In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Patrick Cabello Hansel
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Patrick Cabello Hansel
The featured image was taken from a broadside created by Nick Wroblewski displaying Roy McBride’s poem “Lilac Week” for the Powderhorn Writer’s Festival.
Your poem “Lilac Time Minneapolis, May 2020” published in Volume 25, reflects on the uprising in the days after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired your writing of this poem?
We live about a mile from George Floyd Square, and a couple blocks off Lake Street. My wife and I were serving a church that was two blocks from Lake, made up mostly of immigrant families. So many were traumatized by his death, the burning of Lake Street and the militarized response (after no action to stop the arsons). We had tried to work with the local precinct for 15 years to do real community policing for our diverse and poor neighborhood. But even before George Floyd’s murder, the police too often swung between no response at all to an occupying force that was more military than policing. This all was in the context of increasing anti-immigrant feeling and actions at the federal level, COVID and political division. So it was a tumultuous time, to say the least! And there, in the middle of that, the beauty of lilacs blooming all throughout our fair city.
Your poem acknowledges Roy McBride, a well-known spoken word artist, poet, and activist in the Twin Cities community. What was your connection to Roy, and in particular, to his work that opened up “Lilac Time Minneapolis, May 2020” for you?
I did not know Roy well; our paths had crossed at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, especially at the May Day Festival (when sometimes the lilacs had just started to blossom). I wish I had got to know him better. But as soon as I heard his poem “Lilac Week” I was so moved. The whole world is taken over by lilacs and their short, intense time of that intoxicating aroma and color. As Roy wrote:
It’s lilac week.
surrenders to lilacs.
As I note in my poem, lilacs were the flowers that we brought as children to the May Crowning at the church in Austin, MN where I grew up. Hundreds of girls and boys dressed in pastel brought flowers to honor Mary, and the church was filled with such wonderful aromas.
In May 2020, I went out some nights on our little 2nd floor back porch. I could smell the tear gas from the precinct, the smoke from the fires, see the helicopters overhead and hear sirens, shouts, gunfire. But in the midst of that, our dwarf lilac was still giving off its last scent. That’s where the poem was born.
I’ve read a variety of responses over the years as to whether poetry allows for political conversations, political activism, and building progressive change. What is your response to this?
I honestly can’t imagine a poet not being engaged with their world and then writing about it. The challenge is to do so without being pedantic. Self-righteousness, no matter how just the cause, does not make for good poetry. I don’t want to be told how to think or feel about an issue or event, I want to be invited into the poet’s engagement with whatever they are writing about. I’m more of a narrative poet, so for me the best way to get at issues is through stories rather than ideas. In my first book The Devouring Land, the first third of the book is about immigration, but I don’t lay out policy or shout slogans. Rather, I tell stories, including people I love who were hunted, deported, separated from their families. For example, the images of a medical examiner in Arizona trying to discover one person’s identity from their bones speaks to the issue better than declaring that hundreds of people die each year crossing the border.
I’ve also found that if I get close to trying to solve the problems raised in a poem, I lose creative tension. Finally, imagination plays a key role for me; especially imagining what I call “the world beyond the world.” That means standing firmly in the world as it is, while living into the world as it will be. To me, that’s the definition of being incarnational; theologically, it is the word (promise) becoming flesh (reality).
You write and have published work across multiple genres, and you’ve also worked for decades in the faith community as a pastor, both in Minneapolis, the Bronx, and Philadelphia. How do all these avenues and mediums of work overlap in your creative writing? Do you find yourself exploring similar paths of thinking across your work?
I think faith has to do with creative tension as well. That is, holding together the reality of the pain of the world and the promise of liberation. The neighborhoods I worked in with my wife Luisa were communities of color, low-income, with many immigrant families. I was an effective pastor when I entered that reality as best I could and when I held onto a vision of a different reality. More often than not, it was the people I served who brought the abundance of faith. I was privileged to be the scribe and the speaker of that faith, in a dance with the scriptures and liturgies we had received and those we created. In every parish, we tried to bring the mythic and cultic practices of religion into the community we served. For example, with In the Heart of the Beast, St. Paul’s Lutheran developed La Natividad. It was a bilingual telling of the Christmas story from the point of view of an immigrant family in south Minneapolis. The whole audience processed with María and José as they sought shelter to have the baby. Living that ancient story in our current world—with music, art and of course, food—helped make it more alive for many.
