Tuesday, April 24, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Dan MacIsaac


Dan MacIsaac’s Cries from the Ark, his debut collection of poetry, was published by Brick Books in September 2017. A trial lawyer and environmentalist, he served for ten years as a director on the board of UVIC’s Environmental Law Centre. His poetry, fiction and verse translations have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines, including The Malahat ReviewArc and Stand. In 2014, one of his poems received the Foley Prize from America Magazine. In 2015, his poem, “Sloth,” was short-listed for The Walrus Poetry Prize. His writer website is www.danmacisaac.com.  

1 - How did your first book change your life?
It enabled me to call myself a poet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
After much music and story-telling in my youth, it seemed natural to come to poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The first outpouring is quick. But I revise obsessively over months or even years. The first drafts are not false starts but getting to the finish line can be a marathon.

4 - Where does a poem or short story usually begin for you?
Most poems and stories begin in a quiet space, even in the eye of a storm. Often I can create that quiet space for myself in the midst of chaos as I grew in a large, boisterous family where bedlam could be the prevailing condition.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love engaging with an audience. Perhaps this comes from playing music in public since my childhood. Certainly, teaching and trial work reinforced my desire to connect, engage and persuade. Listening to and answering questions is particularly productive because I am responding to somebody else’s experience and point of view. Often, that insight from another person allows me to strengthen the work through thoughtful revision.

6 - What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
What are the stories of the Earth? What are the lyrics of the wind and the sea?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
To be a witness and a whistleblower.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The objective eye and unbiased ear are essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Here are two to start with: Listen. Look.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to verse translation to short fiction)?
For me, the movement between genres seems natural as they are akin. Each genre is like the form of water at a particular point in the cycle.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write in the late evenings and on weekends because my law practice is very time-consuming.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my new writing stalls, I work on the knots of an old piece. In the past, I would translate Spanish poetry into English verse in order to strike a creative spark.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Apple.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Wilderness is my main muse followed by music in all its astonishing forms. In terms of visual art, my earliest influence was the French Impressionists with their focus on flow and light.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers and writings important for my work are too numerous to list here. Certainly, my life of community and family—as well as immersing in nature—bring meaning and purpose to the art.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go on an eco-tour of India with family.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
Study to be a full-time musician. I deeply admire my three family members whose life work is music.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing creatively is the most precise and evocative form of expression.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
One of the recent great poetry collections I read was Julia McCarthy’s superlative Return from Erebus.  Deepa Mehta’s Water is a marvellous film.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Revising poems and setting some to music.


Monday, April 23, 2018

rob's list of twenty Canadian chapbook publishers for The League of Canadian Poets' blog, #NationalPoetryMonth

My write-up on twenty Canadian chapbook publishers is now up at the blog for The League of Canadian Poets! My list includes: above/ground press, Apt 9 Press, AngelHousePress / DevilHousePress, Anstruther Press, Baseline Press, bird, buried press, Desert Pets Press, Frog Hollow Press, Gap Riot Press, In/Words Magazine and Press, Knife|Fork|Book, Nomados Literary Publishers, No Press, Proper Tales Press, Puddles of Sky Press, Rahlia’s Ghost Press, serif of nottingham, Shuffaloff/Eternal Network, Vallum Chapbooks and ZED Press. While I did write-ups on twenty, I also do present a further list of publishers, including some that haven't been as productive lately. And: chapbook publishers! You know I write reviews, right? Send me chaps!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Lisa Birman interviews Portland OR poet Claudia F. Savage

