Chaun Ballard

“Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.”

Ballard

Flight (Tupelo Press, 2018)

In “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter From St. Louis,” you incorporate lines from Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem. What advice do you have for a young poet writing poems inspired by others? How do you choose poems to write a response for? 

For me, whenever I read something, a word or phrase might jump out at me – and beg to be expanded upon. It’s not like I immediately plan on incorporating someone else’s words; but as I read something, or listen to something, there comes that tug in my mind or heart that demands a response to be written.

The poems I choose to respond to are the poems that call out to me. There’s something there that tells me, after reading, “You need to write about [insert subject].” This could be deep in the subconscious. The mind pulls from a line, an image, the rhythm or beat.

In fact, in “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter from St. Louis,” you might notice that the rhythm actually connects to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and this was not purposeful. But because Plath’s poem is in my head from past readings, that rhythm is in my mind (whether I am aware of it or not), like a song, and so even this impacted my drafting.

When I first read Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem, I said to myself, “I want to write a basketball poem as well;” but, when I tried, the poem that came out actually had little to do with basketball. Rather, the poem focused on my childhood, where I played basketball with a crate instead of a rim and threw fish-sticks in a garbage can. What came out was a poem that maneuvered from Missouri to California, where basketball truly became my first love. I had no idea that the poem would move in this direction.

It is important for young poets to remember this: Allow the inspiration to influence your writing, but not dictate your writing. Take the inspiration, but do not force it to shape your words. Instead, allow the inspiration to work freely in a piece. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Keep in mind: You are not trying to write what someone else has already done; you are trying to write the poem that still needs to be written.

If we collectively look out a window and see a bird, all of us would write a different bird poem because of our unique perspectives—even though we were all inspired by the same encounter. Write your own piece.

You use several numbered lists in your book, from “Twelve Ways of Looking at Darkness” to “Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson,” as well as “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Do you begin these poems as lists or do they develop into lists? What, in your opinion, is the most effective way to write a list poem? 

Every poem is a bit different in its becoming. I tend to compose my poems, which means they come out in their own natural rhythm and build from that spoken aloud cadence.

When it comes to form (and whether to include lists or strophes), I think it is important to allow the subconscious to work first – to allow those words to come out – before trying to make sense of the direction or shape the poem should take.

Unless I am following a specific writing prompt, the poems that have lists typically become that way through revision. After completing a first draft, I go back and try to identify what the poem is about. This means I must chip away at lines and words that may not be helpful. I prune or sculpt, remove the rock that is not needed. After doing so, I have a better vision of what the poem wants to be. Here, I try not to guide the poem, but allow the poem to develop organically.

The next step in the process revolves around these questions: How do I make the content stand out from being solely words on a page? How do I make this content more than one dimensional?

I find that creating a list or dividing a poem into strophes can heighten the tension in a poem, much like a countdown before a rocket is launched. I notice that I often use these lists in that way – in an effort to build tension or enhance the tone of the piece.

The entire poem “Gazelles” seems to build to the last line, “They run when we run,” which stands alone.  How do you write an effective ending of a poem? 

There are many ways to end a poem, but of the many, there are a couple practices I find myself returning to again and again.

One way is to allow the poem to end itself. Trust that the poem will tell you when it is done. If you have that intuition, if you have read a lot of poems, if you compose aloud, the rhythm of the poem – like a song – will tell you when it is over. In this, the content and cadence are often connected.

The other way to end a poem comes with revision: when you go back and decide what the poem is about, and what you want it to be about and how to make it effective. That’s when you can polish your ending.

Regardless, I try not to end the poem by providing a tidy resolution (no “ta-daah!” moment), but rather, allow it to end naturally.

I don’t feel like I am the owner of the poem itself. I feel like the poem uses me as its vessel. It knows where it wants to go or how it wants to close.

What are some of the most prevalent ingredients that made you the poet you are?

I love this question. Imagine each of us as a recipe. Five cloves garlic. A pinch of salt.

To answer this, I would say that there are four main ingredients that make me the poet I am at this particular moment. The four largest influences in my work revolve around the following: 1) the concept of form and fixed form, 2) musicality, 3) the work of those I have read and studied and learned from, and 4) my experiences.

My introduction to poetry (as a discipline) was an undergraduate class that focused on fixed form and trying to write within those restraints. It opened my eyes to structure, and experimenting with fixed, nonce, or bent forms is something I always enjoy dabbling with.

And then there’s music. Growing up, there was always music in the home. I was raised with The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Prince. Then came the early years of rap music and beat-boxing. Songs we used to sing and dance to influence my poetry ear now, and I realize that – back then – I was discovering the rhythm of words and literary devices before I knew they were literary devices.

My mom sang in the church choir, and my sister was always singing around the house. My brothers listened to their music, and since I was the youngest child, I was impacted by the various musical styles and genres that I was immersed in.

Without a doubt, the reading of poetry has a great impact. Finding those poems or those books of poems that I feel speak to me, that I can relate to, and inspire me to write continuously encourages, pushes, and challenges me. I love learning from contemporary and past poets. Right now, Louise Glück is a poet I’ve been spending a lot of time with. Her book Meadowlands is one of my favorites.

The final ingredient is that of life experience and story: growing up in a particular location and time: living in the neighborhood surrounded by other neighborhoods in St. Louis, living in an apartment surrounded by other apartments in southern California. My transition from childhood innocence to young adulthood came in a community where gangs were prevalent. It was a big adjustment coming from St. Louis and moving to San Bernardino, where people would do hard drugs right next to our basketball courts, where someone would take out their handgun and leave it on the side of the court next to us while they shot hoops.

Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.

How do you go about titling your poems? Do you begin poems with a title in mind or choose them later on?

It depends, but usually the titles come after – unless, again, I’m writing in response to a particular prompt.

Sometimes I have a line that I want to start a poem with and see where the poem goes from there. After I finish, the title would then come after I see what has been created.

I think titles are important because they can do so much for a poem. Sometimes a poem can be written that simply seems “okay,” until the title is changed; and that title change can impact how a reader processes the content.

If it is a poem included in a manuscript, I have to ask how the title fits into the entire world of poems, how it works with or against the titles around it.

If it is simply a title for an individual piece, then how does the title converse with the piece itself? What work is it doing for the content?

A title, to me, needs to pull weight. It needs to have a purpose. If every word in a poem is deliberate, then the title too should be.

I’m curious about the role of allusion in “(More) Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Some of the names are used elsewhere (like abracadaver, abrakaboom, and Rorschach). Could you elaborate?

Poems are not isolated islands. Everything we read, see, and listen to gets filtered through our minds and the poems become a conversation between the self and the world around us.

When a poet alludes to something or somewhere or someone else (whether it’s a real-life event, a term from an academic discipline, or a line used from a movie), and the reader recognizes it, immediately another layer is added to a poem. In doing so, the reader gets to encounter discovery.

To me, incorporating references, words, and images that hold sociocultural or political or academic connotations further the conversation created by the poem, and that, I feel, is significant – for both the reader and the writer.

In “Golden Shovel,” your form alludes to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but you change the last line to read one duck rather than chickens; I think this change to the original poem is interesting. Why did you choose this?

