Angela Gabrielle Fabunan

“Creativity stems from the flux of something in the middle between the input and the output. Once you reside in the middle of that, focus on what you want, and own it. It’s yours.”

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The Sea That Beckoned (Platypus Press, 2019)

The opening poem, “First Day,” suggests fear and hope and loneliness, which seem to be recurring themes in the book. Could you say a bit about your choice to start with this poem?

I start with this poem because it is a good starting point which the rest of the collection jumps into, namely belonging and what I call the state of unbelonging. “First Day” makes the decision of the speaker to the highlight the fear, the hope, and the loneliness of this state of unbelonging quite apparent. While there is fear and loneliness in unbelonging, which is at first the emotions of the speaker, there is also hope in finding a community where one isn’t fearful, where one truly belongs.

You place Filipino/Tagalog words so that English-only speakers will understand the poems from context. Could you talk about how your poems play with languages and what some desired effects might be?

I was aware of the choice I was making in code-switching from Tagalog to English and English to Tagalog. Although I am not as skilled in it as others who write bilingual or multilingual poetry, I wanted to make clear the language barriers I experienced in moving back and forth from America and the Philippines. I wanted to simulate an experience that would make the text unfamiliar and yet familiar, but I also didn’t want to be incomprehensible at the same time. That’s why my publishers and I decided not to include a translation page; we thought the code-switching, though not seamless, was fitting for the work as a whole.

Could you discuss “Vacating”? Its metaphors suggest a summer romance—different in tone and subject from other poems in the collection. What made you decide to include it?

I included “Vacating” almost instinctively, because it was one of the first poems that I wrote about my childhood town of Olongapo City, Subic Bay, and Zambales, Philippines. I thought it fit because the overwhelming metaphor of the sea is there. It’s one of the earlier poems because, later in the collection, I destroy that innocent summer romance when the rainy season comes, or maybe it destroys itself. But I definitely wanted to include that sweetness of that poem in this collection, that excitement of being in love and wanting to linger in that moment, which is why I suppose it has a different tone, because the narrative sort of goes downhill from there. What happened to that summer romance? Well, it started raining.

The different concepts I introduced in that poem expanded to become the subject of other poems in that collection in my writing process from 2014-2017: the semblance of being midway from the beginning to end, the momentary glimmers of a good love, arrival and departure, belonging and unbelonging, memory, the shore, the sun—all of these elements make their way through the rest of the chapbook, though maybe not quite in the same cheery tone.

Your biography says that you were born in the Philippines and raised in New York City. Have you traveled to the Philippines, and how has that influenced your writing?

I currently live in the Philippines at the moment and I’ve been here since 2012. I was born in the Philippines and migrated to New York at an early age in 1997. Before I went back again in 2012, I had only visited once or twice. So, in the early stages of my writing life, Filipino writers and books did not influence my writing as much as Anglo-American literature did. I remember one specific moment when I was at my favorite library in New York trying to find the Philippine Literature section of the library. They said it was on the third floor, but I didn’t find anything and went home empty-handed. That was a sad moment. I suppose that’s why I write about the Philippines now, because I’m still trying to make up for that one sad moment out of all the sad moments of my life.

When did you decide that you wanted to write, specifically poems about your heritage and history?

I didn’t know much about Philippine heritage and history before I went back to the nation as an adult, so I felt unqualified to write about it before then. I still feel that way now, and I think my work is less in the category of Philippine literature than it is Filipino-American literature, which are two different things. When I started learning a little about the very dramatic history of Philippine Literature in English, including the works and the lives of the authors, I was intrigued. I thought it would be at the very least interesting to talk about Philippine diaspora, but I guess I didn’t realize its importance to the many people who have had that experience, until people (of all backgrounds, not just Filipinos) started telling me about their own experiences of migration, after reading the book. In this always-connected world, our times breed ambivalence about our own histories and heritages amongst the histories and heritages of those we encounter in our daily lives, no matter what country we live in. And, The Sea That Beckoned wants to scratch the surface of that ambivalence.

The acknowledgements mention teachers, classmates, family, and friends who built you up as you developed this book. Were there times you experienced setbacks, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are discouraged?

The people I’ve mentioned in my acknowledgements are only a small list of people who have contributed to the book. There are many more that should be credited for their help in developing my work, but I hope that there will be more books to come for that. This is because nearly every conversation I have had with every person I have met in my life has contributed in some way to my writing. Sometimes, even those conversations I have accidentally overheard have contributed.

There were definitely many times I experienced setbacks, hundreds of setbacks. For example, I have applied 121 times since 2013 to now to publications through Submittable, and I have been accepted 7 times. That’s not including the email submissions or query letters I’ve sent. Being a writer is not an idyllic day job; a writer falls many times before they can even contemplate walking. So, my advice is to keep walking, with your head held high. There is no one that can tell you if your writing is good or bad but yourself. You are your own best friend and worst enemy, as well as your friendliest and stiffest competition. And allow yourself to take some time off to take care of yourself. Use those times to read in order to further your craft. Read everything; menus, manuals, poetry, stories, news sources, your lover’s eyes, your mother’s hands. Reading these will all teach you something that can help you in your way. Creativity stems from the flux of something in the middle between the input and the output. Once you reside in the middle of that, focus on what you want, and own it. It’s yours.

Oh, and my advice to young writers is read, write, and get accustomed to being poor.

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

They all have back stories, some which I’m willing to reveal and some which will remain private.

Most of the poems were written between 2014-2017 in and out of workshop classes in the master’s program at the University of the Philippines. This was around the time I felt that bit of unbelonging and I was still adjusting to the new school environment. The Filipino-American label came to be prominent around that time, but it was less of a self-identification and more of a marker that explained why I talked and acted the way that I did. It was a label people automatically placed on me. I eventually have come to love and embrace being a Fil-Am, but it was something to be accustomed to—it was a foreign concept to me at first. I think that state of being neither American nor Filipino as well as being both has grown into this collection. That’s pretty much the backbone of “Midway” or “First Day.” “First Day” was written in the Philippines, about my experience entering classrooms and being weird about my Fil-Amness. “Midway” was written in NYC when I was working full-time in the Flatiron District, about how being in that space and missing home was weird as well.

