What has been your ultimate journey?
When I was in high school, I used to think I couldn’t understand poetry. What stands out in my memory is being unable to find the elusive meaning of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I assumed there was some deep meaning to be discovered in every poem, and not finding it meant failure. I was more comfortable with sturdier tools like how to find the hypotenuse of an angle, rather than trusting the shadowy realm of written art. I carried this perceived limitation until my mid-20′s when on a whim at a friend’s home I opened Wislawa’s Symborska’s View from a Grain of Sand. That Nobel Prize-winning dignitary sparked in me the passion of a bandit and arsonist. Without a preconceived idea of what I should get from it, suddenly, I connected to poetry.
In overcoming initial limitations I thought I had, I have become more comfortable with the process of going from the unknown into the known. My doubts no longer shake me as much. I can focus and trust in the process to figure things out. I like trying new things and discovering my strengths and weaknesses. More recently, I’ve ventured into publishing the online poetry and art journal, Amethyst Arsenic, and hosting workshops and literary salons out of my home. I never would have done these things before.
Where do you start? Where do you end?
I start with truth in the moment which, for me, is intuitive and direct. I want to work on things that connect me to ideas and people. The specific goal, such as to write a poem or create a literary journal, act more like a cipher for the acknowledgment that we exist and have some import to each other. The start and end results are almost incidental to the forces driving it. Where we start and end might be less important than all the sticky stuff in the middle: our attitude, actions, and relationships that we navigate and adapt to along the way.
On a practical level, such as with Amethyst Arsenic, I keep the end goal in mind and work incrementally towards it. I need projects like the literary journal where I can have a defined result and path to completion. My writing practice is more chaotic. I don’t start a poem with a consistent pattern or system. I might write on the computer, in a notepad, or on a scrap of envelope. I work in random fits and meditative layers. Even my handwriting frequently changes. I end a poem when I think it sounds right and seems intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Most of my poems have several rounds of edits and some have drastic revisions; I’m pretty comfortable with revising and killing my darlings.
Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?
My journal received a cover letter from a guy who said he “wasn’t like some f**king bored housewife from the Midwest.” How’s that for a classification? I didn’t know why he was compelled to write such a thing, but he was very specific. Classifications, when lobbed at us by others, can be dismissive and presumptuous, and at worse, they attempt to cut others off from opportunities and a person’s inherent human value.
I’m reading Stigma by social analyst Irving Goffman, and it’s about managing identity in contexts where we’re not considered normal. Classifications and the implication of bias can have generations of meat and teeth to them by imposing limited and negative expectations on us, or, just as dishonestly, over-inflating them. I try to be aware of how others think about me, whether it’s to my benefit or not, and tailor what I communicate while still forging ahead and maintaining my values. I don’t know if it’s self-censoring as much as being aware of the power and nuance of rhetoric.
If there is an accusation of contributing to the politics of classification, or that so many identities today can seem to be an ever lengthening train of nichification, I believe people are making a sensible and obvious choice to use the shorthand of classification to control their stories and identity, as well as a means to raise social awareness effectively by breaking through the noise and short attention spans. If they don’t, others will define these things for them. There’s another kind of writer that likes to keep their identity a mystery. Perhaps they want liberty to explore many identities without settling down with one in a death pact, or maybe it’s to focus on the universal human experience while avoiding a specific lens of classification. I think different perspectives are interesting, even if I’m roused to discomfort or anger; I want to know all of them, and this goes back to another reason why I started a literary journal.
For each issue of Amethyst Arsenic, I select guest editors of various backgrounds and tastes in poetry. I want to attract different kinds of poets and audiences that might not be exposed to each other’s work. I hope it creates an environment of natural, mutual respect.
I’m a woman first. After that, I belong to a community of poets where I contribute as a publisher and benefactor. I also identify with others who work in technology. Occasionally, I’ll mention the challenges I faced growing up when I think it’s helpful to explain my perspective on things, but I don’t wear my upbringing loosely. I think of this slogan: What’s authentic is not what you did in the past, but what you are doing right now.
When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?
With Amethyst Arsenic, I continually refine the process and presentation. Maybe I try a new feature and it doesn’t work, so I abandon it. Rather than simply leaving a wall intact or knocking it down, I see all of it as part of building the house. You take out what doesn’t support the structure. You leave what does.
The literary journal is also a response to other publishers–in a playful spirit of admiration and spite–as well as a public space where I can try ideas. In a sense, I am stealing ideas from walls in other houses and finding my way around others that block me.
I apply a similar approach to relationships and other types of work. If something isn’t working well, can I take lessons and ideas from it anyway? Can I work around it? Can I influence change or build something of my own? Do others want to be involved, and can I include them? I think these questions can be empowering; then it’s mostly a matter of focus and doing.