I love William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is one of those poems I have memorized, and I enjoy the poem because I remember those very wheelbarrows being in the backyards of the neighborhood I grew up in; and so, simply in its imagery, this poem resonates with me.

It triggers a sense of nostalgia, which set the tone while I was drafting the piece. Here, I am back in my birthplace, my hometown, sitting on the porch with my older brothers, waiting for my father to come home – because it is Wednesday, and we get an allowance on Wednesday.

During these years, if my father got home a little later than normal, we’d ask him, “Where was you at?” And rather than answering us directly, he would respond with his always-used return phrase: “To see a man about a duck.” Thus, the shift in the last line from “chicken” to “duck:” to connect directly to a phrase my father used to say in my personal history, a phrase that feels very comfortable and close to me.

You know, one of the things I love about the golden shovel form is the connection it creates between the new poem and the poem included within its lines. It sparks some kind of exchange or an exploration of possible parallels or antitheses or commonalities—even when the two pieces might have very different reasons for existing.

Some of your poems include African American Vernacular English. How do you decide when to switch voices in your poems, and what affect do you desire to accomplish by doing so?

Some poems are set in a time and place in my life where a very particular dialect was used. Because I use more than one dialect, I know that language shifts from context to context. The vernacular tells the reader where the poem is situated.

Through employing my different dialects in a poem, I hope to create more of a setting: to situate the reader in an environment with depth and to make that place feel true to what it is. In staying true to the language, I can be true to the poem’s purpose.

I believe that language creates a real connection. Diction matters. The dialect should reflect the specific situation and experience.

Of course, even if I am using certain language reflective of the AAVE (or of standard English), that does not mean I am writing only to (or for) a particular audience, but rather, that the poem was simply created with a particular event, time, place, and exchange in mind.

“Midway” opens with, “So now when the ghost asks me / my age, I say,” then offers a list of metaphors about who the speaker is. Why did you take the poem in this direction?

Poetry asks of the writer, or speaker, to deliver its message in a way that is unique, unexpected, lyrical, beautiful. It, at times, asks the speaker to show and not tell.

In “Midway,” it would have been easier for me to simply write, “Now that I am this age, I realize how young you were and how much of life you missed. Now that you are gone, I can look back and say you were very young when you were taken away.” It would have been easier to write, “How naïve and innocent we were when we were young. And how many decisions we made based on being naïve and innocent.”

But, had I written that, I don’t know if I would have ended up with a poem. It would have sounded more like a letter or rumination on the past – very prosy. Instead, I wanted to stay true to what poetry asks of any poet and that is to make “it” both new and real, relatable, imaginable.

In the poem, the list of metaphors are all different ways to show that years have passed – in particular, that years have passed since we have lost loved ones. The metaphors aim to show this passing of time and all the ways in which our lives change as we age: with our jobs, with our bodies, with our responsibilities.

“Running in My Sleep” mixes images of war, sex, marriage, and religious exaltation—could you elaborate on what the poem means to you and how long you spent in the writing process to develop it?

When I think about “Running in My Sleep,” it has a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Literally, there are times when I breathe or sweat or move like I’m running while I’m knocked out in bed.

Sometimes I wake up and my wife tells me, “You were running in your sleep again” or she asks, “Were you playing basketball?”

I don’t know why I do this when I’m supposed to be resting (no wonder I’m tired in the morning…), but I decided to spend some time thinking about all the things that could be going on in my mind when I have these episodes.

My point in using the images was to contemplate the many experiences that make us breathe differently: how they are similar, how they are dissimilar.

Our breathing correlates to our feelings, how we process the environment around us. There are times when we try to suck in all the air. There are times when we let out long sighs.

All of these I try to explain through metaphors revolving around breathing and how one breathes when running – whether awake or asleep.

The poem itself connects with the idea of survival, and the idea of running to survive. Flight. The concept of this.

I don’t recall exactly how long this poem took to draft, but it wasn’t a one-and-done. I remember spending a lot of time debating the order of the lines. The sounds of the descriptions and playing with rhythm—deciding how that too correlates to the subject matter.

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Chaun Ballard’s chapbook Flight (Tupelo Press) is the winner of the 2018 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Lunch TicketNarrative MagazineThe New York TimesTupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. He has received nominations for both Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize.

www.chaunballard.com 

https://chaunballard.com/flight/ 

Tara Ballard

“Pay attention to the small wonders as well as the large: the cracks in the sidewalk, the tilt of a chickadees’ head, the fall-rust of mountains.”

Tara Ballard

House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press, 2018)

Your book, House of the Night Watch, focuses on topics that affect the people in the turbulent areas of the Middle East. What drew you to that subject and that area, if I may ask?

I first visited the Middle East when my husband (fiancé at the time) was invited to play basketball for a local professional team in the region. Two years later, when we both finished undergrad and completed our teaching program, we moved there to teach English language and literature at local K-12 schools. And seven years went by – with us living in various countries throughout the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. We learned a great deal during those years (much of which we are still unpacking), and our experience impacted our perspectives in powerful ways. Thankfully, we are able to keep in close contact with many dear ones we spent time with, but my heart misses the region terribly.

One of the blurbs on your website (the one by Tarfia Faizullah) mentions that the speakers of the book are “always watching, and listening too.” Part of being a writer is about noticing, and I was wondering if you have any advice for aspiring poets about cultivating the skill of awareness and attention to detail?

Humans are sponges. Observation is inextricably linked to the ways we write, the ways we think, and, for writers, that is a good thing. For aspiring poets, I would recommend what has been recommended to me: 1) put away the technology and 2) don’t be afraid to spend time looking, listening, smelling, touching, tasting. Pay attention to the small wonders as well as the large: the cracks in the sidewalk, the tilt of a chickadees’ head, the fall-rust of mountains. Use your senses. Write it down, and don’t try to tailor your jottings into stanzas. Just put what is around you onto the page. Spend time simply being in a place. Everything around you is material, is poetry. We just need to wake ourselves to it.

Your poems often deal with fairly heavy or grim subject matter. For example, “Variations on a Wildfire in November” is about an entire city burning down and “An Example” is about a class of boys killing a rabbit that wakes in the middle of a vivisection. Does writing these ever put you into a dark or melancholy headspace? If so, how do you climb out of it?

That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say that writing puts me somewhere dark or melancholy. If anything, writing helps get me out of such places. When I write on a heavy topic, it is because I am struggling with the knowledge of _________ being an actual event. When I don’t understand how something could happen (or why it happened) – with its tragedy, its unfairness or suffering – I write about it. I guess that’s how I wrestle with the world and grapple with the hurts. It is how I process. It is also how I document, so, in years to come, we can say “Yes, this happened” even if it has otherwise slipped from memory.

Living in the Middle East obviously provoked some poetry from you, but when you are at home, where does a poem typically start for you? What inspires or interests you, or sparks a poem?

You know, in all honesty, I felt (feel?) intimidated by “coming home” – and as I adjust back into American culture, I feel that my poetry too must adjust. Acclimation aside, a poem typically starts for me with an image or a phrase, often tied to a memory or experience, whether that is an every-day something (like an evening jog) or something extraordinary. Lately, however, I am noticing that processes are pushing themselves forward in my to-draft list (like harvesting rhubarb or making borscht). Our processes connect us to one another regardless of our backgrounds or locations or nationalities, and this connection in human experience interests me.  

