HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

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HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

Sheryl Luna: What were some of the reasons the CantoMundo founders had for starting the organization? Does the banning of books by Chicano/a authors in Arizona affect CantoMundo’s goals and purpose in any way?



Norma E. Cantú: The reasons we felt that CM needed to exist are many: some are selfish (at least for me) as they speak to our individual need to come together with like-minded poets where we can speak our languages and do our work without being judged or silenced. In broader terms, we felt that it was high time that a Cave Canem kind of organization exist for Latina/o poets. Macondo is great, but it is not JUST poets; it includes other genres–fiction, essay, and even drama. The banning of our books in Arizona affects all of us who write.


Celeste Guzman Mendoza: The primary reason that I decided to become a co-founder was because I believed, and still believe, that Latino writers need a space where they can convene and be 100% themselves as writers and as gente, a space where they and their writing, no matter the style, could be accepted and supported unconditionally. I strongly believe that when we as writers have this center, this support, we create much stronger work, both in terms of its own emotional core and craft. The banning of books in Arizona only reaffirms why communities like CantoMundo are so important.


Deborah Paredez: I was invited by Pablo, Norma, Carmen, and Celeste after they had had a series of encounters wherein they wondered aloud, “Where is the Latina/o Cave Canem or Kundiman?” I answered the call because I believe that ideas of aesthetics and “professional success” are invariably racialized and gendered and that by creating this space for Latina/o poets, we could collectively identify and intervene in the prevailing (and troubling) assumptions that often undergird these issues in the poetry world.  I also was thrilled by the idea of being part of a community made up of the diverse array of Latina/o poets with whom I could learn so much and have some of the necessary hard conversations that can’t always be had in “mixed” company.

Luna: How do you feel CantoMundo can help Latina poets in particular, now and in the future?

Mendoza: Think I answered this in my reasoning for becoming a co-founder. I think I’ll add that when we feel supported we begin to feel more confident in our work and voice. We submit our writings to more contests, we enter our work into anthologies, we go out and look for opportunities…ultimately, the strength of the group helps us challenge ourselves. It is not the same for everyone but I do feel that for many of us it challenges us to improve every aspect of our “game” so to speak. We bring it in a way that is much stronger after we are in one another’s orbit.

Paredez: I think the particular challenges that female poets face in this historical moment (as opposed to even 25 years ago when I was just beginning my “adult” life as a poet) is the pervasive and insidious notion that we should be past or “post” any number of important aesthetic, generic, or theoretical categories: post-feminist, post-confessional, post-sincerity, post-race, post-narrative, post-language…post-nauseum.  This sort of teleological thinking is especially detrimental to women of color who are simultaneously (and systematically) excluded from publication venues or taxonomies of aesthetic value while being told that race/gender/etc. has nothing to do with the terms of their exclusion because we are all so over that.  CM provides a space to name this beast and encourages Latina poets to gather together to fashion the weapons to slay it.  We also insist on a feminist mode of engagement at our workshops: everyone is accountable and respectful and encouraged to examine the implications of the power dynamics in which we may be invested. Not a safe space—that is too facile—but a place of productive risk.  We are lucky that our co-founders include Norma Cantú and Carmen Tafolla who were instrumental participants in  Latina writers’ efforts as part of the second wave feminist movements.  This living historical memory insists we keep our eye on the long view rather than being distracted for too long by the mirage of post- anything except maybe the post office or the particular struggles a post-partum poet might face.

Cantú: CantoMundo can help Latina poets in three specific ways: 1.  networking so that the Latina poet doesn’t feel all alone—knowing that there are others out there supporting and believing in your work can be transformative. 2.  Offering a place to try out new work, to expose oneself to the scrutiny of other poets who will tell it like it is, who will be kind, but most of all will be HONEST about your work. And 3. By providing a space where we can leave our families and our daily demands behind and come and just be a POET.  In the future, I think CM can also grow and become an oasis for Latina poets who may be in a desert out there where there are no other Latinas writing—mostly here I am speaking of those of us in academia who may end up in geographical and cultural isolation.

Luna: What has CantoMundo already done to foster its mission?

Mendoza: I believe that the community of poets who have come and shared themselves and their work are benefitting greatly from one another in various ways, whether it is simply finding like-minded writers or being challenged to write differently, or helping one another get reading gigs, etc. I also feel that when we participate in the workshops themselves we delve deep and write from an emotional center that is very strong and shows in the work.

Cantú : The most important thing CM has done to foster its mission is to exist! Given the dire financial straits of the arts and arts organizations, we have been very lucky to have the funding from UT Austin to make the summer workshops happen. So, the workshops are number one—that is how most of our mission our goals are met.  I also think that having the readings and inviting major figures in Latino/a poetry as faculty and as readers has also been a fulfillment of our mission.

Paredez: Because we started out as a collective of founders, we are accustomed to the (often fraught) process of collaboration.  Each year, we’ve taken seriously the valuable feedback from our fellows and faculty to improve our ability to create an emotionally nurturing and creatively challenging space for Latina/o poets.  We work closely with our fiscal sponsors, The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, to endeavor every year to keep costs down for fellows and to share with them the resources an institution like the university can provide. We are also really proud of the ways the fellows have taken ownership of CantoMundo by curating regional CantoMundo readings and events beyond the workshop space.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of CantoMundo?

Cantú: My own vision for CM focuses on a pivotal point: growth and maturity. As the organization continues to grow and mature, CM will become as well-known as Cave Canem or Kundiman. At five years old, we are probably still at the childhood level. We are not yet teenagers, but we have the energy and vision of youth. As CM ages, it will come into its own by developing the goals we have for the next 5, 10, and 20 years including publishing books, awarding prizes, and holding academic conferences on the subject of Latina/o poetry.

Mendoza: I envision CantoMundo continuing to be a space for Latina/o poets to convene and create community however we see fit at that time. My primary goal is for us to perfect as best we can the workshop experience. If we do other things like a publication or some other offshoot that will be exciting and new but our core is the workshop and supporting the fellows’ in their work.

Paredez: I envision CM taking part in cultivating a larger trend of Latina/o poets mentoring one another (imagine!) as more and more Latina/o poets achieve professional success and standing both within and beyond the traditional spaces within the poetry world.  Other goals and dreams include sponsoring a book prize and residencies and innovative outreach programming with Latina/o communities who’ve not yet had the opportunity to imagine themselves as poets.


Luna: What are some of the ways being a CantoMundo fellow has helped you as a poet?

Gloria Amescua: My poetic world exploded—in a good way, of course. I worked for years in isolation and then in small groups. CantoMundo unlocked countless doors for myself and others. I have grown from the supportive environment and the wonderful workshops led by invited poets and fellows.  Not having gone through a formal creative writing program, I was unaware of the many blogs, writing residencies, conferences and many other resources available for writers. The postings in CantoMundo Charla and elsewhere are extremely valuable. Fellows in this network share leads to amazing poems, books, interviews, and poetry readings. As a result, I’m tuned in to the changing literary world. I am in constant learning mode, trying out different styles, subjects, and forms as I access the diverse poetry of my CantoMundo fellows and those poets they admire. More than ever, I am motivated to write, send out work for publication, enter contests and be involved in various networks of poets. The organization encourages lively interactive discussions about Latin@ poetics, which I value highly. CantoMundo really has been transformational. I treasure the intellectual stimulation of this community of learned people and their willingness to share from their abundance. One vital aspect is being able to experience the poetry of CantoMundo fellows. The diversity and honesty of their poetry has pushed me to dig even deeper and to challenge myself. My writing has definitely improved as a result, and I am working on my first manuscript.  I feel that I am in the midst of an intellectual, artistic and literary revolution in poetry. CantoMundo has definitely been the experience of a lifetime.

ire’ne lara silva: CantoMundo helped me to remember that I am a poet and that I would always be one–even if several years of writing prose had made me start to believe that there was very little poetry left in me. It introduced me to writers I have long admired–as Fellows and as Faculty–and to new poets that have changed how I see the work of making poems, how we approach language, and how we weave our histories and identities into our work. CantoMundo made me part of a loving and supportive community and created a space for lasting friendships and artistic collaborations.

Luna: How do you feel about CantoMundo’s fostering of Latina poets?

Amescua: Since I became a fellow in CantoMundo, my circle of supportive Latina poets has expanded exponentially from the local community. I am so honored to be part of a national network, which includes incredible Latina poets. I communicate through email or Facebook with several Latina poets and have reviewed their poems and/or manuscripts, and they have given me feedback as well. I discovered Hedgebrook’s Writing Residency for women through Amalia Leticia Ortiz, whom I met during the inaugural workshop. She not only encouraged and helped me with my application, but several other CantoMundo poets have also applied and been accepted as a result. This is just one example of support for one another. We promote each other’s works, interviews and readings. I was motivated to organize a Southwest Regional CantoMundo Poetry Reading for the community in San Antonio, Texas. We have had several regional readings across the U.S. in 2012-2013.  As I’m sure many others do, I share many of the ideas and information I get from CantoMundo. I especially do that with Mujeres Morenas, my local writing group of Latinas. CantoMundo and its network expands beyond the fellows, which is especially helpful to Latina poets. I’m thrilled with my fellow CantoMundistas for their publications and their awards. I can see the tremendous output of my fellow Latinas and am encouraged by their success, not only for myself but also for other Latina writers.

silva:  I think that the very structure of CantoMundo lends itself to women poets. Beginning with the four-day schedule (Thursday evening-Sunday morning) which is more likely to allow women with children, other caregiving responsibilities, multiple jobs, or with fewer economic resources to participate. The organizational emphasis on respectful exchange, ‘checking in one’s ego,’ giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak as well the community’s acceptance of personal stories, emotional openness, and speaking in varying registers (from academic to performative to familial) makes a space for women to speak ‘from the heart’ and without having to downplay their wisdom or intellect.

It’s interesting to me to see how CM’s insistence on gender parity also works to support Latina poets. For one, it introduces us to male poets that we might not ever have met as part of a life-changing, art-affirming, close-knit communal experience. As poets living our individual lives, what keeps us persistently writing and continually developing are the networks we create. The more multi-faceted and unique they are, the better. And the bonds built during CantoMundo– at the retreat and year-round–are indispensable, whether between women, between men, or between women and men.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of this organization?

silva: In my vision, CantoMundo is still growing and developing decades from now–bringing Latin@ poets together and creating opportunities for connection and dialogue. I wish for CantoMundo all of the things that will provide more publishing and networking opportunities for its Fellows: CM book publication prizes, grants, and a literary review; a website that promotes CM poets; and cross-country readings and reunions for current and graduated Fellows.

Amescua: The founders of CantoMundo had a magnificent vision for this organization, and they have seen their vision embodied in the five years since its founding through their hard work. They have devoted time, energy and love to support and serve Latin@ poets. The promise of CantoMundo as a community will multiply as more fellows graduate. I envision an increased network of CantoMundo fellows who continue to promote the work of Latin@s and are increasingly recognized for their poetry.  I would like to see an increased web presence, more opportunities for instruction and publications by our organization—anthologies, single works, or media versions of readings. This past year we had several regional readings, and I can see these expanding and evolving into more than just readings, perhaps involving workshops for local communities, so that the learning doesn’t just stay within the CantoMundo circle. CantoMundo is an amazing force. I feel fortunate to be a part of the outreach to the community, where we are all planting seeds beyond the CantoMundo fields. The harvest: Latin@ poets empowering themselves and each other


CantoMundo Founders

Norma E. Cantú currently serves as Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri in Kansas City; she is Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and has taught at Texas A&M International University, the University of California, Santa Barbara,  and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

As editor of a book series, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, at Texas A&M University Press, and Literatures of the Americas at Palgrave  she promotes the publication of research on borderlands culture. Author of the award-winning Canícula Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and co-editor of Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002),Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001) and Dancing Across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos (2009) and of Inside the Latin@ Experience: A Latin@ Studies Reader (2010) and El Mundo Zurdo: Selected Works from the Meetings of the Society for the  Study of Gloria Anzaldúa 2007 & 2009 (2010),  she is currently working on a novel tentatively titled: Champú, or Hair Matters/Champú: Asuntos de pelos, and an ethnography of the Matachines de la Santa Cruz, a religious dance drama from Laredo, Texas. She is founder and Director of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa and co-founder of the group of Latina/o poets, CantoMundo as well as a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection, This Side of Skin (2002) and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Mandorla, Palabra, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets, and she is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin where she teaches in the New Writers School MFA program.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a Macondista, Hedgebrook resident, and co-founder of CantoMundo, a master writer’s workshop for Latina/o poets. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various anthologies published by Penguin, Calaca Press, Eakin Press and Wings Press. Her first, full-length poetry manuscript, Beneath the Halo, is due out in Spring 2013 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesia Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio. She is at work on a second poetry manuscript, and lives in Austin with her husband and three cats.


CantoMundo Fellows

Gloria Amescua is an inaugural member of CantoMundo, a national Latino poetry community. Gloria has been published in a variety of journals, including several di-verse-city anthologies, Kweli Journal, Generations Literary Journal, Texas Poetry Calendar, Acentos Review, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Pilgrimage. A workshop presenter for youth and adults, Gloria is an alumna of Hedgebrook’s Writers-in-Residence program. She recently won first place in both the Austin International Poetry Festival Contest and the Austin Poetry Society Award.

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, and is the author of two chapbooks:  ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first collection of short stories, flesh to bone, will be published by Aunt Lute Press in 2013. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow.  She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

HER KIND: Why do we care so much about our hair?




Lisa Russ Spaar: I wonder if our being mammals has something to do with why hair—which can seem weirdly both animal and plant—is so primally charged, across time, place, and culture, with all sorts of projection and symbolism.

Hair (or lack of it) is associated with virility and strength (think Sampson and Delilah, think premature baldness, think Brangelina’s “heroic,” Byronesque tresses), sexuality and modesty (consider the marriage or religious veil, all those hirsute or shaved torsos, no-shave November, the popularity of French waxing or the full Brazilian, the so-called Holy Whores—Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt—whose hair grew to cover them), freedom (“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair. / Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen. / Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer / here baby, there, Momma, everywhere, Daddy, Daddy, Hair!”), personal expression (the mullet, the Mohawk, the faux hawk, My Little Pony hair dyes, dreads, the Van Dyke, the soul patch, Pippi braids), transgression (the bearded lady, fetishism, scalping, Medusa), sacrifice (think tonsure, think voodoo), mythology (Rapunzel, Godiva, Beauty and the Beast, all those apocryphal urban myths about ticks and handguns and mice hiding for weeks in beehive up-dos), illness (chemo hair loss, the lanugo of anorexia), aging (nose hairs!  The uni-brow), memento (a lover or baby’s hair braided into jewelry pieces, pressed into lockets, clipped and tied with a ribbon), humor and derision (wigs, clown tufts, toupees, comb-overs, plugs), and rites of passage (a baby’s first hair-cut, the growing of payot), not to mention the burgeoning commercial industry (salons, treatments, products, cures) that has grown up around it. Hair, like fingernails, can apparently grow after death, and survive in graves and on mummies for centuries. The potent, the rogue, the surprising, the transformative: this is also the stuff of poetry.

So no wonder hair holds a particular place in the poetic imagination. I’m not just talking about all those hair haiku websites. I’m thinking about Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Sherman Alexie’s “Good Hair,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” Kiki Petrosino’s “Afro,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” Sappho (“But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair”), Debra Nystrom’s “The Haircut,” Robin Behn’s “My Hair.” And of Rumi (“I’m tangled, like the curls of my love’s hair”) and of Cate Marvin’s “Why I am Afraid of Turning the Page” (“Spokes, spooks:  your tinsel hair weaves the wheel / that streams through my dreams of battle.  Another / apocalypse, and your weird blondeness cycling in / and out of the march’ &c).

What do you think, Zayne? Hair. Poetry. Poetic Hair. Hair Poetry. A tautology?


Zayne Turner: When I first read the question, I thought: how do I care about hair? I cut my own hair—because I’d rather buy other things, not because I’m particularly good at it—and my mother’s repeated advice about hair is, “Once you walk away from the mirror, your hair becomes everybody else’s problem.” But you remind me, Lisa, of all the years I did care, very much, about the visibility of my hair. Curled, straight. Brown, blonde, red, or not. How much I just wanted my hair to not betray any sign of difference–style as invisibility, protection.

