Sunday, October 11, 2015

_All Day, Talking_ A Conversation with Poet, Sarah A. Chavez

Cover Art/Arrangement: Berly Brown and Kristy Bowen
Mourning becomes eloquent elegy in Sarah A. Chavez’s All Day, Talking.  The narrator, in this tightly woven collection of poems, grieves within vivid memories of her Carole.  These poems bring readers into an intimacy between two people and between an individual and her world as it was. La Bloga is fortunate today to have Sarah A. Chavez tell us more about All Day, Talking.  

Thank you so much for being with us today, Sarah. Your chapbook, All Day, Talking is a collection of poems that hits the heart with deep loss.  How did this collection come about?  Did you write one poem that became two, three, and suddenly you knew it would be a manuscript, or was it more planned?

Thank you, Amelia, for your thoughtful questions and interest in the chapbook. I read La Bloga often and am thrilled to be included here.  This chapbook came about sort of accidentally. It was in my second semester of graduate school, in Grace Bauer’s Poetic Forms workshop and one of the first assignments was to pick a poetic form from the text we were reading and write a poem to turn in. I wasn’t entirely interested in taking a forms workshop, but I was very interested in working with Grace, so I was a bit resistant in the beginning. In fact, the first “Dear Carole” poem was born a little out of laziness, frustration, and a feeling of isolation. Flipping through the text, I came across the section on epistles and thought that’d be easy: no syllabic count, no line restrictions. But then I wasn’t sure who to write to. I didn’t have access to a car at that point and got around by walking and taking the bus or riding my bike, and used that time to think, but mostly during those times my thoughts were filled with questions like what the hell am I doing in a PhD program? What am I doing so far from California? I felt a bit overwhelmed and out of place, fresh from a visit home where my working-class family (most of whom didn’t go to college at all, let alone consider graduate school) had been commenting on how different I was after going to grad school, how much I’d changed. I wasn’t like them anymore. But when I was in classes, I wasn’t like my colleagues either. So many of them came from middle and upper-middle class homes, had a mono-cultural upbringing, parents with white-collar jobs, and so many of them had family who were professors or artists; they had a toe-hold in this world. They were new to grad school, but not to the academic environment. They understood the etiquette, the unspoken rules of décor that I was only just, very slowly getting keyed into. I felt like an outsider in both worlds, and experienced resistance and dismissal the few times I tried talking about it.

Working out ideas and talking to loved ones who weren’t physically around, particularly a few who had passed on before I moved out of California was not a new practice, it became one I engaged in more frequently during this time. It was in the midst of one of those moments when I was complaining in my head to Carole about not knowing what to write that I got the idea to write my epistle to her. The poem was received well in workshop, and I didn’t think any more about it, until one day I wrote another one. I hadn’t set out to do that, it felt like it just happened. Then I wrote another one. It was as if the first poem was a fissure in the dam, and the second one a hole broken through, until they all came flooding out.

You are taking the elegy form and making interesting moves with each poem.  Examples:  “Dear Carole,  It’s Dia de los Muertos,” or “Dear Carole, For Hours It’s Been Burning,” and also, “Dear Carole, I think I’m going to Start Publishing These Letters.” Tell us about these moves.

I’ve often felt troubled by the conventional ways in which society is encouraged to speak well about the dead, and in turn the expectation of many traditional elegies which elevate memories of the dead. People who were petty in their earthly life are treated as if they were generous, or someone who was a shitty parent is lauded as a loving mother. The convention is to celebrate the person who has died, but it seems to come at the cost of the honest facts of who they were. No one is only one thing. Hardly anyone (if anyone) is all good. I understand the argument against remembering the negative characteristics of a person who has passed, but to ignore those aspects of their lived existence is to ignore the real person, to ignore parts of that relationship. The way I see it, the best thing about loving someone deeply is knowing that even when you mess up, they will still love you. The good times are amplified when held against the bad and frankly, in much of my life, the two are so intimately intertwined, I wouldn’t know where to begin pulling them apart. We also tend to think of interactons with the dead as something special, something reserved for holidays, or late at night when we are alone, but who’s to say they are not always here. Again, it’s the everyday mundanity, the ordinary that I find most interesting. That’s in part where “Dear Carole, It’s Dia de los Muertos” or “Dear Carole, For Hours It’s Been Burning,” comes from. The small things in life become how someone stays in our hearts. It’s not necessarily the grand gesture, but remembering a habit, a favorite food – like the mini Hostess donuts –, an act that at the time seems normal and boring – like sharing cheap pizza –, but under contemplation was a clear sign of love and understanding. I wanted these poems to reflect what I see to be a more relatable elegy, one that considers the multiplicity of the person.