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the latest interview is now online, as Lisa Birman interviews Portland, Oregon poet Claudia F. Savage. Other interviews from my tenure include: an interview with poet, curator and art critic Gil McElroy, conducted by Ottawa poet Roland Prevostan interview with Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia, conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, also conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Ann Tweedy conducted by Mary Kasimoran interview with Katherine Osborne, conducted by Niina Pollarian interview with Catch Business, conducted by Jon-Michael Franka conversation between Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan, "On Translation and Erasure," existing as an extension of Jessica Smith's The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test, produced via Essay PressFive questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker),"overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric SchmaltzMary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ WritingBen Fama interviews Abraham AdamsTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-FinnKristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne CampbellTimothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie GusmanHailey Higdon's interview with Joanne KygerStephanie Kaylor's interview with Kenyatta JP GarciaJaimie Gusman’s interview with Timothy Dyke,Sarah Rockx interviews Gary BarwinMegan Arden Gallant's interview with Diane SchoemperlenAndrew Power interviews Lauren B. DavisChris Lawrence interviews Jonathan BallAdam Novak interviews Tom SternEli Willms interviews Gregory Betts and Jeremy Luke Hill interviews Kasia JaronczykKaren Smythe and Greg Rhyno, Chris Muravez interviews Ithica, NY poet Marty Cain, Róise Nic an Bheath interviews Kathryn MacLeod, and Heather Sweeney interviews J'Lyn Chapman.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse include:
City of Ottawa Poet Laureate JustJamaal The Poet, Geoffrey YoungClaire Freeman-Fawcett on Spread LetterStephanie Bolster on Three Bloody WordsClaire Farley on CanthiusDale Smith on Slow Poetry in AmericaAllison GreenMeredith QuartermainAndy WeaverN.W Lea and Rachel Loden.

If you are interested in sending a pitch for an interview my way, check out my "about submissions" write-up at Queen Mob's; you can contact me via rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com

Saturday, April 21, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs (Knopf Canada, April 2018). Her essays and stories have been published widely, in such places as The New Quarterly, Hazlitt, Literary Hub, and The Malahat Review. She has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards, one of which she won.

Website: www.lizharmer.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/lizharmer

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?


How (and whether) my first book changes my life remains to be seen. I will let you know.

Across my work I seem to be preoccupied with many of the same questions. The Amateurs, the novel to be released this year, has speculative elements that most of my other fiction does not. It has portals! Even so, in all my work I’m interested in questions of how we put society together (on which principles), and when to hold fast to commitments and when to be open to change. In all of my work I’m interested in how we know what’s real, what’s right, what’s true (if we can), and so I’m always circling back to topics like mental illness and religious belief. This comes out in The Amateurs in lucid dreams, hallucinations, memory loss, and a variety of other ways.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I was always writing the kind of stuff I was reading, and I got into an early habit of narrating my own movements and thoughts. I was writing fiction as a young kid, then I wrote loads of poetry as a teenager, and moved into nonfiction and fiction again in my twenties. I think it’s a mimetic tendency, and it has to do with what makes me feel free. I have heard that many people find writing to be torture—“I like having written” is how the quote goes I think—but I don’t find fiction writing to be torturous in this way. I do find writing poetry to be difficult, like pushing muscles to exhaustion in a workout.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

My writing comes relatively quickly, but the process is different all the time. For The Amateurs I had been writing around the ideas for a while. I had written a whimsical time travel story about heartbreak and loss, about two characters named Marie and Jason that feature prominently in the novel. I think I even tried to write it as a play at a certain point. I am decidedly not an outliner, so drafts, which often come quickly, end up being like outlines. I have to endlessly revise and rewrite and wriggle around in my drafts. I write many many many words. I’m not shy about starting things. Feeling finished is harder.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Several of the other projects I’m working on are always on my mind—sometimes I sit down and write sections of them in a surge, or I’m reading around them and thinking about them. For instance, the novel I’m working on now has characters in it and situations I’ve been writing for maybe nine years, but I didn’t start working on it as a novel in earnest until three years ago. But I have another long project I’ve been working on for years and years, producing and publishing the odd essay, finishing poems, doing lots of research, and I still have no idea what form it will finally take.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I get very nervous doing readings, but I enjoy the thrill. I like being out in the world and meeting other people, and I haven’t noticed an effect on my creative process. For good or for ill, I like to splash my personality around, to paraphrase a character in The Golden Notebook.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

