“What I long for… never actually existed”: A Debut Poet Roundtable, Pt. 1

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Last fall the PS blog ran a Debut Fiction Roundtable, and we think it’s time for poets to have a turn! Following that model, five former members of Prairie Schooner’s editorial team—Sarah A. Chavez, Crystal S. Gibbins, Marianne Kunkel, Michelle Menting, and Hali Sofala-Jones—chatted back and forth through email to discuss their experiences sending their first full-length poetry collection out into the world. This is the first half of their conversation, focusing on the theme of lack versus loss as well as practical research tips. Stay tuned for part two!

Marianne Kunkel: Although our books are all quite different, a common thread I see in them is lack—lacking life experience, professional success, connection to ancestors, home, environment, language, etc. Was it cathartic to write these poems? Do you think the lack you wrote about is something that can ever be resolved?

Sarah A. Chavez: Lack, for better or worse, often drives not only my writing choices, but also larger life choices. As a kid in the private school I attended, it was lacking the funds to do/get what other kids’ parents could afford and in my family it was lacking a feeling of complete belonging with the Mexican side and the Euro-Anglo side; those are two lacks fundamentally incorporated into the poems in Hands That Break & Scar (HTB&S). While these poems definitely explore loss and what’s missing, rather than acting as an exercise toward catharsis, writing them was more about merely giving voice, to honor the loss, give it a body and substance, to validate the incompleteness. I think women, people of color, nonbinary, queer, disabled, working-class folk are often encouraged to focus on what they do have, as if we should feel lucky or grateful for whatever the hegemonic world allows us to have and not look outside at what life could be or is for others. In that way, the poems are more about honoring that lack, rather than filling it, fixing it, or healing. Certainly, having the poems published individually and then collected in a book was legitimizing of that reality, which I suppose in a way could be argued is a type of catharsis. However, at least in terms of resolution or something being “put to bed,” in my gut and writer-heart those themes sometimes feel almost equally just under the surface.

Hali Sofala-Jones: I came across the Welsh word hiraeth several years ago,and I often think of it when discussing this topic. It cannot be fully translated but is described as the feeling of mourning the loss of home, but the loss is not just for a home or homeland that is now gone, but rather, the mourning for a homeland that was never there to begin with. It’s such a complicated and sorrowful idea, but it’s one that I relate to quite a bit. My collection, Afakasi | Half-Caste, is, in many ways, speaking to a loss I feel—of both culture and homeland—which will never not be a loss because what I long for is something that never actually existed for me in the first place. I cannot regain it because to do so requires a different reality, a cosmic do-over.

I agree with much of what Sarah has to say on this topic, especially her comment on “giving voice” to losses suffered. As a writer of color, sometimes the only thing you can do is take the power to name what you’ve suffered. And while these issues can never be “put to bed,” I do feel as though I can name the loss, speak to it, and learn to coexist with it. After completing the manuscript and getting it published, it did feel like a turning point, and while nothing is eradicated or fully resolved, I do feel like I can turn to other things. I’m free to write about other aspects of my world, and am not constantly drawn back again and again to addressing the pain of what’s been lost in terms of Samoan culture and homeland.  

Michelle Menting: I think it was indeed cathartic to write some of the poems that appear in Leaves Surface Like Skin, but first I always feel an overwhelming sense of embarrassment (it's true!) about revealing something that is too true or too close to something I have experienced and experienced hardship from doing so. But in writing—whether essays or poetry—I adopt a persona, and in my poems the speaker, to me, is a character I just know very well (or sometimes a character/voice whose acquaintance I'm making as I write them). So in writing these poems I have that distance. Lack (or rather loss) of home, of place, of parents and siblings at too young an age—these things I return to in my writing. I grew up poor, but I remember being fortunate enough to feel (and be) full. We lived near public land—a national forest—and so many woods and waters, so for whatever we lacked: electricity, as the power would often go out, or plumbing, as the pipes would freeze (or whatever it was that was up with our septic tank…. I never really knew and was certain some sort of sewer yeti dwelled in the tank), we were fortunate to have these things in full: woods to play in, to take shelter in, and to learn from; lakes to dip in and fish from; and a garden where my mother grew whatever vegetables would grow in the cold climate. 

