“A daily handful of wonder and awe”: A Debut Poet Roundtable, Pt. 2

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Last we heard from our debut poets, they were discussing tardigrades! In the second and final part of this roundtable, five former members of Prairie Schooner’s editorial team—Sarah A. Chavez, Crystal S. Gibbins, Marianne Kunkel, Michelle Menting, and Hali Sofala-Jones—discuss the intersection of their first full-length poetry collection and the current American climate, some simple and bold self-marketing strategies, and what they’ll write next. Thanks for tuning in!

MK: How do you see your book fitting into this particular time in history? We’re all self-identifying women poets, but our identities are broader and more multi-faceted than that. Twenty or 50 years from now, what will your poems witness about the world in 2017-18?

SAC: What became my first book was originally my dissertation and part of that process was writing a critical introduction, which required me to situate the poems within the larger context of 21st-century American poetry, and more specifically Chicanx poetry. Before being required to do that, I’m not sure I would have deigned to see my work within the context of those poets I had been loving and studying and I definitely had not articulated to myself that my poems might live past that moment (which is a little silly in retrospect, since a good number of them had been published). However, always in the back of mind was Gloria Anzaldúa’s theories of mestizaje and the validation of complicated, messy, and contradictory experiences. Especially in the last few years, the United States has taken steps backward in its understanding of American identity. We’ve regressed to a simplistic “us vs. them” mentality, a stronghold to cultural tribalism. This is not to say that that before this presidential administration the United States was some kind of utopia, but there was beginning to be room made for the validation of multiple identities. 

During the early activist movements of the 1950s to the 1980s, the stereotype of one hegemonic “American” identity dominated, and it took the forging and ignoring of complexity within minority/marginalized groups (women, queer, of color, etc.) to assert validation of an “othered” identity. When I teach Chicanx literature, we have to talk about the ways in which El Movimiento often excluded women’s rights, maintained homophobia, and participated in colorism and mono-linguistic shaming. The early women’s movements ignored working-class women and women of color. These oversights are in part a “one thing at a time” choice. The country can’t handle more than one big change, we can only ask for one thing at a time; the shallow unspoken promise of “we’ll get to this other stuff later” was supposed to suffice. In this vein, whatever felt most singular, shared, was easiest to be visible in a march, print on brochures, succinctly quantify in speeches, was privileged. 

The truth of the matter is that these identities were never simplistic and singular, and growing up in the shadow of that solidification of identity meant people like me who embody two or more cultures become excluded and there is a shame in that exclusion. Twenty or 50 years from now, I want my poems to be witness to that complexity and multiplicity, a testament that this was not only a reality for so many people, but it was also talked about, discussed, worthy of artistic space.

HSJ: That’s a really a beautiful way of responding, Sarah. Your last paragraph, especially, echoes my same ideas. I look around now and so much of what I’m reading, listening to, and watching on film is directly pushing back against the shame of exclusion that you mention. Though it can feel alarmingly homogenous these days, the country is rapidly moving towards a diverse majority, and I believe this generation and those that follow it will continue to give voice to that diversity, working toward legitimizing the existence of those who at one time were regarded as other.

In terms of Afakasi | Half-Caste, I’d like to think it will be regarded as one of the collections that witnessed to the “changing of the guard.” That is, a collection that spoke out against cultural tribalism and a hegemonic American identity while also giving some credence to the usefulness of looking backwards and making amends in order to move forward. In my most wishful moments, I see my work alongside such amazing texts as Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor or Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, but again, that is my most wishful thinking.