One thing I’m obsessed by is a question of how to live. It comes out of an anxiety about how little can be known about where to put one’s faith and about the future. I love Jane Austen for this reason—it feels like she’s testing out ways of living (prudence or daring, for example)—and I’m obsessed by what an Austen scholar named Marcia McClintock Folsom, writing about Emma, calls the epistemological problem of daily life—“we often feel that we do not understand what is going on.” I guess I’d put this even more strongly: most of the time we have no idea what is going on. So: how to live, what we know—these are my current obsessions. Going along with them are questions of commitment in domains of love and religious faith, questions of mental health and illness, ordinary morality as a worthwhile subject.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I have too much self-doubt for this question! But I guess that I have found in my life that the arts, the literary arts especially, are a great and often primary consolation. I am soothed by beauty and ambiguity and careful thinking and introspection and observation—perhaps it is shallow to need soothing, but I don’t think so. Other lifelong readers I’m sure can relate to the fact that everything you read has a part in shaping one’s views and even, I think, one’s behavior. And the impulse to write comes out of that desire to be part of that long conversation about what it means to be human and to be living in the world—it is a religious impulse, somewhat. The role is crucial but small, because the writer must be one voice among many, and must never be overpowering.

Does the writer have a role outside of their writing? I guess I would want to believe that writers can live up to the gifts bestowed on them by their imagination. I want them to be great empaths and careful thinkers all the time. But of course writers are flawed and sometimes myopic and petty and disappointing, like everybody else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, definitely. I’m too proud and it’s no good for me to be too isolated. It’s a tough balance, but another muscle to work—do you find this, too?—to know how to hear and take criticism. Same problem I always face. But with The Amateurs I worked with two brilliant editors at Knopf with tons of experience—Lynn Henry and Amanda Lewis—as well as working with a mentor and listening to feedback from my good friend Seyward Goodhand and my husband Adam Harmer. I had very smart eyes on my work, which, if you can stand it, is a gift. Adam used to sit through me reading drafts of my novel aloud (okay, he still does this) and I could tell by his body language or the faces he was making whether something was working or making him cringe, and he has been helping me desentimentalize my sentences for years.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The most useful advice is from Richard Bausch, who advises young writers to train themselves to write anywhere. For an example, he talked about writing while a child napped on his chest. I took this to heart, or I’d never get anything done. I am not superstitious about my routine. Sometimes I write in a corner of the living room while the kids are running around. I have written with a baby sleeping on me.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

The appeal for switching between genres is a desire for novelty, I think. I find it hard to be totally and exclusively devoted to a very long project, and while I’m working on a novel it is a relief for me to work on shorter pieces. Takes the pressure off. I’m not monogamous in my work. It has been said many times before, but the expansion of the novel feels very different than the contraction of a story. They are different mental spaces, just as the space of essay—that always feels to me like pushing at a boundary—is different again. A novel never flows out of me the way a story does; stories don’t torment me the way novels do. Essays give me a chance to explore ideas using my own voice, which makes them much less ironizing or distancing then my stories might try to be.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A typical writing day: walk the kids to school and come home to write from 8:30 until noon. Try not to get distracted by email, social media, self-doubt. Find gaps to write in: when the kids are distracted, when I’m waiting for class to start. Sometimes I get up early on weekends to write between 6 and 8 a.m. Most days are not straightforward like this, but I am reading, writing, or revising something every single day. Always feeding the work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?


