My Writing Process Blog Tour
Step 1: Acknowledge the person (& site) who involved you in the blog tour.
Paula Jane Mendoza, syllable singer extraordinaire, who I knew was kindred circa 2007 when we connected via MySpace because of the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis. For a year or two, we corresponded from afar—sharing work, sharing authors as we discovered them—and didn’t actually meet in person until right before she and I went off to pursue MFA’s, her to Michigan, I to Texas State. She is one of the most generous and wide-ranging readers of poetry I’ve known among our peers (hovering around age 30). To say that I am lucky to call her not only one of my trusted first readers and, more than that, a tried and true friend is a categorical definition of understatement. She’s the bee’s knees and. And an astonishingly gifted poet. Per Dickinson’s definition of the thing itself, you can have more than your hair blown back by reading her work in The Awl, The Offending Adam, ILK, New Orleans Review, and [PANK]. I hear tell that more marvels are forthcoming in Drunken Boat and, equally exciting, that the barred wings of a full-length manuscript are flying around. Her work is nervy, as burning as it’s burnished, and linguistically restless in ways that bewitch me every time. To purloin a term of Alice Fulton’s: Paula’s poems sing the (often, but not always, female) body eclectic. Find them. And be electrified. While you’re at it, venture over to the Michigan Quarterly Review to read her fiercely intelligent blogs.
Step 2: Answer 4 questions about your (writing) process:
1. What are you working on?
Currently, I’m hummingbirding between several things. I’m fiddling with a full-length manuscript and sending it out here and there as time and, more importantly, money permit. The changeling has gone through many, many iterations and overhauls the past couple of years, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s “finished” by any means, it does seem as though it’s finally begun to take shape in ways that suggest it might be getting there. Which, hopefully, means that I can soon focus on newer things. Poems swirling around that manuscript can be found online at The Offending Adam, Boxcar Poetry Review, Pebble Lake Review, and Konundrum Engine Literary Review; and, in print, in the current issues of Laurel Review, Colorado Review, and the forthcoming issue of West Branch.
Also, there’s a newer series of around twenty poems begun last year, written in two different months while doing The Grind. They seem like they might want to turn into something like a chapbook or, for all I know, something longer than that. They’re distant relations to those in the full-length collection—less empyrean, more telluric—but they’re distinct in terms of form and/or content (which, to me, are indivisible). The series was sparked by Kerri Webster’s astounding two books, We Do Not Eat Our Hearts Alone and Grand & Arsenal, is a kind of long-distance conversation with and homage to her work, and it’s not yet clear if more are to come in it or not (I think there are). A couple of these have appeared in Octopus and Washington Square. Having never written anything remotely resembling “prose poems” before, and as someone who normally composes on the level of the discrete (often enjambed) line and not the sentence, it’s been interesting to change it up. “Interesting,” of course, as in terrifying.
And a few very new, very raw things that I can’t yet make heads or tails of. The beginning of something completely different? Though I have an aversion to thinking of poems, or groups of poems, as “projects,” these seem like another continuation, a metamorphosis, of perennial preoccupations. All I know is that the sounds and the measures are unlike anything I have written before. Primarily because of a constraint that made itself known when I began composing the first of them (the acrostic). Something new, then, but I couldn’t say whether good or bad. Williams says, somewhere I cannot remember, that a new music is a new mind. I wouldn’t even pretend to know what “a new mind” might mean, but the music of these, at least, looks and sounds new to my ears and eyes.
2. How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
… I’d wager there’s more similitude than difference. By that, I mean the wondrous, weird fact of being—to quote Donne—a little world made cunningly of elements. However different we are, we’re all made of the same stuff at the subatomic level, are we not? Where my work may differ from some of my contemporaries, perhaps not so much in method (form, or aesthetics) as in the means taken, or the pathways traveled (content, or theme), is its unrepentant metaphysics. I take Paul Éluard at his word when he writes that there is another world inside this one, and I wonder about that inside—where is it, what does it look like, how can we get there—as often as I’m awed by the things of this world. Put another way: I am obsessed with the unseen, or the invisible, though I am very aware such things can’t be approached, let alone known, save by way of the visible. I am similarly drawn to what lies on the other side of silence. The fact that language is the sole means of coming close to whatever silence might be or mean is a paradox that continually energizes my writing habit. Since asking after these things—the unseen and the unsaid, or the not or not-yet said—means that I am often writing toward what I don’t know or understand, my scribbling habit would be aptly described as a spiritual practice. In the sense of meditation even if not necessarily always akin to prayer.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, speak for others. My “subjects,” such as they are, weren’t chosen by me—they were given, and radically so, in the sense Frank Bidart uses the term in his poem about Ulanova. My given is that I am a gay preacher’s son. This means that, though English is my native language (and Spanish my adopted as a South Texan), the language of the Judeo-Christian tradition is my mothertongue. I cannot unlearn that language—by which I mean a way of apprehending and relating to the world(s) around us—although I tried very hard to as a teenager. It’s indivisibly a part of what makes me who I am and, invariably, it informs what I write. Because it forms how I see and how I hear.