Do you get anything out of your work as an editor that you can use in your writing? In terms of mistakes to avoid, topics that grab your attention, tactics to try, or anything like that.

What I most enjoy about serving as an editor is that I get to learn. I get to read poetry and be surprised by the ideas, the images, and the techniques employed. I especially enjoy reading through poems that are written in fixed or nonce forms that knock my socks off. I love when poets experiment with form, and I find that to be really inspiring. Of course, being an editor is also convicting because I might see something a writer attempts that falls flat, and I can recognize that same attempt in my own work. Being an editor helps me with my own editing process because I get to look at poetry from another angle, that of the reader instead of the writer, calling little facets of composition to my attention, and this is grounding.

House of the Night Watch is your first book, though you’ve published a large body of work in several other journals. Are you writing or planning to write another book any time soon?

I hope so. I am currently working on a second book of poems. I’m not sure when it will near completion (…is writing ever “done”?), but I am now in the process of drafting new work, editing, and thinking about order. Organizing a manuscript is much like organizing an individual poem: you have to think about imagery and word choice, possible themes that emerge, areas of antithesis, areas that could use pruning, whether or not to use sections…I am trying to be patient with the work, the process. I’ll have to see what comes of it.   

When did you first realize you wanted to be a poet and what did the path to now look like?

I don’t know if there was an exact moment where I realized I wanted to be a poet. I grew up writing short stories and poems, and writing has always been a part of my life. I do remember, however, the precise time when I fell in love with what poetry can do, and that was in ninth grade. My English teacher had us read and seminar T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and I was hooked. From there, I think, I took a pretty standard route: My undergraduate degree is in English, and it was during college that I started taking creative writing courses in poetry. Taking poetry seriously, and taking myself seriously, however, did not come until I began the MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. There comes a time when we have to give ourselves permission to say (out loud), “I write poetry,” and this came for me during that first year in grad school. 

What does your writing and revision process usually look like?

I keep a journal. I keep a couch and a favorite blanket and open windows. And I keep a husband who also serves as my in-house editor. Ha! No, in truth, I try to either read or write in the mornings and in the evenings. When I feel unable to write, I read a book of poems or respond to a prompt that forces me to pay attention to form rather than subject matter. And I listen to music—not always, but often—music that puts me in the place I am remembering. When it comes to revision, I try to focus on diction, line breaks (and the images or statements that come from these decisions), and form. Going for a run has now become a part of this polishing process: running allows my brain to revise, to think of words and space differently. It gives me a needed distance from the page.

Who is one of your favorite authors and why?

Ah, there are so many! One of my favorite authors is Pablo Neruda. I love what Neruda does with language. He creates this world full of images and sonic surprise; his poems are just as enjoyable to read aloud as they are to see on the page. I greatly admire how Neruda can take something incredibly normal and, through a poem (like his many odes), make the reader realize how that normal object is worth celebrating. One of my favorite books is his Stones of the Sky, a collection full of love songs to the Earth. I can read it again and again.

Many of the poems in House of the Night Watch have a narrative feel to them, such as in “Maqloobah.” Would you ever consider writing a novel or memoir? If so, would it be fiction or nonfiction?

Oh, goodness. Paragraphs are intimidating. No, really – I think, if I were to explore another genre, I would first toe into essays, perhaps essays that explore the intersections of place and identity. To me, they feel the closest cousins of my poetry.

In “There Are Days When You Don’t Know What to Say,” there is a line that says, “and there is more of God in his face / than in your own.” Spirituality informs this book, so how would you say it plays a part in your writing? 

I do not believe my faith can be separated from my writing, just as I don’t believe my faith can be separated from any other aspect of my life. When it comes to struggle, questioning, prayer, and gratitude – all of this is in conversation with my beliefs. There is much in poetry that parallels to faith, and I think this can be seen throughout the centuries of poems and songs and ponderings. If you are curious, there’s an anthology on this idea titled Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale University Press). It is worth exploring.  

Would you consider this book to be a call to action?

Is there a book of poetry that is not somehow a call to action? What book of poetry does not require us to examine and reexamine the self, the alliances we make and unmake, the decisions we walk toward today and the next?

How did you come to the decision that “A Post-Election Aubade” would be the final poem in the book? What made you want to end such a raw and bitter-sweet story on a note of “grace,” as you say in the final line?

In my early manuscript drafts, “A Post-Election Aubade” was not the final poem in the book. The decision came after the book was accepted by New Rivers Press and after we were working together on a final order. That’s when I realized that I wanted to clarify that I was not declaring a side as being “right” or a side as being “wrong.” I wanted the book to serve as observer, witness, preserver. I wanted the book to reflect simply what it is to be human (to be a woman) in a particular place at a particular time. And I hope that ending with a note of grace affirms this.

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Tara Ballard is from Alaska. For eight years, she and her husband lived in the Middle East and West Africa. She is the author of House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press), winner of the 2016 Many Voices Project, and she holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her work has been published or recently accepted by CONSEQUENCENorth American ReviewPoetry NorthwestSpillwayTupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. She recently won a 2019 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize.

www.tarajballard.com

Leah Huizar

“There are so many mythic versions of California that I couldn’t help but work out my own Latinx, women-led one.”

Inland Empire (Noemi Press, 2019)

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

I took my first poetry course in my last year of college.

I’ve always felt compelled to make things. Even now I devote a lot of my time outside of poetry to bookmaking, printing, and binding. As a teenager, I spent most of my creative energy painting, though without real skill. It taught me to love working out ideas in images. In college, I experienced the possibilities of prose writing and of its space for complexity and reflective thinking. Once I finally arrived in a poetry class, I felt that I’d found my form—one that allowed me to connect image and idea, to build expression and experience.

I’m glad to have discovered poetry so near the end of my undergraduate education since the timing forced me to learn to write and build a portfolio outside of a school setting. Much of my commitments to a writing life were built up over a couple years of working desk jobs. I only applied to grad school for my MFA after learning to write in my everyday life.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

 My cat rotates through a series of napping spots in the house where for a few weeks she’s on the window at the radiator, then in the blue armchair, then the lounge, and so on. I do about the same thing but with an office chair and a folding table. I set up these temporary writing spaces for a while and then move somewhere new. I almost never use my real desk. I always have coffee or tea.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

These poems came into sharpest focus once I started writing about Calafia and the colonizing tales around California. Myths are ways of telling the story of who we are through the pall of the past; they are explanatory and yet can change to fit current needs.

My obsession with these concepts heightened as I realized how much there is to turn over in that place of allure and contradiction. It is a place where immigrant labor is ubiquitous and evanescent. A land of fire and on water. A geography covered in religious iconography and so often thought of as godless. How does one hold all these layers together at once? I began to see, too, how much of my own configurations of self, a hyphenated person of color at home and not at ease, also sat at the center of these tensions. There are so many mythic versions of California that I couldn’t help but work out my own Latinx, women-led one.

