Monday, January 23, 2017

Short interview with Agnes Marton

What an inspiring week. After seeing the peaceful outpouring of supporters at the Women's Marches around the world, I can't help but feel hope for our country. People are power.

Speaking of strong women, I sent the amazing Agnes Marton a few interview questions and am thrilled to share them with you today. Agnes will speak on creativity and the creative life. So, without further ado...   

Agnes Marton is a poet, writer, Reviews Editor of The Ofi Press, founding member of Phoneme Media, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Recent publications include Estuary: A Confluence of Art and Poetry (winning the Saboteur Award) and her poetry collection Captain Fly’s Bucket List. She has participated in an expedition to the Arctic Circle.

Hi, Agnes! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. So as a writer, I'm curious as to what a day in your life looks like.
I have a day job – otherwise I avoid routines. I write whenever I can. I travel a lot. I love writers' residencies.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
At the age of four when I became a compulsive reader and storyteller.

What inspires you to write a poem?
Deep and complex feelings.
Anything unpredictable.
Myths (but then I create my personal mythology).
Travel (however, I don't describe the landscape – I observe how my attitude changes).

What's the last book you read?
'The Wonder' by Emma Donoghue and 'A Manual For Cleaning Women' by Lucia Berlin.

How did this collection come together?
It seemed reasonable to compile a collection of my poems while preparing for the London premiere of my opera 'Captain Fly's Bucket List.' I hadn't written the poems with the intention of compiling them but I put much effort in editing the book, in shaping the three chapters, forming an arc. Now, on my return from my Arctic Circle residency, the situation is different. My responses to this expedition will definitely make a book, I've known that from the very first minute.

Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked, and if so, how do you find your way through?  
Not really. I have a close look at some unusual details, and immediately feel like writing.

Do you ever use prompts?
Rarely. When I'm invited to submit to a themed anthology.

What advice do you have for other writers?
Don't write when you have nothing to say. Wait.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Leave your comfort zone.

What are you working on now?
I'm in collaboration with visual artists Sarah Gerats and Viel Bjerkeset Andersen, their videos are accompanied by my Arctic poems. Also, with composer Vasiliki Legaki, we are creating the extended version of our opera. It is scheduled to be performed at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada in 2018. 

Thanks for stopping by!

I'll be posting again in Feb, so prompts are forthcoming... in the meantime, here are a few links to writing residencies.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Observations: January, 2017

With the new year comes possibility. Sure, many of us are afraid for the health of America's states. We worry about the integrity of our new administration, we worry about basic human rights, we worry that families won't be able to afford basic healthcare and that our educational systems are broken beyond repair, but 2017 could surprise us. Our mistakes and complacency and greed are being amplified, and this can teach us a lot.

We got here together, to a time of disbelief and propaganda-fueled beliefs. We need to listen to each other more than ever before, and we need to talk to each other more than ever before. Things may seem dark, but I believe real change will come from it. In the words of the late Leonard Cohen: "There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in."

In 2016, I learned:
  • Family is everything.
  • Fear can either be turned into energy or it can sap energy.
  • The weak and uninformed follow anyone who gives them a common enemy and an excuse, but there is no enemy greater than hate and division. #resist #listen
  • If there was an award for person who places as a finalist in the most contests, I'd win in 2016. (Or be a finalist.)
  • I wrote that last bullet point before I got the good news below.
  • The word elitist seems to fit as many republicans as it does democrats. 
  • When you help someone to achieve their dreams, yours are more likely to come true.
  • It's OK to say NO.
  • It's not OK to avoid answering questions you don't want to answer.
  • I'm getting old. ("I don't understand why these young people don't look people in the eye...")
  • Transparency is fine, so long as you're a willing participant.
  • With all the loss of talented artists this year, we have a lot of powerhouse angels.
  • Art is more important than ever.
In 2017, I will:
  • Write unapologetically and as often as I can.
  • Stand up for what I believe and listen to those I do not agree with.
  • Buy my first home.
  • Eat well.
  • Exercise well.
  • Try new things.
  • Call those I love, even when things are going well or I have nothing big to announce.
  • Support my writing friends.
  • Learn from my students.
  • Support my family.
  • Tackle big problems one angle at a time.
  • Run on my own terms.
  • Find the perfect computer bag.
  • Age gracefully.
  • Drink more water.
  • Travel every chance I get.
  • Say NO to what is too much without guilt.
  • Say YES to what I want but scares me.
  • Post to this blog monthly.
  • Listen to everything and make the best decisions I can.
I'm excited to announce that my unpublished short fiction collection, The Glass City, won the 2016 Americana Prize for Prose. I'm hoping the book will find its way to print soon. I also received word that my short story "Running Toward the Sun" got finalist status in the Aestas Short Story Competition 2016 and will be published in Fabula Press's Aestas Anthology soon.