And now, your question of a tautology between Hair + Poetry make me think of style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access. Personally, I find that my desire to style myself into invisibility has waned—both in terms of my hair & my poetry. So I find myself reading & writing more in the liminal areas. But then I find myself thinking of hairy questions like: at what intervals do erudition, intellection, formal/procedural necessity become so tangled they become more about the spectacle of the mass, the physics of the impossible snarl? And if so, does that matter? Or what if someone decides to take a snarl & slather it in tonic? If we make snarls shiny, but do not undo the tangle, do we just make our knots able to be skimmed over, combed through? What of those who decide to keep everything in a ‘manageable’ style or length, where nothing can possibly tangle? And what of bun fillers, wigs, weave, extensions, Bumpits? Chewing gum or glue? What if the tangle is the result of materials & objects not entirely consisting of our own keratins?

Swinging back to a more closely literal orbit of poetry, I’m thinking of the conversation between Barbara Hennings & Harryette Mullen in Looking Up Harryette Mullen, how the politics of accessibility or aesthetic choice intersect with literacies, economic opp/ortunity/ression, gender, race, our aggregate identities. The brouhaha over the Penguin Anthology & subsequent reviews. Amy King’s “Poetry & the Beastly Po-Biz” (which gives us an allusion & flirtation with another hairy tale–), taking on conceptions/receptions/productions of group identity in poems, by poems, around poems. I’m thinking of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and the ‘divide’ between page and stage in poetry communities. When is a trick (repetition or volume, perhaps) a stunt, when is it a device. A choice. A tool.

The near invisibility of visual and concrete poetries in all of these discussions. How even an adventuresome press like Siglio would like us to “Please note that we do not publish poetry.” Does poetry somehow not exist in the world of visual-literary hybrids? Or just The Last VisPo? The towers that be, that divide.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Let down your hair. Let loose. Loose women. Lack of moral fiber. Split ends. Now we’re in a tangle. A hairy problem. Pepón Osorio’s “En la barbaria no se llora.”


LRS:  No crying in the barbershop, indeed, Zayne. Clearly, it’s hard to think about any aspect of hair and hair culture that isn’t psychically italicized.

Your mentioning of the Osorio and of sites like The Last VisPo makes me think of other poet/artists who foreground hair as subject or material, or who privilege sheer process itself in their work. There are so many of them, but right now I’m recalling those hair-like red threads and flosses in Jen Bervin’s series on Dickinson’s fascicle scorings and variants, for instance (incidentally, Dickinson herself seems to have been obsessed with hair—not only her own auburn tresses, which had not dimmed by the time of her death, but hair in general, referring to the word itself some 27 times in her lyrics), and of course the temporal beatitude of your own luminous hybrid work, which evokes, by turns, meridian cross-hair grids and the ephemeral fletchings of border spaces.  Cindy Sherman’s perverse and haunting photo collage spread of the Grimm Brothers’ Fitcher’s Bird toys with the “humanimal” excrescences like feathers and fur.

Surely there is a language of hair. As Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde:  On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, “The language of the self would be stripped of one of its richest resources without hair:  and like language, or the faculty of laughter, or the use of tools, the dressing of hair in itself constitutes a mark of the human.” Just as our “callings” are signaled by our “hairy signs”—a military crew-cut, a skater boy’s flaxen mane, a butch girl’s crop, an athlete’s pony tail—Warner writes that “on the one hand, hair is both the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial, nature and the natural with the inferior and reprehensible aspects of humanity; on the other hand, hair is also the least fleshly production of the flesh . . . [and] seems to transcend the mortal condition, to be in full possession of the principle of vitality itself,” connecting it with magic, relic, loss.

What happens to our hair reflects our helical dance with the mortal coil.  Zayne, do you know Stephen Cushman’s three-line poem “Story of my Life”?  It goes:

Light hair.

Dark hair.

Light hair.

And how we arrange, ignore, or style our hair (Warner mentions Joan of Arc’s fatal boy cut, Frieda Kahlo’s angry self-shearing in the wake of Diego Rivera’s departure) can help reduce (or exalt) us to our essential selves, allow us to express gender ambivalence, sexuality, anger—or permit us to be other than we are (Harryette Mullen in “Quality of Life”: “Tina Turner set fire to her wigs so she could wear all that burnt hair.”)

And so I’m especially intrigued by the related matter you raise about “style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access.” In his booty call poem “The Ecstasy,” John Donne writes that our bodies “are ours, though they are not wee.” Hmmm. But when he goes on to say that our bodies are our books, he may be on to something related to these issues.  In fact, I think your questions probing the interaction of “product” (conditioner, sea salt spray, dye, straightener, what have you) or embellishment (beads, dreds, extensions) (and here, in poetic terms, I’m thinking of elaborate syntax, recherché diction, cross-outs, collage, &c) and, for lack of a better word, a poem’s essential message or matrix, its “own keratins,” as you say, are at the heart of what’s at stake in thinking about poetic “style.” When does texture, gesture evince or reveal something essential, occult, and signature, and when does it lapse into or fail to deepened into anything more than mere surface glitter, dross, smoke and mirrors?


ZT: That is the question—or, at least, is something that concerns me quite a bit. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a craft talk by Dara Wier at work recently, and she asked all of us if there was some thing, some quality or event, etc. that only happened in poetry. That we couldn’t get in any other genre/medium. And my immediate reaction was a deep and sudden sense of discomfort. I think that’s one of the quickest ways to make a room of writers suddenly a wild and— depending upon who’s facilitating/speaking— divisive place. (And I appreciate that, in that context, the question was more about what we each got from poetry, more than what poetry is.)

I hate it— and I think many others do, too— when talk of craft or aesthetics devolves into statements about who is/could/should ‘be’ in poetry or art or whatever, and who isn’t or shouldn’t be. But also I think there’s something at stake with these kinds of conversations— especially/even just on the level of the individual practitioner/reader/entity. How we each define revelation or surface gloss or genius or careerist posturing crap for ourselves  says more about each of us than about the work. (Which is something I first heard from Brian Reed at UW Bothell’s fantastic Convergence on Poetics.)

And I think that it’s dangerous to go about without knowledge of self. On a micro to macro scale, with various kinds of ‘dangerous’ consequences for various arenas. Halliburton, George Zimmerman, NSA. Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus. Egg on my face, my fly undone.

One could argue that knowledge of self is really what’s at the heart of the VIDA Count.

I’m thinking now of Paradise Lost, how Eve is described as turning away from the outside world (aka Paradise) “with unexperienced thought,” and preferring her own reflection, the “answering looks/Of sympathie and love” she finds there.


LRS:  I love your turning toward Eve here, Zayne, in the context of your meditation on the difference between what we get from and what is, and especially in relation to “knowledge of self.”  Hair is revelatory of female agency and selfhood in Paradise Lost, I think; here’s a familiar passage describing Eve’s hair from Book IV:

Shee as a veil down to the slender waist

Her unadorned golden tresses wore

Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d

As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d

Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,

And by her yielded, by him best reciev’d,

Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,

And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (4.304-311)

In John Milton:  Language, Gender, Power, Catherine Belsey calls Eve’s hair in this passage “both a glory and a snare.”  Leaving aside whatever Milton’s own conflicted feelings may have been about the paradoxes of Eve’s nature, I’ve always responded to the electric balance between the language of traditionally “modest [female] pride” (“veil,” “unadorned,” “ringlets,” “gentle sway”) and the language of wild and “wanton” (archaic meaning:  “ungovernable”) naturalness (“dishevell’d . . . / As the Vine curls her tendrils”).  Rather than finding in this description a woman who coyly seems to be one thing but who is also already guilty of a fatal susceptibility and inevitable lapse, I read instead, in that barely pent, “sweet reluctant amorous delay,” a signal of volition, an ownership of desire.

And speaking of ownership and desire, could Cher and her new blonde tresses be a kind of low (or high)-end parallel to my discussion of Eve?

In Milton, though, Eve’s hair manifests the multitudes she contains, and is at the heart of her mystery and her power.  She is her own answering look.


ZT: Mmmm. Yes. I love the reading of Eve via her (vexed!) hair. Paradise Lost is one of my favorites—not just because of the textures/language, but also all the complex characters and Milton’s own thorny logics.

And—after a quick nod to the platinum connection, which is hilarious—Cher is absolutely an example of being multiple & full of volition. The Cher connection also makes me think of survival—of pulling yourself up & through this post-lapsarian (a phrase you definitely mine for all its worth, Lisa!) world by your wigs and Bob Mackie originals.

Also, speaking of amazing things on the internets, have you seen this, Lisa?


LRS:  Heh.  Wonderful.  Future jobs for poets!  Naming the cardigan shades at J. Crew, the haircuts of the future.

Seriously, though, this conversation has been a joy.  We got us, Babe, &c.

You:  Swoopy bangs?

Me:  Acoustic feelings?


ZT: Looking back, I’m realizing that we didn’t even address hairlessness. Or hair replacement therapies. Or really, the whole world of body hair. We might have to keep this going off-line, Lisa!


Zayne Turner grew up in the rural High Desert of Oregon. She is the author of the chapbook Memory of My Mouth, available from dancing girl press. She has received grants and fellowships for literary & visual arts from the Arteles Creative Center in Finland, Oregon Arts Commission, Vermont Studio Center and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Her literary work can be found in places like Ancora ImparoCaketrain, ColdfrontPoecology and Terrain.org. She also sometimes makes things on Storify.


Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012).  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations of Contemporary Poetry appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

HER KIND: Let’s just get down to it. Why do we care so much about our hair?




Beth Gilstrap: I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since I made the big cut. Hair is deeply tied to our sense of identity, both cultural and personal. Hair has emotional memory and, as with anything, society has its ideas of appropriate and normal for gender and culture.

My grandma cut hair. Old white women were in and out of her chair with the same “set” and cut. Even then, the hive mentality bothered me, but my grandma’s in-house hair studio was my playground. I’d stick my hand in jars of awful blue jelly and spray Strawberry Shortcake’s hair into spikes until I cut it down to nubs and took the scissors to my own. I’d cut right down the middle of my part turning it into a sort of mohawk without the side buzz. Mortified, mom had my grandma fix it into the same cut as my brother’s, cowlick included.

People said, “Oh, what a cute little boy.” I corrected them, hands quick to my hips, never afraid to sass.

The sub-conscious fear of mistaken gender stuck. Now of course I know gender is a social construct, but as a youngster, it messed with my head. Maybe that’s why I kept it long for most of my life. People complimented my long hair and little else.

At 17, I dyed my hair. I colored it every 8 weeks for 19 years. Self-induced burgundy. Black. Blonde streaks. Cherry red. Any shade but my own. Kool-Aid. Manic Panic. Henna. Professionals. At that age, my hair hung past my shoulder blades not brushed as much as it should have been. Still a virgin, rocking my army jacket, smoking my Marlboros and weed, I worked hard to wear the uniform of a girl who didn’t give a damn about depression or panic attacks or breaking apart razors to cut lines in my leg. Yeah, I was that girl, with that hair. Put the apparel on and make it so.

Last December, I suffered a series of losses. My 16-year-old dog, Mia, who was more mother, sister, and friend than any human could have ever been. Within six weeks, I also lost two senior cats. I still don’t connect with many people. In the pit of grief, I no longer recognized myself. Going through old pictures, I found a black & white 15-year-old me. Eyes down. No smile. Long hair with bangs. At 35, I had the same haircut, the same despondence. Off it went.


Imani Tolliver: I can’t remember a time when I did not care about my hair. As a child, it was my mother’s nimble hands and my father’s heavy ones that would straighten my dark hair into ponytails that never quite reached my shoulders, try as they might.  I remember the handful of coils, never artfully festooned with barrettes and colorful rubber bands like the other brown girls that I went to school with.  Rather,  their main mission was to keep the follicles together – some kind of brown, crowned community atop my head.  This wasn’t about style, functionality was the point. I barely remember thinking about my hair until the bun that my mother artfully pinned to my scalp morphed into the mid-seventies mushroom bob.  It wasn’t the shape that was so topical with the black girls who were mystified with the way I spoke, dressed and ate, that I as I look back, I probably seemed more like an international exchange student than a girl who only lived around the corner. Victim to the constancy of the California sun and the chemicals used to straighten my hair; it bleached.  I was rocking ombre decades before I could define the word.  The girls insisted that had I colored my hair.  No, I cried.  No I didn’t.  You dyed your hair!, they countered.  My mother didn’t even color her hair; the most revolutionary change that my she made to her hair (exempting her brief afro phase in the early 70s) were her small assortment of wigs that she would sport from time to time.  For kicks, I placed her pageboy on my 5 year old brother.  He would sway his head back and forth, tossing the brown tresses from his shoulders.  I laughed as I imagined him the darker and cuter member of The Beatles. Yup, even cuter than Paul.

As the late 70s manifested into window pane jeans, rabbit fur jackets, and playboy gold-front silhouetted grills, all I cared about was my armpit hair. When would I be able to use the pink Flicker razor, the blades of which were wrapped with a fine wire to keep inexperienced and eager hands like mine from nicking my adolescent pits?  Pubic hair was a mystery.  It came in slowly, without much notice; it wasn’t there, then it was kinda there, then…full bush.  It was my armpit hair, the managing of which would made me into a real teenager.  Mysterious management of blood and mood and underpants was to follow.  How I wished to be one of those girls, shaving, superintending my woman self.  These days, knocking at 50s door, I am shocked at the sight of silver on my head, and yes, down there too. In fact, silver hair on my pubis happened first.  What did it mean, I wondered? Grief?  The mark of trauma?  Or wiser…is my vagina wiser than it used to be?  If so, I wish that she would share what she knows; sit me down in front of a toasty fireplace and impart that warm, woman talk that my mother’s friends whispered to each other when I was sent to bed.  Imagine it, your own vagina (ahem) imparting knowledge.  I’ll bet she’s got some stories.


BG: Why is it that hair can be so revolutionary? When women or girls step just left of what’s deemed normal, other women often barrage them. Natural is a loaded word, full of pocks. When my stylist cut off a foot of my hair, her assistant said, “What will your husband say? My boyfriend would never let me cut mine short.” I let her comments sink in, twisting the gut of so much pain. I’d never have a partner that would “let” me do anything.

Cultural expectations shape our shaved pits, legs, and vaginas, too. I never talked to my mother about managing my woman self. One day a pack of razors and shaving cream showed up on my bathroom sink. At 13, my cousin wanted to compare pubic hair. Uncomfortable, I pulled my bikini bottoms out. “You have more than me, dammit,” she said, looking at her own.  Frankly, all that business terrified me.

In college, a full year after I’d been sleeping with my boyfriend, I was shocked to learn I was supposed to landscape down there. A friend said, “The other night when this guy was going down on me, he asked me if I’d ever thought about taking a pair of scissors or a razor to my bush.” My pubic region was grateful to him.

To get back to the central question, I care so much about hair not only because it threads memories of my mother and grandmother and the fright of my sexual development, but because it makes me vulnerable. Perhaps hair is the definition of vulnerability, our attempt to control some aspect of our own physicality and external lives when all else is so difficult? Our shapes. Our minds. Our bones. Our diseases. Our losses. All so elusive, but baby, we can hack away at my hair.


IT: Hair as the definition of vulnerability…such a compelling thought.  Is hair the signifier, the inner part that tells on the outer part of us.  It enables the judging of others and ourselves.  We manage the sprouting of our faces, our heads, legs, toes, pits and pubis. It’s the surgery that everyone can afford.  The storyteller, the reimaginator, the blessing, the curse.  Our hair tells on us; revealing how well we are taking care of ourselves, our social status, our political beliefs, who we belong to.

Once, when I was in college, on a slow Saturday night, a friend of mine and I decided to straighten my hair.  Up until then, I had always worn my hair in natural styles in school; twists and braids, mainly.  I had even prided myself on sporting one of the largest afros on campus.  When I was really feeling revolutionary, I would pick it out to its fullness and tie a long scarf around my head, just behind my ears to reveal huge silver hoops.  After we did the deed – and I remembered the trauma of a scorched scalp, the fear of burned ears, and that awful smell – my friend and I paraded me down the dormitory hallways.  Some of my friends loved the look, others wondered if I was feeling alright in the head by making such a deliberate choice in contradiction to the nouveau panther hippy style that I rocked on the daily.  One friend didn’t even recognize me.  I mean, he knew my face, my body and my name, but the hair did not jive with the balance of the me that he knew.