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

So many! The many poems reflecting on family are particularly meaningful to me. I expect that readers will immediately recognize the ways that the encounters with mothers and grandmothers are transformative to the speaker of the poems.

Alternately, “Open Armed,” is a solitary experience I often reflect on. This poem was built out of the indignities of air travel. It occurred to me during my routine secondary screening that spreading one’s arms is a gesture both of openness and powerlessness. I am interested in these moments where we experience the possibilities of all the roles we play at once. As I was being searched, I felt acutely how easily I could from one point to the other in an instant.

What was the final poem you wrote or revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The poem, “Santa Ana,” stayed relatively stable throughout the editorial process until the final months before publication. The poem offers a panorama of colonialism moving through that tract of land. However, it was only at the very end of revisions that I understood its importance to the whole collection and to showing how chronicling the past matters now. I then reworked certain sections during final manuscript revisions.

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

I’ve revised individual poems and the collection as a whole over several years. As I revise, I keep records of every draft iteration of every poem. Keeping this kind of record of a poem has meant that I can more easily make necessary but hard changes and cuts because the previous version is always still there if I change my mind a week or a month later.

This system also brings unintended and useful insights for my future writing. At the end of writing poems for this book, I am able to sit down and trace the progression of ideas, obsessions, structures, linguistic features and tics in my poem over years. These drafts offer patterns and insight into the development of poems that I might not have been able to see otherwise.

What are some of your favorite books or chapbooks?

Overall, I feel like this is an amazing moment in poetry. There are so many new poets and powerful voices on the scene. I’ve been especially excited for all the great established and emerging Latinx poets putting books out now. Noemi’s Akrilica series is a great place to start for those interested.

There are so many transformative works of the past few years but two recent books that I’ve loved enough to read with my undergraduate students are Vicki Véritz’s Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. These are quite different books but each in their particular way does brilliant and surprising things with perspective and form. Buy these books if you haven’t had a chance to read them already!

Finally, my longtime favorite poet is Li-Young Lee. I admire his poetry’s restraint, vividness, and generosity of feeling. I return to his books often and continually find more there.

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

Be curious and a reader.

Take your work as seriously as you want your reader to take it.

Give yourself time.

Your voice matters; be honest.

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

The process of writing is powerful and it is easy to get lost in its virtues. It took me longer than I care to admit to see certain gaps at the center of some poems. So, yes, it makes sense to attend to the language and structures of poetry, but craft can sometimes obscure the very obvious idea that one should have something to say.

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

To the poets, what does poetry allow for that other forms you might write in don’t? That’s a long way of asking, why write poetry?

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Leah Huizar is a Mexican-American writer and poet originally from Southern California. She holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and is an assistant professor of English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Inland Empire is her first book of poetry.

www.leahhuizar.com

Kyla Houbolt

“My writing comes from that place of honest communion, or as close to it as I can anchor my language.”

speaking of marvels.pngkyla-cover.jpg

Dawn’s Fool (IceFloe Press2019)

 Tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer. 

I was surrounded with books and music as a child. My parents were both musicians; my mother read poetry to us and we all sang together. I learned to love the music of language in that way. I read widely and voraciously, often attempting to take in material beyond my understanding — I remember in particular trying to grasp Kafka, and at another time, the Bhagavad Gita. An artistic impulse was fostered in me and encouraged, and I began attempting poetry as soon as I could write words.

I did not take an academic route; instead I chose – felt impelled – to just throw myself into the world and life and learn in that way what it was, what is going on here. At various times during my explorations, I focused intently on poetry, trying to learn to write better – trying to learn what that actually meant, to write well. I took a few free workshops, participated in ad hoc writing groups, read at open mics, continued to absorb the writing of others.

Publication has only come since I began interacting online, and previous to becoming involved with the internet I didn’t seek publication except sporadically (and unsuccessfully for the most part.) That I have a chapbook on the verge of being born is a real thrill! A (not so) secret: I have another manuscript, a longer chap, making the rounds, and I have plans for a third I hope to focus on next year. But Dawn’s Fool is special to me in several ways and I hope it does well and is read widely.

What obsessions led you to write Dawn’s Fool? What is this chapbook about?

All of the pieces in Dawn’s Fool speak of my sense of our relationship with the rest of the natural world (from which we are inseparable). Over the years it has become ever clearer to me that if we as a species are to become able to live harmoniously with all the other life that’s here and to successfully address the various environmental crises we face now, we will need to find a degree of what I might call communion with other species, other forms of matter, and even with ourselves. My writing comes from that place of honest communion, or as close to it as I can anchor my language. At times I feel tremendous grief in that place; at other times an exaltation, a joyous ebullience. I hope that range of feeling is conveyed by these poems.

What’s the oldest piece in Dawn’s Fool? Can you say something about how you came to write it?

The oldest piece is the title piece, also called “Dawn’s Fool.” This poem was written in the mid 1990s and as it describes, I was looking out my window as the day brightened, and saw a dove. I had read that doves are not very good at nest building. I wonder about how the mythic significance of certain creatures is not very well aligned with the way they’re understood by science, and it was from that question that the poem arose. (This piece, by the way, was read and recorded on YouTube by Heather Derr-Smith, for the Cuvaj Se Border Poetry Project, and initially was the only previously published piece in the collection. We’ve since added three poems, one of which was published by Mojave He[art] Journal, the poem titled “[getting around].”)

“Dawn’s Fool” became the title poem because of the resonance expressed in the poem; that I see myself in a similar role and position, holding a hope and being not quite able to anchor it, or feeling unable to.  So all the poems speak to that place, of reaching toward peace and a better world we’ve not found our way to yet.

What was the final poem you wrote or revised for this chapbook? What is your revision strategy?

The most recently written poem in Dawn’s Fool is one called “Turtle Law.” It was a difficult poem to write and went through a number of revisions; writing it was like gathering a handful of odd sticks and vines and attempting to weave them into a basket that could hold something. It was challenging to settle the poem into a harmonious flow; it goes from an almost jocular feeling to something deeper and also harder to convey. It seemed a good place to begin this grouping as it echoes in tone all the disparate elements of the chapbook.

My revision strategy, or method, is largely intuitive and voice-based. If a poem does not feel right, I let it sit and come back to it. I tinker with words, cut lines and replace them — all that — but the fundamental and key component of the process is whether something I call the “poet voice” is satisfied.  I read the poem out loud to myself usually many times in order to get to that place where it feels like it all aligns and does what I want it to.

Which poem in Dawn’s Fool has the most meaningful back story to you? What can you tell us about that back story?

Well, I might have a different answer at another time, but today the poem with the most meaningful back story is titled “What Only the Earth Remembers.” I have had several experiences of “hearing” rocks, feeling I am sharing communication with them. The strongest such might be a time I was on the shore of the Ho River in Washington State. The shore there is comprised of vast stretches of river rocks – stones that have been smoothed by tumbling in the water over probably eons of time. They vary in size, tiny to bigger than my head, some striped or solid grays, some with inclusions of other minerals…. As I was walking along and gazing at them the phrase came into my mind “all the stories are in the stones” and I took that to mean that stones keep the record of everything that has happened on the planet. This experience continues to resonate within me. What layers of untold history are trapped in rocks?