Prompt: Write a short story or poem that begins with the line "The curtain parts, and..."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Observations, December: Part 15

The best way to reach out is to look within. Sounds good anyway, right? It definitely seems the basis for meditation and the theme of Westworld, so how can it not be true?

I've been taking a break from social media, specifically Facebook, to focus on a few writing projects. In a way, looking within through art. Or maybe I'm just strategizing about how to live in a less-than-ideal reality.

Whatever the answers... here are my observations from the last month:
  • Don't take HVAC systems for granted.
  • Internet advertisers: Send me a coupon, get a click. Send me twelve coupons, I'll block you.
  • Most of us are dehydrated (drink some water).
  • Cold weather = increased coffee consumption.
  • Basic civics, logic, and humanities curriculums need more attention in America. Too many people are under-informed and easily manipulated. 
  • Art saves. Action saves. Bitching is just bitching.
  • There are way too many dystopic films for my comfort. (*cough* education)
  • One can resist respectfully. Love regardless. Love relentlessly.
  • House hunting is equal parts fun and a PITA.
Prompt: Your character is living The American Dream. What's his or her day like?

I published a few interviews at Black Fox Literary Magazine and Superstition Review, both on writing/the writing life. Check 'em out!!

Love, Jen

Friday, November 11, 2016

Observations, November: Part 14

I've had trouble distilling my thoughts since November 8th.

I have worries surrounding the future of our nation, including the very real loss of my rights as a woman. I am worried about the economy, foreign relations, a racist police state, and illogical and emotional responses to real threats.

I saw this morning that the president elect said something positive in regards to the thousands who are protesting his presidency. Something about how their passion for country is a positive thing.

I can only hope this small bit of positivity, if genuine and not written by an intern, grows. I did not vote for Trump, and I do not feel he is fit for the position. He is not my choice, and quite honestly, I am terrified. I am acting, in what small ways I can to reroute. In case we cannot, however, I do hope I'm wrong.

I am thankful that good people surround me, people who give me hope. They remind me that in the darkest of times, the light shines brightest. It is Veterans Day, and today I will be going to an event at an elementary school in which our writers-in-communities program has been coaching young people how to write poetry and personal essays. Our students have been working hard and having fun exploring their creative voices. They remind me that people are resilient and strong. Tomorrow's generation may still be about unity and inclusion. Today, the children will perform a poem in tribute to our vets. I am eager to see their light. I think we all need it.

I hope to be back to my normal self next month. Right now, I'm just too sad.

Thank you to all who served and serve. Thank you to those who are shedding light during a time of division.

In solidarity,


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Observations, October: Part 13

I'm writing this after the second presidential debate. This, the town hall debate between Donald Trump, reality television star turned presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton, former New York Senator and Secretary of State. The debate was painful to watch, and I won't dwell on it here, but I will say that I think our country needs the arts more than ever. We need a Renaissance, a wave of innovation and insight to offset what seems an increasingly uninformed and divided country. We need to grow, not devolve.

A few other observations from this past month:
  • This election engages. It engages because it infuriates, much like a bad script. I hope the nation does not condemn itself. I hope those who take the trouble to self-educate and read widely vote. 
  • Locker room talk is still talk. This is still a story. It will continue to be a story until November 8th.
  • People who go all-out with Halloween decorations are just good and fun people, in general. 
  • Westworld is reflecting some scary truths.
  • Clowns are just fine. Scary clowns are not. Not all clowns are scary. (Logic!)
  • The news today feels like the bad day-time TV of my youth.
  • The first few cool days in South Texas are divine.
  • Teaching is one thing, teaching well is another.
  • There is nothing as gratifying as a good story.
  • Marginal utility should be practiced with all food and drink. It just makes sense.
  • Loosing the internet at home for an evening can lead to unexpected peace.
  • Reading is good for the soul, so check out my new short story, a ghost story: FORTUNE IN SMOKE at SFWP Quarterly.
Ahti watching Westworld

Creativity: Write about or draw a clown who is a hero, a champion of all things good. By doing so, you may write a fantastic short story/create good art and restore balance to the world.  