These days, I wear my hair in locs. They are long enough to curl, put into ponytails, and even a bun that I haven’t worn since I was a little girl. I’ve intentionally colored my hair pink, black, auburn, blond and back to brown. I’ve sewn in shells, beads and charms.  I’ve even wrapped my locs with embroidery floss, creating rainbow textiles on the ropes that I’ve worn for over 15 years. I was never the girl (or the woman, for that matter) who got her hair done in salons. Over the course of my entire life, my hair has been professionally styled a handful of times; my locs, only three times. But something got into me; I wanted my hair “done” and done right. For the past few months, I’ve been getting my locs washed and groomed by a professional loctician in a salon. Oh, the luxurious warm, wet of the water. The tender scrubbing of my scalp. The agility of my stylist’s fingers as she separates that locs that become entwined at the root.  The styles that she creates by braiding my hair into itself. I must say, there is nothing that I’ve experienced like it. When she’s done, I feel liberated, beautiful, strong…and like the others, the other women who take the time to get their domes managed.  Am I one of them now?


BG: When you get down to it, our hair tells a story, fiction, non-fiction, or maybe even when drastically changed and pumped full of so much emotion, it even aspires to poetry, but we craft it. We craft hair into some expression of who we think we are or who we long to be. I am the tough, unconventional woman who don’t take no shit off nobody. Maybe, if my hair’s right, I can even convince myself.

Perhaps because I grew up with a cosmetologist, had close friends who did hair, and now, a talented younger sister who crafts hair, I never thought much about the implications of being able to get my hair done. It seemed ubiquitous to me, but it is a luxury and you tapped into what an intimate experience it is when someone washes your hair. Ever the introvert, I’m never sure what to say when a stranger has my head in their hands, but I am thankful for the warmth of the exchange. Yesterday at my salon, I got to witness a 4-year-old girl getting her first big haircut due to her own handiwork. What I heard was a child afraid of what it meant to have her hair cut and a mother and cosmetologist explain, “You will have a thousand haircuts in your lifetime, and the magical thing about hair is it never quits growing.” In the mirror, I saw her at the shampoo bowl, eyes closed and smiling, her hands crossed in her lap. When I took off my smock, I leaned over to her and said, “You will be beautiful and fierce.”


IT: A luxury, indeed. The warm clean water, the perfumed soap, the heavenly touch from another human being – whose purpose in that particular moment – is to make us feel something different, something more beautiful and fierce. Fierce. This makes me think of our drag queen sisters. RuPaul says that “…we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Indeed.  =The queens teach us how lucky we women are, born into a culture that supports and encourages our radical transformation; makeup, clothing, and most certainly, hair.  =Our appearance is a language unto itself, teaching and translating, signifying place, letting go, and letting in.

At night, I oil my scalp and locs. Tying the long scarf around my head, I place my hair in an order before I lay down to dream. When I awake, my hair is softer and more pliant, ready to endure the constant combing of my fingers, the bands that break and pins that bend, as I attempt to harness it while working. Mostly, I think my hair just wants to be free. It wants to be brightened by the sun and captured by the wind. It doesn’t mind being caught in a rainstorm, dressed in silks or sparkly, pretty things. Perhaps we are more alike than I have imagined, my hair and me. We take up space, our bodies, abundant. We have the flexibility and silence of the Tao, yet a bodacious gesture, so beautifully looms, around every corner. Blessed be the strength and resiliency of our lengths, our endless possibilities.


Beth Gilstrap was a recent writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Blue Fifth ReviewThe Minnesota ReviewSuperstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.


Imani Tolliver is a poet, visual artist and educator. 

She has been a consultant for several museums, educational institutions and has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation by the City of Los Angeles for her work as a promoter, host and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California.  She also served as the 2007/2008 Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles, California.

She has been a featured poet across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, The World Stage Performance Gallery, University of Southern California, California State University at Long Beach, California State University Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Central Library. Imani also volunteers, marches, and pitches in whenever she is able, in support of the vibrant and beautiful LGBT community of which she is wholly and happily a part.

Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?


Minal Hajratwala: I have to say that my first response to this prompt is kind of “Meh.” I’m not sure how much I resonate with the term bitch at this point as an identity, personally. It’s important as part of the range of female expression, of course, and I think in my angry 20s I was very excited about claiming bitch-ness as a right. But at 42, I find I’m more interested in how to be kind AND free. Which requires having a spine, of course. But at the risk of offending our publisher here, these days I think of bitchdom as more of a transient, and maybe even, adolescent stage or posture in undoing the conditioning of patriarchy—not necessarily a full-fledged, healthy, adult persona. I don’t think Claire Messud was being a bitch, really, just giving a sensible and real response to a stupid question.

Bitches as characters are super interesting, though. I’m writing one now in my novel and it’s so much fun. She gets to do and say very exciting things, and her destructive force is quite glorious to watch. I don’t think anyone would want to be her friend.


Sophia Starmack: I hear you on meh. When I heard the theme was Bitches, I felt a bit of oh-fuck-what’ve-I-got-myself-into, wondering if we were going to be asked to write on some sort of 90s-style bitch-as-insult-or-reclaimed-identity prompt. I’m younger than you at 32, but old enough to be a bit bored of that particular strand of ra-ra Third Wave feminism. Bitch isn’t a word I identify with, nor one I feel particularly triggered by.

I liked what you wrote about your primary interest these days being “how to be kind and free.” I think a lot about kindness, myself, and freedom, and wonder what it might mean to be truly both. What is the largest, most expansive state I can imagine for myself and the world? How do I practice living it daily? I must say though, being socialized as a super-girl from day one (be polite above all, be kind, be pretty, be sweet), and as someone who as an adult earns a living as a teacher (a traditionally female, caregiving role), I grapple with the concept of kindness. In my personal and professional lives I often feel I’m too accommodating. Real kindness must entail some amount of what you call “spine.” Real kindness must involve upholding some standards, I think, and lovingly (but not necessarily “nicely”) speaking up when those standards are not being met. And real art, of course, requires some space and time. I still need practice on that.

I don’t think Messud was being a bitch, either. What she did was speak up and raise the bar a bit during that interview. I admire her for turning the question to her own purposes. It reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s trenchant shutdown of Matt Lauer’s “dress malfunction” probing: http://feministguidetohollywood.blogspot.com/2012/12/anne-hathaway-shuts-down-matt-lauers.html (Whatever about AH and Les Mis, but she didn’t take that one lying down.) I admire people who can think on the spot!

I used to dream of having a consciousness-raising workshop where I’d get a bunch of women together and we’d all share the moments where we’d felt temporarily speechless in the face of some harassment or idiotic comment, and then we’d reenact them, changing the ending of the scene to include all the fantastic repartee and insightful lines we wish we’d zapped back with.

Messud’s novel is about a woman who’s deeply unfulfilled, right, who grapples with those sorts of “my needs or their needs”, “nice or real,” “art or survival” dichotomies that often attend a woman’s psyche, or maybe everyone deals with them, regardless of gender—I would like to believe are no longer relevant or simply the product of a repressed mind. But statistically women are still earning somewhere around 77 cents to the man’s dollar (women of color earn less than white women), women take the lion’s share of the childcare, housework, and domestic labor in a state that provides little to no public assistance, and a lot of traditional “women’s work” (teaching, caregiving, housekeeping) is grossly undervalued and underpaid. It does put a bit of a damper on the creative impulse, on the ability to dream big and wild of that state of “kind and free” you so beautifully named.

And yet, of course, the further you get from the center of privilege the sharper you see, and the more you’re able to imagine other ways of being. I’m not trying to make good here, but that keenness, so often either experienced or read as rage, is where I, at least, want to go. Not only women, but humans in general, are constantly being encouraged not to think, told our thoughts and dreams are impractical or offensive, or told to shut up and be grateful for what we’ve got. We must be sharp and clear if we’re going to move beyond the current desperate state in which we find our planet.

Tell me about writing bitch characters. Did you relate to the part of the prompt that asked if you find yourself censoring? Do you worry that you’ll be too closely aligned with your characters?

As a poet, my first thought was, “Um? I write poetry? There are no characters?” But of course, the poem is always speaking out of the self. Even if the poem is written in the third person, the implicit character is “I.”

Do I worry I’ll come off as a bitch? Not particularly. One of my jobs as a poet is to go for the discomfort, to live in the place where I don’t necessarily come off as a fabulously moral person.

However, I remembered that in my MFA program an enormous number of women-student poets fiercely resisted using the “I” in the poem. They would come right out and say how uncomfortable they felt in the first person. Uncomfortable in one’s very self! It was as though they were trying to write poems that literally effaced the speaker. When I tutored undergraduate and graduate students, I found that many women had the same struggles in analytical writing. They would come up with incredibly convoluted syntactical structures, all to avoid the occasional authorial “I.” I have not undertaken a scientific study here, but I haven’t come across any male writers who feel that writing the word “I” is such a deeply ingrained taboo.

Write back as you see fit, or if you’d like a “prompt,” I wonder:

  • What “bitch” characters are you writing about or have you written? How did they come to you? What do you enjoy about them or writing about them?
  • What do you find puts a damper on your imagination? What liberates it? How are these related to your lived experience? To your personal, family, geographic, cultural histories?
  • What’s your relationship to resentment?

I’ll wrap up with a poem; I write from a deep Catholic inheritance—ha-ha can you tell?

The Wisdom of the Virgins
Matthew 25:1-13

Not because they remembered to dress nice
—but not too nice—for the party.
Not because they kept their make-up natural,
or because not one of them outshone the bride.
Not because of the fork-and-knife lessons,
the nightgowned waltzes late in the parlor.
(In fact, they were somewhat bruised from studying,
and at least one had gone all the way.)
Not because their flasks were so chastely filled,
their wicks so respectably trimmed,
not even because they slept so slightly
the whitest sigh would wake them.
It was because they kept their oil to themselves.

They’d given so much already, the gesture hollow like a lamp.


MH:  I love your poem so much.

I am considering your prompts and meanwhile—wonder if you have something to say about virgins and bitches . . . bitchy (frigid?) virgins . . . being immaculate, staying pure, holding oneself apart?

I appreciate what you have said about the “I” and as it turns out today’s poem of the day is titled “I”: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15897

I want to send you some poems too . . .  if that’s OK?


SS: Hmm, virgins and bitches, bitchy virgins. The real-life matters of virginity never much intrigued or troubled me. (For that I must plug my friend Therese Schecter, whose fabulous film and blog on virginity can be glimpsed here: http://www.virginitymovie.com/blog/.) That said, literary virgins have always fired me up. I’m looking up “virgin” in Merriam-Webster right now, and interestingly, the first definition is “an unmarried woman devoted to religion.” Funny, nothing about sex in there. That doesn’t come in till definition two, “an absolutely chaste young woman,” or definition three (ha!) “VIRGIN MARY.”

I like this idea of a virgin as one who’s devoted to something, to her own vision? That’s what got in under my skin about Jesus’ parable. I happened to be at a church service one Sunday, and the text was Matthew 25, the wise and foolish virgins. In the story, there’s a big wedding celebration, and all the young girls have to go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom, who’s due to arrive late that night. Half of the virgins are prepared, but the other half are late and lazy and their lamps go out. They ask the first set if they can borrow some oil, and are quickly rebuffed.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that Jesus (the bridegroom) could show up any minute so you’d better keep on your toes, but the whole thing made me so upset. Why wouldn’t the first set share? Weren’t they being selfish? Wasn’t the whole point of Jesus about sharing and doing unto others, etc.?

I had to write the poem to reconcile myself to all this, and in the course of the writing I discovered a certain virginal wisdom in, if not selfishness, at least a healthy self-interest, a willingness to not give it all away.

My favorite literary virgins (besides Mary—I mean, come on!) were Joan of Arc and Jane Eyre. Joan of Arc (like Mary!) was not only mysteriously powerful, but she had this incredible sangfroid, an insane but beautiful faith in what she’d seen and heard. When Joan came to court everyone mocked the little peasant girl, but unfazed, she calmly said her piece and then ratted out the dauphin, who’d disguised himself to play a trick on her. It’s that unshakeable confidence, that unflappable adherence to one’s inner voices and visions, that I think makes her loveable to so many young women.

Jane Eyre of course shacks up with Rochester in the end (“Reader, I married him”), but she doesn’t give it up easily and there’s something in the torment she feels at love that I find archetypical. She’s a misfit, an intellectual, a poet, and as there was no place in her world for such a thing, she mediates her internal and external worlds by becoming a governess (a virginal profession, of course, and like Mary, she raises a child but doesn’t bear one). When she experiences passion, her whole world goes up (literally) in flames. She doesn’t know how to navigate that one—how to be the idiosyncratic, independent, deeply moral Jane and the Jane who longs to love and be loved.

I remember Joni Mitchell speaking in a documentary about wanting to get married and then suddenly being beset by the memory of her grandmother, who’d kicked in the barn door at age fourteen because she’d wanted a piano so badly, and knew she’d never have one. Joni said that in that minute she froze, terrified that if she went deeper into the relationship she’d end up beating the barn door over and over.

These days we’re supposed to believe that we can have it all, but these questions always plagued me, too. Can I be an artist and be in a relationship? I can, I am, and yet, the fear runs under the surface like a plucked thread in a stocking, always just noticeable, threatening to unravel the whole thing. What about all my women ancestors, who struggled to negotiate dreams and realities: my great-grandmother, who danced and laughed and drank and spent her life running her husband’s bootlegging business, later his bar; my grandmother, who wanted to be a scientist and settled for nursing (though her father found even that too risqué); my mother, who went to music school while raising three children? I often feel that I’m writing in conversation with them.

And on that note, another poem, one written (though she doesn’t know it) with my grandmother.

Yours very warmly!


I Interview My Grandmother

Q. What happens when we die?
A. Something leaves the body at this moment.
But don’t trouble yourself looking for its traces. It is colorless and odorless.

Q. Why is death so difficult?
A. It doesn’t have to be. Morphine is a wonderful thing.

Q. It seems to me that men die and women linger.
A. I don’t like to make generalizations.
But if you don’t tell anyone, I’ll agree with you.

Q. Why do we rage so against death?
A. Let me tell you this.
The universe is large and magnificent and follows an order we cannot comprehend. After death, we’ll see just how insignificant we here on earth really are.

Q. I see. I suspected this.
A. I hope I haven’t confused you. You still have to do a good job while you’re here.


MH: Yay! I am going to read this in more detail soon.

And also, wah! Our deadline approaches!

I feel like I’m still having trouble connecting to the center of this topic and I am wondering whether some sort of collaborative exercise would be fun/interesting to offer. I was re-viewing some writing prompts for another purpose this week, and wondering if you would like to do something like exquisite corpse or a cut-up collage or the surrealist dialogues (Q&A format) . . . that we could do via email or perhaps more expeditiously over a Google chat / Skype session? Something open and poetic and creative/assemblage-ish as a shared response?

If you want to talk or chat live as a way of developing or wrapping this up, I am in India, which is 9.5 hours ahead of NY time, so your mornings up till about 12-noon work well for the time difference. I am reasonably free Sunday, Mon, or Tues at that time.

Also I am interested in your teaching work and have been thinking about how as a teacher this question of the female student’s confidence/voice/right to tell her story or any story at all is such a terrible & predictable constant. Currently I am teaching an online course with 20 students, of whom two are male. This is a pretty regular ratio in my workshops, by the way, whether live or online. 🙂 The two men have no trouble posting, critiquing, etc.—they have their own writing struggles of course, but their right to be present, even in a place where they are a decided minority, is not contested. Among the women students, and this is a constant across courses & situations, a good portion of them are so paralyzed that they never or almost never share their work with the class, thus losing out on the entire workshop aspect of receiving peer feedback and affirmation. And those who do often preface their work with apologies and disclaimers.

In a 90-minute session, if I don’t explicitly ban them from apologizing before they speak, I have counted the number of “sorrys” from the women students and it is often in the double-digits. When called on in discussion: “Oh, sorry, is it my turn?” When sharing work: “Sorry, this is really rough, but OK—.”  When engaging in dialogue: “Oh sorry did I interrupt you, go ahead . . .” Ceding, ceding, ceding so much space and authority.

I am not totally sure what “bitchiness” has to do with this but it is certainly an antidote. And also, the female student who takes up “too much” space is much more likely to be labeled a bitch within her cohort—especially, I think, in competitive contexts like certain MFA programs—vs. the male student who takes up too much space, who at most is considered to be a bit egotistical or somehow lacking in social skills. (Another version of boys will be boys?) But even the occasional woman who cheerfully claims the title bitch for herself will still, usually, be plagued with the same uncertainty & hesitation.