Can you share with us about the mission and the work of the literary journal you edit, The Phoenix of Phillips?
The Phoenix of Phillips is a program of the Semilla Center for Healing and the Arts, which is a non-profit started by my wife and I as an extension of St. Paul’s community work. Semilla has taught mosaics, painting, puppetry, drama, urban gardening and many other arts to over 4,000 people, and installed 37 murals and over 50 other artistic place makers in the Phillips neighborhood and beyond. My wife is a mosaic artist, I am a writer, and it made sense to start a literary magazine for and by the community. Part of that was doing poetry workshops with seniors, new immigrants and especially youth. This past summer, I taught a group of youth and we wrote in different locations in the community. One of those was an historic cemetery, where we wrote poems to our ancestors and then from our ancestors. All of the photographs in The Phoenix, whether of street scenes or art we have produced, are done by youth.
The Phoenix welcomes submissions from people who live, work or volunteer in Phillips. We intentionally wanted it to be by the people it was for. But if anyone is interested, there are a lot of volunteer opportunities! You can see back issues of The Phoenix on Semilla’s website: https://www.semillacenter.org/creative-writing/
Who are some writers that inspire you?
Oh it depends on what week! Or day! When I started writing 45 years ago (!), two poets that really inspired were Gwendolyn Brooks and Theodore Roethke. The poets who’ve mentored me include Ed Bok Lee, Jude Nutter, Richard Terrill and Philip Schultz, among others. This week, I’ve been reading Sun Yung Shin, John Donne, Loren Niemi and Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. How’s that for eclectic?!
What projects are you working on now?
My third book of poems Breathing in Minneapolis will be published by Finishing Line Press in November. “Lilac Time” is in it. It’s about all that happened in 2020-2022. I’m working on a series about my mother (my second book Quitting Time was an extended elegy to my father). I continue to write poems about the city, social issues, family, nature and whatever else grabs me.
I’m also working on a novel that I have been writing for 10 years! It’s based in a fictional small town in southern Minnesota and is kind of a coming of age story of a young woman in the context of all that was going on from 1900-1919. A lot of stuff then too: war, women’s suffrage, prohibition, labor agitation, anti-immigrant movements, not to mention a global pandemic!
While retired from pastoral ministry, I am active in my church. Being retired gives me more time to garden and spend time with family, including our granddaughter, who just turned one.
Patrick Cabello Hansel is the author of the poetry collections The Devouring Land and Quitting Time, and the forthcoming collection Breathing in Minneapolis. He has published poems and prose in over eighty journals, including Crannóg, The Ilanot Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Ash & Bones, and riverSedge. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he has won awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board. His novella Searching was serialized in thirty-three issues of the alley newspaper. He is the editor of The Phoenix of Phillips, a literary journal by and for the most diverse community in Minneapolis. You can learn more about his work, along with his wife Luisa’s work, at their website https://www.artecabellohansel.com.
Smog Mother by John Wall Barger, Reviewed by Robyn Earhart
Smog Mother, John Wall Barger’s sixth collection of poetry, begins with an epigraph from the 1959 French New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour, written by Marguerite Duras:
SHE: The reconstructions have been made as authentically as possible.
The films have been made as authentically as possible.
The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that tourists cry.
One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?
Hiroshima Mon Amour follows two unnamed fictional paramours—one French and one Japanese—who meet in the city still ravaged from the atomic bomb dropped by Americans during the second world war. What, the lovers challenge each other, is true or false? The film depicts a common quandary for any writer of nonfiction on how to reconstruct the truth as authentically as possible with enough luster to attract readers.