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 Dawn’s Fool?

As you know, this is pre-production, this interview; the chapbook is to be printed in mid-December 2019. IceFloe Press is based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and I am in North Carolina, in the U.S.A., so I’m not able to have any hands-on participation. However, Robert Kenter, editor and publisher, is wonderful to work with. He did the cover painting — the actual cover design is not yet finalized — and basically showed it to me and asked “do you like this?” which I very much do! I have worked with Robert on a couple of other smaller projects and know his standards for visual expression are high; he is careful to run any decisions by me of course, but I trust him to continue in a direction that will result in a beautiful product. He will be doing some illustrations for the interior of the book as well.

Robert also did some editing of the poems — we had a little back and forth with that which was quite harmonious and productive. I appreciated his fine-tuning and was able to do even more fine-tuning in response.

What are you working on now?

I have some new work that is less Earth focused — some of it is scheduled to appear next year, probably in January, and some more recent pieces are in consideration by a few journals, but the ongoing project at this time is my Greenway Poet project. I have taken to sticking poems up on trees in a local walking park, signing them as Greenway Poet. I’ve also written some poems from that place, as it were, inspired by the Greenway directly. (Two of those pieces are included in Dawn’s Fool.) Next year I expect to put together a collection of my Greenway Poems, but it is still formative. I’m tickled to say that my anonymity has been busted by some interested neighbors who also frequent the park and I have been assured that many people do read and enjoy my poems there. Guerilla poetry for the win!

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Kyla Houbolt has only been seeking publication since March 2019, and has been published in numerous online journals. You can find most of her published work in her Linktree, here: linktr.ee/luaz_poet She is a Best of the Net nominee for 2019 and you can find her on Twitter @luaz_poet. The pre-order link for Dawn’s Fool as well as an image of the cover painting can be found here:

https://icefloepress.net/kyla-houbolts-dawns-fool-a-microchap/

 

Eve F. W. Linn

“I write what I would describe as narrative lyrics. I truly believe in the power of storytelling, especially personal history, as redemptive.”

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Model Home (River Glass Books, New Orleans, LA, 2019

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

I was definitely an obsessive reader long before considering myself a writer. Oddly, I don’t recall reading or learning any poems. I was much more aware of fiction writers and biographers. The first book that had the first major impact on my life was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths which was when I was about six years old or around the third grade. The second influential book was The Diary of Anne Frank, which I also read in elementary school. I had a very advanced vocabulary for a young reader, I read fast, and could remember complex plots with little trouble. English was a subject I excelled in, unlike math, so I felt empowered by my success, even though I was teased by other students. I was also mocked for being a poor speller (still true) and terrible at math. I also enjoyed learning to write cursive script and adored pens, paper, all things stationery, except for pencils, which I disliked because they were large and thick and left smudges of graphite on my hands. My mother read aloud to me almost every day, mostly children’s classics, like Little Women, the Five Little Peppers,and many biographies.  There was an orange cloth-bound series of girls’ lives in different periods of American history which were favorites. In my twenties, I discovered the Diary and Letters of Virginia Woolf, then her novels, essays and book reviews after I had immersed myself in her personal history. I was and remain compelled by the lives of women. I published my first poem in the school newspaper in sixth grade. I still remember my excitement at seeing my words in print and, of course, my name. That feeling has never diminished.

I grew up in a Manhattan apartment, the oldest of three sisters. I was very independent and traveled alone around the city. I especially loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a huge influence on subjects I later wrote about. I always loved painting and art making, and majored in Studio Art in college. I also studied Art History and took many English courses.

How do you decorate your writing space?

My writing space or spaces must have windows. I like to be able to get up and walk around my space.  There are towering piles of printouts, drafts, and unshelved books. I prefer to write in silence, usually in mid-morning or late at night. I don’t have a particular writing routine, and have been struggling with a difficult period of writing very little. I sometimes wonder if having an organized space might contribute to greater productivity.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?

This is a very complex and fascinating question. My ethics are pretty simple. Be kind, tell the truth, do not gossip, support causes you believe in, avoid too-quick judgments, listen intently, and work for compromise. I often write about artists and art, in a form called ekphrasis, which became the basis for my graduate seminar, a requirement in my MFA program. I also write about complex family dynamics, mental health, nature, sorrow, the aging process, and death. I write what I would describe as narrative lyrics. I truly believe in the power of storytelling, especially personal history, as redemptive. My poetic aesthetics tend to focus on extreme experiences, i.e. matricide, violent accidents, which may either be totally invented or fact-based.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

The primary obsession that led me to write Model Home was the impact that my childhood of secrets had on me. Not every poem enacts that obsession, but I think that was a primary motivation. I also believe I have a unique way of seeing the world: I dwell in details. Time and time again, people have commented on my powers of observation, and it is something I don’t even think about, it just is part of my brain and my artistic training. By focusing on the very small, I then tend to build the poem outward to include a larger circumference. (See re: what is your chapbook about.)

What’s your chapbook about?

My chapbook also deals with the aspect of powerlessness inherent in childhood.  This may not be overt, but it is a definite undercurrent. As children, it is very difficult to question decisions, especially of our parents and teachers or other authority figures.

 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 oldest poems in the chapbook are heavily revised from my MFA thesis written in 2012. They include “Ashfield, Massachusetts, 1890,”  “When I was Pregnant and Sucked Lemons,” and “Before You Leave.” The first one is spoken by a dead child, the others are in the voice of a mother. They are all related to the female experience of pregnancy, childbirth, connection and disjunction.

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

The chapbook had various titles before it was accepted with the current one, Model Home. This title seemed to encompass most of the major themes, as well as having several possible interpretations: Model as in the best, something to aspire to, Model as in a small version of a larger object, Model as in something impossible or difficult to obtain, such as the latest car or designer clothing. My long time poetry mentor helped with the arrangement of poems.

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

I would say that “Ballastis” is unlike most of the other poems. I wouldn’t say it’s a misfit, but it is an outlier in terms of syntax and voice. I would call it an entangled Ars Poetica, as is “I Hang My Dress From A Hole in the Sky.”

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The final poem I wrote was the title poem. It was not included in the original submission to the press, but they felt it was a good fit. The first version was more conventional in form, but I decided the fragments were a better fit for the emotional context.

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

I don’t have a favorite revision strategy. Often if I am stuck, I will look at art and photography books, or go back and reread the original text that inspired the poem, or look at previous revisions and see if there is something in a prior draft that I can use to reenergize the poem, or draft it in another form.  I try removing all the articles and adjectives to tighten up the lines, or type the text in a block and re-lineate it without looking at the original. Or circle the strongest lines and copy and paste those in another document and revise. Or if I’m completely frustrated, I will put it aside and come back to it in a couple of weeks.

