I had the nice opportunity to read with my friends Jen Knox and Alexandra Van De Kamp in a Podcast produced by the Aural Literature Series of the Austin Public Library.
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to record myself reading a poem for the Austin Public Library’s National Poetry Month project.
I’ll also be readings in their Aural Literature series on Wednesday, June 28th at Terrazas Branch Library in Austin, Texas.
It was an honor to have my poem “At Least for a Little While” appear in the San Antonio Express News on New Year’s day.
I was lucky enough to do a reading recently at Dozen Street in Austin, Texas, hosted by Chicon Street Poets. Before the reading, I sat down for a video interview with Joe Brundidge, who asked me about my common themes, writing practices, and much more. Click her to watch the interview, and thank you for your interest!
I am lucky enough to have three poems included in issue 2.3 of The Grief Diaries, a magazine of art and writing about loss. You can click here to read my poems and here to go to their home page. I suggest following this wonderful organization on Facebook or Twitter (@thegriefdiaries), where they share various articles and essays relating to grief.
Need an extra set of eyes on your poems? I’m happy to say that I am now editing poetry through Carve Magazine Editing Services.
TYPES OF EDITS
Developmental – $12 / page
Receive up to 1 page (single-spaced) of feedback on entire manuscript focusing on poetic elements such as stanza and line-break structures, imagery and sound, and themes and style.
Line-by-Line – $14 / page
A developmental critique of entire manuscript plus line edits and notes throughout the manuscript to highlight elements of the writing that are strong or need improvement.
I am also offering ongoing mentoring and comprehensive services through Limpede Ink in multiple genres. These services are perfect for longer projects and for anyone in need of regular feedback.
Learn more or request a quote here!
For National Poetry Month, I asked women poets to do a difficult task: define poetry. Their responses are both personal and accessible, lyrical and practical. I hope these thoughts inspire you as much as they have inspired me.
Jen Lambert (@JenLambert1):
To me, poetry is like an emotional clown car or maybe like the multicolored scarf pulled slowly and dramatically from the magician’s sleeve. As a reader, I am always struck by how the economy of language and form can hold so much magic, layer after delightful layer of bright meaning. It’s hard work for the poet, to be so precise, so practiced, to make it appear to happen so effortlessly, and how simple and lovely for us to just have to open up the door and let the whole world tumble out.
Naomi Shihab Nye (featuring high school student Juna Hewitt):
In Japan recently I learned about the concept – yu-to-ri – life-space. The high school student who wrote me about it gave many definitions – including, “like leaving early to get somewhere so you don’t have to hurry. Like giving yourself room to make mistakes.” She felt, and I feel, that poetry gives us more yu-to-ri – a sense of larger vivid presence or attention floating in the air, in the silence after hearing or saying or thinking about a poem.
We are living in a poem.
Monica Ong (@Mongmedia):
When I read poetry, it is an opportunity to empathize beyond one’s own lived experiences. I think of poetry as a portal to new perspectives and a way to broaden my own. When I make poetry, it is to move narratives out of erasure and into their own articulated space. Perhaps this is why I also like the tactility of making a poem into objects, books, images, and installations. It is a way to be seen, not just with eyes or knowledge, but another’s heart and skin.
The theologian Richard Hooker wrote: “Every good and holy desire, though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in itself the substance, and with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the very moanings, groans, and sighs of the heart of man.”
Sometimes I feel like my life is in two parts: before I came to think about poetry as prayer, and after. Sometimes I feel like one of the miracles of my life is coming to know something necessary, before I knew to need it.
It is not too far-fetched to think that every poem is written with a “good and holy desire”—to understand the world, the self, the other, suffering, love, mercy, God. In that way, it isn’t only that every poem might be considered a form of prayer, but that every gesture and each silence might also be born of and into the sacred, with the force of the sacred.
If it is the Point (capital p) of poetry to understand, imagine, articulate, explain, examine, the sighs of the heart of man, (which is to say the essence of life itself, place, purpose, meaning), then for me the point of poetry is prayer, and the point of prayer is poetry. I found the sacred in poetry before I found poetry in the sacred. And I realize only now that they existed inextricably for me, long before I ever knew to name them.
Dahlia Seroussi (@DahliaSeroussi):
I’ve never really gotten behind the Culture of Chill. People love chill. But I’m not chill; I’m intense! So on a personal level, poetry gives purpose to my intensity, transforms it into something others can understand and hopefully enjoy. Who wants a chill-ass poem? Not me. I think that in a greater sense, poems offer us (all of us! even you!) insight into the great calamities of life—what it is to love, to lose, to be broken, and to heal. What a beautiful and rare thing, to be reminded of our universal humanity. Thanks, poetry.