In Smog Mother, John Wall Barger is our speaker-seer. Through his eyes, we experience kind connections among strangers, the chaos of public disorder, and the bonding love between friends and partners. While crisscrossing the Asian continent by bus, an Enfield motorcycle, or aboard the Trans-Mongolian railway, Barger repeatedly implores the reader to look, listen, and stay present with him. In the opening poem, the epic and titular “Smog Mother”, Barger addresses his readers with an invocation:
O reader listen closely lean in yes you just you yes
Throughout the collection, Barger’s work moves with a degree of cinematic flourish, particularly with his epic poems “Smog Mother”, “Samovar”, and “Dukkha.” It’s as if our speaker-seer is magnified under the lens of the camera witnessing that around him before the seer’s lens pans to an individual—a person, an animal, a natural element, and then we zoom into the encounter between the seer to the subject matter he is writing on. Often, what envelopes Barger to his subjects is his curiosity of a shared, personal connection.
In “Woman on a Hong Kong Bus at Night”, it is the empathy one stranger gives to another. In this case, it is a tired woman who falls asleep on the shoulder of Barger while riding the bus. We know nothing of this woman say for the initial scowl she presents him when he takes the seat next to hers, and as anyone who has ridden the bus knows, public transit offers a myriad of opportunities for personal encounters with strangers:
I wish this were a different world
One where we could lean on a stranger
The woman’s grinding teeth, her drool on his hand remind him of his desire for his wife Tiina who sits behind him, and this sensation causes him to reflect that without physical connection to loved ones,
this life is torture,
torquere, twisting the child out of the adult.
While there are many illuminating encounters among strangers, Barger’s prose equally shimmers while he muses on his relationships to those closest to him. In the elegiac poem “Dying in Dharamsala”, Barger vividly renders a portrait of his friend Carlos who appears on the page as both dying and lively at the same time:
And we believe it,
how could we not believe it?
For God’s sake,
just look at his elfin grin,
He is beautiful. And yet
It is poems like this, where Barger complicates the expected consequences of rendering the dying—the inevitable pity, sorrow, and despair—with love and tenderness, that his work really shines.
Tiina is a looming presence in this collection, and however brief her appearances are, it is clear that she reserves a special place in Barger’s writing. In “Dukkha”, while reflecting on a translated passage of the Indian mystic and poet Kabír, Barger worries about his feverish wife asleep in another room:
I have been wondering
What pain we share
And where we intersect
My tin ceiling drips
The hand of mist reaching in
I’m anxious about Tiina
His anxiety of Tiina’s pain seamlessly shifts to the pain Barger imagines the surviving town inhabitants of an earthquake experienced, or the pain that protestors felt after a Tibetan leader was arrested. Whether it be his wife or the friends he muses on, or the strangers and animals that he encounters by chance, Barger dispenses empathy to all. Pain, in its various forms, often serves as reverence for Barger’s melodious and philosophical parsing. He acutely delves into that eternally hard-pressed space that we as humans can feel a multitude of feelings at once—not an easy task for any tender-hearted writer to attempt! Life will always throw us curveballs, and therefore we can experience joy right along with heartache; this is part of the human experience. Barger masterfully probes these deep questions with solicitude.
“Sipping Tequila with a Friend on My Roof under the Cold Blowtorch Moon” is a particular standout poem that showcases Barger’s enlightening paradox of enjoying time spent with a friend on the unfortunate precipice of passing away:
What does it say about me
that I can feel joy
while bad things
happen? Is joy a thief
climbing in the window
we should clobber
over the head?
Further on in the poem, Barger attempts to honor and affirm what many of us feel when pressed into moments of sorrow and joy, lamenting that
It is forbidden
to love hurt things
more than nature does.
But joy, joy is the taproot.
We are allowed
to feel it.
In a surprising coda harkening back to Duras’s screenplay, Barger’s empathy is quickly turned inward, a shift that allows the reader additional clarity into Barger’s intentions with this collection. We too are impressed upon to see that what is around us may look the same, that life may proceed as it always has, but something about us, as with Barger in the coda, is different, altered with a greater wisdom and compassion for all life.
John Wall Barger’s Smog Mother is a searing and honest construction of imagistic poetry that sees the world with its flaws and its beauty. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking a book that exudes compassion and empathy for its subject matters. Fans of physical books will also love Smog Mother for its beautiful design. Thick, black pages partition the book into sections, and it features running images of a lone dog, emblematic of the canines who make appearances in several of Barger’s poems. The overall effect is visually stunning, and only adds to the alure of this finely crafted collection from a skilled seer and poet like Barger.