When you grow up in the church in the way that I did, “reality” exists on more than one level. It isn’t singular. There’s the diurnal, of course, and then there’s the eternal. Liturgy and the liturgical calendar make this concrete. Morning isn’t just morning. Morning’s also resurrection. Evening—or, more specifically, late afternoon right around the time that daylight begins to drain out of the picture—is, according to the liturgy of the hours, symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion. And the dead of night, commonly called the witching hour, is around the time that monastics wake to say (or sing) a group of prayers called Vigils. In liturgical time, these are plaintive prayers—in my opinion, the most beautiful of them all—that are said/sang in hope of the resurrection that has not yet come. Vigils could also be described as walking in the dark. As anyone awake and down, worried, anxious, depressed, etc, during those hours (between 2am-4am, depending upon the community) would likely agree, regardless of whether or not subscribing to any of the above.
Still, like many a queer daughter and son of raised in Christianity, my relationship with it is vexed. And I think many (though not all) will agree that the Bible, like the apostles during Pentecost, speaks in tongues and out of both sides of its mouth. Neither it nor I will let the other alone. Faith: I would say that I believe not despite doubt but, rather, because of. Trying to use language to approximate what eclipses it is a tricky thing. And, whether you subscribe to transcendence or to immanence (or both), the linguistic problem is the same. So if words try to mean but cannot quite—and Jack Gilbert wrote a gorgeous poem about this—we’re back at doubt again. “We may not know if there is a God or not, but we do know that there is a word” (Fanny Howe). The feedback loop between the notion of the incarnation and language, thanks to the opening of the Gospel of John, is short and, as far as I’m concerned, quite clear. Metaphor? Yes. As metaphor, untrue then? I’d say to the contrary. But in this, and without trying to be coy, I prefer to let my poems speak for themselves. They say what I have to say about religion, and I am the seeker lagging several steps behind.
4. How does your writing process work?
For years, writing has been a seasonally affected thing. Whereas new work has tended to announce itself in the Fall and Spring, I have grown accustomed to rewriting and revising more—and composing new work significantly less—during the Summer and Winter. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with the brain-addling heat of Texan summers. I would say, however, that I think of writing is a daily practice along the lines of what Flannery O’Connor describes as a habit of being. “Writing” can mean a variety of things: reading, which is part and parcel of making in general and poetry in particular; scribbling words or phrases in a disciplined way or on the fly (or lunch breaks); revision, rewriting, editing (each of which differs from the others); and, lastly, composition. And, for me, I mean composition as a physical act, because I do not compose on the computer until much later. As in: sitting at a table, or on the couch with the lapdesk, pen and paper in hand, usually staring off into space absent-mindedly as often as looking at the actual paper. Once I began working full-time—which happened to coincide with being in graduate school full-time—my previously nightowlish wont to work at night got highjacked by the demands of being conscious by 8am five days a week. That signaled a shift in work habits. Nowadays, I work when and where and how and as I can, whether that means for several hours or fifteen minutes. I’ve also gotten quite good at being able to “work” just about anywhere as long as I have a level surface available, even if that means using my knees as a table. I carry a little notebook in my back pocket everywhere for this reason. Which means, of course, that I also have a pen on me at all times. Not to mention at least one book. If I have my backpack with me, it’s all of this doubled or tripled. Part of poem-making, I’ve found, is actually sitting down—or, as the case may be, standing up or going for a walk—to do the work. Inspiration, as it’s traditionally conceived, is both fleeting and flighty. The other, equally important part of poem-making is learning how to listen. How to pay attention. How to be present. We can learn a lot from the architecture of our cells about this seeing as they permeable membranes. Learning how to be permeable, how to let whatever needs to enter you enter you, is the task of a lifetime. The beautiful thing? It can be practiced anywhere.