Monday, September 26, 2016

Observations on Mood, September: Part 12

Here's the overview of my day so far (if I survive, it might be comical): illness kept me up in pain all night; in the morning, I purchased the wrong item at the grocery, so I had to go back; rain flooded my neighborhood; lunch looked good but wasn't; I finally got reimbursed for a extraneous charge from a company but ended up having to pay more than that for my prescription because I haven't yet met my deductible; I got backed up on work; I took a pain reliever that gave me hives; I logged on to gmail to find that everyone who hasn't gotten back to me in the last two weeks decided to email me today; I had trouble concentrating because I was tired; I responded to a personal email after misreading it, so had to respond again, but the person had already responded to my response, so it kept on; my leg fell asleep when I tried to meditate, then I fell asleep and almost hit my head on the wall (still trying to meditate); I found it difficult to exercise; and so on.

This day makes me want advice, but instead of asking someone, I'm thinking about all the advice I'd give someone else who is having a bad day. Are you having a bad day? Ordinarily, I'd say...

  • Meditate
  • Read
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Talk to a friend
  • Be grateful for what you have
  • Drink lots of water (I say this to people no matter what's wrong)
  • Take a bath
  • Take a long walk
  • Hang out with your dog or cat or bird

I didn't drink that much water today, but I tried most of this other stuff at some point. Now, I'm brooding. I'm dwelling in my misery, digging deep into it and adding up all the factors. In fact, I'm starting to feel a weensy bit better with each word I type, so maybe the secret to being in a bad mood is to just own it fully. Maybe when we try to fight the bad feelings, they fight back.  

Creativity prompt: Write or paint or sketch something inspired by a truly horrible day. (The book above is fantastic, by the way.)

Recent publications (short stuff): Polygon in Chicago Literati, Lottery Days in Literary Orphans.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Interview with the author: Alexandra van de Kamp

After reading her new poetry collection, Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press, 2016), I was eager to ask Alexandra van de Kamp a few questions about her work and routines. I first met Alexandra two years ago at a simultaneously wonderful and disastrous reading that I put together at San Antonio College (wonderful because of the amazingly talented readers and disastrous because we lost electricity, but I digress). Over sweet potato fries and craft brews at The Cove, we got to know each other. I soon found out that Alexandra is not only a nice person but an extremely talented writer.

Shortly after we met, we had coffee and realized we were both being considered for positions at the same literary nonprofit, Gemini Ink. Since then, I've had the privilege of getting to know Alexandra as a co-worker (who organizes and hosts amazing public events [always with electricity] and classes in the area) as well as a friend, who is smart, funny, and generous beyond words.

Enough backstory about how I know Alexandra. I am eager to introduce both the woman and her work to you...

Hi, Alexandra! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. As you know, I love Kiss/Hierarchy. Many of the poems in this collection begin with a narrative easing-in: either an observation that piques the reader’s interest or a direct appeal in epistolary form. The poems invite a reader to glance over the shoulder as a letter is written, walk alongside the narrator as a landscape is consumed, or hold the magnifying glass as persona is carefully taken apart and put back together. Who or what is the audience you envision as you write? Is audience only considered after a poem is complete?

Wow, what a rich question to contemplate! I guess you could say that I try to write poems that invite the reader in, in different ways, and sometimes that is a more narrative gesture (as you have so astutely pointed out), and sometimes it can be the allure of the sounds of words or just a single image that snags in my mind. For example, the title poem in the book, “Kiss/Hierarchy,” actually was triggered by reading the dairies of Anaïs Nin and coming upon a single statement that immediately made me want to respond to it. Nin states, rather coyly, “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don’t work.” And this statement immediately made me want to challenge/explore the idea of the appeal of kisses and to take on this division that Nin had set up—between the imagination (and its role in our mental lives) and the role of kisses (and the phenomenon that they are in our physical lives).  It also became a sort of game for me to test this dichotomy in our lives between the sensual and the intellectual. So, I guess if I attempted to describe the audience I was writing for (something I do not contemplate very much during the writing of my poems but do wonder about once I’ve written a book and hope it sells!), I would say I’d love to lure in those with an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, who take little for granted about what makes up a daily “reality,” and who are intellectually generous in how they absorb and entertain new ideas. That said, I do not have an over-defined idea of my audience, and I wouldn’t want to over-restrict it in any way. I think my poems tell me what they want and need to say (on a good day!) and the audience for the work comes out of this process.
Available on Amazon
and from Rain Mountain Press

Where were you when you wrote these poems? How long did it take for them to come together?