MM: I'm not certain the poems in LSLS notably capture anything that's definitively 2017-18, but I do wonder how much I captured the idea of humans further becoming distant from the natural world and wilderness, and I feel that is happening now and is continuing to happen. Or maybe the poems better capture this myth of wilderness that I think nostalgia creates. Wild lands are becoming more and more mythical and stronger in our imagination than they are in reality. Oddly (and sadly), I think wilderness and wildlife is actually stronger in that realm: the mythical and nostalgic view that many of us have of a place that's likely all wrong. The poems I'm writing now better capture this. I wrote poems (like Sarah, a good portion of my book was also my PhD dissertation) that did not make it into the book, due to publisher preference (a decision I now wholeheartedly agree with but at the time of edits, I stomped my feet and balked at), and those poems more definitely speak to this “accurate nostalgia but false reality.” So if I can speak to those poems and the poems that I'm generating now, I'd say that they try to demonstrate how we really dislike being uncomfortable and try to avoid discomfort. Although we have these ideals of activism and change (concerning the environment), we'd much rather show our activism by posting a pretty Facebook cover picture than actually doing something active to protect or help what needs help, what needs protecting. I think maybe my work now is a bit more angry and immediate. I think it needs to be—maybe all poems that try to seek change need to be (not only poems that concern our environment, of course). But as readers, we also don't like to be made uncomfortable or feel unsettled, so the challenge as poets is how to write these poems in a way that is attractive, beautiful, but also startling and firm. So maybe that's what all our books capture of 2017-18: this atmosphere of needed change and maybe (for me) frustration that needs to be shared. Paid forward. That sounds awful since the idea of paying something forward has typically a more positive and optimistic ring to it, but maybe we need to get people bothered enough to care. (I would make an awful politician.)

I'm not sure how much I self-identify as a woman poet. I'm not sure that really comes up in my work. I suppose others identify me as such. I'm still trying to figure out what that really means (woman-poet…woman/poet). 

MK: Sarah and Hali, thank you for writing about the shame of exclusion. It brought to my mind several times when I was researching for Hillary, Made Up and fell down a rabbit hole of information about racism in the American beauty industry—there are much fewer makeup options for African-American women, lighter shades of foundation and powder are named “nude,” Wal-Mart puts security caps on makeup in darker tones, and on and on. A wise friend who read an early version of my manuscript encouraged me to better represent women of color in my poems, which I’d been struggling to figure out how to do because my main subject, Hillary Clinton, is white. I ended up scrapping a weak poem I’d written from the point of view of eye shadow and instead wrote a poem about how eye shadow in bold, bright hues often looks beautiful on darker skin tones (versus kind of clownish on lighter skin). In the poem, a 24-hue eye shadow palette wishes that a woman of color, rather than Clinton, could be its subject so more of its hues could be used, which represents my hope that someday soon a woman of color will run for president. 

And Michelle, I relate to your statement that your poetry now is more immediate and angry; it’s strange to think that if the 2016 presidential election had gone a different way, I may not have written Hillary, Made Upin the same way or at all, as the book deals with the role that sexism played in Clinton’s electability. My book is definitely time-sensitive, which made me nervous as I was writing it. I had to push out of my mind the fears, “What if no one cares to read about Hillary Clinton by this time next year?” and, “If I can’t get this published soon, will it ever be published?” Looking back, I can’t believe I kept writing poem after poem, trusting that reader and publisher interest would be there. Perhaps what kept me going wasn’t just the possibility of publication, but also that I needed to write the poems for myself. I think we’re seeing more and more poets respond to daily news intimately, directly, and quickly. For example, I love Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s recent poems about identity and community in this moment in America.

MK: As first-time authors of full-length poetry books, what rookie mistakes did you make in the publication process that you can warn others about? What exciting “pinch me” moments did you encounter during the process?

HSJ: I’m sure I’ve made several mistakes so far, but my fantastic publisher, Sundress Publications, has been so very helpful in this process. Therefore, I haven’t had any moments to blush about or fret over right before bedtime. My “pinch me” moment occurred when I received an email from Selina Tusitala Marsh, who is the current Poet Laureate of New Zealand and the first Samoan poet I discovered as a new writer during my undergraduate days. I’d sent her a hopeful email asking if she’d contribute a blurb for Afakasi | Half-Caste, and not only did she agree, but she did so enthusiastically and wrote the loveliest and most encouraging response. I was in a Barnes & Noble when I read the email and literally made a loud, “Yippee!” before proceeding to call everyone in my family to tell them the news. 

MM: Oh goodness, I made so many mistakes. I think it would have been good to reach out to other poets who recently had gone through the process (of first book acceptance/publication). I reached out to a few wonderful poets (Crystal being one), and they were so helpful and encouraging. The process, for me, was initially very daunting and even stressful. I lost sleep! Part of that was just being nervous about the completed project, but part of that was just working with different personalities that felt so strongly about my work. In a way, that's super fascinating—and flattering. Someone else has very strong opinions about something I wrote! “Pinch me” moments came when poets whose work I admire wrote lovely things about the book. And it is truly wonderful when someone from across the country writes you to tell you they read your book and that it somehow, even if ever so lightly, made a difference in their day. That's amazing and wonderful to me.  