I give up on whatever I’m working on that’s stalled and work on something else. Or I start the thing from scratch without referring to the previous version. Another thing to do is to read as a palate cleanser: I read across many styles and eras so that I can pick something up and read it and that will charge me up. I use prompts from a writer friend. Going out and having cultural experiences—galleries, talks with artistic or inspiring friends, films—can work to fill me, too. I am rarely stalled for significant lengths of time, maybe because I have been doing this long enough that I know such feelings to be temporary.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


Good question! I don’t know what home is anymore. The smell of jasmine is becoming associated with living in California. Whenever I smell strong pine sap smells I feel nostalgia for Ontario and New York State. My mom’s speculaas squares baking in an oven—a mix of ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves—will probably have me crying like a baby.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Visual art and music offer moods and something deeper than what words can often get at for me, and intuitions. Watching films often makes me feel ready to make art. I try to be enriched by many things. Certain natural spaces, kinds of weather, and the awe I feel at the immensity of the universe, all these make me want to make art. Writing is my mode of response to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest of the human experience, but that other kinds of responses to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest feed my writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My forever answers are Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf’s writing offered an early model for how to live unapologetically, and I have been moved deeply by both her fiction and her nonfiction. Jane Austen, via my father, was a part of my moral education. The stories and language of the Bible are always weaving into my thinking, as does Shakespeare and certain poems. I try to read everything Zadie Smith publishes. Other contemporary writers I feel invested in are Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

A thousand things. I want to learn more languages. I want to act in a play and learn new art forms. I want to absorb myself deeply in a big research project. I want to get better at writing poetry.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?


I’m am interested in so many kinds of lives, and have contemplated many occupations. I have come closest to academic work, teaching, librarianship, journalism, publishing. I have considered becoming a doctor or a midwife (I like the energy around hospitals and around births). I love visual arts, galleries—thought I’d like to be an artist or art historian. Briefly I thought I would become a minister or a nun. Or an entrepreneur. I have dreamed of working at airports. I have dreamed of homesteading.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

When I am feeling dark, I sometimes worry that I am ill-suited to anything else: too moody, too difficult. But really, I was just always wanting to do it since I was a little kid. I was the kind of kid writing “novels” in my spare time at age 8. When I started a PhD, I started writing a novel on the side to cope with stress. It took me quite a while to figure out how to make writing a career or a life—how to train myself or find my way in. I spent quite a bit of time being in love and having children…these are my excuses for why it has taken me a relatively long time to publish my first book, since I have always seen myself as a writer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: I will say that Sina Queyras’s My Ariel, a book of poetry that engages with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, was full of gifts for me as a parent-writer-woman-etc. It’s so smart and so well done that I feel inspired to do better.

Film: I just watched Call Me By Your Name, which is breathtaking, and Lady Bird, which had me both laughing and sobbing. Timothée Chalamet is in both these films, incidentally.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have finished a draft of a second novel (a social realist novel) and I’m working on a third (a love & doom story along the lines of Alice Munro or Madame Bovary). I’ve also been amassing research and working on portions of a long project that is probably nonfiction about my family history of mental illness. I think it is also about faith and marriage (as is the second novel). I have been working on some oddball stories as well, that involved animal metaphors of courtship behavior. Too many projects!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, April 20, 2018

Marthe Reed : December 31, 1958 - April 10, 2018



Many of us are still rather stunned by the sudden death of American poet Marthe Reed, a day after she suffered a stroke. I posted a small note on the above/ground press blog when I found out, but don't find I've made any more sense of it since. Some reminiscences have already appeared, including over at the Poetry Foundation website, the Small Press Distribution website, by Bill Lavender, by Megan Burns, and Megan again, over at the website for the New Orleans Poetry Festival, where Marthe was scheduled to read this weekend.

Going back through some of my own notes on this blog, I seem to have first encountered her and her work through the dusie kollektiv run by Susana Gardner, reviewing a collaboration she did with j/j hastain back in 2011. Thanks to this initial connection, I was able to meet her during the attempt Stephen Brockwell and I made to read in Lafayette, Louisiana in 2012, which ended up as an event hosted by Marthe at the University there, during her tenure. Not long after, Marthe and her family moved north to teach at Syracuse, and we even managed to convince Marthe and Michael to drive north for the sake of a reading (not once, but twice, including the above/ground press 20th anniversary event [see my report on such here; see her own kind words on the press, even, here and, quite recently, here]). She even came to the small press fair, sitting a table for Black Radish/nous zot.

