Steel Valley” of Pennsylvania and explores the challenges of a new place, a new language, that forged a biracial identity. These poems evoke the tension between conformity and conflict, between belonging and alienation.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Is there one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

One of the oldest poems in the collection is “Wedding of the Foxes,” which began many years ago when I had the opportunity to see Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams, and the episode titled “Sunshine Through the Rain,” in which a boy defies the wish of a woman—presumably his mother—to stay at home when the sun is shining through the rain. This is the strange weather when the kitsune—foxes—are believed in folklore to have their weddings. When the boy witnesses the wedding procession from behind a tree, he is spotted by the foxes and he runs home, only to find the woman refuses to let him in unless he commits suicide with the tantō knife the foxes have left for him. It ends with the boy setting off for the mountains, where the foxes live, and a rainbow.

The episode haunted my dreams—the woman, in particular, the “mother,” and the tantō knife. The images recalled my own mother telling me once, when I was a little girl, how a samurai woman always kept a dagger in her kimono’s sleeve—and so the poem was finding itself, becoming. In “Wedding of the Foxes,” I was scripting Kurosawa’s dream as my own, and I let my “dream voice” speak without interruption. This is Keats, isn’t it? This is “negative capability.” What I discovered only later, after the poem had been written, was that I was trying to give voice to this “authentic ethical act.” I need to trust this “dream voice” more often.

How did you decide on the arrangement of your book?

Several failures preceded the final arrangement, which was inspired by the patterns and rules that inform Noh (jo-ha-kyū). In this progression, small units are linked to larger, often overlapping modules and arranged to form sequences that begin with the slow, simple introduction (jo), leading to the more complicated exposition (ha), and ending with (kyū) the short, fast finish that refers back to jo.

Whose work helped you write this book?

The works of two great masters helped me to write this book: Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior.

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 final poem I wrote for this collection now serves as its prologue, “Hello Kitty.” The fictional cartoon character greets you as you enter the Japanese American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo, where I visited a year ago to better understand the legacy of Japanese-American internment during World War II.  Sometimes called “Kitty White,” this gijinka—the animal-like character in human form—is a hybrid, a chimera, if you will, depicted with a red bow on her head, button eyes and nose, and, most notably, no mouth.  As I revised the poem, the cartoon-image became a vehicle to say what it means to wage war with self, with history, with culture. “Hello” opens this narrow road to the interior of the self, to the wisdom of surrender. Everything changes—nothing is separate or self-contained.

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Born in Tokyo, half Japanese, Kathleen Hellen is the author of The Only Country was the Color of My Skin (2018), the award-winning collection Umberto’s Night, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net, and featured on Poetry Daily, her poems have been awarded the Thomas Merton poetry prize and prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square. She has won individual artist grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

www.kathleenhellen.com/ 

Margaret Verble

“My grandmother… had loved her father and uncle deeply, so although they died before I was born, I felt connected to them, and had imagined their lives and their desperation.”

VerbleCherokee America (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2019)

Which scene in your novel did you write first?

The first words I typed for Cherokee America are now on pages 15-17, the section entitled “The Painted Door.” The two boys in that scene are based on my great-grandfather and his brother, who’d been orphaned by the Civil War and had come to Indian Territory looking for work and new lives. My grandmother, who initially told me about “Aunt Check,” the title character, had loved her father and uncle deeply, so although they died before I was born, I felt connected to them, and had imagined their lives and their desperation. But when I gave the first reading draft of the novel to friends, they almost all agreed I should center from the very beginning on Check, the main character. So I moved that scene further in.

Did you have ethical concerns about developing characters inspired by historical figures?

Yes. This is something I frequently wrestle with. The novel I’m writing right now is set in 1926, and I thought about this just this morning. I’m not big on defaming the dead or embarrassing their descendants. However, unless people misbehave, you don’t really have a novel. The New York Times review of Cherokee America said that, by the end, the characters feel like “family and friends” who you are “invested in.” I intended that. I resolved my ethical concerns by creating likeable people.

What was the research like?

I’d read a lot of Cherokee history and done some genealogical work before I ever thought about writing a book. Mostly that was because this great-grandfather of mine and a great-great-grandmother, also in the book as Nannie Cordery, both were orphans. I wondered about them, in particular, because one of my first cousins looked like a fullblood. And my grandmother’s enrollment quantum (entirely derived from her mother’s side) wasn’t enough to explain that, her own features and complexion, or that of some of my other relatives. My mother had no doubt that her grandfather and great uncle (those two boys) were Indians. So I knew there was more Indian blood in our line than was accounted for and suspected they were the answer. That got me to investigating the entire Dawes Rolls mess, and into finding out all I could about my ancestors. I discovered after considerable digging that my great-grandfather was actually a Choctaw. About the time I solved that mystery, I started writing. But I kept on reading Cherokee history because, by then, I was hooked, and we are, culturally, Cherokee, not Choctaw.

What was your hardest scene to write?

I don’t know that any of them were particularly hard. Or harder than any others. But I spent a lot of time on the bawdy house scenes. That was, I think, because I enjoyed them so much. I like thinking about rowdy behavior, and adding in little brushstrokes gave me a lot of pleasure. Also, I’ve been on the porch of that house again and again. It evokes my imagination. My grandmother had lived in it as a child, and one of her brothers raised his family in it. My mother spent many a night visiting her cousins inside those walls and had very pleasant memories of those times. But the house has always seemed delightfully spooky to me.

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Margaret Verble is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Her first novel, Maud’s Line, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Author photo by Mark Kidd.

Yalie Kamara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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