Kelsi Villarreal (@Kelsinite):
Poetry for me is a way to process complexities. It’s a method through which I can be subtle and deliberate when I am not naturally either of those things.
When I think of Natalia Treviño’s work, her poem “Tortilla Skins” comes to mind. It was the first poem of hers that I read, and I was spellbound by the poem’s gradually widening scope, its physicality and texture, and its focus on the lives of women.
Natalia was born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her first poetry collection, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was published by Mongrel Empire Press in 2014. She recently finished a novel, titled Drinking The Bee Water, about an immigrant mother working as a servant in the U.S while separated from her daughter. She is now working on her second poetry collection, Alas de la Agua, poems for and about the Virgin and her many identities. Natalia’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in various journals and anthologies, including The Platte Valley Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, and burntdistric. She has also been awarded the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the 2012 Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.
Since you write poetry and fiction, can you describe your relationship to both of these genres?
I am in love with writing fiction, but sometimes I convince myself that fiction does not love me back! Maybe it is a semi-requited love with fiction,whereas poetry is my mother who loves me unconditionally –always there when I need to center myself, not riddled with unapproachable expectations, there to heal and nourish me, to help me look at this world through a new and daring lens. I am not saying my poetry is better at all or that it is easy because few mothers are really easy on their children. But poetry allows for more flexibility with form, room for mistakes, amazing rewards from experimentation, allowing me to edit and make profound and important curves in thought, magical possibilities and changes I can swallow. I want my fiction to do that also but each sitting with fiction takes weeks if not months! My first novel will be coming out next year, and it has been a battle with every major aspect of it except the creation of new scenes when my characters were talking and doing with me out of the way–every change I made went on for pages and had to be cross-checked again and again. Even with all that eye and care, it has mistakes and oversights because it does house so many nooks and crannies! I made point of view shifts multiple times, structural shifts, going from cyclical to linear and back again and then back again, scenes in the past and present, scenes that were only scenes and not “real chapters” — whatever those are! This book wrote itself in many versions with me at the wheel trying to let it grow organically. I had to keep trying and keep trusting that this love of my life would sing along with what I had in my heart! And as when a fickle lover finally stays the night, I am finally so happy with the result, I think, but emotionally exhausted.
Do you have thematic or stylistic “obsessions” that work their way into your writing, no matter the genre?
I am on a path to learn what those are myself! On the surface, I think they are motherhood and love, the two things that shaped my most important and life-changing decisions, the decisions that so many women face, and, due to nature or nurture, often allow to dominate their subconscious decisions and their conscious lives.
Sorting out what those obsessions mean to Mexican women has really been my calling too because I am so influenced by them, good or bad. This group of women are often the ones who silence themselves or are silenced by a number of constrictions or antagonists! I know this is a reaction to my culture and to being bi-cultural in the U.S., and annoyed at the binary platitudes people in my culture often accept.
Below the surface, my obsessions are about the incredible teacher that is nature and her daughters, physics and chemistry as they apply to understanding the human nature and human dynamics as apex models of the human condition and the human limits we strive against every day. How do my electrons, for example, react to this stimuli and why? What receptor was there that allowed this tear to fall, or that fear to balance out? What is at the nucleus of this balm of answer, or of this soothing religion? Or of this enormous power over my appetite? Or of these barbaric politics? There is always an unseen world of actions and motives and reactions at work, and nature is a microcosm of humanity. For instance, a seed has the ambition, vision, imagination, and drive to become a tree. It is chemical, and so am I. I want to stream that reality into my both my poetry and fiction.
What challenges did you encounter while writing your book of poems, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, and how did those challenges differ from your experience with your novel?
Each poem had many iterations –that is true. And each chaplet or chapter in my novel has too. I am attracted to the truth in each genre, and to the voices I want to hone and honor, but most of my poems can be revised in thirty minutes, and I may need to do that three hundred times, totaling 150 hours. Is that math right? Or more! But 150 hours spent on a novel is very different. After one or two hours revising poems, I am either hurting the poems or myself. There is such an intensity of language that it is exhausting, but short. What I am saying is that a poem can take a great leap in in one relatively short sitting, like while a pasta sauce is simmering. While it may take many many of those short sittings for it to become its full self, or to “get there,” as my mentor and dear friend Wendy Barker would always say, the novel is another beast.