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

They’re all somewhat misfits that somehow make up my misfit life. Half kidding. On a serious note, though, there’s an overwhelming narrative of the “misfit.” To answer your question, I think “To The Man Who Claimed Me” was a difficult poem to conceive, to write, and to edit. I wanted to make an homage to a great Filipina poet, Angela Manalang Gloria, and wanted it to coincide with her famous sonnet, “To The Man I Married.” I’m not convinced that I did her justice in my rip-off, but I tried my best in the editing rounds, along with my publishers Michelle Tudor and Peter Barnfather, to convey the right emotion and message. It doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the poems because from a readerly lens, I think it’s too romantic, and as a writer, I think it’s thoroughly unfinished (although I subscribe to the belief that all poems are unfinished, to a certain extent). So, I’ll be working and revisiting that poem in particular in my future practice.

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

Sometimes, when I commit myself to locking myself inside my apartment and writing, I put scented oils in a burner and get so sleepy that I don’t actually write. I can’t write on my bed, I can’t write while on moving vehicles, I can’t write in complete silence. I can’t actively listen to music while writing, although white noise, some chatter, and some overhead music is fine. This is why I write on a chair, in the upright position, usually in a café where there’s background noise and refills of coffee.

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 poem towards the end of the process that I and my publishers made extensive edits to was “Fishnet,” which appears in the first half of the book. We decided collectively to condense two poems into one and then edit that version. “Fishnet” combined some aspects of part II of another poem, “Fair Game” published in Maganda Magazine, USA. I think it’s fitting that editing “Fishnet” was one of the last things I did, because it’s literally about beckoning and fantasy production. I think the book tries to beckon its readers into an experience of a fantasy as much as that of realistic social conditions. So, whenever someone picks up my book, they’re in my fishnet.

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Angela Gabrielle Fabunan was raised in NYC and lives in the Philippines. She graduated from Bowdoin College and attends the University of the Philippines MA Creative Writing Program. In 2016, she was awarded the Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation Awards for Poetry. She has been a recipient of the Rutan Grant as well as the Gibbons Fellowship, and participated in the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. She is a poetry editor at Inklette Magazine. Her first book of poetry, The Sea That Beckoned, is available from Platypus Press. 

Link to her online portfolio:

agfabunan.journoportfolio.com/publications

And some poems she is personally proud of:

http://cordite.org.au/poetry/notheme8/call-of-summer/

https://www.haranapoetry.com/i19-midway

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/special-feature/angela-gabrielle-fabunan-homecoming-of-age/

https://www.asiancha.com/content/view/1933/476/

 

B. J. Hollars

“No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing.”

Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country (University of Nebraska Press, 2019)


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

When I was in the first grade, I snuck a glance at my teacher’s “teacher edition” of a writing book called Writing Express. I’m not sure why I did it; I suppose I figured it held all the answers to the universe. I leafed through it, and near the end, came across a pair of pages that served as a two-dimensional keyboard. This was before my family had a computer, and since I knew we likely wouldn’t get one for a few more years, that Christmas, I asked my parents to buy me that book, instead. I wanted that two-dimensional keyboard to write stories on. No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing. After a year or so of typing stories into air, my parents opted to buy an actual computer. I traded in the two-dimensional keyboard for a three-dimensional one. And I’ve been writing ever since.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

As a father of young children, my writing space is whatever space happens to be the quietest in the house at any given moment in time. I’ve written in closets, in bathrooms, in the garage and the backyard, too. I’ve even written in our parked minivan. I do have an office (which lately seems to double as a storage area), and on its walls I have a Bigfoot sketch. Read on for more on that!

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

“Of the many items that have found their way into my basement’s cabinet of curiosities, perhaps my most beloved is a Bigfoot sketch drawn for me by a friend. There he is tromping through the underbrush: arms swinging, gaze fixed, his trailing footprints the only evidence of his being there.

“Each day as I sit down to write, that Bigfoot sketch remains squarely in my field of vision: a reminder of my first, true cryptozoological love. We first met when I was eight years old, a spry young man with a library card and a mother who trusted him to use it. While cruising the collections one day, I came upon him. No, not loitering the romance section, but within the books themselves, sharing shelf space alongside dozens of other books dedicated to creatures whose existences were equally in question.

“Enter the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, among a much larger cast of characters, all of whom I’d have invited to my birthday party had I thought they might attend. These creatures soon consumed my childhood. While most kids my age asked Santa for dolls or toy trains, I asked for plaster of Paris. You know, in case I had to cast a Bigfoot print.

“After carting most of that library shelf home with me, I did what any monster-loving eight-year-old does: I founded the Indiana Monster Research Center in the storage closet adjacent to my bedroom. There, amid stacks of dust-covered photo albums and wooden tennis racquets, I waited patiently for the phone to ring. After three days, our funding was cut (read: my mother needed her phone back), and so, amid public outcry (my own) the research center shuttered for good. Down but not out, I tried a new tack: laced my boots, packed my backpack tight, and ventured into the ‘field.’ By which I mean my backyard.

“Metaphorically speaking, I’ve never quite left it. Even today, every walk in the woods doubles as a Bigfoot hunt, and every swim in a lake leaves me scanning the surface for scales.

It’s not that I’m obsessed, I assure friends and family, I’m just open-minded.

Yes, they smile politely. You certainly are.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

This excerpt is from early in the introduction. It sort of lays the groundwork for where I’m coming from.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I’ve long been fascinated by strange phenomena, not necessarily because of any individual phenomenon, but because of our seemingly limitless ability to believe in such things. This pulled into sharpest focus in the aftermath of the 2016 election. I was astonished by the ability to weaponize stories. With no evidence to support a variety of false claims, a good chunk of the population chose to believe those claims nonetheless. I began to question how we might better hone our critical thinking skills. I began to wonder how hard-to-swallow subjects such as the strange might serve as a testing ground for critical thinking.

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

The book is broken into three sections, each of which includes three case files: “Monsters,” “Martians,” and “The Weird.” In this way, I try to create a flow for readers, even within the wide range of the case files. For me, “Monsters” are sort of a fun entrypoint into the subject; “Martians” can be a little scarier, and “The Weird” is more of a catchall that leaves room for everything from folklore and legends to top secret military operations.

As for the title, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and The Weird in Flyover Country, it was my attempt to capture all that the book is. The main title situates this strangeness to a geography, and the subtitle (I hope!) explains all that this oft-overlooked geography has to offer. In this way, I was hoping not to limit the audience by way of geography, but to nudge readers from all over to look a bit closer at the strangeness run amuk in so-called “flyover country.”