She was open to participating in numerous of my ridiculous schemes, from her 12 or 20 questions interview, to Touch the Donkey, where I posted an interview to accompany her poems, to the Tuesday poem series at Dusie, my own Dusie Kollektiv, and the On Writing series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. We produced two chapbooks, and she even assisted in distribution of other chapbooks. It was especially upsetting to realize I'd announced her most recent chapbook earlier on the same day of her stroke; fortunately, she'd had copies in her hands for weeks by that point. And then, of course, a few days after her death, I received a package from Marthe in the mail, a handwritten note with a review copy of the most recent Black Radish title.

She wrote, she responded, she participated.

I really don't understand. Where did she go? What happened?

Given the occasional aspect of our correspondence, and the very few times I'd even spent time with her in person, none of this seems real. She was remarkably present, not only for me, but, it would seem, a great many other people across North America. Where did she go?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sylvia Chan


Sylvia Chan is the author of We Remain Traditional, out from the Center for Literary Publishing in February 2018. She lives in Tucson, where she teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Arizona and serves as nonfiction editor for Entropy and court advocate for foster kids in Pima County.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

We Remain Traditional is my first book. I had been removed from it for three years, having finished it in a year and a half in 2013 and put it aside until I sent it out in 2016. I started teaching full time and committing myself to others who were bad for me—the people who are bound to me by blood and by kinship. At one point, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked why I was bailing one of my parents out of their problem again. I felt trapped because on the outside, I was okay; on the inside, I desired to be loved and cared for by my family. All of the first book compilation happened in my early twenties and today, I am still in my twenties, meaning I have processed the events of my first book for six years, and I am done with it.

My first book is only one part of the tradition out of which I come—foster care. Finding out that the first place to which I submitted my first book—I was like, how did this happen to me? I can do this; I am brave enough to write and speak my story. That is what I try to remember as I work on my current project, the foster care book. I understand the subject is ugly and pits me in a seemingly small demographic where few grow out of “the system” to matriculate out of high school, much less stay out of jail or kill or be killed because we could not fathom a bigger earth that includes us. The first book fortified my conviction in my voice and in my social justice.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I was fortunate my best friend, my foster brother, read poetry to me. Stuff no ward of the state was expected to hear—Paul Celan, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez. And I grew to write songs and improvise them when I moved from classical to jazz piano. I’ve spent my life cultivating my musicality, which is the first step towards maneuvering my voice. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

In terms of product, I can generate. We Remain Traditional is almost intact from my MFA thesis. What slows me is the processing of my fears, traumas, memories, and experiences. It is important for me to put out the story I most need to speak. My drafts reflected this: I could see I wasn’t ready to let go, even of people who have wronged me. Which is fair: why shouldn’t I be allowed to admit I’m struggling with my writing because I’m struggling with my life? For closing in on drafts, it is about my willingness to let go. I am a writer who cranks out publishable material, but doesn’t publish until I’m ready.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I see the entire book from the beginning. I have no problem dispensing with strong poems which stand alone, that I can write well, but don’t belong in the book. Manuscript organization and section shifts are also easy for me. What trips me up are smaller and fluid transitions from poem to poem, especially minor but additive poems. Limited repetitions, e.g. moving poems around such that the pattern is one of obsession and not a waning of affect, and lack of parallelisms drive me crazy. Every poem does not have to be loud to do something to me as the writer, and hopefully, to you as the reader. Back to letting it go!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I am a private person unused to being asked how I’m doing; no, really, how I’m doing. Publicity is new. I enjoy conversations and speaking for others, which is what I do in education, editing, and literacy and court advocacy. It’s the fighting for myself that’s hard—I have to demonstrate a selfishness that feels wrong to uphold. Call it being unused to celebrating myself. I enjoy readings—it just feels like I’m renewing my skin each time, exposing myself as a writer reading her work.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Currently, I am preoccupied with two questions. One, how do we justify legal or uncontested murders? I am not talking necessarily on insidious acts such as lynching; I mean, legally, the plaintiff wins because they’ve followed their constitutional terms stronger than the defendant. And even though my heart is almost always with the victim and survivor, I see how the perpetrator made it “right” for them: they understand how to use the law to justify their means.