Robyn Earhart‘s work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Columbia Journal online, and the Under Review. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her husband and pets.
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—J.G. Jesman
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—J.G. Jesman
In “Mr Chilombo’s Wife”, your short story published in Volume 25, the narrator describes the goings-on of her day as we begin to see that something is off in the relationship between her and her husband. How did the idea for this story originate?
Over the phone, a relative informed me that someone we knew (in Malawi) had died in a hit and run accident. A woman. I didn’t know her that well but I was moved by the untimeliness of it all. It seemed unjust; like she’d been shoved out of existence. What would happen, I wondered, if someone died so abruptly they never noticed? Furthermore, how does such a death affect the bereaved?
What was your decision to write this story from Mrs Chilombo’s point of view? What was it like to create a woman who is essentially existing in the margins of her husband’s memories?
The story attempts to explore the love and grief of a controlling husband through the perspective of his deceased wife. The word “chilombo” in Chichewa means monster. Therefore, Mrs Chilombo is Mrs Monster. I was inspired by the idea of Frankenstein’s monster’s bride and her place in the novel; a supporting character whose existence would have been only in service to her husband. By placing the “traditional” woman at the centre of this story, Mrs Chilombo gets to reclaim her narrative.
It’s not too surprising that the 2022 word of the year—according to Dictionary.com— is “woman.” Clearly, women—mothers, daughters, wives, aunties, nieces and so on, have been existing on the periphery of men’s lives; Adam’s ribs if you will. This story is no different. We have a man who subjugates his wife and yet he is so devastated by her death that his life spirals out of control. Are his emotions a result of love or dependency—or both?
Each time I’ve read your story, I notice how I gravitate toward the tiny details that clarify what I think of as the story’s truth-telling elements: the fly-ridden dog of simple breed, the cassava that’s ignored, how “in Malawi it’s almost commonplace for people to die suddenly.” Can you share with us a bit about your decisions in “revealing” the truth near the end of the story? Was Mrs Chilombo alive in earlier drafts?
Mrs Chilombo was always a ghost of sorts. Even before “the revelation,” she was a husk of her former self. She was a grieving woman. A ghost in society and a ghost in her marriage. What was difficult to pull off was maintaining why she didn’t know that she had died. It was as if her sense of marital duty outweighed her acceptance of this fact.
Grief seems to be a recurring concept that appears in your work. What draws you to writing about loss and grief?
Mono no aware, in Japanese, is an idiom about the awareness of the impermanence of things. It’s a good philosophy. If life is a collection of losses, then grief is a testament of our endurance. Every so often it’s important to look at grief and death as reminders of what we have been through and what’s to come—I mean that in the least despairing way possible!
You published your first novel, Chisoni, or Conversations on a Plane About Life and Death (Penguin Random Press) in May of 2022. What was the process for publication like? How did this book come to fruition from idea to publication?
I am not a “trained” writer but as an animator/filmmaker; writing is a big part of the process. When my brother passed away some time back, I founded a blog to help me understand my emotions through studying the human condition. I had always been very interested in theology and I spoke to people of many religious backgrounds to find commonalities in how they dealt with loss—especially when reason fails. All of this “research” culminated in the start of a novel (in the course of about six months) which I continued to improve upon for some years. When it was done, I sent it to the editors at Penguin Random House South Africa, who I’m grateful to say, gave me a chance.
Tell us a little bit about your approach to writing short stories as opposed to your approach to something more longform, like a novel. Do they differ? How do you know when the form works for the story?
A short story is harder to put together, in my view. The reader is a lot less forgiving. One can judge whether or not they like a novel after a chapter, whereas the first paragraph of a short story can be enough to turn anyone off. A short story is truth concentrate. A novel is a carrier of multiple truths. I think the distinction is in how much the writer or the characters have to share.
Who are some writers that inspire you?
I really like the work of Richard Yates. Through his character’s struggles one sees that life happens on its own terms. In the short story format: Haruki Murakami (for his improvisation), Doris Lessing (for her study of details) and Kevin Barry (for reminding us all to have fun).
What projects are you working on now?