So as a writing teacher & writing coach I feel like a lot of my work with women who are writing is really just to encourage and hold space and say, “Yes, you DO have the right to tell your story as you see it.” And I also went through this process myself in writing my own family’s story—so many doubts and fears and questions—some of which could really only be answered in the end by a firm “FUCK OFF” to the internal(ized) critics who were telling me that I could not tell certain stories or give certain interpretations because it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t good to spread family secrets, it wasn’t my right, people might not like me, etc.

Shedding the fear of being disliked, or of not getting (authority) (parental) (teacher) (peer) (critic) (etc.) approval for one’s writing is, I think, the key to growing up as a female writer. At least for some of us (obviously—this trajectory doesn’t apply to everyone). Growing up from the talented youngster who has something special that others approve of and like and encourage, to the adult writer who says whatever she needs to say without regard for how many people will be tweeting her praises. That desperate desire for approval, which social media can really feed, is necessary to outgrow. Or else it becomes a noose—another version of the “good girl” syndrome.

It makes sense to me that any woman who is grown, as a writer, will have developed this strength and fuck-off-ness to some extent. From Toni Morrison to JK Rowling, y’know!?

I am also interested in and think it’s important to note how bitch-ness is racialized. What it takes for a Black woman to be called a bitch is often so tiny, for example. Like, just existing. What are the things that different women get away with or not, based on race, gender presentation, class, age, and so on? As an Asian American/South Asian woman, perceived as being from a so-called model minority, when I express anger it is sometimes very surprising to white folks. I remember being in a poetry workshop, when I was quite young, in my early 20s, and I read a poem, and one of the other students, an older white South African woman, looked at me and said, “But you look like such a nice girl.” HA! Adrienne Su has some great “bitchy” poems that are stunning and tight and poetically superb.

Also: The relationship between bitch-ness and cute-ness. Like, the more perceived/standard cute-ness you have, the more bitchiness you can get away with. Maybe? A working thesis.

OK, that was all super stream-of-conscious but given the deadline, I wanted to just put out a bunch of text to then massage and work with (somehow—how?!) .

OK some writing—



…who ‘wrap up’ anger—that is, wrap around [themselves] repeatedly the anger based on the thought ‘he reviled me,’ and so on, like wrapping up the pole of a cart with thongs, or putrid fish with straw—when enmity arises in such persons, it is not appeased, pacified. —Dhammapada I.4


On the first day
the fish wrapped in straw
starts to stink.

On the second day
if you walk by the barn
it enters your clothes.

That evening your wife
sniffs your suit
but says nothing.

On the third day
dressed in your skin
the fish begins to walk.

Your friends know
to hold their breaths.
This is not the first time.

If nothing else happens
the fish retreats
to its mean nest.

You shower.
It sleeps
waiting for you.

Fish oils
soak the hay
of the whole barn.

The chickens begin to dream
of seaweed,
of roe.


In the middle of it
the fish
is the wisest
truest thing you know.

It whispers
sweet sauces—
We are brought here to love, yes,
but not blindly.

Its jelly eye
winks at you
codes of Morse—
No remorse.

Every oracle
takes its price,
skin for scales,
gold for gills.

Some days
it is a bargain.
Or else it costs
everything you have.


I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Somehow in the cradle, rocking,
I caught a whiff; or in the crib clutching
at rails

a bit of fish caught
rough in my scream.

Since then the fish has grown in me
like bubblegum or seeds of water

Since then we’re bosom tight
thick as thieves sealed with a
kiss — kin.

Is this what I meant
when I longed for teeth?
Is this what they meant

when they named me fish?
Soon I shall slit my

to stroke its silver scales
bilious, slippery
as love.


At last the fish
swallows its own tail

scale by creamy scale
orgy of self-

righteous     lips
on sharp bone

tongue sucking spine
vertebra by vertebra

teeth shredding
gummy ovaries

ripe with black meat
millions of living

egg of fish.
Belly full of self

soft pulsing
heart of fish

parallel eyes

white gills

with the last sea.
When the fish

is all jaw
row of incisors

grinding plankton
coral     salt

churning oceans
like milk

into sweet fat

then I will be ready
for you.


<Below is a snip—the first section of a longer prose-poem in several parts>

 Archaeologies of the present
“. . . a trained student can master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months.” —Margaret Mead
“Everything, everything is cinema.”  —Jean-Luc Godard


1-2000 The Beautiful

Luxury at this time in America meant white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, the material used in bathing towels, found in five-star hotels. The stars were a rating system indicating the quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one had generally to be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough to be projected upon: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides were enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means existed to simulate blood.

A sweetened, tomato-blood chemical sauce was the nation’s most popular food.  Others: Grainstuffs elaborated as stars, flakes, O’s. Dried strips of cow meat sold individually or trussed in plastic.  Tasteless tablets of all sorts containing nutrients & chemicals designed to manipulate the body’s reactions, at the cellular level.

At the cellular level the people had no awareness. The living world was mute around them; some wore devices to enhance their hearing, while others plugged their aural orifices with synthetic music. Synthesizers simulated joy, art, sex. Love was consummated not in stamens & pistils, but in leather & lace. Each woman’s thighs were obscene. Breastfeeding took place only in closets.

Elaborate & costly systems of organizing closets were available. Entire stores existed to sell containers for items sold in other stores: clothing & other forms of body decoration, scrubbing tools, pig fat in hundreds of hues to dramatize the lips. It was rumored that the color of a woman’s lips indicated the color of her labial arches. Archbishops denied all knowledge of the topic. Sexually transmitted disease was rampant among celibate priests, & debates raged over their homo– or hetero-sexuality.

Homogeneous vitamin-fortified milk was sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying desires for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, were white.




My sisters & I write all day & night about silk
its delicate weft      golden peacocks & parrots
rush of wind through dark hair      waiting.       Just the word

chanted like a sutra     silk      silk      silk      silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on musks of exotic suffering.      Whatever

we say       love      war      race      hate
if we wrap it in silk they will take it
home, unminding.      It will live in their rooms amid demons

of jade      throw pillows      Chinese funeral papers
marble dust from the Taj Mahal.       At night
we will wriggle out in ribbons of soft meat      like worms




Novel scene of bitch character getting her comeuppance—


Re: your prompts—a quick thought/note: I have loved writing this character and seeing the inside of her suffering. Although she is a total bitch in the story, I see the deep roots of trauma in her, and so she is also beloved to me.  And fascinating. She gets to behave in ways I never would, but maybe sometimes would like to.  (Since she’s a vampire, for example, she often just kills people who irritate her. Full entitlement & unchecked power — that’s sexy!!  As pure fantasy.)  The violence she does is intense but also teeny in proportion to the violence that has been done to her.  So she is a victim as well.

One theme I realized today I am exploring in this novel:  the actual & imagined victimhood of the powerful &privileged.

<Editor’s note: Novel scene excised by Minal because she doesn’t want it published at this moment.>


MH: Sophia, sorry to email you again without even waiting for a response! I got excited and wrote a poem (rough-rough drafty draft!) for you.

 What we bitch about when we bitch about “bitch” or What kind of question is that?
for Sophia Starmack

“Meh” to the old debate about rights,
the dated defense, the fuck-you to fuck all yous,

transient/adolescent posture for undoing
patriarchy, her destructive force

quite glorious to watch. Today bitch
is a verb & bee-yatch a joke/mace young men

hurl to bond with each other
over our bodies—swelled battlegrounds

ripe with blood, fat but intact,
lumpy like pickles, preserved in rage-brine.

I’ll give you Mina Loy’s virgins + curtains,
the slow testifying of Rachel Jaentel,

streak of women who claim the capital “I,”
stone in the throat of Juror B37.

You give me the wise & the foolish,
a series of prompts,

questions of liberation
& resentment. So much more to explore

than the -archy’s twisted mirror,
that evil genie grin:

Would you like to be my friend? Please will you be
my friend? We couldn’t friendbook her could we?

Let’s take our three wishes and run.
Let’s picnick on islands where kindness

is no excuse of doormats, but a spine
risen like datepalm into hot free nights.


Notes: Barbara Kruger, “Your Body is a Battleground.”  Mina Loy, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.”  Rachel Jaentel and Juror B-37:  women involved in the Trayvon Martin trial.  May 2013 Publisher’s Weekly: Claire Messud, to interviewer who remarked that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist: “What kind of question is that?”


SS: I love this poem, and I feel so gifted. Thank you. I am drawn to your vision of giving as a sharp vision, and I love the closing image of a savage-spikey kindness growing out of the dirt into the wild sky.

I woke up this morning thinking about language, about limitations, gaps, lacunae. There you are in India, hours, miles, existences away from me here at the sticky kitchen table in Brooklyn. Yet, we are sending each other packets of language, hoping that by paying attention to words, by entering into the logic of our poems, embracing their anti-reason, something will be created. It’s 6:30am here, and I’m skimming the NYT, glancing at the NYC sanitation guidelines posted in the foyer, steeling myself for the morning peek at the friendbook. Language. It offers infinite opportunities for dulling, creating easy and false connection, of soothing me away from seeing. It is also the dimension where with attention, I begin to touch the unknown. I write my way closer to you; we hold the space, we know and not-know, we write ourselves into being.

And here is a poem for you, too!

The Angry Ugly Feminist in Poetry School
for Minal Hajratwala

was just so exhaust—try—a letter with missing—
what wanted was—no—this too was cliché.
again. wanted to tell—no.
wanted to pour a long—glass—of milk?
deserved nothing but everything owed.
a story with missing—once was told upon a time—
god like the sun. shone. what wanted was forward—and burn.


Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach and author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by The Washington Post. She is the editor of Out! Stories From the New Queer India, a groundbreaking anthology of contemporary LGBT literature since the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Her first book of poems, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, of which she is a founding member. minalhajratwala.com

Sophia Starmack is a poet and teacher. She received an MA in French and Francophone literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, Best New Poets 2012, and others. Sophia lives and works in New York City. sophiastarmack.wordpress.com

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?


Cassandra Dallett: I don’t write fiction, so I don’t create characters. My character is myself. I certainly do not write myself, or my family and friends, with any thought of likability. You will identify or not and I don’t really care. My younger self did a lot of stupid things—most people do—but I continued doing them longer and am probably more honest about the fool I am than most people would dare to be.

I am often published with a lot of men. Some of the content, in some of the magazines I have been published in, is pretty objectifying; but I like being the woman who talks about men as objects. It’s how we often talk between ourselves. But I talk about them out loud—about their small dicks and premature ejaculations. I beat them to it, and talk about my fat thighs and slutty behavior. Things that caused me enormous shame growing up—everything caused me shame in my life—now I’m happy to own it. I get a really positive response from men and woman, which is amazing, therapeutic, and free!

I do doubt that a male writer would be asked about the likeability of their characters—these are the mind frames we need to blast out of. With all the amazing woman writers in the world, it is absurd that we would be held to a different standard or expectation. Why should our characters be likeable? And more important, likeable to who? I am a fan of realness; I like to read things that ring true and I write truth, as I know it. My experience is only my own.

Sometimes in workshops, people say I can’t believe this narrator would do this thing and I say, I know, I know, but I did. I did do those crazy, stupid things, acted too tough and too weak, vulnerable and fierce. I shoot these tales out into the world and trust that somewhere, someone will identify with them.


Karyn Polewaczyk: I write mostly nonfiction—and to boot, a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on (pieces for women’s lifestyle magazines/websites) tends to be service-oriented, with the reader in mind. It’s not always about whether I’m likable as a writer as, it is whether what I’m producing is likable and relatable. There comes a point in every artist’s life, though, when she (or he) has to decide if she’s creating for herself, or for the public. The inherent wont to create something tends to be extremely personal, and doesn’t stem from the desire to please, but to make.

That said, though, I’ve published pieces on Jezebel and xoJane—two highly-trafficked female-focused websites that are as well-known for their content as they are for their notorious commenters (especially on the Gawker sites, where commenting is a sport), who will rip a writer to shreds. It’s why I often don’t read the comments, and it’s why I think anyone who wants to share their work publicly, whether it’s online, in print, or spoken aloud to a room full of strangers, needs to develop a thick skin (but not so thick that her vulnerability, which helps an artist connect with herself and her audience, is diminished). Writing for yourself is different than writing with the hope or intention of being published. Know what I mean?


CD: I do know what you mean. It is true, it depends a lot on the genre, and if I was writing a novel, say, I might want a character that more people could connect with, because as a reader, I like to fall in love with and miss the characters in my favorite books. You and I write in very different places, so of course yours is much more driven by what the magazine or site wants and needs.

I think staying away from comments on the internet is always a good idea. It can get very depressing reading how much racism, sexism, and general nastiness still exists when people can hide behind their computer. I really like what you said about having a thick skin and retaining our vulnerability—that is absolutely what makes a writer good and also successful, in my opinion. I agree there is a difference, but I would still say that I write for myself and hope to be published.


KP: Have you ever seen the TED Talk by Brené Brown? She talks about the power of vulnerability. Here’s the link, if you haven’t: ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

I’m really particular about my fiction reading. My favorite book, for a long time, was The Catcher in the Rye, but after discovering The Dud Avocado last summer—seriously, it’s so good, my heart beats for it—it’s since reached second-place contender status. Most of the books I love have a female character who’s strong, unnerving, unwilling to settle, fierce—and so on. I’ve always been able to relate to the bad girl, in books or elsewhere, and at the risk of sounding morbid, I get why Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven. (I’m sure my therapist would have a lot to say about that.)


CD: I’m glad you like bad girls because I am certainly one!

I have seen the Brené Brown TED Talk and I love it! I thought of it immediately when you mentioned the importance of vulnerability. I have also put The Dud Avocado on my reading list. I love a good recommendation. I have been reading mostly poetry and memoir because that’s what I’m working on.

But back to bad girls. My stories are about being a sexually promiscuous, alcoholic teenager in the punk scene of the eighties. Dabbling in drugs, managing to try most of them before the age eighteen. I had no adult supervision or direction, no goals or good education, so I floated through life landing where I did. I lived through some very violent situations. I didn’t know how to communicate without the physical and I found myself in some very abusive relationships.

It’s hard to know how your reader will react—admitting these things that are very vulnerable, but there is a toughness too. I’m the girl that buys a gun at the end of the story (which is of course the beginning of another disastrous story). I write about being the cheater in a relationship, which is not a likeable character by any means. And I write about things people don’t want to think about, like being a single mother working shitty low-paying jobs, and the pain and hopelessness of living in a community whose young men are getting shot and jailed at an alarming rate. These are things that should be talked about—I am no heroine, just someone who bumbles her way through, reporting on what not to do more than anything.


KP: I think it’s interesting that you affiliate, what some might call deviant behavior, with being “bad,” especially when you say you write about what not to do. To me, that signals someone who maybe just lost her way for a bit. Being bad, in my mind, is something inherent; it’s more about defiance than deviance. Bad can also be manipulative or seductive; at the risk of sounding like a misogynist, I also like the idea of a “bad bitch” (via hip-hop culture), which suggests a woman who owns her shit and makes no apologies about it.

Here’s a question for you, then: do you think you can “create” a likable character, if you’re writing memoir with a focus on situations that may rouse readers’ judgment? Do you care?

I did come up heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. My relationships have been with men who were misogynist, that is probably where I get the bad label from.

I am defiant, and I am a “bad bitch” to be sure. I am not the “good girl” my ex had hoped I would be. I tried but I am, in the end, very rebellious and only like to do things for someone when it is not expected. I have certainly lost my way many times, but in the end, I write about it unapologetically. I am only sorry for the harm I caused myself—much of which, in hindsight, was unnecessary.

To answer your question, yes, you can have a likable character that rouses readers with their actions—absolutely, that is probably the most common outcome. But I don’t think you should write them with that in mind; you write with honesty and the honesty tends to be what the reader likes about the character.

I certainly have an inherent need to be liked, but I try not to think about that when writing. I stick to the facts: this is how it actually happened. I leave it up to the reader to take away what they will. Every time I read in public, people come up to me afterwards and say they loved the honesty and found it brave. I’m sure there are people who judge as well—they just tend to keep it to themselves. If it were a blog, I would probably get pages of nasty comments.

I recently read the book Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso; it’s about her and her molester. They had a very complicated relationship that continued well into her adulthood. I read it with a group of woman. Everyone loved the book; it was one of the rare times we all agreed. We loved the writing; it was very good and the honesty brutal. She owned her part in the whole dysfunctional situation. She said things most people wouldn’t dare to. It confirmed my belief that you should just tell your truth no matter.