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

I had the most positive and collaborative experience with my press. I took the cover image for the book. That wasn’t planned, but I was very happy to be able to do it. I was less familiar with the demands of print and layout, so I was happy with the press taking charge of that aspect, but every decision was made as a team and via email which I think is amazing! It was a fantastic first experience, and I recommend going with a small press as long as you can get information about their prior books, either online or through a personal connection. Do not sign any legal document without getting either a lawyer or someone with publishing experience to review it. Make sure you understand the financials and copyright issues prior to signing.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am trying to find a new project that may result in another chapbook, I have a full length collection that needs substantial revision, but I am concerned that the material may be too old. There may be some poems that can be incorporated into another project. Working to promote and design a book was much more demanding than I anticipated. It was difficult to write new work or think about what I would do after Model Home because I was completely invested in getting it out in the world as the best work I could do.

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

My advice to students interested in creative writing is to find a writing group. If you can’t find one, start one. Find a mentor, develop relationships with your faculty, attend readings when you can, read as much as possible.  Think about other ways you can use your writing skills. I found book reviewing was very rewarding. Study the writers of the past, poetry has a long history. Find a period or a poet that fascinates you and immerse yourself. Don’t forget about context. Poetry, like all other art forms, reflects cultural concerns.

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

I read chapbooks from friends and press mates. As I have been thinking about chapbooks, I realized that the form’s readership is severely undermined by lack of accessibility. Chapbooks are rarely available in bookstores, even independent ones. A small run book that doesn’t provide much profit isn’t going to be stocked in large retailers. I think this is a real problem as the possibilities offered to both the reader and writer of chapbooks are so various. As you continue your study of chapbooks and the writing of poetry, maybe you could think about establishing an online Chapbook Clearing House, where people could have the opportunity to see what’s being written. I think this would be a great class project.

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Eve F.W. Linn received her B.A. cum laude from Smith College in Fine Art and her M.F.A. in Poetry from the Low Residency Program at Lesley University. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Frost Place Conference on Poetry, and the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.  She is a published poet and book reviewer.  Her first chapbook is Model Home, published by River Glass Books, July 2019. Her favorite color is blue. She collects antique baby shoes, vintage textiles, and art pottery. She lives west of Boston with her family and one demanding feline.

https://riverglassbooks.com/product/model-home/

 

Anita Felicelli

“Perhaps the biggest challenge to continuing to write is realizing you are the only person who deeply cares if you keep writing.”

Love Songs

Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, 2018)

Of the stories in this book, do you have a favorite? 

I’m not someone who claims not to have favorites – of course I have them. I have three favorites: the title story, “Once Upon a Great Red Island,” and “Rampion.” The first because it allowed me to write about language and identity, which are an endless source of interest to me. I love “Once Upon a Great Red Island” because I’m interested in the rifts between people, people from the same and people from different cultural backgrounds, and all we’re unable to adequately communicate with each other (and more idiosyncratically, this story distills certain plot points of an earlier failed novel, and it allowed me to salvage what I found beautiful from that failure). “Rampion” I love because it’s absolutely, purely my own aesthetic that I didn’t need to change at all in order to publish – surrealism and my favorite childhood fairytale and deep tragedy all rolled together.  

In your interview with Sarah Luria for Medium, you explain that some of your stories “grew out of an autobiographical seed.” Could you say more about this? 

I pay close attention — often painfully close attention — to what’s around me. I’m often inspired by something I’ve witnessed, even if that’s only a sensory impression. Nothing I’ve put into the world as fiction so far could be fairly construed as autobiography, but at least one aspect of every short story grew out of something I’ve experienced, but imaginatively transformed. For example, I did visit Madagascar like my protagonist does in “Once Upon a Great Red Island,” and I’ve worked with finance guys. However, my travels weren’t linked to a vanilla farm, nor have I dated a hedge fund manager like Leon, as my character Tarini does in that story. 

Your characters are fascinating and dynamic, and their pursuits of what they desire can twist your stories in interesting ways. Do you have a favorite character in Love Songs for a Lost Continent? Which characters are most like you personally? Are there any characters you particularly dislike or struggled to write?

I most love Hema in “Hema and Kathy.” She’s vibrant and spirited, and when she makes a decision that might be a mistake, that everyone around her recognizes as a terrible mistake, she still goes full-force into that decision. She follows her heart even when her heart makes her an idiot. There’s something tragic and vulnerable in that, and yet also honorable. How many people truly follow their hearts? The older I get, the more I understand how rare that is, how often we contort what we truly want in order to better fit with what we think we want, or even more often, what society thinks we should want. I love Hema’s chutzpah, her unwillingness to let herself be defined by her upbringing, or the worldview her parents want her to have. 

I share certain, strangely opposite personality traits with both Komakal in the title story and Leda in “Swans and Other Lies.” Komakal’s an artist; she’s passionate to such an extreme degree, it’s hard for her to be among other people who care less. Leda in “Swans and Other Lies” is a shapeshifter without a sturdy identity. She’s able to mold herself to what a situation requires, and inclined to keep her feelings to herself. 

I had a little bit of discomfort with the character Devi in the story “Snow” and the character Maisie in “The Art of Losing,” but I’ve spent so much time with them, dislike doesn’t enter the equation. It did feel unfamiliar and challenging to put myself inside worldviews so different from my own, and to depict them in a way that I think is honest, rather than either sensationalistic or falsely conciliatory.

I imagine that a book like yours required grit and vulnerability, that you poured yourself into these stories. At what point did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Were you challenged in your pursuit of that dream and desire? 

Thank you for saying so. I did pour myself into these stories. I knew I wanted to be a writer at age five. I wasn’t as challenged as some writers in pursuing that dream because I developed a writing habit so young it wouldn’t occur to me not to write. I assume it’s more challenging to come to writing in middle age and develop a habit. I’ve never stopped writing, even when I had a day job that drained me emotionally and made my writing stiff and ugly, and I’m fairly certain that’s because I see writing as part of my identity, a bigger part of who I am than my cultural background or my gender. Perhaps the biggest challenge to continuing to write is realizing you are the only person who deeply cares if you keep writing. 

Are there any short story authors that have impacted your writing, or any you enjoy and would recommend? 

Early on in my writing life, I read Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and Nikolai Gogol, and these authors almost certainly impacted how I write. Short story writers I love and recommend: Joy Williams, Robert Coover, Ben Marcus, Charles Yu, James Baldwin, Kelly Link, Denis Johnson, Laura van den Berg, Kelly Luce, Rajesh Parameswaran, Nina McConigley, Jamel Brinkley, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and Rita Bullwinkel. 

How long did it take you to write Love Songs for a Lost Continent? Could you describe your writing process with this book? 

I wrote one of the stories in the collection, “Wild Things,” back in 1998 in a writing workshop. The others were written in the interim. In 2014, I noticed there were certain recurring themes in my stories — memory, identity, and reinvention. I started looking at how the stories with these themes might fit together, even if some had a surrealist bent, while others were odd in their observations, but could still fit within the realm of realism.

In your interview with Drunk on Ink’s Soniah Kamal, you mentioned the pain of rejection in the writing and publishing process. How did you push through to get your stories published? What advice would you give to fellow writers who are stuck on their third or fourth rejection letter?