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

Perhaps the story that hits closest to home involves the Kensington Runestone. The short version is this: In 1898, a farmer in Kensington, Minnesota unearthed a 14th century stone inscribed with runic symbols. If authentic, the stone would prove European explorations throughout middle America long before other European “discoveries.” For over a century, scholars have disputed the stone’s authenticity, with some pointing fingers to a late 19th, early 20th century professor named Ole Hagen as the perpetrator of the alleged hoax. Hagen lived just down the road from me in Rock Falls, Wisconsin, and his career was jeopardized, in part, as a result of the accusations. He spent a good portion of his life trying to disprove his accusers by studying the stone, and after years of work, he was nearing proof of his innocence. Of course, just as he was closing in on the truth, his house caught fire, destroying all of his research. He died shortly after. I’ve visited his grave. I’ve spoken to his granddaughter. As a professor myself—and as someone who knows at least a little about selecting one’s research subjects wisely (as well as the ramifications of failing to do so)—Hagan’s story has long resonated with me. For me, his story seemed a cautionary tale of what can happen when a professor becomes entangled with the strange. Given that I’ve written this book, I worry that I didn’t learn his lesson.

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

For me, every project and piece is different. Sometimes, you must look inward for the truth; other times, you must look outward. The work that I’m most proud of involves both processes. For Midwestern Strange, I had to literally search the skies as well as my soul. (Okay, that sounds a little dramatic, but you get the idea.) It involved less of a writing “process” in the conventional sense, and more of a “fill-the-car-with-gas-and-hit-the-road” approach. But after tracking the stories and examining the locations and talking with the witnesses, it was mostly business as usual. I looked at what I’d gathered and tried to make sense of it. I wrote, rewrote, trashed the bad stuff, pushed harder on the not-so-bad stuff, and tried to craft an engaging narrative that might propel a reader forward. It’s hard to make UFOs and monsters boring, yet you’d be surprised at how often my earlier drafts were. Thankfully, eventually I found my stride. The trick was recognizing that while the information was important, it became even more so within the context of my own personal story. This book is a reflective journey. It’s my public attempt to make sense of the mystery.

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

Is collaboration an artistic path? If so, I choose that. Few things give me as much pleasure as working alongside an array of artists within an array of mediums. We writers are in a unique position to collaborate since words as so wonderfully versatile. We can (at least in theory…) write lyrics for musicians, write work to inspire visual artists, and write scenes for actors to perform. The more we work together, the more opportunities for all. And there’s nothing strange about that.

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B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country. Hollars is the recipient of the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Nonfiction, the Anne B. and James B. McMillan Prize, the Council of Wisconsin Writers’ Blei-Derleth Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Award. He is the founder and executive director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.

www.bjhollars.com

Yang Huang

“When I sit down at the writing desk, I imagine that I enter a cave to spend time with my fictional characters.”

Yang Huang.png

My Old Faithful (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)

In My Old Faithful, the father and the younger sister both have experiences of losing face. How would you explain the concept of miànzi to an American audience? Is there an American equivalent? How does this concept affect your characters’ actions and views of the world?

The concept of miànzi in Chinese culture is comparable to one’s ego or social grace here in the U.S. China is a patriarchal society, where a powerful person is more at risk of losing his miànzi during the time of conflict. For example, when a naughty son gives a father trouble, his headache may lie more in his losing face than the son’s psychological well-being. This could be different for a woman. When the younger sister faces abuse from her brother, she is hurt by his betrayal and loses trust in him rather than experience it as a personal defeat. Because a woman is less invested in protecting her miànzi, she focuses more on solving the problem. In this sense, she tends to have more agency when confronted with a difficult problem, unlike her male counterpart who is burdened by miànzi.

In interviews with DIY MFA and Writer’s Bone, you beautifully assert the need for authenticity to oneself in writing, for writing dangerously. How do you navigate the concept of face when writing? Is face ever in conflict with vulnerability or authenticity for you?

Miànzi is analogous to a mask that a person wears. When I sit down at the writing desk, I imagine that I enter a cave to spend time with my fictional characters. I feel safe to tear off the mask of politeness and hypocrisy that I wear in my daily life. By listening to the characters and watching them play, I forget about my own worries and even the passing of time. There is a sense of freedom to live outside my small life, as I delve deep to create characters who are unlike me and then strive to understand them. A writer should take the road less travelled, walk all the way, and don’t expect a safety net to catch the inevitable fall. Write dangerously.

Each story seems to have two titles. For example, the first story’s titles are “What the Son Did…” and “Pining Yellow.” Can you explain how the story titles are working in the book?

Each of the five family members tells two stories about the defining moments of their lives. I want to distinguish who is the protagonist and give a clue about what happens. For example, the subtitle “What the Son Did…” shows the son is the protagonist and his action has consequences. The main title, “Pining Yellow,” is a metaphor about the character and his journey. Together they frame the story and set expectations before you meet the protagonist.

In “The Birthday Girls,” the younger daughter and the mother show their generational differences when talking about religion. The daughter says, “School taught us there aren’t fairies or spirits, ghosts or gods. Guanyin, the so-called goddess of mercy and giver of offspring, is folk, not fact” (42). This seems to address the changing attitudes toward religion after the establishment of the PRC government and the Cultural Revolution. In what ways are the characters shaped by their cultural moments? In what ways do they transcend them?

Each person is inevitably shaped by their cultural moment. The mother holds onto the folklore that gives her comfort. The younger daughter is affected by the consumerism that has only begun to rear its head. This generational gap causes a tussle of wills over the birthday present. The mother begrudgingly buys the expensive Nikes. Unbeknownst to the mother, Lian is able to curb her vanity and makes a sensible choice.

This story shows that every person has her own agency. The mother places her daughter’s happiness as her priority. In doing so, she adapts to the changing time and connects with her daughter, who in turn meets her halfway and shows her understanding about the mother’s values. For a brief moment they transcend the barrier between a mother and daughter and connect as one woman to another. A small act of generosity goes a long way and can leave a lasting impact.

You give each character in the family a story for telling things from their point of view. What interests you about revisiting the same events from multiple perspectives? Is giving multiple voices a way of distributing power?

Every person has a public life as well as a private side. Family is where a person’s public life intersects her private life. In each of my stories, the character shows that public side to the family members and only discloses their private side to the readers through first person narrative.

Along with a person’s public and private sides, he possesses both explicit and covert powers. The father is a powerful figure in the family, but he doesn’t know how insightful his son is. Readers know it from the son’s stories, but the father doesn’t see his son’s covert power.