Step 3: Introduce the next 3 poets: Emmy Pérez, Laressa Dickey, Melissa Buckheit
Though I later learned that we know some of the same people (I mean, poets), I encountered Emmy Pérez’s adamantine alchemy of words almost by accident while reading through a wonderful anthology called A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Iowa). It was the midway point through the penultimate semester of my MFA (see under: in extremis). My spirits were low. The blank page wasn’t blank at all but thicket after white thicket of silence. “What is a poem?”—or “What is a line?”—felt like academic exercises addled by too much mind while heart, like soul, was absent. I didn’t need a pick-me-up so much as a reminder of what all this poetic fuss was about anyway. And then I came across Emmy’s essay that blends the prose sentence and the poetic line, the prescient title of which is “Healing and the Poetic Line.” Read words like these: “I am trying to remember my love / Of the poetic line, of poetic breaks / And the border patrol / Van hasn’t moved in an hour.” Wait a second, I remember thinking to myself. Who is this? Where is this? Instead of finishing Emmy’s essay, I flipped back to the contributor notes to see that she’s an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas-Pan American. Which, for anyone unfamiliar with the geopolitics or –graphy of Texas, is in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. I grew up not quite two hours north of the area she’s writing about—relatively close, as Texans reckon time, in a small town named Kingsville—and, reading her words, was reminded of home. And, against the stark menace of the wall being built between México and the United States, Emmy continues:
“The line is the beloved. Again and again and again. Your prose is poetry. Your ends of sentences do not trail off; you fight for them, that space for additional meaning, that breath dying and not wanting to end. Your ends of sentences expand my mind, querid@, create openings instead of endings. When can I see you to kiss you or meet you, again, in person and on the page?”
And so I met this Californian native on the page before being able to meet her in person, though not before I found out that we were both contributors to the anthology New Border Voices: An Anthology. Emmy is the author of Solstice (Swan Scythe), recently released in a second, expanded edition. Her poetry has been published widely in journals like Mandorla, Laurel Review, Huizache, and PALABRA, and her work has been anthologized in The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. She’s a CantoMundo fellow and the recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and recently received an Outstanding Teaching Award from the University of Texas Board of Regents. The spirit of her work—and, I am sure, of her person as well—is fearless because it’s as unafraid of compassion as it’s unwilling to overlook outrage. (Website)
Weirdness, like irony, is very much en vogue these days in contemporary poetry. Too often, in my opinion, poetic oddity hits the ear/eye in a way that feels sensationalistic and contrived. Far more difficult—and far more interesting, to me anyway—are poems whose words embody and enact strangeness. Reading a poem by Laressa Dickey makes clear how palpable mystery can be evoked. Laressa is the author of the very recently released Bottomland (Shearsman) and several gorgeous chapbooks from MIEL books. (I own two of them, and trust me when I tell you that MIEL publications, created by the beautifully talented Éireann Lorsung, are art objects just as their words are art). Although I’ve yet to meet her in person—an ocean stands between Berlin, where she lives and writes, and the San Antonio of my present, though I hope our paths cross if we both go to AWP this coming year—Laressa’s stunning, searching poems have entranced and haunted me ever since they crossed my transom when I began editing poetry for Newfound Journal. We published selections from a long poem in 2012.
For the curious, her work appears in journals like inter|rupture, Konundrum Engine Literary Review, Ostrich Review, Cerise Press, Quarterly West, and American Letters & Commentary, among others. Laressa’s poem “Gefion” was selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as the winner of the 2013 Newfound Poetry Prize. Reading her poetry is like trying to trace a constellation of stars visible only when seen askance. If you look too directly (as in, primarily with the intellect), you’ll miss them. Her poems sound on the ear/in the eye like memories you’d forgotten you’d forgotten. (Your body never does, of course.) Her poems, especially the ones located in/out of the Tennessee of the American South, give me inklings of what the landscape I was born in but barely lived in (Kentucky) is like. Memory lives in her work. And it sings. (Website)
I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Melissa Buckheit in person, but I have had the privilege of meeting her words, which I can only describe as ecstatic in the original (spiritual) sense of the term. Ecstatic the way, for example, Sappho’s fragments—even by way of translation—could be called ecstatic, could be said to glow. Olga Broumas and T. Begley, recounting their collaborative poems collected in Sappho’s Gymnasium, describe what they were after as “time divided into units other than Western certitudes. A tense for faith? A tense for dream and trance? A semiotics of generosity?” All of the above are apt descriptions of what I encounter when I read Melissa’s poetry. Her work is somatic in a way that feels unique to me with respect to contemporary poetry being written in America. By that, I mean that her poems coalesce out of an awareness that—just as the heart has reasons that reason cannot know, as Pascal put it—so too does the body know in ways too often ignored or elided by the mind. And, to put it somewhat differently, woman could replace body and man could replace mind in that formulation, and the result would be the same. Don’t be fooled by the spidersilk grace of her lines or their choreographies on the page. Her work is as tender as it’s tough and, damn, can she write a love poem (read “End of Summer”).
Melissa is the author of Noctilucent (Shearsman). Her poems in The Drunken Boat, Spiral Orb, Sonora Review, Sinister Wisdom, among other journals. And, from what I can tell, she’s an artistic polymath. She writes, translates, dances, choreographs, practices bodywork and massage, teaches, and curates the Edge Reading Series at Casa Libre en la Solana. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, a city I hope to visit not too far in the near future.