I wrote all of the poems for this book when I was still living in New York—the North Shore of Long Island, to be exact. I’ve only recently moved to San Antonio, TX in the last year and a half. I take a long time to compile a book of poems (I seem to write chapbooks, collections of 25-30 pages, much more quickly). My husband and I rented a little cottage on the North Shore of Long Island because we were both teaching and working at Stony Brook University at the time, which was nearby. I remember the summer for 2006 being especially fertile writing-wise. I had a span of 1-2 months to write after a really intense semester of teaching, and I just recall hunkering down in that little cottage, letting myself dwell on my first Long Island summer (after having lived in Brooklyn, NY and slogging through some pretty hot and humid urban summers) and reveling in the green around me, the flora and, even the inch worm infestation that summer. All these inch worms were dangling from the trees, little unravelling green bodies. They were a nuisance but I liked them! And this was when I began to write poems more overtly triggered by the sound of words—letting the music of the language become its own logic. This is why you find poems in my newest collection, Kiss/Hierarchy, that are titled things like: “Dear A—“ or “Dear S—“. They were epistle poems, as you’ve pointed out, but epistles addressed to the sounds of letters and to the associations and lyrical leaps that arose for me while allowing words beginning with these sounds to lead the “narrative” in each poem. So it took me 10 years—2006 to 2016—to get the poems I started that summer published and compiled as a full-length book. Of course, I actually wrote most of them by 2014. In that decade I also published two poetry chapbooks as stepping stones to the full-length.

“The Electrician” stood out for me. It seemed the voice in this poem was less exploratory initially, more about asserting a certain power or position in the world. But by the end of the poem, I got the sense that the familiar narrative style is there, behind the scenes, exploring the voice, exploring the assertions. What inspired this particular poem?  

I actually had an electrician visit our Long Island cottage to fix some old light fixtures, and he was a rather contemplative personality—not something I typically related to electricians (my fault for having a somewhat limited view of this profession), and it made me ponder what it must be like to be the one “fixing light” all day long and toying with electrical wiring. I know the role of an electrician can be a tricky one (and dangerous), but this guy had a sort of laconic air about it all and told me some stories about crawling into tiny, intricate spaces to correct extra tricky electrical problems, and suddenly this persona poem came about. I, of course, had fun playing with the very focused point-of-view of this profession and came up with images like: “I finger the wormy wires, un-cup/the fixtures and peer/at their sex. I know what grows, / furtive as thought, in the porous/ walls of houses.” Each profession has its own obsessions. I am contemplating writing a persona poem about a dentist. Can you imagine staring into people’s mouths all day long—what a perspective that would create?

As a fiction writer, one who stumble-writes the occasional prose poem but has no real academic concept of form, all I know is whether/how a poem affects me. I feel oddly lucky that I get to experience poetry in this way, especially poetry like yours that builds and takes unexpected turns.

Considering this, one commonality I noticed in your book is that after the narrative lure, your poems coil in. I begin to feel the pressure build as your increasingly textured words examine the nuance of life, the moments inside moments (“the liquid bird/ inside that night”). The poetic experience is visceral. 

In other words, you are not afraid to write a sexy poem, a poem with body and swagger. Has your poetry always come out with such swagger, or did you have to work up to it?