Cassandra Dallett occupies Oakland, CA, she writes of a counterculture childhood in Vermont and her ongoing adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published in Slip Stream, Sparkle and Blink, Hip Mama, Bleed Me A River, Criminal Class Review, Enizagam, among many others. Look for links and chapbooks on cassandradallett.com.


Karyn Polewaczyk lives and writes in Boston. Her work, which focuses largely on women’s lifestyle topics, regularly appears in columns at Boston.com and Dig Boston, and has been published in Jezebel, xoJane, LearnVest and More.com, among others. Follow her on Twitter @KarynPolewaczyk.

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the conversation. In her poem “Photo of a Girl on a Beach,” Carmen Gimenez Smith writes: “Try being/a figure in memory. It’s hollow there.//For truth’s sake, I’ll say she was on a beach/and her eyes were closed.//She was bare in the sand, long,/ and the hour took her bit by bit.”

Looking back on your own relationship to the water, how has it influenced your own work?


MARGO LANAGAN: I was trying to think what my relationship with water was. Early memories of the Hunter River flooding; we lived over looking some fields that flooded regularly, and it was always a wonder when they disappeared under that sheet of water. Also, we weren’t madly coastal, even though we were near Newcastle. I was quite afraid of the sea until my early teens, when I guess I got strong enough and brave enough to cope with surf. I’m still pretty nervous in the sea. Only just learned to snorkel, which has opened up wonders, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to scuba dive.


KIRSTEN TRANTER: So you grew up with the river as a primary reference point for a big body of water rather than the ocean?




ML: Yes, definitely – it was the Hunter River; crossing it on the ferry, ambling around the fields near it, always having it in sight, hearing speedboats buzzing up and down on a Sunday.


KT: I admit to sharing your fear of the sea, Margo. I got caught in a rip when I was a kid, and was not a strong swimmer, and it was very scary. Deep water still terrifies me in some primal way. Lisa, I imagine you must be a diver, given how much you write about it in The Sunlit Zone? What’s your relationship to the water?


LISA JACOBSON: I love water as an element, although my relationship to the sea is ambivalent. I find that I am frequently writing about it but not naturally drawn to it in that I don’t head off to the beach on long weekends like many Australians do. I did spend many holidays at the small coastal town of Somers, Melbourne, however, with my family. My grandmother had one of those classic holiday houses just across from the beach. My best friend Melinda would always come away with our family on these holidays and the beach was very flat and safe – so we spent many hours on the sand and in the water. This place has always held a kind of enchantment for me, and was firmly in my mind when writing The Sunlit Zone.

Quite some time ago I had a travelling scholarship to visit Israel and write about my Jewish heritage, but I was somehow drawn instead to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, where I did a scuba diving course. I too am fearful of waves. I often look out to the horizon and imagine a tsunami coming, kind of an intrusive involuntary thought. But the diving course was amazing. Like dipping one’s head into an alternate reality. All that magic going on beneath the surface of the sea, that we are not usually aware of. And it exists!


ML: I remember loving the beach and the sea for just a couple of summers when I was 14 or 15; the beach seemed a very romantic, wild place. I liked the idea of the winter beach, and striding up and down that with my hair blowing. But also the summer beach, that can be a damn’ sexy place. 😀


KT: It’s interesting that our childhood and adolescent experiences with water are so profound and shaping. There is something fundamentally nostalgic about the beach for me, always.


ML: I think, not being a very physical person as I went into teenager-hood, the fact that being in water let you move any way you want, and in secret, was a very powerful thing. Also, the beauty of watching a wave from underneath; diving under it and finding that safe place beneath it, were very powerful impressions.


KT: I was thinking about this question and wondering if there’s something about growing up in Australia that establishes a certain relationship to water and the ocean in particular – the sense of being on an island, surrounded by water – and also with so much desert in the middle… so much of the Australian population is clustered in coastal cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. Growing up in Sydney there’s the beaches, so beautiful but with all the beachy culture that goes with it. And the iconic harbour, this piece of water that defines the city but also divides it. It’s an ambivalent relationship, especially for a bookish girl who didn’t really learn to swim; it was a kind of alienation from something that I felt I was supposed to be really connected with, as a proper Aussie. I did have something of an epiphany though when I stayed at Clovelly one summer a few years ago and learned to snorkel, and made friends with the incredible blue groper who lives there. Though there’s that horrible, fear-filled moment of sticking your face in the water and trusting that you will breathe through this plastic tube…


LJ: That is so very true. For the first few lessons my instructor was exasperated with me, because I would be breathing underwater through the device (it’s called a regulator), and then I would think, “Oh my goodness I’m breathing. I can’t be breathing, I’m underwater!” and then I would panic and shoot back up to the surface.


ML: Snorkelling has been a revelation to me; my partner has done a taster dive and raves about it, and it sounds as if there are even more wonders to be discovered that way. Just…my ears! And all that water above! I already have mild claustrophobia nightmares…


LJ: Margo, yes, the beach can be both melancholy and sexy. As my best friend and I grew into teenagers, our experiences of the beach became less childlike and more exploratory with boys. But she was very beachy, lean and tanned. I always felt like the short slightly chubbier friend tagging along. 🙂

Diving can be claustrophobic. You can also get vertigo where the water is very clear, and your brain tricks you into thinking you are in air, not water. Jacques Cousteau writes beautifully about all this in his book The Silent World.


ML: But yes, Lisa, that sense of having entered another world is amazing. So many creatures, and so various. And you can just fly around there, like dream-flying.


LJ: And as in a dream, you can also go too deep, and just want to keep going deeper and deeper. A bit like Margo’s characters being called into the sea. It’s called nitrogen narcosis.


KT: Lisa, there’s a passage in The Sunlit Zone where your protagonist North is stuck underwater trying to save her sister Finn, and she seems to be under there for such a long time, in such an extended, dream-like state – were you thinking of nitrogen narcosis when you wrote it? I thought it also had affinities with the idea of fairyland, a place beneath the normal world where time moves differently.


LJ: Actually, I don’t think I was thinking of nitrogen narcosis whilst writing that passage – although I can see why you did. I did, however, stick my face in the sink and inhale water to see what it felt like to drown, sort of. That was an odd and challenging day. And I have always been fascinated by stories about places where time moves differently, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia.

Cousteau’s book with all those salty “men of the sea” and their hefty equipment got me thinking about how we are so unequipped to live in water now, although we originally clambered up its shores so many millions of years ago. Unlike seals, which move so easily through it and in it.


KT: Margo’s comments about the sexiness of the beach made me think of the way the beach in The Sunlit Zone is definitely a sexy place, but also very dangerous, and those two things are connected so strongly.


ML: I didn’t mean actual sexy. I suppose I meant sensual. I suppose it’s just where, there’s very little between you and nature, and you’re plunging your body into moving surf, then hauling it out and having the sun dry you off, then plunging back in, flinging yourself on the mercy of this big cold creature.


KT: Margo, this description helps me understand what might have drawn you to selkies. It’s really interesting to me that you have this ambivalence and claustrophobia about the sea, and yet you were drawn to writing about these creatures.


ML: I think I was always pretty envious of seals. They had the breathing thing sewn up, for a start; but also, they were so smooth and fast in the water. Humans could never quite achieve that degree of swimming expertise. Otters the same, of course. (This is visits to the Melbourne Zoo speaking – didn’t see a seal in the wild (or a sea otter!) until very recently.)


KT: Margo, can you describe the central elements of the selkie myth for us, and explain how the story that became The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape?


ML: I think I always knew the selkie myth; I can’t remember not knowing it, so it must have been a very early story that was read to me, or that I read as a very young child. The main component is that seals change into humans – male or female – they come up on land for the purposes of, I don’t know, just dancing or trying out human bodies. Then humans catch them at this, and in the case of the female selkies, most tales have the observer (male) falling in love with the selkie and immediately needing to prevent her returning to the sea, which he does by stealing her shed sealskin. The male selkies, of course, generally tend to have more self-determination; I don’t recall any versions where women entrap them quite the way men do female selkies. Then there is a romance of some kind. Usually reasonably happy, except that the woman is constantly yearning for the sea. Then at some point the woman accidentally finds her skin, and returns QUICK SMART to the sea. Sometimes she comes back and visits, you know, every Midsummer Eve or something. Sometimes she just goes and leaves her husband and children pining for ever.


KT: My impression is that male selkies are seducers of human women.


ML: Yes, male selkies are just more active all round. The female selkies’ allure is usually very passive; there seems to be very little intention in their seducing land-men. They’re just irresistibly gorgeous. But as for how The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape: It took shape as a novella first, and that ended up being the “Daniel Mallett” section of the novel, where the hybrid son of a selkie and a land-man organises to get his mother (and eventually all the selkie-mothers in the town, for there are no other women BUT selkies) back into the sea, for her happiness. Then, when it came to turning it into a novel, I poked and prodded at that witch figure, Misskaella (except she was called Messkeletha in the original novella, and I rather wish I’d kept that name for her) to find out what had motivated her to bring forth all these selkie-wives for the men of Rollrock Island, and the rest of the novel came from that search. It really turned into Misskaella’s story in the end, though it had begun as Daniel’s.

All sounds so simple now, when there was in fact a lot of switching and changing and trying-out of points of view and wondering, “What the hell is all this about anyway?” : D


KT: You’ve connected so strongly with the element of the stories that is about children, and the way these women are torn between their incredibly strong love for their children and their need for the sea. I like the way Daniel is so much at the center, the hybrid child who acts from deep compassion and love for his mother. This felt reparative to me in relationship to the selkie story, which I’ve always found to be such a tragic sort of myth about the incommensurability of male and female, masculine and feminine.


ML: I think the children’s point of view was the most powerful thing about it for me. The blokes who brought the selkies onto the land, they kind of deserved what they got, and they had the wit to know that their wives might leave at any time if they didn’t hide the skins properly. But the poor children, it must have seemed utterly mysterious and awful when their mothers disappeared. So I kind of let Daniel and his fellows have their cake and eat it, spend a bit of time in the sea with their mums and experience that life; know, to an extent, why she chose it over the land life, why she belonged there.


KT: Yes, at first the sea and the land seem like utterly separate incommensurable environments – but Daniel and the other boys manage to move between them. Did you also have The Little Mermaid fairytale in mind?


ML: Not strongly, no, although certainly there’s something of the mermaid’s pain at being on land that afflicts my selkies. In that story, her misery is much more highlighted than in selkie stories. Generally selkie women suffer silently. And selkie men don’t seem to suffer at all.


LJ: I think for me the notion of being drawn “back to the water” has several levels. It is about the way we, like the selkies, yearn to return that state that Daniel in Margo’s novel says was his experience of the sea – utter lack of anxiety, or time and all human things like worry and the general daily challenges of what it is to be human. Also, that we spend 9 months of our lives in amniotic watery fluid. So the sea is a returning of sorts. And then we evolved from the sea, grew feet and clambered up the shore.


ML: Lisa, I never thought about Daniel’s spell in the sea as being a return to the womb, but of course!


LJ: Yes, I was most struck by the oceanic sense he experienced quite literally in the water. The twins in my novel are in a sense joined – North is a “land girl” and Finn, who is born with fins and gills, is a “water girl”. But when one goes too far from the other, there is a tug, like they are joined in some way. So in a sense we all live on thresholds, those liminal spaces between land and sea. Always returning to the sea and leaving it. The pier is a good example of this, neither in nor out of the water.


ML: I think also we’re just set up to yearn. Possibly it’s an evolutionary thing; the yearniest humans get to survive. But all this searching for the perfect placement in the world, the perfect state of being, the trying out of different roles, the disappointment with what we’ve got and what’s easily accessible to us; all that’s going on in this type of story, in the background.


KT: I really like this idea of evolution selecting for yearning.


ML: “Yearning” may just be a nice way of saying “competitive” : )


KT: But makes competition sound so much more poetic! Lisa, Finn struck me as being something like the Little Mermaid or a selkie herself – literally a fish out of water.


LJ: I think that for Finn, at least, there is a sense of homecoming in returning to the sea.: For me, seeing goldfish out of water is one of my big phobias! I once came home to find our large fish tank had cracked open and all the fish were lying gasping in the room, some up against the wall, on the carpet, behind the couch. And I had to run around putting them all back in a bucket. It was terrifying!

I love these lines about water, from the American poet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones”: “But water is a question, so many living things in it, / but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming / generosity, how can they write you out?”


ML: Water is a question, I like that. I found it much more of a question before I snorkelled in it; the sea was just this lid, hiding things. Now that I can see some of them, it’s less closed-off from me. But yes, still, swimming in the local pool, in this handy resisting-but-yielding matter, the question arises! And I tend to think it’s living, in itself. But then, I remember even when I was REALLY small, assuming things were living, things like grains of sand, and stones. So I’m just naturally anthropomorphic in my thinking. 😀


KT: And/or seeing the world as a writer of fantasy fiction might tend to see it… Lisa, I love all the Mary Oliver lines that you use as epigraphs in The Sunlit Zone – that one about the soft animal of the body is one of my favourites. You also use a marvellous epigraph from Winifred Snow that seemed so right not only for the section it heads, but the whole novel in a way: “The ocean is tonic incarnate for the technological world.”


LJ: Yes, Winifred Snow is one of my favourite poets…as I worked deeper into The Sunlit Zone I became more aware of the ecological layer of the work, about how in mid life I stand astride two worlds: the world of fast-paced technology and the slower world of the past. Jack’s slow art of boat-building in the novel (couta boat building is knowledge passed down the generations), the fact he reads “hard copy”, and North’s parents’ resistance to technology and hybrid vegetable crops etc is part of this. I worry about the fast pace of our world, at the same time as I enjoy its benefits, like being able to do a three way skype interview…So the ocean as a tonic is really, for me, about a returning to the natural world that we have become so distracted from, and lost touch with.


KT: Lisa, sci-fi/speculative fiction is not a genre often associated with verse so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.


LJ: Yes people have been asking me if I know of any other verse novels that draw on SF and spec fiction,  and I don’t. I didn’t sit down and think, now I am going to write a verse novel using those genres. But I guess it is an instinctive way to write for me, to blur the line between reality and enchantment. Also, the work usually tells me what kind of animal it wants to be, rather than the other way around.  I had been writing spec fiction short stories before this also.

Because The Sunlit Zone is set in 2050 in Melbourne, I also wanted to create the kind of world in which the reader could easily slide from our present way of living to the future, without feeling the gear change. So iphones become skin fones, real whales are now cloned whales, resort sand is coloured pink, floral goldfish are the norm to match the decor of your couches, that sort of thing. Margaret Atwood does it in Oryx and Crake and she was a big influence.


ML: I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history for my next novel, and last night I came across a wonderful section on water in a book called Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends, by Pamela Lukin Watson: “A clan or person of this totem must regard all water as sacred, and similarly water-bearing things such as hakea trees and certain water birds; each must be acknowledged as sharing the same substance as the person or tribe involved. People of the water totem needed to be very circumspect in their behaviour to any body of water; they could not shout before it, but had to take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink; they could not foul the water, nor could they tramp angrily about the creek banks.”


KT: The complexity of the water totem is really fascinating to me. Some Aboriginal people in Northern Australia have a very specific water totem, the sparkle on water.


ML: Yes, she’s talking about Indigenous people of the Channel Country in Queensland. I always think of a visit to the beach as a form of rinsing out my head; the noise and repetition of the waves, and of course the fact that they look very much as if they’re intent on scouring the beach clean. It seems like a naturally healing thing.


LJ: That’s nice – the ebb and flow of the waves as cleaning the beach and cleansing us at the same time. And I think, at least in the west, we are at risk of losing our capacity to be able to talk to elemental things such as water. That is why Mary Oliver is such an important poet to me. Also, I love the way those waves just keep on rolling in and out, in and out, no matter what. The way river water runs around stones in the same pattern for years on end, without changing its course.


ML: Yes, Lisa, the attitude of having to “take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink” is so un-Western, yet seems so right to my mind. The idea of acknowledging the whole system that you’re contributing to and taking from, every time you do the taking. Just this morning when I was on my bike ride, it was a misty morning and several people had come out and hosed down their cars to get the condensation off them. Water all over the road, no one using the cars yet; it seemed very profligate. Wouldn’t have used that much more energy going over the windows with a squeegee. <–Curmudgeonly thought. But there was no respectful speaking to the water before using it, that’s for sure… (Not that I do, every time I turn on a tap. But perhaps I ought to.)


KT: I guess the drought is really over! Lisa includes “Water Police” in her future – very convincing.