MK: I set up a book tour in the southern United States thinking I would drive all the way from Kansas City to Miami—that was ambitious. So I’ll fly, and what I learned from that error in judgment was to be kind to myself even as I’m feeling internal and external pressure to promote the book. My biggest “pinch me” moment was getting to work with my friend, the artist Johnathan Loesch, to create the cover for Hillary, Made Up. My press (Stephen F. Austin State University Press) was incredibly generous to let Johnathan and I experiment; they gave us a deadline to send them a cover image, and I’m sure they built extra time into that deadline to go their own direction if they didn’t like what we created! But what Johnathan schemed—a black and white sketch he free-handed of Clinton, with makeup pieces around the edges, like a coloring book and crayons—turned out so cool. And to think we made it on my kitchen table with only Johnathan’s sketch, Dollar Tree makeup, and an iPhone camera!

MK: What’s been your most successful tool for marketing your book? For me, it was a book trailer a student of mine made. These days, with so much competing for our attention, I’m looking for unconventional strategies.

CSG: I love the idea of a book trailer! That marketing strategy is one that I’ll adopt for next time. Although I didn’t use any unconventional strategies, some of my more successful approaches in marketing my book were scheduling a book tour through the Midwest, participating and reading at literary festivals, and entering state and regional book contests. 

HSJ: Like Crystal, I’m planning a book tour at a mix of venues. I loved your book trailer, Marianne, so I’ll be stealing that tool from you. I’m not sure that I have anything unconventional to add here, but I certainly would love to hear suggestions. 

MM: I love the book trailer, Marianne! And I admire the trailers I've seen for poetry books. That's something I'd like to explore. I can't remember who said this to me, but they said that marketing for a poetry book (as opposed to a novel or memoir, perhaps) is more of a marathon than a sprint. I think I found comfort in that. When my book came out, my life was in a very unique state of chaos. So much bad timing. I got sick (tested positive for Lymes), injured my feet, and was going through personal difficulties. By working with a friend who also had a first book coming (Crystal, you're awesome), I was able to do a few readings in another part of the country. I had other readings scheduled, but I had to cancel them. I have future readings planned. I still need to do an official book launch where I grew up! This is where the marathon becomes more of an ultra. 

I did make my own website, one that also features some of my photography and will soon feature reviews of other poets' poems and writing. The website was a necessity, but it's wonderful how many readers have contacted me through it. This isn't an unconventional strategy, and neither is the Instagram account I started, which mostly features two tuxedo cats named after essayists. They're popular, those photos of the cats. People love pets. Maybe that can be extended to people loving pets and poems. Pets and Poems! Maybe that's an idea—memes of pets with snippets of poems from your book. (This probably isn't new or inventive either. This was probably really popular in 2008.)

SAC: Not to just repeat how awesome Marianne’s book trailer is, but it totally is! That’s something that I’ve really wanted to do. I’ve also wanted to have a poem animated, kind of like that series of Billy Collins’ poems, one example being “The Country.” There are probably better, more recent references to animated poetry, but that one comes first to mind. I’ve been trying to make connections with digital artists to see about collaborating.

Other than wanting to do those kinds of digital/media marketing, I’ve primarily gone the traditional route with a couple of mini book tours, primarily in the Central Valley and in Appalachia (an interesting juxtaposition), contacting journals I’ve published in to see about book reviews, doing conferences, and even having some good old-fashioned book signings (which, honestly, was a mixed bag). I’ve tried to be better about social media, too, but I always worry about the line between healthy self-promotion and obnoxiousness. I love what Michelle said about poetry book marketing being more like a marathon! I sometimes feel I’m not doing enough to help my work be out in the world, so that idea gives me comfort, too. HTB&S’s birthday is coming up in a few months and it feels like a good time to pick up speed again. 

MK: It’s exciting we have “debut” books in the world, but all of us have been writing and publishing for a long time. Would you say your book represents a young perspective or one of well-earned wisdom and age? What will you write next?