How do we pardon each other—how do we forgive our humanities? Perhaps I am too forgiving in believing every human has a soul. If I were to hate to the extent that I’m unable to forgive, I think I will have forgotten why I should write.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I hope to be a part of how poetry allows me to enact change: to make my specific and unique experiences new, to expose them so viscerally any reader will look at my words and allow a space for them. Sympathy and empathy are tall orders, and I understand not everyone will exhibit the compassion I practice and live. I don’t want or expect that for all writers. But to write, that means you acknowledge your responsibility as to what your voice stands for. A writer needs to be frank, unafraid, different, and powerful. They can’t hide. They can’t denigrate. If a writer puts down other writers to make their points, they will be found. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Editors fight for your voice to be heard. I like being left alone and then, at the intuitive times, being asked, Hey, where’s that draft? Headshot? Hello, can you let me know you’re okay? I like being reminded it’s okay for me to be human and be slow at logistics, or even to sift through my poetry so I can trust in it.  

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I think about what I want my daughter to read and to know about her genealogy. If I am not here to tell her, what do I want to leave behind for her to read as she grows up? 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to piano)? What do you see as the appeal?

I was a pianist first so I play piano and write interchangeably. A writing day means sitting at the piano and playing out my poems. I’m not talking about strict lines, what it looks like on the computer screen. Pen, paper, and my musical ear are all that matters because I’m trying to sound out my poems. If I’m not comfortable with how they sound, in the beauty and pity and ugliness and compassion, how can I expect my listeners and readers to follow me?

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Ideally, I aim to write on my non-work or non-teaching days, which is five. Five! Realistically, I spend my days off serving as a court advocate for foster kids: real time interacting with legal, educational, placement, and behavioral health services; hanging out with the child for whom I’m legally appointed to fight; writing court entries and reports; processing what is the best interest of the child. Although I’ve never wanted to be a lawyer, legal advocacy has always been something I wanted to do, and I think it strengthens my writing in the way the rest of my life sustains my art: my self-care is fighting for foster children because that is my subject. Serving in non-profits is not enough for me: I want to return to the courtroom. I want to be a part of enacting some legal change, no matter how small, slow, and enduring.

I try to write an hour or two from 6-9 a.m. My “break” is doing all my court advocacy: consolidating my case notes, calling different parties, driving to these parties. Without thinking about it, the time it takes for me to complete court duties is a form of processing—I’ve done so much mental work by the time I’m back at the piano, I know what is the next step. I reserve organization and rearrangements, and sometimes revision, for the ends of the day: the late school nights when I’m too tired to create new work, but not tired enough to stop re-envisioning my work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday. Backwater blues. Hip hop and intersections of hip hop and popular music, like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. Unapologetic voices.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Tamarind. Hong Kong milk tea. Cigar and menthol cigarette smoke.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Jazz music, especially Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. Their precisions are instrumental, intuitive, addictive, political: they are aligned with showcasing human vulnerability and intimacy.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Some have not changed over the years: Celan, Jordan, and Sanchez are still my go-tos. Nawal El-Saadawi, David Mitchell, James Baldwin, Alice Notley, Jesmyn Ward, Ta-nehisi Coates, Ronaldo Wilson. Justin Chin and Stacy Doris. I confess I read more novels than poetry, and I read nonfiction because it is easier for me to read essays when thinking about my poetry. Publishing nonfiction for Entropy has helped me recognize my editorial voice: I see how to edit the most confessional voices—not to tone down or strip away, but to focus on the parts that really need to be seen by our community. Unsurprisingly, this has helped me work through my poetry: these genres are aligned in that they’re always asking for the writer’s reinvention. And, on that end, I am able to write one or two essays when I don’t want to confine my truths to a poem, which is limited—an essay allows for the entirety of one’s truths. I cannot say how much being an editor has allowed me to confront and to choose the distance necessary for all my work.  