Rejection is a constant of writing (and other arts) in a way that it is not in other vocations. Paraphrasing and interpreting Toni Morrison, you have to treat rejection with dispassion, as information about a particular reader’s affinity for your material, and tolerate the ambiguity of that. Unlike a law firm or corporate job, rejection in the arts might mean you’re doing something relatively new, or something editors don’t know how to read yet. Our lives are set up to favor those things that are clear, easily classified, and that conform to the existing structures and thinkers of the society in which we live. But brilliant writing may not conform the way other endeavors do. The only good reason to write is because it gives you something other endeavors don’t, and so you learn to keep going simply through the act of keeping on keeping on. 

In your experience, what is the role of emotion in writing? How do you see emotions at work in your own fiction?

The role of emotion in fiction varies depending on the story being told. Some stories mandate a hotter emotional temperature than others. As a reader, I privately note when a story makes me feel I’m being manipulated with a false or unearned sense of tragedy, and I hold that author’s work at arm’s length ever after, even if I like the style and subject. Being hit over the head with emotionality in writing tells me an author doesn’t trust me, and therefore might not be entirely trustworthy either. With every piece of fiction I write, I’m conscious of tailoring the degree of emotion revealed based on the personality of the main character. I read to be inside someone else, not necessarily or always to feel all the feels, so I want to transport the reader into a particular protagonist’s headspace, particularly when I’m writing in first person or close third. Sometimes restraint and allowing a reader to come to the emotions or even work towards emotions, rather than dragging him or her there, is a more inviting approach.

I used a cooler approach in “Love Songs” because of its first person narrator’s personality. The story centers a man caught between different worlds — the two different worlds of his parents’ different caste identities and the different worlds of South India and America. He has a hard time feeling anything, and part of that is his personality — cerebral, intellectual, analytical — but the other part is that he has to code-switch and recalibrate all the time due to traveling in between worlds, and that consumes so much mental space, he doesn’t have time to pay close attention to his emotions. The unnamed narrator in “Rampion” is much more attentive to her emotions, and her grief and anger drive her to do a terrible thing. In my novel, Chimerica, the narrator, Maya, is a trial attorney who mostly suppresses her emotions in all her interactions. Trials are battles, are violence, and attorneys absorb the violence for their clients, and so Maya, like other attorneys, usually doesn’t make herself vulnerable by showing her real feelings to the other characters — everything needs to be about performance, rather than authenticity. 

In the beginning of “Elephants in the Pink City,” Kai and his father bicker over anything and everything. However, by the end of the story, their relationship changes. Could you talk a bit about your interest in changing relationships? 

I’m fascinated by the moments that transform people. But, unlike some other writers, perhaps, I don’t see any individual as operating in a vacuum. We are made out of our relationships to other people, of how other people see us and treat us, our collective memories, our personal and cultural histories. Kai has a fraught relationship with his parents, especially his father. They don’t understand and support his decisions, not only because he’s gay and they’re socially conservative immigrants, but also because he’s American. His father is simply unable to make the imaginative leap necessary to understand him. Sometimes what feels uncanniest in the Freudian sense is someone or something that looks similar to something you can identify, and yet is somehow slightly different. It’s unnerving when a similarity or resemblance is clear, and yet there’s a difference. Kai is making decisions his parents can’t identify with even though he looks like a Tamil person, like them. So, it’s Kai who needs to undergo an experience and through that experience, understand this gap between himself and his father. He needs to reconcile himself to a basic irreconcilability in the relationship, to the possibility love might transcend the distance in experiences, the blindness we have to each other’s experiences. 

I’m fascinated by how the most transformative moments of our lives are often the ones that involve how we see another person or how they see us. Playing with the opening and narrowing of the many gaps and fissures between people is so interesting. How do we stand in right relationship to one another when change is constant? I’ll likely be wondering and writing about this for the rest of my life. 

Anita Felicelli is the author of Chimerica (WTAW Press) and Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press). Her essays and criticism have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, the New York Times (Modern Love) and elsewhere.

www.anitafelicelli.com

Susan Haldane

“We convince ourselves that all these other things are important–money, politics, our phones, the new TV series. But when birth and death come–when we face important milestones or crises–it’s not these things that we turn to for solace. It’s the natural world, the little things, the people around us.”

Susan pictures

Picking Stones (Gaspereau Press, 2018)

Emma Chase and Kendyl Wadley: I noticed in your blog piece for “My (small press) writing day” that you have “sheep, cattle and in summer a few pigs” on your farm. I did not, however, see any reference to cattle or pigs in Picking Stones, despite the frequent references to sheep. Is there a reason that you wrote as often as you did about sheep? Is there something about them that draws you to them more than the other animals?

I think there’s a practical answer to this question–we have raised sheep on our farm for longer than either cattle or pigs, so I’ve simply had more experience with sheep. But beyond that, the sheep require more hands-on management. We spend more time with the sheep than with the other animals, and we’re more likely to be with them at key moments. I wonder if what draws me is simply the sense of being needed.

Several of your poems (such as “Spring and Everything Turns,” “Instructions for Lambing,” and even “Farm Hands”) explore the idea of new life and new beginnings, while others (namely “Balm of Gilead,” “At the Stockyard,” and “Instructions for Lambing” again) consider the idea of death. How has your proximity to your animals’ seemingly brief cycles of life affected the way you view life and death? 

Many of us in North America today are quite isolated from the experience of birth and death. Livestock farming brings those realities into your daily life. You’re forced to find some balance between being overwhelmed and becoming hardened. I think you develop resilience, find ways to take births and deaths in stride, but they still affect you. We still celebrate every birth–albeit in a low-key way–and mourn each death. It would be impossible not to transpose that experience into my personal life. I admit I’m a little obsessed with death, but maybe all poets are. Or all humans?

Jonah’s encounters with the Ninevites, David’s life as a shepherd, and creation are probably the three most prominent biblical references in Picking Stones, and each one casts a fascinating light on their surrounding texts. What inspired you to include these references in your poems?

I grew up in a church-going family. I attended Sunday school and a couple of worship services every Sunday as a kid. I taught Sunday school myself. So these characters and stories are part of my DNA. For me as a writer, and I hope for a reader, these references provide a rich layering like an impasto of colour. I think there’s also maybe some questioning or challenging reflected in some of the mild sarcasm or irony in these poems–I think part of our job as poets is to challenge truths and traditions.

There seems to be a strong tension between the advancement of progress described in some of your poems and the almost stuck-in-time nature of rural life described in others. For example, the description of the rural landscape “[g]one / to concrete, gone to steel, gone / for streets, strip malls and houses, / houses, houses” in “Aerial Photographs” contrasts with the description of how a farmer’s life is unchanging––“We have been here forever; we will be here / forever waiting on the land / while the sun shines”––in “Making Hay” and other poems. How would you describe the way you feel this tension as a farmer and writer?

All the farmers I know are very much interested in new approaches, new technology, best practices. In contrast to that, though, we are working with (or against) elemental forces, and the work of raising food is so fundamental that it carries a huge weight of tradition. I think farming honours the generations of labourers who’ve come before, and I hope to do the same through my poems. But let’s face it, farming is under-appreciated in our urban society. People believe their food comes from Walmart, and land is valued much more as real estate than as garden and food source. When I have to go to the city, I find the urban sprawl thoroughly disheartening. We just can’t seem to stop ourselves. Does this sound like a rant?

