Monday, December 21, 2009


Carmen Giménez Smith is an assistant professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University, the publisher of Noemi Press, and the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol. Her work has most recently appeared in Mandorla, Colorado Review and Ploughshares and is forthcoming in Jubilat and Denver Quarterly. She is the author of Bring Down the Little Birds (University of Arizona, 2010), and Glitch (Dusie Press Kollectiv, 2009). She recently edited, with Kate Bernheimer, an anthology of contemporary fairy tale adaptations to be published by Penguin Classics in 2010. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico with her husband and their two children.

Carmen kindly agreed to juggle yet one more thing and sit down with La Bloga to chat about her new poetry collection, Odalisque in Pieces (University of Arizona Press, 2009).

DANIEL OLIVAS: How did you decide upon the title of your new collection, Odalisque in Pieces? Did you consider other titles?

CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH: I shuffled through many titles before landing on Odalisque. For a long time the book was called Fussy, which probably had more to do with my personality than it did with the book. It was called Solve For N when I sent it to Arizona; the editors there weren’t crazy about that one, so I ordered my husband to come up with a title; he plucked the phrase from a poem in the book. It seemed perfect to me: a woman naked, supine, slavish, shattered.… I feel that it’s the book’s secret symbol, in a way.

DO: You divide the collection into four sections without titles. Did you intend each section to have a theme?

CGS: I’d like to think that the book has an arc. Each section contains a poem with a sense of mythos about it, and the book tracks a progression into adulthood. Earlier drafts of the book didn’t contain section breaks, but a reader felt that the book needed some moments of pause -- some “breathing room,” I believe she said -- so the section breaks were included to provide something like that. I think the breaks serve to dramatize movement through the book, and also to help ensure that certain significant poems in the book’s project wouldn’t get lost in the melee of a sectionless collection. To be honest, I’m pretty order-illiterate when it comes to my own work. I’ve been lucky to have friends who will step in and say, “This is how you should order this book.” It may be that poem order literacy is a qualification for a poet’s friendship.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is “Tree Tree Tree,” which begins: “There’s a game we play: / Repeating a word until it ceases to mean….” These lines are both thrilling and horrifying, at least for a writer. Do you ever get lost in words? Do their meanings sometime become obscured the more you dwell with them?

CGS: I am enthralled by syntax, by the sinews of the sentence. Often my absorption in the line leads to language becoming pure sound for me, something like murmur, but of course the printed word itself and at least the shadow of its meaning always remain. I love Wittgenstein’s take on this stuff, the way he seems so utterly perplexed by it, which I think is the correct attitude to take when it comes to thinking about the relationship between the look of the word on the page and the sound of the word in your head or your ear. There’s a line somewhere in the Investigations: “Remember that the look of a word is familiar to us in the same kind of way as its sound.” I suppose “Tree Tree Tree” speaks to this look–sound problematic in some way.

My first language was Spanish. Writing in a language other than that with which I grew up, with which I learned to think and feel, has surely had some bearing on my relationship to writing. I love finding words and sounds from other languages buried in English; I prefer to imagine discrete languages as continuous, like adjoining rooms connected by a common door -- sound. When I revise a poem, I’m thinking primarily about sound, syllables as phonemic puzzle pieces. I wrote “Tree Tree Tree” in graduate school; I think it was exhibitive of my coming to this awareness of new sonic possibilities in my writing.

DO: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection?

CGS: I have specific, special feelings for each of the poems. The poem “Finding the Lark” took me years and years to write, so I certainly have very strong feelings for that one: something like half ardor, half arduousness. I would write a draft with a truncated ending, and my good friend, one of my best readers, the poet Mark Wunderlich, would hand it back to me and say, “No.” When I started writing the poem, I didn’t have the chops to sustain the drama, the narrative. I have often seen the necessary course of a poem early on, but have failed to come up with the stamina, I guess, to follow it through all the way to the end. But this is something I’m failing better at all the time.

If I had to choose one poem that’s just my out-and-out favorite, I would probably pick “Idea In a Ruinous State,” the book’s final poem. I’m nuts about Wallace Stevens; early drafts of the poem contained a refrain that included his name. Mark said, “No.” I went back to the drawing board. I remember an interim draft that was significantly more expansive. Eventually I stripped it down into something like a litany, which turned out to be the solution to that particular poem.

As you can tell, my fondness for my own poems concerns the process by which they came to be. Revising and reshaping and reconceiving a poem: that is why I love to write poetry.

DO: Who are some of your favorite poets and how have they influenced your poetry?

CGS: Well, like I said, Stevens is pretty much the cat’s pajamas for me. When I was in graduate school I hated him; I didn’t see how earnest his work was until I was older. My favorites list is long and eclectic. My dear friend Rosa Alcalá’s work poetry has had a strong influence on my newer work. Her stuff is so nervy and tough; I love it, I love it, I love it. There’s Mina Loy, sort of modern dance. And James Wright, wow. Wright’s work has been a big force in my life. He’s tough too, but also so lyric. I like Neruda’s wryness. There’s Louise Glück, so terse, the master of compression. Brenda Shaughnessy is so lush, and her beautifully complex syntax. C.D. Wright is great. Juan Felipe Herrera is the sage. Alexander Pope is so funny. Mary Jo Bang has such amazing range. I work with two incredible poets, Connie Voisine and Richard Greenfield; I’ve learned a great deal from them. They’re very different, but both rare talents. Mark Wunderlich is one of the great lyric poets of our time; I’ve learned so much from him. Some contemporary poets with whom I’m in the early stages of romance are Ariana Reines, Paige Ackerson Kiely, Hoa Nguyen, Peter Ramos and Dan Machlin.