I’m also interested in the intangibility of loss and ultimately of death, and the elegy is the perfect form/genre to explore this. When someone dies, their body is no longer physically there, but their body isn’t physically with you when you live in different states either. It sounds dumb, but in a way, how do we know someone is dead? Because someone tells us? We read an obituary? It’s so ethereal, in some ways the knowledge so theoretical. Grief is so tangible though, chokes the throat, clenches the stomach, burns the eyes. It’s hard for me to negotiate the mind-fuck of death’s uncertainty, while mitigating the very corporeal pain of grief. In a way these elegies are the speaker grappling with that concept of loss. It’s particularly surreal when you don’t see the body, you didn’t see the person sick, didn’t watch them get buried. How do you know for sure? In some ways the letters from the speaker are reluctant elegies. The loss is real, but she can’t conceptualize Carole’s death. The ghost of loss omnipresent.

From a more structural, craft-specific standpoint, the elegies are ordered intentionally to build in intensity. A poem like “Dear Carole, It’s Dia de los Muertos” is light-hearted, sort of funny; the speaker glib about the altar she’s built and the ghost she’s not sure she’s haunted by. As the collection progresses though, the feelings of loss become stronger, more clear, more real. “Dear Carole, I think I’m going to Start Publishing These Letters” is representative of a last desperate refusal of death’s finality.

In these poems you take us to a geographic area that is more overlooked than written about:  Fresno, California.  Why Fresno?

Why Fresno, indeed! Partly because I grew up there and know it very well. It’s funny really, when I was in high school and college, I spent so much time thinking about leaving and then once I did leave, I couldn’t stop thinking about my life there. Fresno is a strange place in large part because of its central location in the state and connection to corporate agriculture. It’s a city of over half a million people, the fifth largest in the entire state, and yet in certain parts of the city you’ll encounter a small-town mentality, a kind of conservatism that doesn’t jive with the demographic as a whole. Fiscally, it’s a fascinating place as well. Underemployment is high, and there are millionaire farm owners living a mile from impoverished undocumented workers, Silicon Valley moguls taking advantage of the cheaper property who commute a few times a week living just blocks down from a dishwasher making minimum wage at a local café. It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country which causes both environments of incredible generosity and acceptance and environments of extreme racism and hate. There is a lot of anger that lives under the surface of the asphalt which can get under a person’s skin. This is also due in part to the historical oppression of Mexicans and Native Americans in the area that is shockingly still active even while the city’s population has become a majority minority and people of color are more and more becoming prominent business owners and politicians. It’s this bipolarness, this mixing that makes it such an interesting place. Though I couldn’t see it at the time (and would have hated to acknowledge it, if I did), I am very much a product of Fresno’s environment, its mestizaje and conflict, its work ethic. Fresno is like the hard-working cousin to LA’s flashy Hollywood and San Francisco’s bohemian artistry. It might not be fancy, it might not look pretty, but Fresno gets the job done. It’s what I love about it.

Literarily, I was also interested in telling Central Valley stories from the perspective of women. There are so many amazing writers who have come from Fresno, but the ones most people know are men and their writing focuses on men or on women through the male gaze. I’m interested in sharing the ways females navigate this same strange, rough space.

Sarah A. Chavez giving a reading in Indiana (photo by Adam Wagler)
What is your writing ritual?  And what was it, specifically, for this chapbook? 

I know what I wish my ritual was – consistent and structured. There are so many writers (including Julia Alvarez and Ted Kooser, two people whose writing I very much admire) who get up extra early in the morning, go straight to the computer and write for hours before getting on with their day. Maybe they always get their cup of coffee or make sure to have their favorite pen laid out on the desk near the computer, sort of ceremonial. That stability appeals to me greatly, but in practice, my writing habits are the opposite; it’s almost as if my ritual is to deny ritual. I write like a scavenger, picking up everything I can when I can, wherever I am. Particularly when working on the poems for All Day, Talking, I was often in transit. I got a good deal of it done on the bus, letting the drone of the sound system blend with the conversations happening around me, creating a sort of white noise bubble. Sometimes I stopped mid-ride on my way somewhere, pulled my bike over to the side of the path, got out a notebook, and sat in the grass. I guess maybe my writing ritual is actually physical movement, like when my arms and legs are in motion, it jars loose the thoughts and memories. And I suppose that makes sense since poetry writing in particular has always felt visceral for me, carnal rather than an exercise of the intellect. Of course revising and ordering poems can’t function that way. That requires more steadied and disciplined work.