I think the poems in LSLS concern speakers who lack things that they once had access to or are terrified of losing those things that they currently have access to: woods, waters, ability to obtain food from land or lake. (Access—maybe that's it. Access to these things: clean water and air.) These things were so very important to me growing up, and I think sharing that—through character and distant voice—did and does have a cathartic effect. When the poems were assembled in a published book, I felt some relief but also that weird embarrassment (maybe that's impostor syndrome, too)—embarrassment because there are nuggets of experience that ring so true that, as someone who is rather reticent, it's just difficult to share, no matter how many layers of voices separate me from the speakers. The relief I felt was more on the "Oh, there are all my poem-siblings, all assembled in a group home now. Complete and safe."  I might have experienced more of a sense of resolution when each poem was individually published. The book was more of a sense of completion. 

I don't think this lack can ever be resolved. I know it's not for me as I currently write this. I fear losing access to clean water and air. (I think many people do and many people already don't have access to such things.) I worry about having shelter on a monthly basis. I thought that worry would dissipate a bit, but alas, poetry riches have not quelled that concern! I lost my parents, some siblings, and friends at a young age, so I think I'm always feeling lack that ebbs and flows, especially in my writerly mind.

MK: I love reading everyone’s thoughts on lack. Sarah, Hali, and Michelle, you all use the word “loss,” which is probably more accurate than “lack” as it implies once having something, even something intangible, and losing it. Loss was definitely on my mind when I wrote Hillary, Made Up, which I began the summer after the 2016 presidential election. Here’s a woman, Hillary Clinton, whose ambition for so long has been to be the first woman president, and she came so, so close. My fuel while writing the poems was not just my focus on her loss from my dim viewpoint as an American citizen, but also my own loss—seeing a woman lose out professionally is devastating for any woman invested in her career. The poems in my book speak to that grief, and perhaps to buffer the ache I felt, I wrote to Clinton through the tools that know her well and yet have nothing to do with her intellectual talents—makeup and hair products. I found productive tension in these products’ simultaneous intimacy with her and her likely disinterest in them. All the poems in my book are persona poems told from the perspectives of lipstick, hair spray, nail polish, and anything else you can find at a cosmetic counter, to Clinton. I never did much formal research until writing this book, for which I included a four-page “Notes” section in the back. How much research went into your book and how did you go about finding the information?

Crystal S. Gibbins: Many poems in Now/Here focus on northern places and borderlands, such as Lake of the Woods, the Northwest Angle and islands, and the 49thparallel—the international border that separates the United States and Canada. I spent a few years conducting primary and secondary research for several of the poems that make up the collection. I gathered artifacts, read historical texts, flipped through old photo albums, explored the landscape, and chatted with folks about their experiences and knowledge of the area. I suppose my research process may have been similar to that of a nonfiction or memoir writer. 

In 2015-2016, my father, Danny Gibbins, and I went on several journeys by boat to historical and cultural sites on Lake of the Woods, such as the centuries old pictographs along island rock cliffs, Fort St. Charles, Massacre Island, and Sultana Island Mine. We also visited and spoke with a few historians at the Lake of the Woods Museum in Kenora a.k.a. “Rat Portage,” which provided more information and details about the fur-trade, mining, and logging industries during the 19thand 20thcenturies.

My research of Lake of the Woods gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of this landscape. Many of the poems explore the concept of island dwelling and the nature of island experiences through an autobiographical gaze, promoting, I hope, a more sustainable and satisfying relationship with the natural world, not only on the individual, but also on a communal basis.

Although I lived through one of the coldest and most brutal winters in the late nineties that hit the Red River Valley (and beyond), I also conducted secondary research on the storms and flood of 1997, which was well-documented in the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum. Several poems from the second section of the book are inspired by personal experiences and data gathered from newspaper articles and photographs.

“Flood” begins with an epigraph taken from the Grand Forks Herald and the poem tells the story of The Great Flood of 1997, when the Red River crested at 54 feet and more than 50,000 people were evacuated from Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, making it the largest displacement of an American city prior to Hurricane Katrina.