DO: Do you have a writing routine? How do you juggle writing with teaching and editing?

CGS: I drop a lot of balls when I juggle…. I have an amazing husband who helps and supports me. I’m blessed with so many generous friends and colleagues.

Once I became a mother, I had to become mercenary with my time. I can’t wait around for a poem to strike me, so instead I create goofy scenarios in my mind from which poems might emerge. I have lots of these little multiparous tricks to generate drafts. As soon as my kids are in bed, I write. I also do a lot of composition in my head while I’m doing any number of mundane things, folding laundry, cleaning dishes, etc. I don’t necessarily write a poem from memory, but I certainly can imagine a form or an arc, maybe the beginning of a lexicon, then scramble to write it down.

Teaching only fuels my writing. I get so inspired by my students; I often walk away from class jonesing to write. And the work I do as an editor informs my work, as well. I’ve learned a lot about my own writing from working with authors on their manuscripts. Being an editor and a teacher requires me to quickly and clearly articulate what is at issue in a piece of writing. Surely this has been helpful to my own revision process.

DO: Are you working on another book?

CGS: I just finished a manuscript of poems called (for now, at least) Trees Outside the Academy, as well as another collection called Happy Trigger, a book I’m terribly excited about because it’s my feminist polemic, the book I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve also written a nonfiction book, Bring Down the Little Birds, which the University of Arizona Press will release next year. I’ve been working with Kate Bernheimer -- from whom I’ve learned so much -- on an anthology of contemporary writers adapting fairy tales, for publication with Penguin. I’ve been writing short pieces for a book about money and class called Squander and also beginning again to think about a book I’ve been working on for what feels like eternity, something called Goodbye Flicker about a girl who escapes into these fairy tales which her mother has, in the telling, corrupted. I always have to have several projects going on at a time. So many windows open on the computer, crazy stacks of papers around me, books all over the place. It helps me to flit about from thing to thing.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

◙ The latest volume of The Los Angeles Review is now out and available for purchase. Published by Red Hen Press and edited by Kate Gale, this issue is dedicated to Wanda Coleman and includes essays, fiction and poetry from many fine writers including a nice sampling of Latinos/as such as Conrad Romo, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Chloe Joan Lopez, Octavio Quintanilla, and Eugenia Toledo. I’m delighted to note that the issue also includes an interview by fiction editor, Stefanie Freele, of yours truly concerning Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008). I do want to note that Stefanie is the author of a powerful, funny and not-to-be-missed short story collection, Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press, 2009).

◙ Gregg Barrios interviews playwright Octavio Solis for the San Antonio Current. Barrios notes that “Solis’s breakthrough drama, Lydia, has made the El Paso-born playwright a national sensation in the theater world. But for the 50-year-old Solis, who has toiled in the theatrical trenches for half his lifetime, the idea of overnight success chafes a bit. He’d prefer to be described as an 'up-and-coming' playwright.” It’s an enlightening interview which you may read in its entirety here. Also, don’t miss Barrios’s tribute to the Crystal City, Texas Student Walkout 1969...this month marks its 40th anniversary.

◙ Lisa Alvarado is a poet, performer, and installation artist, focusing on identity, spirit, and the body. She is the founder of La Onda Negra Press, and is author of Reclamo and The Housekeeper’s Diary, originally a book of poetry and now a one-woman performance, and is the recipient of grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs, The NEA, and the Ragdale Foundation. Lisa has also completed an ambitious trilogy of performance pieces, REM/Memory, Bury The Bones and Resurgam, whose themes are the culture of violence, popular culture and personal redemption. Her first novel, Sister Chicas (written with Ann Hagman Cardinal and Jane Alberdeston) was bought by Penguin/NAL, and released in April 2006. Her book of poetry, Raw Silk Suture, was released by Floricanto Press in 2008. We have a treat: a poem by Lisa Alvarado in celebration of Chanukah. Enjoy:

Adonai assigns each Jew a rabbi or tzadik
because you can't eat yeshiva or angel's wings,
Even the holy need parnassa, and a job is a job, after all.

But we still were hiding
so my great grandmother, a woman, a bird at the end of flight,
was my first rabbi, my first tzadik.
Us two, with eight more in Gan Eden.
No one else allowed, no one knowing.
Because the neighbors already looked at us with sharpened eyes,
sharp as the knife she killed chickens with for Fridays.
The two of us, the ten of us,
burned that bread, lit those lights
and sang down the slipping night
and Shekinah's stars.

I am her patchwork Jew,
offering poor wages
to those rabbis close now.
No drush is as sweet as the honey from her table.

◙ Read Queer is Multicultural, and essay by Himilce Novas in The MultiCultural Review.

◙ If you’re still looking for that perfect gift, check out Marcela Landres’s suggested Latino/a titles.

Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer living in New York City, reviews for My Latino Voice the new novel by Reyna Grande, Dancing with Butterflies (Simon & Schuster). He notes, in part:

“The landscape of the novel is genuinely contemporary, so the tensions between alien status and national identity, between prescribed gender roles and feminism, are key factors in the motivations and attitudes prevalent in the behaviors of the characters. But Grande is successful in keeping the women from becoming symbols or victims of the violence and struggles of international and domestic politics.”

You may read the entire review here.

◙ That’s all for now. I hope that you and yours will be healthy and happy this holiday season. In the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

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