The novel chapters take much longer periods of concentration, maybe five hours at a time concentrating on one section, and so who has four or five hour stretches of time? As a working mom and wife, I struggle to get the ample space of time to really concentrate on a scene or chapter without creating discordant idiosyncrasies in other chapters. It is sometimes the “hat problem” that Sandra Cisneros taught us in workshop: If you mention the hat in chapter ten, you better make sure you put that hat on your character earlier! In a poem, a metaphor is earned by its own volition and beauty, in context of course, and enriched by a motif that sets it up, perhaps. There are no strict rules about this. In a novel, every literary leap must be earned in terms of purpose and my biggest weakness, plot. The plot of a poem can be evoked with an image. The plot in a novel needs to be clearly structured in, so that I can give my reader an easy ride through time and space. This is hard for me. Ultimately, a wonderful moment of possibility or insight in the novel, which would be essential to the poem, can become non-essential to the novel and possibly cut, quite easily by an effective editor with a sharp knife because it could be considered a digression from the story to the modern, time-challenged, multi-tasking, and plot-thirsty reader! So organization, time, and structure are very different challenges for a novelist-poet, or for this poet-aspiring-novelist.
I know that there is a strong and vibrant writing community in San Antonio; can you speak to how this community helped you develop as a writer and how they support you now?
I could not be the writer I am without the supportive writers in the San Antonio area. I have to begin with my mentor and dear friend, Wendy Barker, my first poetry professor, and my go-to and trusted poetry mentor today. More importantly, she is a great and close friend. Her enormous capacity for precise language, for delving into inner truths through outer language, for balancing craft and content, for pushing meaning, metrics, and sound with equal fervor has always ruptured my senses, opened my ear, crushed the essence out of my lazy, inflated language, so that my poems reach for clarity, symmetry, and beauty. Wendy is such a love and was such a popular professor back when I was at UTSA that there would be a line of students outside her door. Who did not want the amazing listening she provided and who did not become saved by her deep compassion. She literally restores any pessimist’s hope and faith in humanity because she is so centered and so wise, not to mention funny, badass, and brilliant. I call her my poetry mother. I will always consider her my poetry mother. She and another wonderful poet and professor, Norma Cantu, introduced my work to Sandra Cisneros by nominating me for the Alfredo Cisneros de Moral award.
That award allowed me to meet Sandra, which opened the door to me joining an amazing writing community in San Antonio, Macondo, which she created at her kitchen table over twenty years ago. Macondo is a homeland for writers who meet once a year here, who want to write for non-violent social change, and who have formed a collective made of an astonishing array of sensitive and generous professional writers from all over the country. This included Sandra’s friends like Luis Rodriguez, the poet, Ai, Richard Blanco, Helena Maria Viramontes, Dorothy Allison, Joy Harjo, and many many others. I was able to meet and work with the poets I studied and taught in my classes. What a phenomenal time that was, and while Sandra is no longer the lead, the group is emerging again under the auspices of The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, which has a long history of supporting the literary arts and has made a commitment to keep it going. Macondo also allowed me to meet and work with national treasures like John Phillip Santos, Carmen Tafolla, and Norma Cantu, who each, in their own way, have given me encouragement beyond my wildest dreams.
Apart from getting to know those super famoso writers, I met other prolific and kind writers at Macondo too, who work for social change, who embody integrity, and who live all over the country, and many of us are, as Sandra told me we would be, like a family. They opened up my horizons to see what was possible with a career as an academic and a writer. We tell each other the truth, pay attention to the whole person, not just the writer, and help each other when needed across the years and across miles. It is a love I cannot explain. We keep each other accountable, and we all understand the power of compassion and courage in writing because of our experiences at Macondo. I would not have gone to get my MFA had I not been working on my novel with my Macondo friends for years. With them, I had the chance to test the waters. In my MFA program at the University of Nebraska, I was able to dive in deep.
Now that my first book of poetry is out, I take part in more local literary events here in San Antonio, and I have met more of the local community members who have been active in the literary circles for many years. While I was a stay-at-home mommy and then a working mom, I was home a lot, either grading papers or taking my son to his extra-curricular activities. Now that he is older, I have a lot more flexibility to participate in local literary events and culture. I am in a poetry group that meets monthly, and included in this group are writers who are so accomplished, it is almost paralyzing, but I feel so loved and welcomed by them that I pretend I am not an imposter, take my infant poetry squiggles to them, and come away with great inspiration and ideas for improvement. Our group varies from month to month, but includes regulars such as Jim LaVilla-Havelin, Bryce Milligan, Glover Davis, Mariana Aitches, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Roberto Bonazzi, and their wisdom in letters are so far beyond mine that I feel like a child at the ripe age of 46. That is a good feeling to have at my age, and so is the joy, insight, and awakening that happens to me every time we meet.