I am working on a short story collection to do with Malawian culture.
J.G. Jesman is a Malawian-British author and animator. His debut novel, Chisoni, or Conversations on a Plane About Life and Death, was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in May 2022. His short stories have appeared in the Fairlight Book of Short Stories and elsewhere. Jesman holds a master’s degree in film and media and has worked mainly in the video game industry. He founded a blog in 2014 centered on the human condition, exploring aspects of religion and spirituality. He is particularly interested in the pathos of things, and most of his stories deal with that theme.
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes
Congratulations on your Pushcart nomination for your fictional story “Drowning in shallow water is our only escape” in Volume 25! What was the process like for you while writing this unique piece?
Thank you! My writing had been thin and sporadic for a few years due to a 2018 house fire when fantastic writer Mona Susan Power asked me to submit something for her consideration for Water-Stone Review. I had been thinking that my next book would tell the story of the Spoken Forest, and an image from Blonde Indian presented itself to me as one of the men who live there. It took some struggle, but with Power’s guidance and encouragement, that character came to the page. (And during my reawakening, I was reminded of the three basic rules of my writing process: revise, revise, revise.)
I noticed that although this piece is written in prose, there is an air of poetry to it. From the title, to the opening line “One man stands on the deck of someone else’s dream,” to the closing lines “He simply watches, there in the spoken forest, waiting for the day our names are called. Waiting for the day we drown in shallow water.” Was there a particular genre or storytelling technique that you were building on as you crafted this piece?
Thank you for such a welcome observation! I aspire to lyrical prose. I read every sentence and phrase over and over, listening for music. The placement of one word, the inclusion or absence of punctuation, the matters of diction and syntax, the question of prepositions — all are rearranged, deleted, added, and rearranged again as I try to hear music. It can’t happen with every sentence or even every paragraph, but sometimes rhythm emerges and sometimes I’m lucky enough to think I hear it.
I keep in mind the poetry of Tlingit oratory as my greatest example, yet I am well aware that I can only aspire to and never reach the sophistication and depth of meaning those old words put to voice. Gunalchéesh!
Who are the storytellers that inspire you? What do you enjoy reading?
The old stories in the Dauenhauer series Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature are a lifelong study. The Dauenhauers’ stories, introductions, and endnotes that accompany the translations, together with ancient histories in the Lingít language translated to English, inspire on many levels. I try to read other old works regularly as well, especially the Tao te Ching, although I am not a scholar of Asian studies (to my misfortune). I follow the work of favorite authors like Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Mona Susan Power. Recently I’ve been reading more works in other genres such as from playwright Vera Starbard.
This story is a haunting, an inescapable sorrow, a story of a community suffering the effects of colonization. Each character is unique yet also universal in their pain. Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote this piece?
Thank you. My hope is that readers who know Old Tom and Young Tom will be interested in this glimpse into their continuing stories. I am also of the hope that Water-Stone readers will indulge a writer who is new to them and perhaps become curious. But it is my greatest wish, for this story and all my stories, that all people recognize the weight that the 20th century placed upon the Indigenous people of what is now Alaska and what is now the United States, and we will go forward together into a new literary direction that acknowledges our shared path and creates our shared future.
As part of the Tlingit nation, indigenous to Alaska, what are your thoughts on the healing needed for indigenous communities? How does art and storytelling impact healing?
Art impacts healing because it brings us together in our shared humanity. Many people, perhaps most, are well fed up with the excesses in which we now find ourselves: the end stages of patriarchy, capitalism, oligarchy, consumerism, waste, racism, classism, elitism, colonialism, all the artificial ways of being that we suffer together, regardless of ethnicity or heritage. Even a glance at Indigenous teachings reveals that Indigenous values are human values, human world views, human ways of being. We are all in this together, and we all need to tell our own stories and to heal.
Your personal story of dropping out of high school in your youth, struggling with homelessness, and then attending college in your fifties, going on to teach and write multiple books is extremely inspiring. Where did you get your determination? Do you have any advice for writers approaching the craft later in life?
My determination came into full bloom when I resolved at the age of forty to go home or to die with my thoughts facing north. It took the better part of a year to get from San Francisco to Ketchikan, living in my car, standing in foodlines, and sleeping in shelters, and it took another two years to make it all the way back home to Juneau. I faced north and I learned resolve, and it served me in many subsequent challenges.