Even though your poems are specifically to “Carole,” they feel very universal as if the reader is also the letter writer.  It makes it quite intimate.  Did you initially intend to do this? 

That is wonderful to hear! Thank you. It was not my initial intention, but this outcome further solidifies for me a lesson I teach my creative writing students about specificity. The more specific you can be to your truth – whatever that looks like for you and your characters – the more engaged the reader will be. When we try to anticipate what an audience might “relate” to (a word that has become the bane of my literature and creative writing intro classes), we miss the mark, because the details are the vehicle to the abstraction at the heart of most writing. If the vehicle is whole and functions, then you’ll get to where you want/need to go. My initial conception of these poems was that they felt so personal to me, I wasn’t sure they would translate to a larger audience. It makes me happy to be able to share this intimacy with the reader.

There is also breathing between poems.  You’ll have a long piece and then a very short, one-line poem.  It seems to encourage the reader to stop and contemplate further or stay in the moment.  Yes? 

Absolutely. With collecting these poems and having them come one after another, I was concerned the experience would be overwhelming (as it sometimes had been for me). The letters come from moments when the speaker has allowed herself (or been emotionally compelled) to stop and try to translate and negotiate her complicated feelings in the midst of material changes.  You have to slow down to write a letter, especially if they are, as I conceive of them, handwritten. As well, I didn’t want the collection to only be long, sad narratives. I think that denies a more realistic texture to the narrative arc. For the chapbook to mirror a natural progression of grief, it needed to have a few fits and starts.

Photo by Adam Wagler
What is your next project/manuscript of poems you are working on now?

I have a few projects I’m working on currently, one being a full-length manuscript of “Dear Carole” poems. I thought once the chapbook was published I would be done writing these, but that has not been the case. If anything, afterward, and especially while I was doing a couple mini DIY reading tours for the chapbook, the poems came to me more insistently and they just kept adding up. The manuscript, which is pretty much in the editing and organizing stage, is currently titled This Dark Shining Thing, which is in homage to Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “that dark shining thing.” Sections of it kept coming back to me as I wrote, particularly the last three lines of the poem and one stanza from the middle: “I want to turn my back on you / wash my hands of you / but my hands remember each seam / . . . each rock you tread on / as you stumble I falter too / and I remember.” There is so much resistance and conflict there that really spoke to me and this project.

The other project I’ve been working on is a series of poems that reimagine the indigenous myth of the turtle who carried the Earth. I’ve always loved turtles (desert tortoises in particular, but most people use the terms tortoise and turtle interchangeably), their slow steadiness, the sturdy design of their body. And it’s actually that hard shell that allows for the myth; it’s Turtle’s physical and spiritual fortitude that makes carrying the Earth possible. There should be pride in that, but I also feel such sorrow for Turtle’s sacrifice. More land, more space, more animals able to exist together was due to Turtle’s acceptance of isolation. I began to think about Turtle’s agency and what life might have been like before taking on that responsibility and what it might be like for him to return to the earth and  live now in the 21st century. The first three poems in the Turtle series (titled “When Turtle First Began to Carry the Earth”) were recently published in the Summer 2015 issue of North Dakota Quarterly. I’m also working on making that first section into a chapbook.

Is there something more you would like to share with La Bloga readers? 

I do have some very exciting things coming up in the next few months (aside from Halloween & Dia de los Muertos, which are my favorite holidays). I’m the guest editor for the November 2015 issue of Stirring: A Literary Collection, which has been a wonderful experience. I’m still in the process of reading and selecting poems, but it’s looking like there will be a compelling diversity of voices in the issue. I hope people will check it out.

Also in November, the 14th actually, I’ll be reading at the Pittsburgh GlassCenter as part of the inaugural launch of the new literary journal Pittsburgh Poetry Review. It’s an amazing line-up of writers, that I’m thrilled to be part of:

And the last most exciting event before the end of the year is the Flor de Nopal Literary Festival in Austin, TX. curated by ire’ne lara silva. Friday, December 4th will be the featured reading and on Saturday, the 5th I will be facilitating a community poetry writing workshop titled “When all your antenna quiver, your body becomes a lightning rod: Sensory Details & Writing From the Body.”

Thank you so much, Sarah!  

Photo by Sarah A. Chavez

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