Another fantastic literary community in San Antonio that has really impacted me is Gemini Ink, an incredible organization for the letters here in San Antonio. Gemini Ink is a local treasure that has allowed me to work with Yusef Kumunyakaa, Tim O’Brien, Reyna Grande (twice!), and others. Gemini Ink offers a fabulous reading series, classes for all levels of writers, and friendship and community for me. Sheila Black and her predecessor, Rosemary Catcalos, two amazing poets, have led this organization so beautifully, offering me jobs in community centers and schools to do the sacred work of bringing literacy and creative writing to some of the most deserving and underserved people I have ever met. Our town is brimming with comunidad, letters, arts, and culture, and we have the writers who put their sleeves up and are willing to share the power of language with all. They inspire me and keep me wanting to improve.
Similarly, what presses, journals, and organizations have made the biggest difference in your life and career?
Arte Publico press has made the biggest difference in my life and career. They introduced me to my whole voice by publishing Pat Mora’s book, Chants, the first book of poetry I read that allowed my bilingual mind to have a presence in my poems. I was 19 when I read this book and fell in love. I will never and can never go back to being a single-language and single-culture poet. Before I read Mora, I did not even hear half of my brain, nor did I let it come to the page. This made a drastic shift in the authenticity of my voice. Recently, that same press accepted my first novel. When this happened, it was like the heavens opened up. It felt like fate, and it also felt like coming home to receive that acceptance. I am thrilled beyond belief that this press sees me as worthy. I have a spiritual and cultural tie to this press. Other presses that I adore are Bordersenses, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Sliver of Stone, all of whom published me at a very vulnerable time in my life. I put the pen down for almost a decade while my soul was dying. They sort of told me not to quit. Burntdistrict a journal run by two of my best friends from Nebraska, has a great piece of my heart. This journal and their press, Spark Wheel Press, do fine work and keep discovering the next big Tupelo poets. I am so proud of them!
What writers do you think have influenced you the most, either in their writing or in their lives?
Wendy Barker, Pat Mora, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Luis Alberto Urrea, William Carlos Williams, H.D. (big time), and Mark Doty, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Naomi Shihab Nye. I have not met each of these lighthouses in the dark, but I know their work deeply, and I feel like my soul is interlinked with theirs, like we are comadres, friends, confidants. Sometimes I will talk to one of them while I am driving in my car, hoping they would understand. That is what literature does–it keeps you from feeling alone in the abyss. Humans would be lost without literature. I am sure I am not alone when I put William Carlos Williams as part of this answer. Anyone who can write while living the harried life of a doctor should inspire us all. There is time to write if we grab a pen instead of our smartphone, cigarette, or remote control.
You’ve worked in different fields in and out of academia. Did some professions inspire you or influence your writing more than others?
Teaching English is all I have ever really done, and while this is a broad profession, from teaching metonymy and critical theory to teaching that their, they’re and there are three different words, I am most influenced by my students. Their innocence, their personal, lived stories, their fragility keep me humble and keep my feet on the ground. I know what is real and what is important. I am a small part of their miraculous lives. I work for them no matter what I do. I want them to know they are not alone and that they can make their wishes come true, and so I am constantly burning the midnight oil in order to become the writer I have always wanted to be for them to see that a person like them can do it, and so can they.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received or read?
“Sacrifice the words for the work.” Wendy Barker. This is easy to understand and keeps me from attaching myself to the words, no matter how pretty they may seem. The work is more important, and so the words need to serve that.
Ruth Madievsky’s first poetry collection, Emergency Brake, has just been released from Tavern Books as the 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection. Her poetry and fiction has been published by or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, and others. She is a doctoral student at The University of Southern California School of Pharmacy and a research assistant at an HIV clinic specializing in maternal care in Downtown Los Angeles.
Emergency Brake has quickly become one of my favorite books (seriously, do yourself or a loved one a favor and order it). Through strings of surprising and accurate metaphors, Ruth lyrically weaves a complex web of human interaction and shows the profound effect the speaker’s actions can have on other people and vice versa. I know it’s going to be a collection that I keep on my desk to revisit when I need inspiration, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Ruth for the My Tribe Series.
Can you tell me about the intersection between your two interests, writing and science? Does your Pharmacy studies and practice influence your writing and vice versa?
I used to see writing and pharmacy as antagonists. I’m very protective of my time and was sure that spending four years in pharmacy school would inevitably hurt my writing. I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Pharmacy and poetry share a core value—empathy—and I now believe that my time spent counseling patients as a clinician has made me a better writer and vice versa.