CSG: I think Now/Here showcases a perspective that has been wrought with age, loss, grief, and, perhaps, exhibits some wisdom. Although I have witnessed firsthand mining’s effects in Canada and the United States before, my return to Lake of the Woods as an adult offered me a standard by which to judge the ground I grew up knowing. My re-seeing of a familiar landscape is the reason why I continue to study and write nature poems, specifically eco-poetry. The tension found in some of my poems, such as “Northern Development” and “Sultana Gold Mine,” revolve around the love and repulsion of the landscape. The speaker may love the land she remembers, but she also recoils from the same land newly seen. The image of the excavated rock and backfill from the mine communicates a devastation that cannot be undone—it will have an inexorable, huge, chilling, and unstoppable effect and impact on the environment and community. The regions depicted in Now/Here are North American; nonetheless, they are connected to other places, whether that is rural or multicultural urban spaces, grasslands of the Great Plains, sacred sites, or industrial societies. It is my hope that these poems describe the diversity of the landscape itself, incorporating some personal experiences and desires for renewal and balance, either spiritually or environmentally, or both simultaneously. 

Currently, I am writing my second poetry collection titled Re: Wild, which is more eco-centric, focusing on invasive and native species that inhabit Lake Superior and the surrounding area. Re: Wildacts as a kind of reply to and reconciliation with the wilderness, exploring the relation between human beings and the natural world. 

HSJ: I mentioned this in an earlier response, but I’ll echo it here. I see my collection as the turning of the page. While not settled, Afakasi | Half-Castedoes represent a lot of issues that I’ve learned to live with, even if I’m not completely resolved. The collection has poems spanning my years in graduate school, so I do see progression there, both in craft and idea. But it fits with the overall movement of the collection, which is a bildungsroman in its own right, and moves from a place of youth and turmoil to one of age and acceptance.

My current project is a response to American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa, a publication of her research into the lives of the sexual activities of teenagers in what is now the Independent State of Samoa. Her research and cultural commentary have gone virtually unchallenged and have, in both subtle and overt ways, created a false understanding of Samoan people and culture that still pervades to this day. My project, as a Samoan woman and scholar, is to respond to her text in both direct and indirect ways, exploring my own understanding of Samoan people and culture through both personal experiences as well as cultural research with a focus on creating a postcolonial critique of her work through poetry.

I hope to create a collection that grapples with the complexity and long-lasting repercussions of colonial interference within and representation of indigenous people.

MM: Like Hali's collection, mine might also be a bildungsroman of sorts, although I think there's definitely a chord of uncertainty that might speak to a young perspective but perhaps even more to one of growth and experience. I like to think that inLSLS there exists a speaker who encounters the world with wonder and awe. That also doesn't have to be considered a component of a young perspective. I think maybe true wisdom is when we can experience the world with a daily handful of wonder and awe.

In addition to my next poetry collection, I'm also working on a collection of essays as well as a longer work of creative nonfiction (a memoir that details growing up in the woods with 12 siblings, a widowed parent, and the eventual loss of that single parent). I also am trying to get back to writing short stories, but I got stuck in the middle of a short story that features infrastructure and wildlife (in this story, a car and deer encounter). I keep circling back to themes of collision, especially concerning that of human growth or "progress" and that of non-human beings, flora and fauna.

SAC: Everyone’s works-in-progress sound amazing and I can’t wait to see these out in the world. As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a series of poems exploring and re-envisioning the indigenous mythology around the turtle that carried the earth. The other project that I’m trying to finish at the moment is a full-length continuation of my chapbook of epistles, All Day, Talking(dancing girl press, 2014). In this continuation of letters to the speaker’s lost love, rather than a focus on raw grieving, it’s more of a meditation on the way that grief remains and reconfigures as a person ages. Where mourning may start raw and unbridled, the older I get, the farther I move from that version of my younger self, the more I see grief and mourning as a slow burn, something that hides like a fire in the center of my bones. It’s fundamental and so integrated into the body as to be almost undetectable. This collection, tentatively titled This Dark, Shining Thing(a reference to a Gloria Anzaldúa poem) focuses not only on missing a person and a relationship, but also on learning to understand how that grief shapes relationships to aging, socioeconomic class, and the ability to be in normative communities. 