Thanks for such a beautifully-written, thoughtful question, Jen. “Poems (that) coil in…”  hmmm I like that idea. I have never thought of my poems having “swagger,” but I find it really interesting that you do! I think I did have to work up to creating a certain crescendo or tension in my poems. Once again, a lot of this has to do with me following the sounds of words. I think this freed me up a bit at a point in my writing life when I was looking for new triggers in my work and was moving away from the more straightforward narrative style I had been writing in (a style I still love, but I was just looking for new ways into my writing process). Because I leaned on sounds as the “spine” of my poem rather than a more linear “plot,” I think it helped a certain energy occur that might not have arisen otherwise. It also built surprise into my writing process. I came up with words and images I may have never considered before just because of riffing on a specific sound. I also learned the importance of embracing a sense of play in one’s work. Not play in a frivolous sense, but a sense of deep play, a willingness to let go of my writing process a bit to allow the unexpected to enter into it or to write with a sense of playing with sounds and the feel and texture of words and seeing where that led me. I do believe in the “visceral” knowledge of language. That it has a breathing, physical presence and power, and I’ve enjoyed leaning into that more lately. It’s shown me the words know more than I do if I just trust in them and their own internal logic. Does that make any sense? I hope so.

The cinematic nods and strong location-based curiosities and appreciations of people and their roles – and what is behind those roles – are recurring themes. What inspires you about film, about our various roles in life and art?  And why?

I have written a fair amount of ekphrastic poetry in my life—poems inspired or somehow obliquely influenced by the visual arts—a painting, photograph or sculpture, etc….  I see film as just visual art in motion, moving images literally. I have learned so much from the world of cinema, how the mood, texture, and light of film can create a whole other reality alongside our own. There is a long history of writing about or through film, dating back to the surrealists like Apollinaire and Max Jacob, who were writing in the early 20th century, when film was just coming into being. The speed of the images in film and the new juxtapositions of imagery and scenery it offered deeply impacted poets back then and has continued to do so ever since, from the avant-garde French poets, such as Pierre Reverdy and André Breton at the time of WWI, to American poets like Frank O’Hara, writing in the 50s and 60s, to contemporary poets now. O’Hara was keenly influenced by the world of film and often dropped cinematic references into his work. His well-known poem “Ave Maria” published in 1964 (Lunch Poems) is an example of this. In this poem, O’Hara’s reference to the soul “that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images” captures the otherworldly, dreamlike feel of the cinema, especially when experienced in a theater. I think the world of movies has given me the permission to write more dream-like work, or poems not limited to a linear logic. In this way, watching film has freed me up as an artist, and I return to it again and again for a certain permission to view “reality” from unexpected angles and to let my work be drenched in an atmosphere or mood I find unusual or intriguing.

What is your writing routine?

I wish I could say I have a well-honed routine, but I have learned over the years what works for me and what does not and have come to respect my need for certain parameters to be in place that allow me to write. For example, I write better in the morning than at night (although I’ve learned taking a little afternoon nap can give me a boost that allows me to write in the evening as well).  But I am not one of those writers who finds their groove at 1am! I often let myself read first before worrying about writing something myself. In other words, I know I need to let myself gestate a bit before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When I was living in Madrid in my late 20s and 30’s, I rented this apartment with another apartment mate, and my bedroom literally looked onto the wall of the opposing apartment (what the Spanish would call an “interior” view because my window faced onto the inside courtyard of the building and not out onto the street). However, I learned that all I needed was to brew a good cup of coffee, and let myself stare out that window, meditating on the opposite white stone all. Really do nothing at all for about 15 minutes or so, and trust my mind to go where it needed to go. Then, I was ready to do some work. So I think I need a certain quiet, the feeling that I don’t have five things scheduled for the day I am trying to write within, and a feeling of permission to let my mind play and wander. And, of course, a computer or journal nearby.
I’ve also gotten less fastidious over the years, and have learned I need not have hours free to write but can compose something in less time and that sometime I write fairly decently when stressed or feeling anxious. My idea of the “perfect writing time” has loosened up. Life is short, and you just can’t wait for things to be “perfect” to write! Sometimes you have to just take a stab and see what happens.

What are you working on now? 

I am working on new pieces for a third book of poems. Some of these poems are influenced by having moved to South Texas in the last year and a half. The green, exotic flora of San Antonio intrigues me. I’ve never lived in a place with palm trees, cactus, and grackles. I also continue to be influenced by the world of the movies and by the textures and sounds of words. And I just let reality be its own “movie” and am open to whatever images or experiences I may encounter on a daily basis. I don’t like to over-pin down what I am currently working on because often I don’t know until I am doing it! I am also working on maintaining a blog in which I offer mini-reviews on poets and writers I admire and post occasional musings on movies and the writing process itself. I also love to write prose poems and am toying with writing a collection of prose poems or prose vignettes. But mostly, I am writing poem by poem and building my next manuscript.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Alexandra!