In the story “Chimney” the father misuses his power by spanking his son. This rash action sets off ripple effects. The son goes on to prey upon his younger sister by taking sexual advantage of her. But the sister is not powerless. She fights back successfully and becomes a precocious teenager.

You are right that the brother and sister revisit the same incident in their stories but give different interpretations. The brother is merely “curious” and doesn’t think much of it. But the sister is heartbroken by his betrayal. She learns her lesson and goes on to form a friendship outside home in her story “The Match.”

The explicit power structure father->son->daughter is modified by the covert power that we see in the character’s story. This keeps the stories from going down the well-worn path. There is a certain balance of power. No one controls the outcome, because people have free wills.

What are you working on now? How do you balance that with your job and family life? You have mentioned that you allow yourself to be a writer in a room in your home with the door locked. Is there pushback towards your taking time to write? What do you do when you sit down to start writing?

I am rewriting Oasis, a novel I have worked on for years. The love story has haunted and evolved with me. A boy, Lou, saves a girl, Kaier, from being drowned in a flash flood. They grow up in Minqin, an oasis sandwiched between two deserts in northwestern China. Kaier leaves her hometown to study and become a radiologist. Lou stays behind to fight the dust storms and raise a family in the oasis, which slowly dries up and becomes a desert. It is a story about unrequited love, economic development at the cost of environmental degradation, and one’s lifelong obsession with her birthplace. Although Kaier leaves her village, the village has never left her.

One of the difficulties in finishing a novel, as opposed to a short story, is that it can take years, and the story evolves with you. What started out important may become a distraction, and the emotional focus changes. I work full time and have a busy family life. When I sit down to write, I empty my mind of the myriad obligations. By closing my door, I go into a writing cave and enter a mental space where imaginary characters can come out and play. I try to make myself disappear and observe them like a fly on the wall. The undercurrent of my life will inevitably contextualize the story but should not overtake it. This makes the story more interesting and true to life than a mere release of my passion.

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Yang Huang grew up in China and came to the U.S. to study computer science. While working as an engineer, she studied literature and pursued writing. Her collection of linked family stories My Old Faithful won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her debut novel Living Treasures won the Nautilus Book Award silver medal in fiction. Her essays and stories have appeared in Poets & Writers, TASTE, Literary Hub, The Margins, Asian Pacific American Journal, and others. Yang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works for the University of California at Berkeley.  

www.yanghuang.com

Dorothy Chan

“Fashion, food, film, fantasy, and sex, always.”

Chan.png

Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019)

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

Fashion designer. I remember watching the original season of Project Runway when it first came out. I was fixated—in that first ever challenge, the designers were asked to design an outfit from grocery store items. I was obsessed with Austin Scarlett’s dress made of corn husks. It was spectacular—a merge of two of my obsessions: fashion and food.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Fashion, food, film, fantasy, and sex, always.

I also think I might have this hidden obsession with Star Wars. It’s a bit coincidental, but my first three book titles pay homage to Star Wars titles: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press 2018), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), and my forthcoming third collection, Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press). So, Attack, Revenge, and Strikes Back. I’m really into titles, so the fact that I have a first “trilogy” makes me happy.

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

I had a very strict writing process for this one. I wrote one poem a day (not completely “perfect” per se, but 90% done), then the next day I would revise the previous day’s poem (getting that remainder 10% polished), along with writing another new poem. I continued this process until I was done.

My favorite revision strategy is to do what I call “test runs.” I simply keep the original poem’s Word Doc, make a duplicate, and test out all my ideas, with no restrictions.

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?

I’ve lost track of the ages of my poems, but I have to give a special shout-out to the opening poem, “Ode to the First Boy Who Made Me Feel It,” published by The Common. During every step of the manuscript process, this has always been the opening poem, in my head. It’s about my first major crush—this ride operator at the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT—I was ten, on vacation with my parents, and he kept looking at me as I got out of the ride, and I almost fell into the water…yes, he was that dreamy.

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

This is a hard question because I love so many of my poems’ back stories. Tonight I’m going to go with “The Soap Opera of My Body (Two-Headed Version),” which was published by The Cincinnati Review. First off, I have a deep love for nostalgia, and I like to make the argument that nostalgia is what really fuels poetry. Though “The Soap Opera of My Body” is this sexy, slinky title, it’s also nostalgic, because I grew up in the nineties and early days of the millennium catching glimpses of soap operas—my mother was a fan of All My Children and General Hospital, so I remember Susan Lucci gracing our TV a lot.

I also have this vague memory of “the title of a sci-fi flick that’s galaxies better / than the one about the man so awestruck he cloned / the woman he fell in lust with, and in the end, was unable to tell // the difference.” These images aren’t necessarily images I like, but they are ones that remind me of my childhood, so I start getting all-nostalgic for the nineties and noughties.

And finally, the part about “Edie, the drag queen superstar host of a Vegas / Strip sex revue” was inspired by Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity, which is hosted by a fabulous queen named Edie. My best friend Yena and I love that show.

What are you working on now?

I’m proud to say that I handed in my third poetry collection to Spork Press this summer. This one’s titled Chinese Girl Strikes Back. I’m currently mapping out my fourth collection. Work never stops, and I like it that way.

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Dorothy Chan is the author of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, Verse Daily, The Offing, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart.

dorothypoetry.com

Ashley M. Jones

“I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.”

Jones

Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017)

dark / / thing (Pleiades Press, 2019)

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

I’ve been writing for a very long time—when I was growing up, my mom stayed at home with me and my siblings, and we were steered, quite deliberately, toward reading, writing, and art. I remember what a fun day was like when I was three years old—after dropping older sister off at school, we’d come back and I’d watch PBS while Mom did whatever moms do in the morning. Mr. Rogers and Big Bird and Arthur were my friends—they taught me how to read, write, and be kind; then, after breakfast, Mom would show me how to do something. Maybe it was tying my shoes. Maybe it was writing my name. Maybe it was reading. Then, for playtime, I’d either do something artistic (Mom would make us homemade PlayDoh, or I’d color or draw), or I would read.

