In the Field: Conversations with our Contributors–Angela Narciso Torres
In The Field is a series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors.
1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
I was in a workshop with Terrance Hayes and we were looking at definition poems. So when I got home I tried to write one. I thought I’d take it a step further and use the various definitions of the word “between” in a sentence, as you often see in a dictionary. Inadvertently, the sample sentences somehow started to form a kind of narrative. Being a writer with a strong narrative bent, I’m always interested in finding ways to subvert the traditional linear trajectory of storytelling. Using the nonliterary form of the dictionary entry was a fun and sneaky way to do this. The use of blanks came later—I thought it would be interesting to leave spaces in the poem, inviting the reader to participate in the poem’s meaning-making. This gave the poem an element of surprise and unintentional humor, as I’ve found when I’ve performed this poem in readings.
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved writing in little notebooks. I read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was about nine and have been a diarist ever since. My first diary was a small clothbound Hello Kitty notebook with a lock. I wrote down everything in my Catholic schoolgirl script, even the most mundane things, addressing them to an imaginary friend named Daisy, e.g. “Dear Daisy, Today I woke up, brushed my teeth, and played with my dog, Wiglet . . .” and so on. Being an avid reader, I also enjoyed copying down esoteric quotes from books I’d read, whether or not I grasped the full meaning or implication at that tender age. e.g. (from The Little Prince) “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Back then it was more about the pleasure of getting things on paper than about the writing itself, then later looking back at how the pages filled up and made the shape and story of a life—my life! I was a serious, introverted child with a small circle of close friends and a huge inner life, prone to daydreaming. Most of the time, I felt “on the fringe of things,” an observer, looking on. I think this all made fertile ground for becoming a writer.
3. How has writing shaped your life?
I see writing as a kind of “spackling” that fills up the cracks of life, giving it form and a kind of solidity.Being someone who lives so much in my head, writing offers a kind of grounding to the airiness of thought, idea, and dream. When I write a poem, I like to begin by hand (as opposed to on a laptop) with a fountain pen on thick paper. I like the sound and feel of the nib scratching across the paper fibers. It’s gratifying to see all the swirling thoughts and feelings take shape on the page and become a “thing” you can actually see and read and carry around in your pocket. The habit of keeping a diary or journal has stayed with me over the years, and has definitely helped me process some of the most intense emotional experiences and major life transitions I’ve been through. But the ephemera—the scraps of daily life—that could easily get lost or go unnoticed ends up in there, too. Most importantly, writing for me has always been a way of figuring out what you know, and even more importantly, what you don’t know.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
Books: Little Women. Anne of Green Gables. Little House on the Prairie. Sadly, I didn’t have access to many books by writers of color when I was growing up, but my father, an avid reader himself, had the good sense of giving me books about strong women writers who forged their way bravely in a world of men.
Later, Filipina writers like Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Doreen Fernandez, Marianne Villanueva, and Barbara Jane Reyes taught me, in my early education as a writer living in America, that only you can tell your story—with your particular lens—and for that reason alone it is worth telling, worth being heard.
Anything by Sharon Olds. Elizabeth Bishop. Li Young Lee. Yusuf Komunyakaa. Some writers I’ve been reading lately that inspire and amaze me are Ada Limon, Rick Barot, Aimee Nezukhumatatl, Tracy K. Smith, and Natalie Diaz.
The Filipino artist Hermes Alegre, whose art graces the cover of my first collection, Blood Orange, inspires me. His paintings are often portraits of Filipina women against a stunningly detailed and lush backdrop of Philippine flora and fauna. He told me that he often would take walks in the wooded area near his studio but without pen or paper, committing the green landscape of flowers and foliage to memory, then trying to recreate it on his canvas from a mental image. The results are vibrant, imaginative, and even somewhat fantastic or hyper-real. Living away from my homeland, I’ve often had to do this in my poems—recreate images of home from memory and fill up the blank spaces using my imagination. So perhaps this is why his work speaks to me.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m working on putting together my second collection of poetry, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. As an editor of the Chicago-based poetry journal RHINO, and having recently relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles, I’m currently working on establishing a presence for the journal on the West Coast. With the help of a few editors and friends, I recently hosted RHINO’s debut at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, with a book fair exhibition and a reading featuring some of our West coast contributors and friends to celebrate the launch of our current issue. This year, I’ve taken on the role of book reviews editor for RHINO. We just released the second issue which is available here. Lastly—and always—I’m working on writing and sending out new poems.