Also, not being in a Creative Writing MFA or PhD program gave me the drive to write nearly every day, if only to keep up with my peers who were in those programs. I was convinced that they were writing more than I was and were being exposed to opportunities (mentors, agents, etc.) that I couldn’t compete with. Feeling like an outsider motivated me to push myself as a writer more intensely than I probably would have if I was writing from within the academy. Put another way, if I wasn’t in pharmacy school, I don’t think Emergency Brake would exist.
What struggles did you encounter while writing and revising Emergency Brake? How did you overcome these struggles?
Sequencing the book was my most persistent struggle. I had no idea what to do with section breaks, whether it’d be better to open with a long poem vs. a short poem, to end the book on a note of hopefulness vs. semi-despair. I worried that readers would find it revolting if I followed up a poem about sexual violence with a poem about desire, or that they’d lose interest if I placed similar poems close together. Things like that.
In the months between when my book was selected for the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series and when we began the editing process, I questioned nearly every decision I’d made and pitched a drastically different version of the book to my editors. In the end, we stuck very close to the original. They believed in the work and didn’t think it needed the fifteen new poems and extra (highly arbitrary) section break I had suggested. We barely touched the sequence and focused instead on things like cutting or revising unnecessary similes (which my book was overflowing with) and images that I fell back on as a crutch in too many poems. It was fascinating to find that the things I was most insecure about were basically non-issues, and that the poems that needed the most work were the ones I had assumed were done.
I feel like many of your poems that I’ve read contain or circle around a mystery, which is part of what I find so compelling about them. A clear example is “On Memory,” published by Blackbird. Can you comment on the role mystery takes while crafting your work?
I’m not someone who experiences sudden bouts of inspiration and rushes to get it all down. For me, the urge to write has always been nonspecific. I keep a notebook full of images and phrases I’m drawn to, and I usually pull from that when I sit down to write. My revision process involves finding what belongs and what’s bullshit masquerading as depth. I tend to use a lot of bullshit phrases as stand-ins when I haven’t figured out what it is I’m trying to say. So maybe that sense of mystery comes back to me not plotting my poems and just sort of experiencing them as they form.
What sort of writing support system do you have or have you had in the past? How has community helped shape you as a writer?
I’m lucky to have a core group of writers that I trade work back and forth with. I rarely send work out for publication until at least one of them has given me feedback. I’ve been doing that the longest with the poets Jackson Burgess and August Lührs, ever since we were undergraduates at USC. It’s grounded in our loving many of the same poets—Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, to name a few—and in understanding how to read and critique each other’s work.
I’ve also had the privilege of studying with several poets whose work deeply moves me. Natalie Diaz shared her process for building emotional images and helped me pare back the chattiness of my poems. Matthew Dickman was Emergency Brake’s first reader, back when it was a therapy session pretending to be a book of poems. He was the first person to point out that I was the hero in nearly every poem, that I had sanitized the book of all traces of my capacity for cruelty. Cecilia Woloch led a month-long poetry workshop in Paris—the first time in my life that I spent every day living and breathing poetry. Matthew Zapruder introduced me to the idea of poems as mood-making devices rather than content machines. And my editors at Tavern Books, Carl Adamshick and Natalie Garyet, were the most generous readers I’ve ever had. Line-editing the book with them gave me incredible insight into how I write poems, and I’m sure part of that comes from their being stellar poets themselves.
So I’ve found community mostly through writing workshops, literary conferences like the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and through the process of publishing my first book. My poems are covered with the fingerprints of my mentors and friends.
Can you tell me about your current projects?
I’m working on a collection of linked stories, many of which take place at a fictional Los Angeles dive bar called Salvation. To quote the title story, “Salvation was the kind of place where you could expect to see a teenage Ukrainian immigrant reciting Dostoevsky to a soccer mom drinking a flask of Scope mouthwash.” I’ve written five stories so far, one of which, “Hamster,” will be published in an upcoming issue of The Iowa Review.
I’ve also been tinkering with the idea of writing a book-length lyric essay. I was totally electrified by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, to name a few. I have this document on my computer with pages and pages of theory on gender, illness, sex, trauma, anxiety, the body, you name it. The project hasn’t found its shape yet, but I’ve been enjoying exploring the possibilities.
Ready for a sample of her work? Hear Ruth Madievsky read two poems originally published by Springhouse Journal:
I was recently promoted to Poetry Editor at Carve Magazine! I’ve loved working with Carve on the poetry reading committee, and I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to work more closely with its staff and writers on expanding and improving the section.