MK: Your works-in-progress sound wonderful! Unlike some of you, my dissertation was never published (always a finalist, never a book!). I didn’t intend for my first full-length collection to be about makeup and politics, but compared to my dissertation which focused on my childhood, it’s nice not to have to worry that any friends or family might recognize themselves negatively in my book, which was a concern with my dissertation. My mother passed away three years ago, which also complicated my desire to see my dissertation in print, so with my next manuscript I’m addressing her memory indirectly as I attempt to imagine and recast women in The Book of Mormonin a feminist light (I was raised Mormon and no longer practice). Sarah, I relate to what you wrote about intense feelings evolving into a “slow burn” as we age; I find myself more curious and open to explicitly weaving my own story into larger socio-political stories, and I’m really excited about how this aesthetic shift will direct my future work. Hillary, Made Up is obviously personal because I brought my own experiences to the topics of makeup and politics, but it’s distinctly impersonal as well because every poem adopts the persona of a different makeup or hair product. Whereas I used to write in search of a pure emotion, lately I catch myself trying to temper and complicate my “found” emotions. Maybe my taste is changing, or I’m looking for ways to fully absorb what that emotion is not just for myself but also for others. 

Sarah A. Chavez's collection of poetry, Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017), explores the negotiation of bicultural identity, working class subjectivity, and shifting notions of gender and sexuality through the growth of a recurring central speaker and the family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers with whom she engages. These poems navigate ethnic tensions and economic depression alongside the recognition of joyful and transformative moments of light and connection in the California Central Valley. Chavez worked reading poetry for Prairie Schooner's journal and book prize while earning her Ph.D. at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. In the subsequent years, she's had the privilege of teaching creative writing and ethnic American literature in West Virginia and is excited to be joining the creative writing faculty at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

Now/Here blends history, naturalist observations, and experiences about living on both sides of the 49th parallel—the international border that separates Canada and the United States. Other poems in the collection focus on the diversity, struggle, and power of the natural landscape, examining the tensions and oppositions that exist within climate, time, and change. Like the lake waters of the northern wilderness, the power of these poems lies beneath the surface. Crystal S. Gibbins grew up on the islands of Lake of the Woods, Minnesota/Ontario. She is the founding editor of Split Rock Reviewand the author of Now/Here, winner of the 2017 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award in poetry and Honorable Mention for the 2017 Edna Meudt Poetry Book Award. Her poems have been or will be featured in Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Parenthesis, Minnesota Review, Verse Daily,and elsewhere. Crystal holds a Ph.D. in English with concentrations in creative writing, 20th– and 21st-century American poetry, and environmental literature from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She works and lives on the south shore of Lake Superior. For more information visit https://www.crystalgibbins.com.

Marianne Kunkel’s book of poems, Hillary, Made Up (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2018), consists entirely of poems from the voices of makeup and hair products to Hillary Clinton. It spans the beginning of Clinton’s political career to present day, while also investigating the history of the beauty industry and the ways we assume intimacy with political figures (while, like makeup, we often put our own disguise on the truth). For three years she was the managing editor of Prairie Schoonerwhile earning her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She currently is an assistant professor of creative writing and publishing at Missouri Western State University, where she directs the creative writing program and is the editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, The Mochila Review. Her other books include The Laughing Game (Finishing Line Press) and The Prairie Schooner Book Prize: Tenth Anniversary Reader(University of Nebraska Press).

The poems in Michelle Menting's debut full-length poetry collection, Leaves Surface Like Skin (Terrapin Books), “teem with litany, landscape, literal and figurative image; an awareness of mortality hovers, not so much afterlife as underlife…Menting articulates gorgeous, strange visions of nature inflected by human interference,” writes Sandra Beasley.Michelle is also the author of the chapbooks Myth of Solitude (2013) and Residence Time (2016). She previously served as both senior fiction editor and senior poetry editor for Prairie Schooner. She is currently poetry & nonfiction editor of Split Rock Review. Originally from the upper Great Lakes region where she grew up the youngest of 12 siblings in a small cabin in the woods, she now lives in rural Maine and can be found online at michellementing.com.

Afakasi | Half-Caste is a book about identity and language told through stories of loss and silence. In her debut collection, Samoan American author Hali F. Sofala-Jones writes poems that explore the experience of being mixed race in America and living in the liminal space between two cultures. Hali F. Sofala-Jones is a Samoan American teacher and writer from Georgia. She’s earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Her poems have been published in Nimrod International Journal, The Bitter Oleander, CALYX, Blue Mesa Review, online at The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Vreeland Prize in poetry, two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and several artist residencies and fellowships. She is currently a Lecturer at Georgia College where she teaches creative writing and serves as an Assistant Editor for Arts and Letters literary journal. Her debut poetry collection, Afakasi | Half-Caste, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in December 2018.