As I grew older, I kept reading, but when I went to school, writing became a part of my regular life. We had to write our own books and publish (read: laminate) them for school projects very regularly at EPIC Elementary School in Birmingham, AL. Back then, I wanted to be a writer of novels, but I eventually landed on the shores of PoetryLand (that’s Campbell McGrath’s term, not mine) and haven’t looked back. I attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a Creative Writing Major from 7-12th grade, and I went on to major in English with a Creative Writing Concentration at UAB (the University of Alabama at Birmingham). My undergraduate thesis director and good friend Jim Braziel encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, and I ended up at Florida International University on a Knight Fellowship, and, well, here I am! Teaching and writing for a living.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

That’s actually a hard question to answer, as I write in so many different places. What I’m about to say is in no way meant to create a hierarchy of writing styles or practices—I don’t believe in hierarchies in any facet of my life, and certainly not hierarchies that continue to serve a patriarchal, my-way-or-the-highway view of art. There is no one size fits all for anything—certainly not art. I write wherever I can—sometimes that means I write at my desk at home, on a pad of paper while I’m sitting on the couch, as a dictation to Siri while I’m driving, on a scrap of paper while I’m at dinner or at a reading. So, the way the space is decorated has a lot less to do with my process than the space I create in my mind to let the poetry happen when it’s time for it to happen. I don’t write poetry every day—that’s never been my process. I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.

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?

Representative poem…hmmm, from MCG, I’d say “On Martin Luther King Day, a Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County,” and from DT, “Xylography” or maybe “Dark Water.”

Why did you choose these poems?

I tried to choose poems that reflect the nature of each book—MCG is a book about home and history, and I wanted to choose a poem that seemed to bridge the two. “On Martin Luther King Day, A Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County” is a golden shovel variation (using end words only, not the full poem) after Lucille Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” which is my favorite poem (and she’s my favorite poet). I needed her guidance through this piece because the situation was so horrific—my good friends Tina and Jim Braziel told me this story about their former neighbor’s disgusting method of commemorating Martin Luther King Day, and I felt the full weight of this racist act, so I needed backup. What better backup than my favorite poem by my favorite poet? What better support than a poem which tells me, despite what people might do or say, that I’m “some damn body!”

“Xylography” is one of my favorite poems I’ve written, despite its sadness. I wanted to use a nontraditional form to illustrate the facts—the disproportionate number of lynchings of white vs. Black people was best shown, I thought, in a graphic form. This is representative of the second book, and really of my whole project when I write poetry, because it uses form to support content, and it’s telling a story which could be easily obscured by the white patriarchal history we’re taught and told. “Dark Water” is similar—it uses the ghazal form to highlight the idea of the body as it relates to darkness/ otherness/ worthiness to live.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I’m eternally obsessed with Black people, the South, religion, women, and history, and that has manifested itself prominently in both of my books. Both of them are primarily focused on telling stories of Black women, Black people, and me—a Black Southern woman.

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

I actually don’t know if I can confidently identify a misfit—each poem has a purpose, and each poem contributes to the multifaceted story I’m trying to tell. I’m Black, yes, and I’m very concerned with Black liberation in America, but I also think about collard greens and boys I like and music and and and and–

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

So, as I’ve said, my writing process is pretty sporadic, but one thing that remains true for most of my writing sessions is that I try to listen to music. The type of music varies depending on what I need, emotionally, for a poem. When writing the poems about my grandmother, I listened to gospel music—my favorite of all time is “I Won’t Complain” by Rev. Paul Jones, but I also remember listening to “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” by PJ Morton, which isn’t technically a gospel song, but it has a certain sound and message of encouragement that I really needed while I wrote about her and grieved her passing. Other times, I just put on whatever music I’m loving at the moment and that’s what I write to. If you want a sort of top ten songs of the moment, I’m happy to give it.

I’d like that! What are they?

1. K.R.I.T. HERE – Big KRIT
2. Bad Idea (feat. Chance the Rapper) – YBN Cordae
3. Vehemence – Thad Saajid
4. Lord is Coming – H.E.R.
5. Say So – PJ Morton & Jojo
6. Not Just Knee Deep – Funkadelic
7. Playground – Steve Lacy
8. Riverside – Kirk Franklin & the Nu Nation Project
9. Black Man – Stevie Wonder (and, who are we kidding, the whole Songs in the Key of Life album)
10. Enough – Fantasia
Bonus: Yesterday (Donny Hathaway’s version)
BonusBonus: Simply Beautiful – Al Green

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 have been so very fortunate in my editorial and production experiences so far. Both presses I’ve worked with have been so supportive and careful with my work, and I’ve only worked with female editors and publishers, which is such a gift. I don’t feel like I have to “prove” myself or defer to a loud male voice. Hub City and Pleiades have involved me very heavily with the editing process, and both have been so very transparent with each step toward publication. I was able to approve cover images for both books—I didn’t have an artist or even really a specific image in mind for either cover. I had a feeling about how the book should look, and I was able to convey that to both presses, and they supplied me with choices of cover art. I’m absolutely in in love with the art on both books—and they’re both pieces by Black artists! Really a dream. And, both books are in Garamond! My favorite font! And I didn’t even have to ask for it.

What question do you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

Maybe I would want to answer: what are you afraid of? And my answer: I’m afraid people will misunderstand me. I’m afraid people will write me off as “just another political poet.” I’m afraid of a world in which political poetry isn’t always seen as valuable. I’m afraid people will learn things about me that change how they view me. I’m afraid to be viewed as a flat, static being. I’m afraid to not be seen as all that I am.

What are you working on now?

Another book! I’m trying to write more about love/lack thereof and the experience of being a woman. It’s a little scary—I already write about very emotionally charged and difficult topics, but there’s still a level of separation. When I write about my actual body, my actual heart, it gets a little close. People can actually see my face when they read the poem. It’s a vulnerable place, but I think it’s so valuable, especially if I’m committed to the liberation of my people. Our full humanity has to exist, always, if we are to ever be able to live without the white patriarchy devaluing our lives and stealing every avenue we have for joy.

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

I. Would. Be. A. Tap. Dancer. Period.  Not only because Gregory Hines is my #1 imaginary husband or because Sammy Davis, Jr is my #2 or because Savion Glover is #3, but because I’ve always loved dancing, and tap is such an amazing form of it. I am in tap classes now, and I can honestly say that tap dancing is one of the greatest creative releases next to writing. Who knew so much life could live in an ankle? In the steel-bottomed ball of my foot?