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I want to be behind a transition program for foster kids going to college. Like, let’s say you’re moving to the dorms. How do you buy bedsheets when you’ve owned a trash bag with all your belongings up to that point? What about self-care, including a space where you can meet other foster kids and talk about what makes you different without feeling like you’re outside because you’ve lived a different life? If I can be more than the 3% of foster kids who graduate from college, and see other faces that are not my own, I feel I’d validate my path to success. I don’t want it to be just me at the end; this earth has to allow much more. 

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Surprise surprise, I think I would enjoy the limits and idealisms in child welfare or at least social work. It makes me livid when I follow The San Francisco Chronicle’s investigation on “Fostering Failure” or the Arizona Republic’s “Why are kids taken away?” The foster care system is rife with so many flawed human beings: it’s easy to blame Child Protective Services; to fault behavioral health services for changing therapists because they didn’t want to talk about suicide ideation; to call foster and kinship placements “bad people;” to give up.

I have the stomach and the heart for it. And maybe that’s why being a writer along with my day job as an educator and my service as a court advocate works—I’m happy to be living the life I believe.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I tried piano performance and although I was talented, I knew very early, I wouldn’t go beyond improvisation and performance because my interests and motivations had shifted: I didn’t want to study it. Deep down inside, I think I pride myself on being an inquisitive and imaginative writer despite my history of not being in school, dropping out of school, and all these things that made it harder to sustain a consistent semblance at literacy—and I never saw it that way. I told myself, education is the way out of the system. The only person responsible for that is me. I devise my fate. I will put myself through school on my own terms, and after that, I will speak. I’m proud of my courage.  

Ander Monson, one of my mentors, told me it is those who live through remarkable tragedies who become more interesting people, and on that end, more unique writers, because they do not act for the sake of writing; they write simply because they are brave in facing their truths. I was sitting in front of him ready to declare I’m quitting poetry, which I think he knew. He’s right. Some of writers I know do things so they have something to write about, as though writing is the purpose and not living. That is fine if that works for them. For me, I try to just live, and regardless of how much I believe myself to be an artist, I’m also comfortable with letting that go. If, one day, I want to curate my passion for writing into a greater form of legal advocacy in child welfare, for instance—just as I’ve cultivated piano into poetry—I think I’ll still be happy.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m rereading Alice Notley’s In the Pines. I love such an abandon for what matters to everybody else; she does not care whether you find her language impulsive and demanding, or justified as the crazy woman for her grief. Notley writes for the processing of her grief, of her beloved, of her body. She reinvents one of my favorite forms, the haibun. I don’t watch movies; I have an “accommodative eye focusing” problem, which sounds ridiculous until I’m disoriented from watching five minutes of characters dance across the screen.

20 - What are you currently working on?

My second book is After Every Pardon. It is unfinished. I can finish right now, if I want. But my filtering of the events, the people, the traumas, the memories, the addictions, the loves—those are more important. Because I am writing the people who are no longer with me on this earth, I am bound to honor their memories by writing the most truthful version of our stories. Which is not what poetry aims to do—as readers, we don’t look for every single truth; we look for the allure, for the bit of misgiving, inaccuracy, or even fabrication permitted in making words poetic.

As someone who does not lie in real life—excepting who drank all the coffee, whom I always blame the cat—I struggle with not telling every truth. I don’t know how to lie! And I’m adverse to lying: I didn’t end up in foster care because my parents were truthful beings. So I’m rethinking, rewriting, and re-envisioning how I can honor my loved ones and myself without being compelled to do something I don’t stand for. This earth will be ready for my next book when I’m ready.