LJ: Well, I thought of the roller coaster at Luna Park in Melbourne, and how close it is to the sea shore there. That was when I was writing the book. Then after I finished it, I saw all these maps people have been drawing of rising tide levels that are predicted to actually cover this area and flood it in the decades to come, and then I saw a photo of the roller coaster washed out to sea in NY when Hurricane Sandy hit. I think the water police are not far off!


ML: We definitely had patrolling rangers monitoring water usage during the drought.


KT: I remember that. No hosing down the driveway, etc. I still have that attitude, which I think is particularly Australian in some way, driven by that drought consciousness.


LJ: Yes, and I think all these things are very important. But do not go deep enough into us establishing a more profound connection with environment, the way indigenous people have. One of the things I’d like to say about Margo’s book is that after I finished it I felt like I was still in its world, in the dreamy underwater word of the selkies, and also in the town.


KT: Yes, Lisa, and this is exactly what I want from a book, to take you under and let you stay there, like a dream.


ML: That’s a lovely thing to say, Lisa! I did want it to be very intense – I think because the selkie tales (and a lot of fairy tales) are so very matter-of-fact about their magic. Outrageous things happen – people turning into animals, ghosts, magical swords – but in fact the stories relate them as if purposely avoiding evoking a sense of wonder; they’re just the baldest, barest plot devices to move things along in the right way. I really wanted the weirdness of the change between animal and human (and I guess between animal and human environments) to come through strongly.


KT: Margo, what you’ve just said about the everyday-ness of magic as it’s represented in fairytales is really interesting – your work definitely has a sense of uncanny estrangement about it, an almost uncomfortable sense of going into another very different world. I wonder if you have read Among Others by Jo Walton? I love the anti-climactic low-key descriptions of magic in that book but in her case it actually elevates the sense of weirdness I think.


ML: I totally love Among Others, for exactly that reason. Love those prickly, cantankerous fairies! And it made me think, oh, maybe there IS a way to write the more memoirish story-ideas I’ve been having, without being as literal as memoir generally is…


KT: That sounds very interesting and makes me wonder if there will be cantankerous seal people in your memoir.


ML: Oh definitely. Possibly a cantankerous sea elephant or two as well!


KT: Bring on the cantankerous quotidian fanciful creatures of memoir!


ML: *embroiders that on a sampler and sticks it above writing-desk*


KT: Lisa, I wanted to say how beautiful the cover is for The Sunlit Zone – I used an image by the same artist, Samantha Everton, on the cover of The Legacy, my first book. I love her work.


ML: Have either of you seen Martine Emdur’s paintings, of people floating in water – mostly women? Beautiful things.


KT: Uncanny! They are so like Samantha’s pictures. Margo, do you have any pictures of selkies that are particular favourites?


ML: There aren’t many very good ones – they tend to be a bit My Little Pony in style. But my selkies scrapbooks Flickr set gives a good idea of the kinds of images that inspired me. Selkies tend to be very sentimentalised-over, bit like mermaids. It’s hard to find really good images that capture their mystery.


LJ: Margo’s selkie figures are so dark – I think her book cover also captures this. I love the idea of creating a scrapbook like this, Margo. I have collected a few images myself, mostly news items (but striking images) from the world that have occurred after I wrote my novel. I have one of the rollercoaster submerged in the sea after the New York floods


ML: Phoargh, that rollercoaster is terrific, especially the wrecked-ness of it. Did you see the flood picture of the lit-up merry-go-round, surrounded by water? Similar kind of weirdness.


LJ: Oh…my…god. Thank you – that is truly haunting and amazing….


Post script

KT: a couple of days after we spoke, the submerged roller coaster is finally being dismantled.



Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. The Brides of Rollrock Island, a modern versionretelling of the traditional selkie myth (published in Australia as Sea Hearts), won the two 2012 Aurealis Awards (for Best Young Adult Novel and Best Fantasy Novel), and was shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize and the a 2013 British Fantasy Award. Her short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Black Juice was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Red Spikes won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year,  and a Horn Book Fanfare title, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s’ Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was also a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Margo lives in Sydney.

She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.


Lisa Jacobson is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her new verse novel is The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012). This book was recently shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize (University of Melbourne) and, as a manuscript, for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work has been published in Australia, New York, London and Indonesia. She shares a bush block in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. More at http://lisajacobson.org/


Kirsten Tranter is a co-founder of The Stella Prize and the author of the internationally published, critically acclaimed novels A Common Loss and The Legacy. The Legacy was a Kirkus Reviews Debut of the Year in 2010, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, the Indy prize for debut fiction, and the ABIA literary fiction award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Kirsten completed a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University in 2008, and is widely published as a critic. She grew up in Sydney and is soon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. More at kirstentranter.com

The Stella Prize is a major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. It is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a prize of $50,000 and recognizes writing across genres by women that is excellent, original and engaging. Extracts from The Sunlit Zone, The Brides of Rollrock Island (aka Sea Hearts), and all the shortlisted works are available at thestellaprize.com.au

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme this month: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?


STALINA VILLARREAL: Never would I consider the audience to develop the content of characterization. I think of the audience when considering accessibility and pacing, even formal poetics, but character itself seems to exude upon the exposure of rugged individuality, independent of others. For example, one of my poems has a female speaker that admits to having stained underwear from menstruation, and I have been thanked by females in the audience for saying such commonly unsaid truths. Originally, I had thought that the taboo I described with this character would have been unpopular, but as it turns out, the conflict of the plot helps fuel the character’s motives. The effect results in freedom of characterization. On the other hand, the challenge then is to answer: What kind of pursuit of freedom should the character have? I disagree with the screenwriting convention that each character only has one motive, for three-dimensional characters usually have more than one motive, even if the second motive is minor in comparison. The sister can be a mother and can be an enemy all at the same time, depending on the context. Transitioning is the key to taking turns with the motives, so I suppose that now I have contradicted myself by correlating the motives with the pacing. To be more precise, I should distinguish that I do not think of the audience when defining the character’s motives as I write, but I do think of the audience as I edit the proportions and sequencing of the writing.

Maybe I should also disclaim that my artistic background is in visual art, so my characters usually have a visual motive that I assign: a spiral, chicken scratch, a square, and so forth. This allows me to have what I call the dominant motive, but characters often have recessive motives. For instance, I know that I strive to have a circular motive, as it seems to me the most perfect shape, yet instead, I am bombarded with my spiraling, chicken scratching, cutting angles, holes, and stitches. Still, while my characters are usually fictional, I displace some of my emotional truths to make the characters molded to a vision that I can accept in existence, even if I disapprove of their potential popularity or infamy.

Perhaps I still haven’t answered the concern about the gender angle. I disagree with the double standards and the stereotyping, yet I actively pursue the feminist notion that women can be the subjects of desire rather than objects of desire. To me, this means rejecting the art history claims that circles are purely a feminine shape and that angular shapes are solely masculine. All genders have their moments of blurred behavior, hence the multifaceted characterization. I consider my gender bias to be queer.

Nonetheless, the majority of my work has what I call hidden characterization. Oftentimes, we do not know if the shy person became shy because of experience or if the person was born with a temperament that causes this person to be shy. Even when we think we have known a person for years, we sometimes still make an unintentional mistake that hurts because of a lack of understanding behind motives.


IRE’NE LARA SILVA: I don’t think ‘likeability’ matters at all. I don’t read or write to find ‘likeable’ characters. ‘Likeable’ characters aren’t often doing interesting things. Sometimes they are, but if you give me a choice between a character baking cookies and dreaming of love or a character waking up from a nightmare of killing their best friend, my interest is more likely to be piqued by the latter. What I want are characters that are compelling—characters dealing with situations that are pushing them to the limits of their comfort zones, their identities, their relationships, their coping abilities, etc. People living through those situations are often not ‘likeable,’ but we, as readers, empathize because we know what it is to live through those situations, and know that we were perhaps not always ‘likeable’ in those situations ourselves. Or, we’re fascinated by the unpredictability of the characters’ responses and what it tells us about them.

The gendered expectations of ‘niceness,’ of superficial beauty, of ‘keeping it together,’ fail to offer us opportunities to illuminate the human experience. I learn nothing—as a reader, writer, woman, or human being—if life isn’t illuminated, its brighter aspects as well as its darker and less likeable parts. Otherwise, I’m just being entertained. That’s not to say that I dislike being entertained—sometimes I want to read a romance novel or watch a sitcom or go to a movie theatre for a big summer blockbuster. And that’s perfectly fine—but to suggest that, as a woman writer, my foremost concern should be my characters’ likeability, is to limit me to use 3 crayons when I could have 128.

For example, I just finished working on a short story about a character with cannibalistic tendencies who’s deciding whether or not to give in to the desire to ‘consume’ her lover. Likeable? No. Compelling? I hope so.


SV: I agree: Transgression is welcomed in literature yet rejected in real life. Or at least we pretend to abide by our own norms yet tend to fall for temptations or to experience turmoil beyond our boundaries. Hence, literature has a purpose in this gray area of subversion, as even the most traditional Western literature depends on conflict to drive the plot and subsequent characterization.

I would even dare to say that humans find an attraction toward otherness, for obsessions of hatred and fear still inspire us to move or hide. The advantage is that an artistic representation of the grotesque is more approachable since it is more removed. The distance but exposure together allow for desensitization—or at least give us room to file more categories in our brain. Otherwise, we would never see monstrosity like the loving vampire or the endearing zombie.

As an audience member, I have always experienced the consciousness Brecht describes when he asserts that the audience never forgets reality, never fully gets lost in art, even with my escapist lens. Visually, this interplay can be seen like the localized color of painting: The shade of the pigment in a solid can be altered by its reflected light in the air. In other words, the artist and audience are simultaneously both codependent and independent. The latter of this duality concurs that likeability is irrelevant to any type of character selected for writing, and I believe this irrelevance should be the writer’s carte blanche. Worrying about the audience is futile because discomfort is already inevitable in potent writing in the same way that strong spices prick the taste buds. As a writer, I use revision as a way to rearrange the presentation for the codependence in the dining room, but acquired tastes seem to be too arbitrary to limit the writer’s choices in the kitchen.

Lastly, I agree that true learning requires a challenge, and that art can serve this necessary pain on a palpable platter.


ILS: I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between an ‘artist’s audience’ and ‘the market’. When it comes to the ‘market,’ the work of art–book, painting, film, etc–is a ‘product’ and its value is determined by what people are willing to spend for it and/or by how many units of it will fly off the shelf. ‘Audience’ and ‘market’ are often conflated. Returning to those summer blockbuster movies–their goal is to attract as much of the market as possible, make as much money as possible, attract as large of a following as possible. And so, they use likability as a storytelling shortcut, often using familiar actors, and for the most part, sticking to established plot-lines and ways of telling a story. They have ‘test audiences’ and whole departments strategizing on behalf of their product.

But an artist’s audience is a different thing. I think of my audience all the time–before, during, and after writing–because it is my goal to tell a story, to communicate an experience, to invite a response. But I don’t conflate my idea of what audience is and what the market is. My work is not a product. I know this will sound idealistic/romantic/naive to many. How can it not matter how many books are sold? My ability to live off my writing depends on it. My work’s ability to reach a larger audience depends on it. A press’s or agent’s desire to publish/represent my work depends on it.

But I didn’t come to writing for any of those reasons. I haven’t poured time and energy and heartbreak and decades into my writing in order to have to deform/mutilate/hinder my vision, my language, or my stories. The audience I’m seeking, the one I’ve been writing for, is the audience that needs my work.

In Seven Nights, Borges makes an argument against the idea of compulsory reading. To roughly paraphrase, compulsory happiness only should direct the reader on their way. If the reader isn’t drawn to a book, then it’s a book that wasn’t written for them. Literature is diverse and rich enough that it will offer the reader something they will want to read.

Reading that passage, I had a revelation.  If literature was rich enough to offer something to every reader, then conversely, there was a reader for every kind of book. And books did not have to appeal to every reader. Books were written especially for some readers. And that freed me. To me, it meant that I would eventually find my readers. Find the ones I was writing for–who would find something they needed in my words.

I have been often humbled and awed by my readers’ responses. When you have elicited tears from readers or audience members, when you have had perfect strangers share their personal stories, pains, and triumphs with you–then the numbers on the page do not matter.

My life has been saved by poetry, by stories. I don’t say that lightly. I would not be here. I would not be who I am. I would not have enough heart or vision to care or to speak. I owe a tremendous debt to the work of others that saved me. My repayment is to strive to create work that may save others, that may help them heal, or that, at least, may enable them to go on.

I write from my gut. From my base chakra. From my vagina, as a friend once said. Personally, I have an affinity for the word ‘cunt.’ In my own personal act of language re-appropriation, I like to say (or at least think), I write from my cunt. To write from the heart sounds Hallmark-y, so I will stay away from that, but I mean that too–I write from the seed-filled center of my blossoming heart. All of this to say that I write from a visceral body. What I long for in art–as an experience and as an artist is the direct opposite of  Brecht’s consciousness. Give me the Stendahl effect–where all consciousness and all our ideas of separation cease to exist. As Stendahl wrote, “I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…” As a reader, I want to feel the minute and the infinite. I want to have new eyes. I want the world re-made. I want my senses sharpened. I want to feel that my heart isn’t the only one beating inside my chest. I want to feel the preciousness of life.

Transgression for the sake of transgression, monstrosity for the sake of monstrosity, pain for the sake of pain, pushing boundaries just to push boundaries is not what my work is about. Perhaps I should have used another story as an example—a few years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a pregnant, almost suicidally depressed woman taking care of her terminally ill father. She spends most of the story speaking to her unborn child, walking along the ocean, and fantasizing about killing her father. The point of the story was not to transgress or to provide pain for the reader to consume. The point of the story was to share an experience as I felt it in my body. Returning to the idea of likability—there was no way I could see where I could tell this story if I insisted on a likable character to hold a reader’s attention.


SV: While the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘market’ is important, during my education in the United States, I was taught early on that the poetry industry loses money instead of gaining it, that poetry usually pertains to the gift economy more than the actual market. Perhaps the fact that my poetry has only been published in Mexico contributes to this bias. I never think of my work as sellable, although I do put a price on it simply because I live in a capitalist nation; however, this is mostly a compromise in the adaptation of my aftermath of having lived as a red-diaper baby in a contradictory atmosphere.

I’d also like to clarify that I do not associate only ‘likability’ with ‘audience’; on the contrary, I was loosely trying to explain that both love and hatred are essential in art, that the worst art is when the audience is apathetic. As I see art as a sensory form of communication, ‘likeability’ and taboo must combine for the audience to feel. That does not mean that the description of a panhandler on the corner has to be that of a famous violinist, but it means that the artist has to play with arrangement, whether the likeability-taboo mixture is simultaneous, consecutive, or a combination thereof. Again, I have been influenced by visual arts, in which most products are about arrangement rather than invention. Because I am a maximalist, variety within intense patternmaking is my goal.

In my extremist perspective, I have to say that I identify with the minimalist Philip Glass regarding art being a nervous compulsion. I tried to sell out many times because the life of an artist is taxing. In spite of my efforts to be part of the mainstream, I would have committed suicide if it weren’t for art, so I only live because art motivates me to get up in the morning. Because I have a day job, sometimes art is a long-term goal rather than an immediate one, but I have to think about art every single day, even if it’s in an abstract or brief moment.

With that being said, my artistic motivation is independent of the audience. My “hidden characterization” is actually quite unpopular. Some writers have even questioned how it is possible for me to have an MFA with my “wild” writing style. I just follow my code and hope that later someone else (an audience member) has a code that can overlap in a Venn diagram, not 100 percent of the time but at least enough to make the person feel (negatively, positively, or both) at least once. Even when audience has booed me off the stage, that behavior still requires energy. Both negative and positive energy electrify me because interacting with others is a shocking yet enriching process. I use the audience’s free energy instead of paying shrinks, curanderas, or churches. In a way, I am the vampire of human electrodes; I use both art production and audience consumption as a healing process for my synapses in everyday life.

Now that I have confessed that I am a selfish person seeking and sucking energy through art (as opposed to sports or other fueling mechanisms), I have to say that preciousness is not part of my style. Especially since I hide character, I have to engage in experiences that strengthen my own character—usually challenging myself uncomfortably—so that some of the character development can trickle into the writing, even if the writing is fictional. I write using my gross motor, engaging viscerally, but I revise with my fine motor, focusing cerebrally without erasing the rugged skeleton. To grow, I have to step out of my comfort zone, and my ultimate outcome, as my painting professor once suggested, should be to produce works of varying value to avoid a plateaued state of existence.