How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

As I’ve grown older, the biggest habit I’ve dropped is caring about what “real” poetry talks about. I say what I want to say, what I have to say. I don’t think about the canon (because I don’t believe in it—it was created to edge out so many of us). What I do focus on is the truth and my own creative expression. I focus on the joy I feel when I find a new way to say something, or when I’m able to recreate my exact feeling or exactly what I saw in words. I’m much more trusting of Ashley’s voice. I care what she has to say and I want her to say it, always.

dark / / thing examines racial trauma in America from the nineteenth century to today. How does the order of poems in the book add to or complicate its historical narrative?

It’s actually very similar, the ordering strategy, to the first book. In both books, in all my work, I’m very concerned with the interplay of past, present, and future. It’s easy, and it’s safe to say that history moves in one direction, that our past is always our past and never a part of our present or future. It’s safe to be able to say, “slavery is over, so it will stay frozen in 1865.” But what’s harder, what’s more true, is that history is always at play, that we’re always struggling with the same issues. I may not be enslaved in America in 2019, but the effects of slavery, the systems that were set up, the attitudes that were established, are all still very real in my life and in the reality of our country. In my book, there isn’t a chronology, and that’s intentional. Sometimes, work is organized by theme, which means histories can be crossed and arranged out of chronological order. Sometimes, I arrange according to feeling or mood–and sometimes, I’ll put a poem in place to serve as a dismount/breather from another poem.

Religious themes show up in dark / / thing multiple times, often in relation to the body. Is there a connection between the physical and the divine that you could say more about?

In my life, yes, there is a connection between the physical and the divine. In my life, God shows up in everything–I find that connection on a constant basis. I don’t think it’s useful for me to spell out all my specific religious beliefs, but I’ll say: for me, in my life, all my life, the presence of God has been real. In poetry, in my grandmother’s laugh, in the vegetables my dad grows in the backyard, in the way a student discovers her own magic, in the still Alabama morning. I find it hard to survive the world without finding the ways in which God cuts through all the mundane and murderous things in this world. And yes, that connection also exists between my own body and the divine. There’s something glowing inside of me–the will to keep living, the drive to do good by the world and its people–there’s plenty of divine in that. I’m glad to know that it’s showing up in my poems, too–poetry is part of my effort to connect to God, too.

What are your techniques for weaving personal experience with history and culture? Does the form of a poem influence the perspective you use?

I guess my weaving technique has a lot to do with how I view history/ culture/ personal experience–as I said before, I think history is always at play. I often say that we all carry histories with us, always, and that is true in the poem, too. For example, in the poem “Uncle Remus Syrup Commemorative Lynching Postcard #25” I have created a history based on historical fact. I knew that the facts about lynching and lynching postcards would be easy to ignore as “bygone” if I didn’t add a beating heart to it. Or if I didn’t use the form to convey the big, real, ever-present hurt of this practice in the past and present (also see “Xylography”). So, I created a more personal story–personal, not in that it’s my personal story, but personal in that it takes abstract factual information and makes it have skin, blood, teeth. It’s also true that I do the same sort of blending with my own personal histories and larger histories–I guess the real key is that each poem needs to have a heartbeat, something with which the reader can relate on a human level.

The form of a poem absolutely impacts the poem and the poem’s perspective–using those same two examples, Uncle Remus and Xylography, you can clearly see that the form does a lot of work in the poem. It isn’t a background element. Instead, the form works, I think, equally, with the content. With “Uncle Remus,” the form is working in two ways–there’s the shape of it, for one. It’s a prose poem, in a block form, reflecting the shape of a postcard. The repetitive nature of the text creates an inescapable picture show (pun intended–pictures just like the photographs of lynchings) of horrors. In “Xylography,” I wanted to present the facts in a way that would show, visually, the disparity between the number of white lynchings vs. black lynchings in the US. The bar graph format seemed perfect for that, and the footnotes allowed me to create those personal stories based on the facts.

You have a gift for ending your poems on brutally poignant notes. One of my favorites is the end of “Who Will Survive in America”: “but not even our spectacular, crystalline glitter makes it easier / for them to believe that we have any inalienable right to breathe.” Do you even begin with the end of a poem in mind, or do you find that the writing process guides you to the right ending?

Thank you–that’s really kind of you to say. My favorite poems eviscerate me with their ending lines, and it is something I strive for in my own work. As far as how the endings come about, it depends–sometimes, I do have an ending already in mind. Other times, I only have a line in mind, and I’m not sure where it goes–I have to construct the puzzle/poem around it. Other times, I see the whole shape of the poem at once, and I have to quickly write what I can see the clearest (beginning and end, usually), then fill in the rest.

The last poem of dark / / thing, “Think of a Marvelous Thing / It’s the Same as Having Wings,” reminds me of rap and Peter Pan. What are your intentions behind correlating these cultural objects?

I still distinctly remember writing this poem–I was sitting outside my sister’s job one night, waiting to take her home after a long night of working on the newspaper. Her office was right across from a housing project, which matters because the poem considers this Black man riding a bike and how his life is so very different than Peter Pan’s or a white young person’s. As I sat there, this Black man came speeding down the street on his bike, his shirt billowing that beautiful balloon that lets you know he’s at bike-flight speed. You know the feeling, like nothing can touch you, nothing can ever go wrong or hurt you as long as there’s more road and breath in your lungs to fuel the pedals. When he disappeared at the end of the street, it occurred to me that no matter how marvelous those wings are, this world will always find a way to clip them, especially if you’re Black.

Do you want the reader to go through a process of finding hope for America’s future in dark / / thing, or be left unsatisfied with the slow progression of American values? Or both?

Definitely both. As a marginalized American, my entire existence is that balance of hope and unsatisfaction. We can’t make change if we aren’t hopeful, but that hope, I think, should be rooted in a deep dissatisfaction for the status quo, and a desire to make hope a tangible thing, finally. I want the reader to learn and feel and yell and cry and at the end, realize that these stories are all true, that they don’t have to keep happening if we would begin by acknowledging them and affirm that our country was built on this horror.

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

I would tell any student or any non-student interested in creative writing to work on her relationship with herself. Hearing your own poetic voice is so much of the journey when you’re just starting out. It will take time, and there will be moments where you feel like you just don’t know who you are on the page, but that’s why we expose ourselves to so many kinds of writing. That’s why we join writing groups or writing programs—to meet other writers in person and on page, and those writers and pieces of writing will be, as my dear friend, Dr. Lisa Nikolidakis says, “a door or a mirror.” The doors might not be pieces of writing we love, but they will lead us somewhere. The mirrors validate what we are and they help us hear that faint inner voice, reaching for the surface.