One aspect of your poetry that I found highly moving was its descriptions of nature, especially those parts which so often go unnoticed. The chapbook’s evaluation of stones as pieces of pieces of “Creation” with unknowable histories (“Picking Stones”) and its vivid details in “Spring and Everything Turns” are two of my favorite examples of these descriptions. The poem “Starling Ballet” gives some insight into how to go about appreciating  nature with its declarations of “to hell / with science! And the damned inquiring mind” and “For once can we just / look.” Could you comment on your process for writing these descriptions and examining the world around you?

It’s another paradox of farm life that you’re surrounded by nature, but so often nature just looks like more work! Still, I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed to live in a place and in a way that’s so close to the pulse of the seasons, to the flora and fauna. I make a point of stopping to notice which wildflowers are in bloom, which birds have come back to the pasture, the way the snow drifts have scrolled around the fence posts. I think the reference to the “inquiring mind” in Starling Ballet is a note-to-self to remember to stop, observe, appreciate, breathe. It’s a reminder that I don’t always have to name, understand, and explain things.

Two of your poems, “Instructions for Lambing” and “How to Shear Sheep,” are written in the second person and resemble how-to instructions in a way that causes the reader to insert him- or herself into the drama of the poem. What was the motivation behind choosing this mode of writing?

Especially with “Instructions,” the how-to approach was a way for me to gain some distance from an emotional event. A writer named Nicole Breit talks about finding a “side door” into difficult material. The how-to was my side door.

In “Current,” you write about a group of boys who link hands and touch an electric fence. What inspired this poem? Is there some kind of story behind the boy named Charlie (perhaps a regretted personal experience or something you witnessed)?

Everyone on a livestock farm has accidentally touched an electric fence–not a pleasant experience. Charlie is a real kid, a friend of my son, and the poem came from a real event, when a bunch of the boys did exactly this. The kid touching the fence then doesn’t receive the shock, but the last one in the line gets a reduced jolt. I don’t know why they decided to do this–must be a boy thing…

I noticed that three different poems, “Balm of Gilead,” “Starling Ballet,” and “Villanella Borealis,” contain references to stars.  Are you partial to the night sky or astronomy? What do you think it is that draws your attention to it?

We can see the stars here. We’re so lucky! It’s hard for me to conceive that there are people who rarely get to see the constellations. I am in love with the night sky for all the clichéd reasons – so vast, so distant, so eternal… Again, my natural inclination is to name and understand and explain. My grasp of astrophysics is pretty rudimentary, but I do find it fascinating. I think it’s an area where science and religion don’t need to be mutually exclusive. The more we learn about cosmology, the more it suggests, to me, a brilliant creative force behind it all.

In “Spring and Everything Turns,” you vividly describe the change of the seasons from winter to spring. Which season would you say is your favorite to behold? Which season is your favorite to write about?

Spring is hard to resist–there’s nothing sweeter than baby animals and few things more rewarding than helping a newborn lamb or calf find its first sip of milk. But fall is likely my favourite season. I really appreciate the slowing pace of things after the hustle and heat of summer. I find myself writing often about November, which is probably the least obvious month if you were looking for poetic inspiration!

“Picking Stones” for a farmer refers to his/her responsibility of removing stones in order for new crops to come to life. It is the tedious and necessary task that no one is ever eager to do, but if it’s avoided, growth is stunted. In what ways does your title and this reference relate to what is required of life?

It’s true; there are many tasks in farming that are tedious and necessary! It’s a pretty boring philosophy of life, but I do believe in the value of showing up every day, doing the hard stuff. I don’t necessarily expect that hard work will be rewarded in any tangible way, but there are intrinsic rewards. “We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Throughout your chapbook, there is an emphasis on creation and the importance of acknowledging the world around us. For example, you open the chapbook with “we stub our toes on creation.” In “El Camino Trail,” you say, “It’s important to notice the little things.” Why is it important for you and your readers to be grounded in creation? How has raising sheep allowed you to do this, and in what ways does creation validate your faith? 

And really, what else is there, but creation and the world around us? We convince ourselves that all these other things are important–money, politics, our phones, the new TV series. But when birth and death come–when we face important milestones or crises–it’s not these things that we turn to for solace. It’s the natural world, the little things, the people around us. My faith is pretty simple, too–it’s very much based on caring for creation and caring for one another. On our farm we do our best to mimic the patterns and preferences that our animals have naturally. So raising sheep has allowed me to fulfill a call to stewardship.

I love the language in all of these poems, especially in “At the Stockyards”: “To the air: Always this gift—from sawdust hushing under the lambs’ hooves on the ramps and away down the alleys, the scent of beginnings until just now forgotten.” I found it the most challenging piece to read. The chapbook seems to focus on creation, life, and hardship. How does “At the Stockyards” fit in with these overall themes? 

You asked earlier about a favourite poem or one that was difficult to write. It’s interesting that you found this one challenging to read, because it was likely the most challenging to write. I’m committed to livestock agriculture, our role in caring for creation, and the part livestock farming plays in mitigating climate change. But when the time comes to say goodbye to our animals, I’m always torn. I’d been wanting to write about this for a long time but couldn’t find a way in. Finally I realized I needed to just capture some of the physical surroundings and write the experience in a minimalist way.

The last poem, “Current,” says, “The pacemaker in the barn ticks and the charge circulates, travelling its marathon patrol over the esker, through the creek’s floodplain, along the forest hem and finally home.” I appreciated that there was a resolution to the journey that this chapbook follows. What does returning home and this finality signify?

I’m not sure it’s resolution so much as resumption. Farming, of course, is a cycle as is the electricity that flows through the fence. For me the idea of home is at the centre of those cycles.

You’ve written, “Most of my writing happens in my head… I repeat and repeat a line or phrase in my head until I have a chance to write it down… I trust that it will still make sense when I come back to it later.”  Other than this, how do you approach the writing process?

I try to take time to write every day, but I miss a lot of days! When I do have time, it may be 15 or 30 minutes. I usually read a bit of poetry to focus and quiet my brain, then write. I do a lot of revision. My first couple of drafts are handwritten–that feels more creative for me than drafting on screen. I’ll write and rewrite, then eventually type it up and leave the poem to ripen for a few days or weeks (or months) before I come back to it to try to read it with fresh eyes.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers who are also trying to write or publish a chapbook? What advantages or disadvantages do you find in putting together a chapbook versus other types of publication? 

A chapbook is a lovely compromise–long enough to allow you to develop a focused theme but short enough to be within reach. I don’t feel qualified to offer advice, but things I’ve learned as I go would be to prune aggressively, revise repeatedly, proofread diligently, and detach from the brilliance of your first inspiration. And then at some point, you just have to decide it’s done and send it out there and try to get on with the rest of your life.

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Susan Haldane is a poet and works for a social services charity. She farms with her husband on the edge of Northern Ontario, Canada. Her work has been published in a number of literary journals in Canada, and in the anthology “Desperately Seeking Susans” from Oolichan books. In 2019 she won the Magpie Poetry Prize from Pulp Literature. Her chapbook “Picking Stones” is published by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia, Canada.