However, it must be pointed out that for people born in comparable circumstances in this colonized world, being determined is just the way you make it through another day.
You are a writer that isn’t limited to one genre, you’ve written memoirs, poetry, children’s books, and fiction. How do you shift between genres? Is there a particular genre you are most comfortable writing in?
Like most things categorized, separated, defined, and labeled by imposed standards, one simple push on the box of forced convention reveals unsteady substance. There is a difference between fact and truth.
Our lives are the vehicles by which stories tell themselves. In my books, characters from my life appear in the fictionalized Old Tom and Young Tom threads. Old Tom, Young Tom, Delphin, White Man Jerry, and others in the fictionalized threads are based on real people. I remain true to my personal story, but that, too, is viewed through a singular lens, and even the memories we know to be true are incomplete and are enriched or diminished by emotion and purpose. It could be that all writing contains truth. It’s said that truth by its nature creates discomfort, so that probably means I’m most comfortable with fiction.
During your writing career, you have received many honors including being named Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2017-2019 and in 2021 you received the Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Recognition by the Rasmuson Foundation showed me that I belong to a strong community that values me. As a child in the territory of Alaska, I was excluded by White and Native people alike in those conservative territorial days. In California I was part of various communities at different times, but all of them were temporary.
When I went to college at the age of 50, I was focused on working and raising my grandchildren. For some time when I was teaching, I was the only person of color on the faculty. In all those scenarios, I didn’t feel that I belonged. But when Rasmuson held the event that honored me as Distinguished Artist, I realized I was part of an Alaskan community and I cried the whole time. So I would say that my greatest achievement that has to do with writing is that I am part of a large, caring Alaskan community. Gunalchéesh!
ERNESTINE SAANKALÁXT HAYES belongs to the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Tlingit nation. She is the author of two books: Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, winner of the 2007 American Book Award, and The Tao of the Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir. She served as Alaska Writer Laureate from 2016 to 2018 and was named the Rasmuson Distinguished Artist. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Yellow Medicine Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is professor emerita of the University of Alaska Southeast and lives in Juneau, where she was born and raised.
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ty Chapman
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ty Chapman
Congratulations on being nominated for the Pushcart Award for your poem “Pantheon” in volume 25. This poem speaks not only to the multifaceted layers of oppression Black people face, but also to their divinity. What do you hope readers will take away from this powerful poem?
There’s certainly a part of me that wants to say something along the lines of the author is dead, and I trust readers to interpret the work however they deem best.
However, that’s not a very good answer, and is perhaps a cop out, so I’ll do my best to speak to my intentions while writing this poem. I wanted to speak to the robust history of violence against Black folks present within my community, and within the nation. I wanted to speak to the hurt I, and many other Black folks, carry daily, without presenting us only as our sorrow. Black folk are so much more than sorrow–I think to flatten my people to that one layer of complexity would be yet another act of violence. I wanted to invite sorrow, rage, joy (as resistance,) pride, godhood, and everything between, to share space on the page.
This is partially because I believe contrasting emotions serve to heighten one another in art. Much like in life, if there were no context of sorrow, how would we know joy? I also feel this is the only way to accurately speak to the issue at hand; because the human experience is that of hills and valleys, of finding pockets of warmth to cling to even as the earth is dying. Even as our people are dying. So, I suppose I hope readers walk away with all that (ha.)
Even moreso, I hope readers walk away questioning what “justice” looks like in this country. How the punishing of one cop is a raindrop in the ocean. How we need to do more. How anything less is committing ourselves to more stories that end with a neck on concrete.
“Pantheon” also contains the phrase that ended up being the title for Volume 25, “How Quiet Burns.” Our team of editors selected phrases throughout the collection which could work to tie all the pieces into a cohesive whole. Your line ended up being the one chosen. What does the phrase “how quiet burns” signify for you?