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

I wish I had been told, when I was younger, that there is no one way or right way to be a writer. We all have different processes, and that’s okay. If you don’t write every day, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fine. If you read 10,000 books a year, fantastic. If you closely read 3 books a year, fine. If you work in academia, great. If you don’t, that’s fine, too.

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

Life inspires me. My work can’t exist if I’m not participating in the world. I can’t simply muse on a leaf, I have to encounter the leaf in real life and the leaf may lead me to a memory or a question or a problem or an epiphany about myself or my society. I’m inspired by the conversation that all art really is—I want to be in community, in conversation, with others, and writing is my way to do that.

*

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University.  Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, The Sun, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, and The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her second collection, dark / / thingwon the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is Second Vice President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

www.ashleymichellejones.wordpress.com

Nicole Walker

“Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.”

Walker

The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (Rose Metal Press, 2019)

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

I was born in SLC, Utah. A place where “Place, capital P” looms large. The Wasatch Mountains tower. The Great Salt Lake can be seen from outer space. All roads flow from the central LDS Temple, which sits at the very center, ground zero. The numbers of streets begins from there. At the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young and his followers emerged, an entire park is named “This is the Place.” My favorite bookstore, The King’s English, is at the corner of 15th East and 15th South. Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.

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

“In 2001, my sister Valerie had a baby. Before that, she had a frog. The frog came in a plastic box full of water and nutrients. Natural Aquatics frog aquariums can house up to two African dwarf frogs in a 3.8 x 4.1 x 5-inch plastic tank. You need to feed the frog one to two pellets per week. Change the water twice per year.

It is the perfect product for those who don’t want a pet but kill their plants. Plants turn brown and brittle when they die. Frogs just sink to the bottom of the tank, blend in with the good-for-frog bacteria-producing gravel. Good for frogs. Good for decomposing dead frogs.”

Why did you choose this excerpt?

This book is an Abecedarian. David Carlin and I cowrote the book. We chose the format because it was one way to try to capture the everythingness that the climate crisis suggests without, you know, capturing everything. Every letter is illustrative, if not representative. In this excerpt, “Frog,” my choice for the letter F, I get to take the cliché of the slow boiling of a frog who doesn’t recognize how hot the water has gotten, make a planet-metaphor, and try to capture some of the tenderness for the planet, for the frog, for the babies.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Climate change. Dogs. Cats. Flying. Well, I guess most of the table of contents includes my and David’s obsessions. Bacteria. Plasmodia. Chickens. Catastrophe.

What’s the oldest essay in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

David and I began discussing a collaborative writing project when I was teaching a workshop in Melbourne. When I first arrived, we took a walk along the beach where the posts meant to hold up the shoreline are moved back a few feet every year to keep the rising tides from stealing ever more of the sand hills. We tossed back and forth more examples of climate change affecting our towns—burning forests in Flagstaff where I lived, penguins washing up on this same shore. We are every emotion about the crisis. Horrified, frustrated, despondent, curious, even a little amused, in a gallows humor kind of way. We decided what our project would be. An attempt to write a different kind of book about climate change where horror and warning weren’t the only topics. We’d also talk about plasmodia. And sleep. By the end of our week of walking, working, and talking, we sat down at David’s long, kitchen table and started to write our essays with the letter A. David wrote “Atmosphere.” I wrote “Albatross.” I went home to Flagstaff and the next week, we moved onto “Bitumen” and “Bacteria.”

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

Knowing full well we couldn’t address everything there is to write about climate change, we thought that by making an abecedarian, we could write about particular and peculiar topics, paying equal attention, since the alphabet isn’t really hierarchical, to some of the biggest and smallest climate change considerations. There is a bit of chanciness to the topics—we often wrote what came to mind when we focused on the letter. But we knew that there were important ideas to cover—that one of the problems with the anthropocene is the human-based scale. We wanted to go beyond that which is easily noticeable and measurable by paying attention to the tiny things, like plasmodia and bacteria, and attention to the things we pay no attention to, like bitumen.

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

There’s something a little predictable about an alphabet. Guess what comes after O? That’s right. P!

When I got to Z, I was so sorry to see the book end. Also, I already had an essay named after my son Max in the middle of the book. Wasn’t it too predictable to end it with an essay about my daughter, Zoe? So I called the essay “Z.” But really, it’s about my daughter, Zoe.

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

“Catastrophe” is super weird. An Abecedarian might demand etymologies. And climate crises demand hypocrisy. “Catastrophe” does a poetic job meeting those demands.

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

Although the approach seems epistolary, we had a method where we would send each other our lettered essays simultaneously. So my Bitumen is not a response to his Bacteria. We wrote our essays and uploaded them to the G Drive. We would sometimes get out of sync and sometimes peek at each other’s. I like to break the rules. In fact, I have a whole series at Essay Daily where I get to talk about just that.

Are there any alphabet books or writers who use the alphabetic sequence that you might recommend?

As I was describing The After-Normal on a flight to Connecticut to the guy sitting next to me, I showed him the interview. He did the A is for Apes, B is for Bee—So many books for kids that go A-Z! He had this great idea to take the book into some classrooms and get the students to write their own A-Z about climate change. I thought, what if we assigned each kid an A? I’m going to email my elementary school teacher friends to see if we can organize such a project.

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

This book started as a somewhat tongue in cheek survival guide. I wish someone would ask, how are we going to survive the climate crisis? The answer is, we might not. But as we either go down in flames (or ice, as Frost says) or find a way to repair the hole we’ve ripped in the ecosystem, I hope that we still find things to love and appreciate, that we do a better job of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, that we find ways to collaborate on the big enterprise of making the anthropocene a little less anthropocentric.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book about choice. It uses different kinds of trees as a lens through which to see how we make decisions based on individual needs versus collective ones. Truly, it’s a way to talk about apple trees and aspen trees and how migration is sometimes a great privilege and sometimes a desperate move. It begins, “The trees are moving west.”

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

I think creative writing is the best major you can imagine. You learn how to give constructive feedback. You learn how to receive constructive feedback and work it into your revision. You get to delve deep into other people’s minds and your own soul. You are an innovator. You are a philosopher, a historian, an observer with as keen an eye as a scientist. There is nothing you can’t do with a degree in creative writing. You may have to create your own path, but we’ve got a plan for that.

*

NICOLE WALKER is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Emily Mohn-Slate

“See who is speaking to you, who is giving you permission to try something totally new.”