“Blizzards, 1996-1997,” also contains an epigraph from the Grand Forks Herald and the poem personifies the eight blizzards that struck the Red River Valley during the winter of 1996 to 1997. Like Patricia Smith’s poem “Siblings” from Blood Dazzler, each line of my poem begins with successive letters of the alphabet and personifies storms. Rather than focusing on the quiet and idyllic beauty of the rural, the poems in the second section describe the harshness and hardships of the extreme and highly versatile climate and landscape.

SAC: I am in awe of Crystal’s answer regarding research! Honestly, the only research I conducted for HTB&S was to look up street names in Fresno, California (my hometown and where most of the poems take place) and the surrounding Central Valley. For example, I would realize that I remembered the Mexican-American parade being downtown on Van Ness, but it couldn’t have been on that street because of the way it cuts off and picks up farther north. I looked at maps of neighborhoods and old pictures of the downtown. For other poems, I’d look up store names to see if that was actually in existence during the range of years I had in my head. 

My newer project, tentatively titled When Turtle First Began to Carry the Earth, is requiring a bit of research, though. It is a re-envisioning (and expansion) of the Earth origin myth, which states that the world is held up and out of water by a turtle. In wanting to honor North American indigenous traditions, I have been reading all the turtle mythology I can find. In particular, I’m interested in the rhythm and syntax used by the oral storytellers whose words have been recorded in writing. 

HSJ: I certainly did not conduct as much research as Crystal for Afakasi | Half-Caste, and I may not have done as much as Sarah either. I did take several trips to the islands during the writing of the manuscript, which allowed me to connect with Samoa in a way I had not before. I did spend a rather amusing afternoon researching glockenspiels and other quirky instruments for the poem “Swan Lake Suite,” so that will have to suffice this time around. 

MM: I love Crystal's response! I didn't really conduct much formal research for the collection as a whole. And to be honest, LSLS is a gathering of poems written over many years, although I did research subject matter for many of the individual poems. The idea of research, of small discoveries, is a theme I think that runs through many of my poems, even what I'm currently working on. I wrote a couple Wikipedia poems (ugh, it's true) that did not start out as poems with a Wikipedia entry as the epigraph but were revised with one as sort of a joke (to myself?). In a workshop, I submitted a poem about tardigrades that everyone in the workshop hated. I mean, they really tore into it and and no one in the workshop knew what a tardigrade was and didn't look up what a tardigrade was, so the poem was made moot. The poem was more of an ode to tardigrades. Oh my gosh, I love tardigrades and have since I was a kid. So I wrote a poem about them and brought it to a workshop that was a gathering of Ph.D. students, all of us wanting to impress our very impressive workshop leader. And I wrote a poem about water bears. I put the Wikipedia entry as the epigraph because it was funny and it actually described tardigrades pretty well. Still no one knew what a tardigrade was and one member bought a picture of one up on their laptop, and there was audible gasping and ewwing and still no one liked the poem. So I changed the title and epigraph and made Wikipedia more central to the poem so it became more about all the silly things we learn from Wikipedia (except tardigrades are not silly; tardigrades are awesome). And the poem found publication about a month or so after that workshop, after the poem was written. I might be a little bitter about that workshop. No, I think I was more bitter about the fact that no one wanted to learn what a tardigrade was, especially not through a poem (however bad that draft might have been). No one wanted to learn subject matter through a poem. That made me sad. This poem is in LSLS.

But for most research, especially for my poems, I like to actively observe, ask questions, conduct field research, visit and really dwell in places and with the things I write about (including tardigrades, although you can't observe them with the naked eye, but they are everywhere).   

I'm currently researching and writing poems about memory and specifically memories among siblings—how they are formed and shared and stolen. Memories of a place, in particular. Along with this is research concerning changes to a place over time—the physical landscape and culture, yes, but the flora and fauna, the different inhabitants over time, human, plant, and animal. I'm not certain whether a full book will come out of this, but certainly individual poems will result from these investigations.

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.