ILS: You’ve piqued my curiosity with a few things you said: first, about ‘wild’ writing styles and MFA’s. As part of my own journey as a writer, I had a brief period of being anti-MFA because 1) I didn’t have one, 2) most of the writers of color that I knew had had extremely negative experiences in MFA programs, and 3) I feared that my developing voice would be crippled before it could find itself. Nowadays, I would happily go to one if I had the time, energy, and financial resources to do so—because I have my own voice now, because more MFA programs are available in more diverse places with more diverse faculty, because I can’t think of anything more lovely than 2+ years to focus on my writing, and because of the increased access having an MFA would give me to writer opportunities. With that said, I also have to say that I often feel like an ‘outsider’ because I don’t have an MFA. I’m not an academic. I’m not ‘trained.’ As much as I have read, I can’t claim familiarity with the American ‘canon.’ To my bewilderment, my stories were often judged as ‘too experimental’ or ‘un-marketable’ by various presses that I thought would be receptive to my work. I still don’t understand how they are ‘experimental’. They’re merely stories I told in the best way I could—with an Indigenous/feminist/poetic sensibility, yes, but not deliberately ‘experimental’.

Recently, also, I’ve been re-hashing an old argument with myself about how ‘validity’ as an artist is determined. To what degree do we look to degrees and teaching positions and publications and life arrangements as markers of validity as artists? By life arrangements, I mean the ideas I consider to be antiquated or elitist—that a woman artist/writer must be independently funded, funded by a husband, spouse-less and child-less, or otherwise free of all care-giving responsibilities. In order to create, I constantly have to silence all the voices that say that I cannot be a writer because I am from poor, working-class roots, because I work seven days a week to support myself and my brother, because I am his sole caregiver, because I am not free to travel widely, because I don’t have an MFA, because….because…because…

I hear so many women struggling to claim their identities as artists/writers…as well as the struggle to claim time, energy, and resources for their work. How do you see this argument for validity as artists working out in your life and in the women around you?

And returning to the idea of ‘writing wild,’ what is it that makes some writing wild? I’ve had my writing called ‘wild’ as well and have been left wondering what it means to be a  woman writer whose work is called wild, raw, primal, etc…more specifically, to be a woman writer of color whose work is called wild and raw and primal. When is it what I would like it to mean—that I connected through words to my blood and my gut? And when is it that it denotes that I am being perceived as writing primitively? That my writing is accidental/instinctive/un-educated…and not the result of decades of contemplation, deliberate choices, and painstaking revision?

Another point that piqued my interest was the difference between perceptions of poetry in the U.S. and Mexico. While we are both queer-identified Latinas, I feel that our backgrounds are probably very different from one another. How do you feel that your background and your queer identification inform how you perceive the creation of your art—whether visual or written—and how you came to identify as an artist/writer?


SV: To answer your question fully, I’d have to be very narrative, which is not inherent in my nature. To apply what John Locke wrote of a restricted freedom, I usually live very reserved in terms of expression, for even my journals don’t fully hold my deepest desires. I hear the singer, guitarist, and songwriter David Rovics with a disclaimer: “It was no one that I knew who ran the plunger up my ass / It’s just that I was told to speak freely.” Although he inspires me to practice the First Amendment, my unusual upbringing quickly taught me that I offend and argue less if I just stay quiet. Marginalization was imposed upon being named after Stalin for my first name and upon being named (for my middle name) after Emmanuelle Arsan, who wrote erotic literature—among a myriad of characters, the one that mother points out is the one about the wife of a diplomat who slept with the wives of other diplomats. I think my parents wanted a daughter with character. To make my identity even more pluralized, I also had an epiphany during my formative years when I read Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension about cultural proxemics: I have some Arab tastes from my mestizaje that partially like to obscure the figureground. The latter impacts my aesthetics most, but that may be caused not from lineage but rather from experience—despite the gringa rhetoric of tolerance that my (also pluralist) mother instilled in my brain, the public seems to be very intolerant when confronted with lack of commonalities. My art, then, serves as my shield. I call my poetics partial poetics because I only share an assemblage of fragments and because I am biased.

As I was raised by a feminist, it has been my understanding that I have a fundamental freedom to defend but that the struggle for freedom is ongoing. My mother explained to me that when she was young, she used to attack with expressions like el tuyo and chinga tu padre, but that she later realized that succumbing to gender-associated insults means to stoop down to the level of the original oppressors. As a result, I refuse call a person words like bitch, but I have caught myself degenerating by using the word as a verb to mean to gripe. I’d like to diminish this behavior since the only linguistic difference between the genders that I’ve read about is minor. According the linguistics blog Language Log written by linguistics professors, women tend to apologize more. Is apologizing bitchy? Maybe slightly, but not in the way that the word bitch is used. While this misperception may seem trivial, it still shows the desensitization of language amid popularity. Society seems to be the one that oversimplifies, and my struggle is that I live in a country that likes to tag everything.

Among those tags are words like queer, Latina, and so forth, and I recognize that I was born in the seventies when some labels like Chicana were used to empower. Sure, I can use these existent terms to explain who I am, and I enjoy that pluralism allows me to adopt multiple identities. Nevertheless, predetermined tags are uncomfortable—I hate them. For instance, the word agnostic seems to supply the definition that others like most for my theism, but it does not satisfy my own delineations, as I am an intrapersonal theist but an interpersonal atheist. This search for answers using tags may be part of human nature, but it seems hypocritical that inquiry can be portrayed as being rude. For example, it seems unfair when people ask where I am from. I answer “Houston,” but they really want to know why I am not like them. My answer does not suit them, so further questions must be asked, even though it is impolite for me to ask about lineage in return when they, in turn, assert being natives. In other words, because I am an immigrant (Mexicana), it’s easier for them to ask me about location, but when I ask about the America of immigrants and lineage, the mood usually turns sour. Self-identification seems to be safer, but even so, it’s still more complex than it seems. Another example is class. Economically speaking, I fall under the upper part of the lower class, not rich enough to be middle class, yet that is not the type of term that I talk about in my personal life. I identify as a pinko, someone who is not communist but is sensitive to communists. I mention this because of my strong-but-nonstandard beliefs, yet demographics tend to ask about given-but-not-acquired standards. I do like that some of the tags mentioned above are more politicized and could be seen as acquired, but if I had to select one tag or two tags to flaunt, I would feel fragmented because I do not write just chic lit, only bi-chic lit, solely Chicana literature, purely poesía frontriza, or simply Marxist literature. To answer your question in its simplest form, description defines things without naming them, so characteristics of these tags in my writing and art are evident in sequence, simultaneity, or both.

I treat language as a material, and as much as writing is about the human experience, I still see it as an inanimate object that I forge, saw, solder, file, and sand like a blue-collar worker. Poetry may be a white-collar activity, but again, the supply supersedes the demand, making the profits look like an utter loss. Although in Mexico the government spends more money on poetry than its more affluent neighbor the United States, I don’t usually have access to these funds, as I was given the impression that more opportunities are given to young Mexican poets while the older ones need to have similar expectations of publishing as the poets in the United States. There is a possibility that I am misguided in regards to the very economics I evade. I do know that I am limited in my applications in Mexico by the types of identification documents I have, and one essential one has to be obtained by living in Mexico. Consequently, I disassociate the idea that I would receive money for my work, even though it occasionally happens sporadically, briefly, and marginally. For materiality, I still rely on the breadth my visual art, a mark of my hand, for the depth of my pencil-pushing and finger-typing writing; synaesthesia allows me to make poetry my primordial and primary form of communication.

The most obvious characteristic that the audience remarks is the code switching. This may be why it’s easiest for me to blend among Chicano poets and Mexicano poets who like bilingual work. Being part of the Generation 1.5, I partially use sound to cantinflear, a process I learned from my father but created by the popular Mexican comedian Carlos Cantinflas to gibber using similar-sounding words, which I speculate that in the United States could be accepted phonetically by slam poets but could be accepted lexically by poets familiar with modern and post-modern movements that emphasize abstraction as part of form rather than content. For form, I combine both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon rhythms and sounds to appeal to both my ear and possibly the audience’s ear. For monolinguals, I believe that readers familiar with Erza Pound are more likely to accept that I use more than one language, although the code switching probably creates a language barrier for many; however, for bilinguals, the wordplay is familiar when learning cognates and false cognates. Much of my work is a mistranslation about culture clash.

The gender part, on the other hand, when actually present, is the part of the content that is most graspable. I’m what some of my friends call futch, neither femme nor butch. I let the audience decide if my cyclone is a yoni from the heavens or a phallus from the earth.

I think that the reason why people call my poetry experimental is because I overtly force the reader to fill in the gaps, a process contrary to today’s information age. However, I feel that good art, even traditional art, has to challenge what has been previously created, and that this particular process requires experimentation, even if the experimentation is not deemed as peculiar. In essence, I disagree with the societal associations of the term experimental.

The word wild is usually used to describe fauna and flora that are not human, so I was insulted when my work was labeled with this subhuman adjective. Granted, I do animate art media like wood, but I sarcastically told a friend, “Bring on the antlers!” Perhaps I am unruly at times, but what I learned in art school is that every decision has to look intentional, even if there is a nonsensical part. I’m starting to move toward the use of the oxymoron, but I still allow for the juxtaposition of the unexpected, which sometimes appears to be nonsensical because I seek syncopated hyperpluralism. Who was is who said that Frost was not writing about the choice between two roads but multiples? The road is the erred ode is the era odd, ha!

I could not be an artist today had I not been formally trained simply because I started out green as an engineering major in college, but I do not think that a piece of paper legitimizes an artist—experience does. I lucked out that I started out at a school that did not require a portfolio. I knew in my calculus class when I was having emotional responses to the graphs on the board that I belonged in an art-history class, not a math class. Today, I am still pathos driven; as an English teacher, my students tell me that they enjoy my instruction when I make myself emotionally vulnerable in the classroom. Alas, I have not left academia, but I still feel that prose is a coercion of society, although I believe everyone should have access to utilitarian prose if the individual chooses so. I’ve just always been insecure about my prose because of standardized testing; I even think that, unlike the writers who take pride in honing their prose, I allow mine to wilt, leaving my own prose to be left boring unless it has poetic moments.

I do agree with you that having a few months to eat, live, and breathe poetry is phenomenal, but in the aftermath, you still have to reconcile with reality. After you overcome the post-MFA withdrawal of the writing community, you have to establish a writing community to interact with regularly. Further, not only do you still have to make ends meet, but you also have to deal with the fact that aging leaves a more decrepit body each day. For a loner like me, my mind yields my escapism.

And as you make the decisions that you live with, it is now my turn to inquire: How do you make your own decisions between identity and writing? Also, how much of your experience would you say is typical or atypical?


ILS: When I was a child and young reader, I had a thing for stories about foundlings—everything from The Ugly Duckling to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles to Jane Eyre. There was something about not being recognized for who you were that struck a strong chord in me. Whether it was the duckling coming into its beauty or how Taran the assistant pig-keeper became a hero or Jane Eyre’s insistence on autonomy, it was the tension between destiny/nature and the perceptions of the external world that fascinated me.

Growing up, I never felt like I belonged to my family. I didn’t fit. I wasn’t the quiet, obedient, pretty child my family and culture expected me to be. I talked back and fought with my brothers and was too dark skinned and ‘fat’ for that. I loved words and books and daydreaming, but my parents were illiterate, with only a first- or second- grade education. I was passionate about libraries and ideas. My siblings were into partying and football and tv and disco and erasing their culture so that they could become white-identified consumers.

My parents, most of my grandparents, and so on were born here in the United States, but due to that lack of education and living in South Texas, I spoke Spanish until I started kindergarten and we thought of ourselves as “Mexicans from this side.” I learned and claimed, in turn, ‘Hispanic’ and then ‘Mexican-American’ and then ‘Chicana’ and then ‘Latina’ and then ‘Xicana.’ What ran under all of those labels, though, was Indigena/Indigenous. This land is my homeland and the homeland of my ancestors. The dominant society may try to make me “Other,” but down to the marrow in my bones, I know this land is my home.

I was very defensive of my family. I’m not the oldest, but due to how much older my older siblings were, I often ended up being my parents’ translator with the English-speaking world. I was there when my mother was looked down upon in the grocery store because she couldn’t fill out a personal check. My father would have me call when we were migrating to a new town and needed to rent a house or apartment for a few months. The landlord or landlady would tell me all about the rental property, schedule a time for us to come over, sound glad on the phone that we were ready to move in immediately. And I was there when my father would knock on the door—they’d take one look at us and shout, “It’s not available anymore,” as the door slammed shut.

So there was that conflict between me and my family, the conflict between my family and the world, the conflict between some of my sibling’s desire to acculturate and my insistence on retaining my Spanish, on learning Mexican ranchera songs, on claiming my Indigenous ancestry—and that’s before even involving my desire to write and my identity as a queer woman.

I went to college firmly believing that writing would only ever be a hobby. But everything—my understanding of myself and the world around me— completely changed when I first read This Bridge Called My Back and other work by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and more. As for the queer identity—that took a bit longer to coalesce. I was comfortable with bisexual for many years, but I never felt the need to come out to my family. I was fine with the silence that kept the peace—and through those years, my youngest brother’s gay identity and the conflict that set off with our father and other siblings completely overshadowed my own journey. I came out officially to a few friends in 2002, but my perception then and since is that most people can’t figure out how to label me or where I fit within their paradigms of the masculine and feminine. The first time I heard ‘futch’ though, I thought, “I could work with that.”

I’ll agree that the tags and labels are a pain—in my opinion, mostly because they set us up for people’s expectations and shut down dialogue. Tags are an easy way for differences to be prioritized above commonalities. But I have felt kinship and connection with people from vastly different backgrounds and lives. When people are concerned with beauty, with language, with emotional/psychological/spiritual truths, there are so many more points at which to connect.

At different points, my being a queer Latina with my particular background might directly inform my work in ways that can be easily seen—but just as often, it won’t. furia, my first book of poetry, was much more about grief and loss and family than it was about anything else. My short stories—while they are about my cultures and my histories—are not autobiographical. The poetry manuscript I’m polishing up now is about diabetes, illness, and healing. And the novel I’m writing—about a Mexican-American hermaphrodite living on the border and trying on different genders and sexualities –may be the ground where everything collides…and who knows what I’m going to write after that?

It took me a long time to claim the label of ‘writer’ for myself. I still remember that moment in 1999 when I was taking an informal six-week writing class where the daily journaling exercise finally made me realize that I had an unlimited supply of words, ink, and paper at my disposal. Much more than I could ever exhaust. It took even longer to really claim for myself that I would see my dream realized—a shelf of different books with my name on the spine.

Books with wild writing inside—wild the way Natalie Goldberg describes it. I like the association of wild to flora and fauna, to the natural world, to the ways we are both animal and spiritual beings. To be wild and original and connected to the essence of things the way Lorca speaks of it in his essay about El Duende. I want to own primal, to speak words that penetrate and resound beyond solely the level of intellect and theory.



ire’ne lara silva has lived in Austin, TX since 1998. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival (December 2012). Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Acentos Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mas Tequila Review, Pilgrimage, Bordersenses, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, CIPACTLI, Kweli Journal, The Worcester Review, Rhapsoidia, Soleado; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Palabra, The Mesquite Review, La Revista Literaria de El Tecolote; Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Literature & Art; among others. She is the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo member, a 2010 Cantomundo Inaugural Fellow, and the 2013 Fiction Finalist for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Gift of Freedom. ire’ne lara silva is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in October 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Aunt Lute Press will be publishing ire’ne’s first short story collection, flesh to bone, in October 2013. ire’ne and Rain C. Gomez  are currently co-editing an anthology titled, Chronically RED: Indigenous Bodies Writing and Resisting Chronic Illness in the Age of Paracolonial Occupation



Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal is a Mexican and Chicana poet, a translator, and an instructor of English. The book (H)emötoma by Minerva Reynosa has been the main focus of her translations, for which she attended World to World, Mundo a Mundo in 2009 to workshop poems from the book. She is also the translator of “Grace Shot,” by Luis Alberto Arellano in Sèrie Alfa: Artiliteratura, “Eight Fabulous Animals” by Ilan Stavans in Eleven Eleven, and nine poems by Minerva Reynosa in the latest Mandorla. She has an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stalina lives and works in Houston.

On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?