That phrase, and to an extent the poem itself, is a response to the cyclical performativity I’ve noticed in relation to hate crimes. When a particular injustice is trending, folks are quick to take a selfie at a protest, quick to make their avi a black square, quick to scream from the mountaintops that they supported a Black business for the first time the other day. But when it’s not, when there’s no societal pressure pushing folks to be vocal, there’s a ton of silence. It feels like every other day there’s some fresh heartbreak in the news and folks are just content to not engage with it. Meanwhile that’s someone’s neighbor, child, sibling, parent, friend, lover being brutalized by police, or by amateur cop aspirants. The collective apathy, the decision that millions make simultaneously to just turn away, it’s profoundly painful for folks who have experienced prejudice. That shit hurts. It burns. It kills.
The poem “Philophobia: An Heirloom” also included in V. 25 is another powerful piece about a “fatherless son” and how family dynamics become cyclical, making it hard to be vulnerable enough to love, and strong enough to father. I was really taken by this poem’s melancholic reflection. What was your process like in creating this poem?
Yeah, this was a hard poem to write if I’m being honest. It came about partially in reflecting on my own complex family dynamics–the history present there. How a fatherless father can make the decision to leave his child fatherless–how much pain and fear must plague a person in order to make that sort of decision. How trauma travels down a lineage.
Writing this poem, which is as much about my father, and his, as it is about myself and my own shortcomings, felt like both a practice in radical compassion and honest self reflection. More than that though, this is a poem about love. About this misconception, that I think many of us hold in our bodies, that love is a force to fight against. That such vulnerability only represents the potential for pain. And of course, as you say, how cyclical this history of little violences can become. How so many of us hurt those we claim to care for in a bid to protect our most vulnerable parts.
Additionally, it was a slight experimentation with form. This poem was heavily inspired by Jericho Brown’s Duplex form, though it is not quite a proper duplex. I sort of decided to pick and choose elements, (the couplets and repetition) without keeping everything. Jericho called the duplex “a mutt of a form.” So I guess I’d say this poem is a bastardization of the mutt (ha.)
That’s all a wordy way of saying my process was 2 parts reflection, 1 part form.
You are also a writer of children’s books. I recently gifted a copy of your picture book Sarah Rising to a youngster close to me. This book talks about a young girl who participates in a protest against police brutality with her father. “Pantheon” as well tackles police brutality and racism, referring to George Floyd’s last words “All he wanted was his momma.” What are your thoughts on how literature can affect social change?
There’s a lengthy history of literature being in conversation with social movements, inspiring them, reminding people of their shared humanity, of what we cannot tolerate as human beings. There’s a reason totalitarian regimes target the artists. There’s a reason nazis burned books. There’s a reason individuals in our country essentially seek to accomplish the same goal via bannings. I think books, written with care, are inherently dangerous to those who would seek to divide and conquer–those who would seek total control on the false basis that some folks are less human than others–less deserving of stories or compassion. Art has always had a deep home in social justice movements. Is my poem going to change America? Nah. Is Sarah Rising? Probably not. But I believe that art can be a drop in the bucket; a tool for gradual change, in conjunction with folks standing side-by-side to demand justice.
You have three picture books Sarah Rising, A Door Made for Me written with Tyler Merritt, and coming soon Looking for Happy. What draws you to the art form of writing books for children?
On one level, writing for children feels like an attempt at an intervention. Children are birthed with so much love in their bodies. It feels perhaps cliche to say, but children must be taught to hate. So, to a certain extent, I write for children to offer an alternative to hate at a time where humans are still open to new ideas. We become so walled off and rigid as we grow–unwilling to consider the stories of others, or consider that we might carry harmful and false notions with us.
I think early childhood, in so many ways, is the perfect time for an intervention. To center an alternative to hate.
On another, and even more crucial level, I write to kids in a bid to provide light and support to children living through absolutely terrifying times. In considering the future, I feel immense fear–so I can only imagine how our current world weighs on the youth. I want to remind the youth, especially Black youth, that there are folks who will look to protect them, that there are still reasons to smile as well as reasons to stand up and demand better. I adore writing to kids because it gives me an opportunity to center the stories I desperately needed, and did not have growing up.
In addition to being a writer, you were also a puppeteer. Do you intend to work as a puppeteer in the future? How did the artistry of puppetry shape you as a writer?
Puppetry put me back in touch with my roots as an artist. I began experimenting with the form at a time when I was working two other jobs (behavior management in an educational setting, and food running because educators never get paid enough) and I was positively joyless. Reconnecting with the arts through puppetry and theater reminded me to demand agency in my life, to center storytelling above all else.
Additionally, writing for the form has an absurd amount of overlap with writing picture books–only I didn’t have a remarkable team of editors, agents, and publicists backing me up when I was writing puppet shows (thank you editors, agents, and publicists.) The two forms feel intrinsically linked. Much like a puppet, picture book characters go through one action at a time, typically having a single focus or desire per spread. Much like puppet shows, picture books are an incredibly visual form. In both forms, dialogue and exposition must sometimes take a backseat to the stunning visuals they’re known for. Other times, they very much must not. The balancing act present in both forms feels very similar.
Regarding a return to the stage, I’ll never say never, but creating both as a poet and fiction author feels like a full time gig and then some. I still love the form, and would love to write a show and let other people perform it some day, but I think my time center stage might be behind me (short lived as it was.)
You are a Loft Literary Mirrors and Windows fellow and a Mentor Series fellow. Could you explain a little about this work and opportunities that these awards provided for you as a writer?
BIG shoutout to Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin, Bao Phi, and The Loft Literary Center. I owe them my career. Mirrors and Windows was a life changing experience for me. I probably wouldn’t be a children’s book author if not for that fellowship teaching me the ins and outs of writing for the form, and what to expect as a person of color navigating the publishing business. I certainly wouldn’t have a few books out with more on the way.
Mentor series also felt helpful! It put me in touch with talented authors who helped me refine my craft. My forthcoming debut poetry collection grew a lot during my time in the Mentor Series, learning from incredible mentors like Shannon Gibney, Anika Fajardo, Chris Santiago, and more.
But also, engaging with The Loft’s other programming has helped me develop as a writer and professional as well. Taking months of poetry classes with Gretchen Marquette (as well as borrowing an ungodly number of books from Danez Smith, unrelated to The Loft) in 2020 helped me begin my poetry collection (then in the form of a chapbook) submitting a previous version of the collection to Sun Yung Shin for manuscript critique in 2021 helped it grow enough to be longlisted in Button Poetry’s chapbook contest. My time in the Mentor Series helped me develop stronger work, and make the leap from chapbook-in-progress to full length collection-in-progress.
Art making, like baby raising, takes a whole village. The Loft played a huge role as I cobbled mine together.
You have a forthcoming poetry collection through Button Poetry. What themes are you tackling through your poetry, and when can we expect to get our hands on it? What else are you working on?
Thematically, I think the two poems published through Water~Stone are a solid representation of the greater collection being published by Button. It goes in depth with the same themes: systemic racism, social justice, love, loss, loneliness, existentialism, nihilism, joy, hope, and all their intersections. Also rage. Can’t forget the rage. Many of the thoughts, experiences, and sentiments that wouldn’t be thematically or developmentally appropriate for my kidlit work found their way to my poetry collection, so I think there’s a decent spread.We’re still working on it, so it’ll be a while. Look for that collection in 2024.
One might say I’m doing too much.
I’m currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and that’s keeping me busy. It has been a great opportunity to experiment with new forms, genres, voices, and age ranges, so I hope to have fun developments on that front eventually. Additionally, I’m working on a collaborative picture book with my dear friend John Coy, my next solo picture book that I can’t speak on too much yet, and wrapping up the process on Looking for Happy, which comes out May 2023.
TY CHAPMAN is the author of Sarah Rising (Beaming 2022); Looking for Happy (Beaming 2023); A Door Made for Me, written with Tyler Merritt (WorthyKids 2022); Tartarus (Button Poetry 2024); and multiple forthcoming children’s books through various publishers. Chapman was a finalist for Tin House’s 2022 Fall Residency, Button Poetry’s 2022 Chapbook Contest, and Frontier Magazine’s New Voices contest. Chapman’s accomplishments also include being named a Loft Literary Center Mirrors and Windows fellow and a Mentor Series fellow, and attending Vermont College of Fine Arts in pursuit of his master’s degree in creative writing for children and young adults.