Feed

FEED (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019)

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

So Easy

A woman forgot her baby in the park. People found it
murmuring in the bushes, called it Fairy.
I want to keep sleeping when his yell slices twilight —
not feed the baby, whose appetite is unfeeling, total.
The baby grunts, spits — I want to be alone,
but it would be good for me to go out with the baby.
If I keep walking, he keeps sleeping.
A woman at the park’s edge holds honey petals
to her nose, breathes them the way I breathe
the baby’s furry head. A woman left her baby in the car,
rushed to work — her baby overheated & died.
I forget things so often now. I never forget my glasses.
It would be so easy to forget the baby.
Old bikes lie on porches, washed in yellow light,
exhausted. I hover two fingers above
his chest, search for breath. I love to hear
the baby’s slight gasp when I turn on a light —
I study his open mouth, flick the light on
& off & on until I can’t. I forgot my keys,
my jacket. A woman drove off with her baby on the roof
of her car. Did I fasten the buckle around
the baby’s soft waist? I didn’t want to come out today,
but it is good to smell the oily pizza boxes at Pino’s,
to dodge the garbage truck lumbering
down Hastings Street, men hanging on by a tiny crescent.
They found her baby at 45th and Cholla
on the highway line, alive, not even crying.
I had a hat once that I loved, red and blue wool.
I lost & found it in a Shaw’s parking lot, mashed down,
brown with exhaust. I washed it by hand,
hung it up to dry. The baby licks the stroller harness,
wets the rip-proof vinyl to a deeper red.

—published originally in The Adroit Journal, Issue 13

Why did you choose this poem?

“So Easy” is the first poem in my chapbook. It introduces the reader to the world of the chapbook. A world in which mothers are barely holding on, trying their best to keep going while sleep-deprived and depressed, making mistakes large and small. A world in which danger is ever-present. In which a new mother is struggling intensely yet finding beauty in a small moment like “the baby’s slight gasp when I turn on a light.”

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

Here are just a few of my favorites:

Stacey Waite, the lake has no saint (Tupelo Press)

Jennifer Givhan, Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press)

Nancy Reddy, Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press)

Chen Chen, Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press)

Joy Katz, White: An Abstract (Bonfire Books)

Jennifer Jackson Berry, Bloodfish (Seven Kitchens Press)

Daniel Shapiro, Heavy Metal Fairy Tales (Throwback Books)

Tiana Clark, Equilibrium (Bull City Press)

What’s your chapbook about?

FEED is about the experience of early motherhood. A time that is full of fear, anxiety, and exhaustion as well as beauty, joy, and tenderness. The speaker of each poem is trying to find something to hold onto, someone to speak to, out of this intense experience in which she often feels invisible, afraid, and at sea. The chapbook tracks the speaker fighting to move toward the light, often failing, sometimes reaching it, tenuously.

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?

“So Easy” was the poem that sparked the chapbook. I was up in the middle of the night feeding my son, reading the news on my phone when I came across a story about a woman who left her baby on the roof of her car. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mother and the baby. I fell into an internet wormhole in which I learned of another woman who had left her baby in the park, and another woman who left her baby in the car by accident because she didn’t usually do morning drop-offs on a particular day, and her baby died. I had recurring nightmares in which I did these same things. I was trying my best to take good care of my son, but I was also struggling intensely. I felt the nightmare realities of these women as my own. The poem came in fragments over the next few days, most of it written on my phone while pushing my son in a stroller to get him to nap.

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

The title was obvious once I pulled my poems together—the poem, “Feed,” was just staring me in the face—the dark heart of the chapbook. This poem gets at the struggle to continue to write as a new mother, how impossible it feels to wrest any kind of space to feed your own creative impulses and your child’s ever-present needs.

The arrangement of the chapbook came more slowly. I played with a few different orders and sent it to my close readers for their thoughts, which was immensely helpful. I had a few different versions ready to submit for chapbook contests of various lengths and the version that Seven Kitchens Press accepted was the shortest version, and also my favorite.

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?

My experience with Ron Mohring at Seven Kitchens Press has been outstanding. Ron works very hard to design each chapbook—he chose the layout, fonts, etc. He sews each copy by hand with beautiful thread. I found the cover image and Ron was on board with it right away. The artist, Daviea Davis, is the mother of a former student of mine, and her work often explores the female body. This mosaic, “Meeting the Aunts,” reflects the book’s mixture of tenderness and ferocity so well.

What are you working on now?

I’m working now on my second poetry collection and hoping that my first full-length collection will find its home soon. My new collection delves into technology and social media, attention, kindness, and parenthood.

I’m also working on two prose projects: the first is a book of essays on motherhood, the body and aging. The other is a book about The Madwomen in the Attic, a community of women’s writing workshops based at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA that I’ve been part of for almost ten years. This book asks the questions: How does writing change people’s lives? How does it create change in the world?

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

I have a fraught relationship with social media and the internet (is there anyone who doesn’t?), especially the feeling that as an emerging writer, I must be “visible” online in order to prove that my work exists and matters. I look to writers I know who are good at staying grounded in the writing itself, and manage to be part of various literary communities without promoting themselves all the time or giving the majority of their time to social media. I’ve deleted my social media accounts many times, but have always come back on because of the real relationships I’ve made there with other poets, writers, and editors whose work I admire. But to stay on and survive, I have all kinds of little strategies that help me, including not having notifications on my phone, hiding my phone while I’m writing, and setting limits for how long I read the news or scroll on social media.

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

I always tell my students what Jan Beatty told me, “Don’t give up. Just keep writing no matter what.” It seems simple, but I’ve found that it is very hard not to let my writing time be consumed by other tasks, other people’s needs, or to let the negative voices in my own head crowd out my belief in my voice and my work.

I also tell them what Major Jackson challenged us to think about at Bennington: “Who is in your poetic family tree? How have they shaped your work and vision?” You can’t figure out what your work is doing unless you know where you’ve come from, and you can’t know where you’ve come from, or who you’re in conversation with, unless you’ve been reading widely—actual books and chapbooks, not only the newest poems being shared on Twitter (although it’s good to also do that, if you can). You need to read poetry books and chapbooks and see who is speaking to you, who is giving you permission to try something totally new. You need to read outside your wheelhouse, someone whose work scares you, to see what is possible for you.

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Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript has been named a finalist for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize offered by Kent State University Press, and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University, is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

emilymohnslate.com