Sally Deskins: First off, of course, thanks for introducing me to Sally Ball and her work! I’m honored and thrilled at the opportunity to have this conversation with her! As well as Nina Cassian’s poem, what an honest delight….

I had never heard of Nina Cassian or “Summer X-Rays.” Before reading the poem in its entirety, my immediate answer to the question “what draws you to the water?” was simply: “peace.”

I thought of my summers spent visiting San Clemente State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Southern California. My mother’s family lived there; each visit was a few weeks of utter respite—the beach to me was a place of peace not only because of its literal tranquil qualities (albeit frigid water itself, sand rough, who can’t resist looking out into nowhere, recognition of your smallness to the vastness, splashing all wild and uninhibited), but because my mother, too, was calm, herself home, back where she was planted.

My first real memory of the beach, was at age three or four, when we just arrived; I was without my swimsuit yet, and immediately undressed to get myself enveloped in the heavenly waves. My mom laughed, smiled, took my picture—something I surely wouldn’t have gotten away with back at home in the Midwest. That photo sat framed in my family’s home for years, which alone I adored, but loathed in front of company—curious, the sense of comfort of nudity in one place, and absolute shame in another. Who wouldn’t choose the former? Why does the latter even matter?

After reading the Cassian poem, I was taken aback—I felt she wrote my experience with the water (which, when I think of “water” I think of the beach—even more specifically, “my” beach in Southern California). The tiny moments, the dread upon leaving, how the beach literally makes you feel humble, content and free no matter whatever else is going on. And savoring that moment, for it’s quick. (This is the inspiration that I’m drawing on for my current series of artwork—my prints are made quickly; I paint various ocean-inspired colors onto my breasts, do a push up, and it ends with a pleasant abstract image embracing this seemingly simple, satisfied feeling.)

I have lived most of my life in the middle of America, far away from the beach water. Still, being born in Oregon, and from my serene summers, I too, feel like being near the water is blissful, home. A few days ago, I moved to the opposite end of the country—near the east coast, I’ve found myself bits closer to the water, but also engulfed in hills, where it seems a trip to the beach—to anywhere—is just out of reach. It isn’t, of course, and this bliss is really simply in my state of mind. Is it possible to have this feeling somewhere else? As they say, “wherever you go, there you are”—then why do I feel so different near the water? And, how can I bring the water feeling to wherever I am?

For, of course, this water I write of, also causes wretched destruction. This is, thankfully and fortunately for me, not what I immediately think of when I think of “water.” Still, it lingers. Which is why I never go out too far . . .

What draws you to the water, Sally B.?


Sally Ball: I think it’s both of the things you mention too: I’ve been around the ocean all my life (or all my summers, now that I live most of the year in Arizona, ocean of dust), and I’ve always been drawn to the water’s edge—for the way it makes us small, and for the allure of that vast body when it’s peaceful, the alternate thrill of seeing it chopped up and dangerous. The ocean is so much, so big: you can’t help releasing your sense of being In Charge. My poem “Tributary” is about this; these are the first few stanzas:


About the sea we love the combination

comfort and menace, the sense of water

gently holding us, of depths engulfing—


we love to be the smallest particle,

germinal, relieved of any prowess

or conviction about prowess,


about control. Inside the sea I know

I love the salty shoring up; I love

the way a wave will take my body


and cleave the foam with me

as with a post. My almost

running out of air.


I’ve just arrived back at the Jersey shore, where Sandy’s destruction dominates the landscape. My mom’s house is still here, but lots of people I know lost everything. Or lost more than they can recover from any time soon. Last night I drove north about two miles, and there was a crew dug into the middle of the main road, in a trench as deep as they were tall, five feet wide and as long as a school bus, lit by klieg lights, that they’d dug in the late afternoon, and which was closed and paved over this morning by 8. AmeriCorps volunteers worked in a friend’s garage all day yesterday. People trade stories about the kindness and muscle of the National Guard, and groups of veterans who appeared right after the storm to help. There is still heaps of debris in people’s yards, vast open spaces where yards and houses used to mark off the landscape square by square. So many trees and plants are gone, washed away, and among what’s left most evergreens are brown and brittle. Teenagers ride their bikes around the detritus (broken clapboard, washing machines, hunks of torn concrete, stuff you can’t tell what it was. . .). Sunday afternoon my kids pulled a florist’s square-sponge base and its glass bowl (wired together, still trailing some sturdy stems) and a leaf blower out of the bay. Someone’s kitchen table, someone’s garage.

So I have been expecting mixed feelings about the water.

Today I went to the beach for the first time (usually I go on Day One: I must’ve been —scared to see it? scared to love it (or not love it?) after all this?) I turned out to be alone; a lot of New Jersey is still in school, making up the days Sandy shut them down. I stood knee deep in the cold water and tried to think about it à la the pathetic fallacy, à la the objective correlative, and it just didn’t work: the water doesn’t care, has no will, etc., etc. Uh duh.

I’m reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent Theseus to my youngest son right now. So as I went in a little deeper, I thought about Poseidon, about Greece’s need to have someone moody to appease.

The water distracted me with its beautiful not caring.

The water rippled past incredibly clear and clean (almost no shells, no seaweed, no fish today, nothing) crisp bubbles and docile crinkled waves. I went out further, dove into it, tasted the salt. The first plausible wave I paddled with, rode without thinking—whoosh. This is my ocean, I thought (like you, “your” beach!), relieved, maternal and daughterly at once—not despite but because of knowing how much itself it is.

Sally, I want to see your paintings! They seem like they would exactly match this it’s mine, it’s utterly itself sort of feeling (not to mention the pleasure of lying down in the sand, which yields a little—quick to relinquish whatever shape we press into it.)


SD: First of all, I love “Tributary”; even the excerpt you shared is so lovely to read—“comfort and menace . . .depths engulfing . . .relieved of any prowess”—just perfect! Thank you for sharing that! I hope to read more of your work.

And you are from the Jersey Shore—wow—I cannot imagine what it has been like going there. I really had no idea there was still such destruction and need for rebuilding—disappointing not to read more about it in the media, as I’m sure you are as well. Still, the way you described your solo visit to the water was calming—“the water doesn’t care”—so simple yet so profound actually! I never thought of it that way, but exactly! And, “maternal and daughterly” is, too, right on. I am so honored to read your words!

On the note of my work—I’ll include one or two examples here. I started about a year and a half ago, doing body prints inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” which I knew of, but when I saw them in person in an exhibit in D.C., I was speechless and had to do it myself—in a feminist way, of course: myself as model, director, and artist.

Anyways, my first series focused on womanhood and body perspective. I used quotes from women I’ve interviewed and various colors of paint—more just expressive and fun.


“Objectivity is Myth,” acrylic on canvas, Sally Deskins, 2012

Then, I did a motherhood series exploring my body/sexuality and motherhood roles, which I did body prints and nude drawings along with childhood imagery. One of my pieces, I decided to just print my breasts a number of times for practice on one sheet, and a friend saw it, and said, “hey, you should draw those into monsters or something.” And I thought, hmm, that’s cool, but they kind of look like fish swimming around in a fishbowl. So this was the result, which has been by far my most popular piece—it sold last year in Philadelphia, after being in a few shows and published twice:


“Breastfish,” tempera and pencil on paper, Sally Deskins, 2012


So, though it wasn’t my favorite, I thought more about what fish meant to me, and a whole series came to fruition—sea life, the blissful fleeting beach feeling, and the ironies/humor of women’s bodies and imagery.

I’ve made over 100 prints to get drawing on, in my new oceanic color scheme. Here’s one that you can kind of see the fish shape already taking shape.


Untitled in progress, acrylic on board, Sally Deskins, 2013


And one I drew a rainbow fish on.


“Rainbow fish,” acrylic and pencil on board, Sally Deskins, 2013


I plan on drawing more—octopus, jellyfish, maybe some sharks, seahorses and other types of sea life. I planned them as singular for a commission who requested a series of six single fish—though at this moment, water is taking on a more singular role.

In this apartment complex where we’re living, there is a rather small community pool, which, of course, my kids love. Usually it is packed. None of the kids care, though, still running into each other, jumping in where they almost land on each other, using everyone’s toys, yelling, splashing, etc. It is amazing to me—I hate crowds and would rather (since as long as I can remember) stay inside than go to a shoulder-to-shoulder place (though I prefer cities to countries, not when they’re jammed!). However, this is, to them, bliss. This tiny patch of water, which to me feels so confined, is heavenly to them, no matter how little space—and water they have.

So I guess, with the second part of that question, “how far out do you go?” I would say, just as far as I can go, on my own.

I wonder how your week is shaping up. And how far out you like to go!


SB: Sally, wow: the fish! I love them.

Also I love the description of how your work began and how it moved to where you are now—

I’ve been thinking all day about that kind of shift: from willful to fanciful, from shocking to normal (today is goodbye DOMA day). This morning my son Oscar said he was amazed by his own acceptance of the wreckage here. He said, “At first, it was just awful, scary, everywhere you look, OHMYGOD. Now, it’s, like”—shrugging—“you’re used to it, you don’t even notice.” He’s eleven. (So the “you” suggests maybe a little potency remains in the mounds of broken everything.) We talked about the brain for a little while, the way it gets used to stuff, and about Theseus constantly thinking things will be hard that turn out to be easy.

How far out do I like to swim? Far enough to get a little scared. Far enough to feel that cuspy space between home and lost. Less far than before I had kids!

Cassian’s poem is especially moving because her perfect day by the sea occurs despite some darker knowledge: “I know what’s awaiting me—/ the winter of my discontent./ I have a reservation/ outside on a hard bench/ holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes.” Her poem is about recognizing, even claiming, joy in the fleeting moments where it’s possible to feel it. I think her obstacle to joy was the repressive Romanian regime. The water’s edge seems to be where the usual certitudes break down, a site of great paradox (it’s peaceful AND wild; it’s “mine” and it’s NOT; I’m safe here or it’s menacing—); the water’s edge brings us to the edge of ourselves, too. The brink.

Theseus is sent to fight the Minotaur, and he promises his father he’ll sail home with a new white sail if he wins (instead of the black one under which he sets out). In the excitement of his victory (which occurs thanks to crafty-but-oafish Ariadne, whom he ditches at Naxos on the way back to Athens), jolly Theseus forgets to make the switch, and as the ship approaches, his father sees the black sail and jumps miserably (mistakenly) into the rocky sea.

How far out shall we swim? What have we got to lose? What do we need to let go of?

Sally, I don’t know about you but I think these are impossible questions! I also think that’s why coming to the water’s edge is so appealing. Cassian wonders if to live without fear is a trap, but her poem savors its fearlessness. I think we reckon with our fears, with their hold on us, with the possibility of breaking free of them, when we go out into the water. I like to go right to where the waves are breaking, dive down under them, fly up the other side.

(Caveat: yesterday they found an unexploded WW2 British MINE in about a foot of water along the beach near here! And the Navy came and blew it up! I’m not sure I can assimilate worrying about mines into my fears of sharks, riptides, giant storms…)

But I’m over-emphasizing the fear, because the most seductive thing is the opposite of that, the sense of being at one with the universe even if you also know you should be cautious. Do you know this lovely paragraph from a speech JFK gave at the America’s Cup in 1962?

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.


SD: Oh wow, isn’t that exactly right? No, I had not read or heard that excerpt of JFK’s but it’s right on. Funny how you think you’re so alone or special with your thoughts sometimes, and conversations like this make you feel so much less alone and humble. I just love that quote and think I can also utilize it when thinking about my work and the body’s connection to the sea. Thank you!

I cannot believe—or maybe I can—how your 11 year old is now accustomed to being around such destruction. No doubt the experience has opened his eyes and made him tougher than most people can imagine. Yes—I love Cassian’s referral to the knowledge of darkness, too—its like, even when you’re in a great place, you know (or at a certain point in your life perhaps) it won’t last, and/or that bad things/happenings can occur anytime.

Its been raining here in Morgantown today, the pool is locked, the kids walking around the apartment complex with their little umbrellas. My son searching for worms, my daughter hoping not to find any. Rain, too, is comforting, I think, like a renewal, sometimes a forced rest, time to sit and reflect. Also, it causes destruction—I saw on Facebook someone’s whole sunroom was ripped off. This is, obviously, very small compared to what you have witnessed in New Jersey.

Though still, just like JFK said, just like the sea, rain makes us feel human—alive and connected. Being an Oregonian, rain never bothers me—in high school for one year, I woke up at 5am to go swimming at the pool in town every morning. One morning it was a terrible rainstorm, and a tree had fallen on the road—I couldn’t see it and drove right over it. Didn’t hurt my little Hyundai. After the sun came out and I finished my laps and went outside, I saw the flooded parking lots, school had been canceled; my road was blocked off for the destruction. Woops! Oh well, I got home after all. . . .

I’m feeling more at home here every day and thanks to this conversation, more excited about this series of work—the wet paint on my body, a connection to feeling it in the ocean or rain, and the quick imprints, the fleeting calm moments. The drawing of fish over them, well, okay, still getting used to that idea. I have such an ego for the “naturalness” of the original prints, it’s still hard to draw over them. But I guess that’s the release, the water’s edge, and my extent to how far I go! Shall I? Or shall I stay in comfort? I don’t know . . . the water doesn’t care, right?


SB: The worm search! The umbrellas! And your young self swimming through a major storm. (Louise Glück: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.” That’s also a water’s-edge poem—) It’s been a real pleasure talking with you about all of this. I’m lingering with the fish question: your attachment to the naturalness sans-fish, and the imposed clarity of the sketches on top of the abstractions. How important is it to know how the painting was made? More important with the fish than without them?

Here’s part of another favorite poem, from Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, the opening of “Night”:


The cold remote islands

And the blue estuaries

Where what breathes, breathes

The restless wind of the inlets,

And what drinks, drinks

The incoming tide


I think I’m winding up here because the poem suggests that the water’s edge makes demands on us. There’s a kind of reckoning that happens there, shaking us out of ourselves and into the world.


SD: I just love these quotes and excerpts you’re sharing! You raise a good question, the importance of how the painting was made . . . with or without the fish . . . I don’t know. For some reason, though, I just thought of a totally irrelevant quote I remember seeing on T-shirts in the 1980s: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. . . . Ha! Maybe I should make them into fish on bikes…hmm, I suppose what I have to do, is just breathe, drink in . . . and start! Now, back into the rain puddles . . .



Sally Ball is the author of two collections of poems, Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She’s the associate director of Four Way Books and teaches in the MFA Program at Arizona State University. Her website is saralouiseball.com.


Sally Deskins is a writer and artist who examines the female body and identity in her work. She keeps a journal on women in all forms of art, Les Femmes Folles, and lives with her husband and two young children in Morgantown, West Virginia. See more of her work at sallydeskins.tumblr.com.

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?



AMINA CAIN: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two year old should. I had very few fears as a child and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”

Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself), and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there. I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.

Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.

There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.


VERONICA GONZALEZ-PEÑA: I think that I swim because I have to … and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat… this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people – this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave, or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing and so I do and do and do, I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in LA.

Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NY. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space… the wine dark sea… how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.

I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it – it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too – the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine dark sea of self.

In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is… her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.

But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire, and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?


AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness, but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.

Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land, or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.

When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.

When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.

In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too. “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.


VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition, and patterns, and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by Sebald, or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing… the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes, and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term – that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that… For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence – I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement, how stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference, and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch – that is just beyond…

But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters who are so often there and not there at once – this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration – because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous –  they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a  dream logic, as in Black Wings where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in Homesteading; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal – like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?


AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday, and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.

It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself, and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.

I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!


VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing – or work to create, anyway. I want the reader to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary and deep and intense, and so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow…. I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.

It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things – this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, and language, and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell, the children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In And Went Inside the narrator tells us, Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.

I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope, and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on, I believe he is still alive, he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share – a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work, and about yourself as a teller of stories?


AC: Regarding Death is like a shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.

I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. I believe he is still alive. If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.

What kind of storyteller are you?


VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out, or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others… I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much…


AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.


Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and the forthcoming CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). She is also a curator, most notably for the literature/performance/video festivals Both Sides and The Center at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles (with Teresa Carmody) and When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation at Links Hall in Chicago (with Jennifer Karmin). She lives in California.

Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is the author of twin time: or, how death befell me, which won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize in 2007. She is also the founder of Rockypoint Press, which produces a series of artist-writer collaborations. Her new novel, The Sad Passions, will be out June 2013, on semtiotext(e).

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña