Interview with 2017 LHP Poetry Prize Winner: ABIGAIL CHABITNOY!

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Amanda Fuller chats with the captivating Abigail Chabitnoy about the inspiration behind her LHP Prize winning poem "Executive Order," history, place and how the element of water influences and shapes her work, and, of course, what she locks horns with! Want to know what a "creeper" is and why it fascinates her? Read on!

AF: Thank you so much for contributing a couple of seriously fantastic poems to LHP’s Poetry Prize for our forthcoming anthology Read Water: An Anthology (2018).  How is water an element important to your poems or poem making? Can you tell us what compelled you to write the LHP Poetry Prize winning poem, “Executive Order”?

AC: Water has been an image that has haunted me since my very first poem, in the second or third grade. I think it was a concrete poem, either about drowning, singing, or swimming under water, and was shaped like a whirlpool, like I imagine a child might draw the Charybdis in The Odyssey. I remember in that poem the simultaneous approach of fear and awe towards the sea. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and only went to the beach once a summer, but I was always afraid of how strong the waves were, of rip tides, and always, perhaps irrationally, of sharks. And yet I love to be on the water. In a boat, on a paddle board, in a kayak. I typically stick to lakes, safe water, out of situation (I now live in Colorado, still landlocked) but also out of nerves. Even as an adult, I dreamt of creeper waves before I knew they were an actual thing. But my great-grandfather was from an island in the North Pacific sea. My ancestors are from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He was taken from his home on Kodiak to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1901, and died around the time my grandfather was born. None of us have made it back to the islands yet (though I’m hoping to this year), and we grew up with just the story of our family name, an orphan, and an island.

I’ve been thinking about my family’s history a great deal lately. My first book, How to Dress a Fish, which will be published by Wesleyan later this year, is largely concerned with story and history, who gets to tell which, how the story changes speaker to speaker, reader to reader. And I’ve always been interested in traditional stories from other cultures, especially Unangan and Sugpiaq (Aleut/Alutiiq) stories my ancestors might have known. The winds on those islands have been described as so strong no man could walk against them. Recently I’ve been interested in what stories can offer in the age of #45. I wrote “Executive Order” after the inauguration, as government websites went down and rumors circulated of cuts to government personnel and departments. I worried how one man working alone along such a singular course of value assessment might hang us all up to dry. I worried about what other threats might persist even if we could find a way to negate 45, how long we can collectively fight climate change before we change tactics, prepare to brace ourselves against impact. Creeper waves, after all, are a real thing, and the water’s getting higher.

AF: What, if anything, are your concerns as a poet? Similarly, because Locked Horn Press is interested in exploring spaces where conflict exists, what are the issues, or where are the spaces, with which you “lock horns”?

AC: I was a reluctant poet before grad school. I wanted to be a fiction writer, but more along the lines of Borges and Italo Calvino. I was interested in the stories that acted like poems. That is, I was interested in language, in how something was said as much as what was said. When I first began writing, I was just interested in a good story, a good escape. I didn’t watch the news if I could help it. I volunteered when it was convenient, or would look good on an application. It was easy enough to look away, or rather, to simply not look. Needless to say, this early writing was terrible. It didn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t get past the details, the way a simple edit made a sentence mean something entirely different, made a sentence more even. So I began to look at details and how they interacted, what those details suggested about larger ways of seeing and being. I began to pay attention. Poetry has provided me with a medium in which to spend time with these details, with my concerns. Lately those details have been largely about identity—who gets to identify in what way, in the company of which others. How that identity gets changed in translation, in the telling of the story if you will. Relationships personal and impersonal, understood and misunderstood, local and national. All to say, it matters what stories get told, how they get told, who gets to tell them. I’m interested in the stories we tell young girls—and boys—about what it means to grow up in this country, to be successful in this country, to be a person in this country. I’m interested in how we tell our history, how the schools I attended would argue it’s an objective narrative. Maybe some “facts” are alternative after all. I’m interested in how the way in which we frame the story closes doors we might need to reopen. I’m interested in what other languages have to say about how we see the world. Now, partly because of my work, I read the news every day, as much of it as I can stomach, and I need to know there’s a way of facing each new horror, a way to act, a way to go forward with hope. A way to take a step back, take a breath, and come back to this problem of living. My husband looked at my Facebook newsfeed once and said it was no wonder I always felt like the sky was falling. We tend to surround ourselves with the same kinds of stories after awhile, and they can set us in a rut. I’m trying to use poetry to turn that rut into a furrow for growing.

AF: As we are always interested in the diversity of poets’ lives, can you talk a little about your work with indigenous communities? How does this work influence your writing /writing life?

AC: As I mentioned above, my great-grandfather was sent from his home on Kodiak, Alaska, to the Carlisle Indian School when he was 15 years old. His parents had just died, and it seems an aunt sent him with a priest who was traveling through. He didn’t go back to Alaska when he left the school. We don’t know if he could if he wanted to. We don’t know if he wanted to. He stayed in Pennsylvania, married a local girl, got a job at a factory in the very white, largely affluent Hershey, Pennsylvania, and had a couple boys. I know those boys were called “half-breed” as kids growing up in Hershey, and I know my grandfather drank quite a bit. When I was growing up, I knew—or we thought we knew—our last name meant “salmon-fisher” and stemmed from when the Russians came to the Aleutian Islands and started giving everybody different names. But that’s about it—and the translation we had, it turns out, wasn’t even accurate. It was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that really put me back in touch with my great-grandfather’s culture, and I’m still very much in the process of learning. Of listening. And of wondering why I never heard more of these stories.

In my poetry and in my work with indigenous communities, listening is a critical prerequisite. I’m a research and marketing associate for a Native-owned consulting company that primarily works to support tribal self-determination initiatives. Sometimes this means facilitating meetings and consultations between tribal representatives and military personnel. Sometimes this means doing research on pipelines and electric plans and blogging about electric utilities to try to determine available courses of action so that the appropriate leaders might make more-informed decisions about what best meets the needs and priorities of their communities. Most days I feel like an event planner, or wonder how I landed as a technical writer in a field in which I have no prior knowledge or experience. But my favorite days are when I get to meet people—consultation meetings where both military personnel and indigenous representatives are present, or trips out into the field with the original stewards of those lands. That’s when I get to hear everyone’s stories—the good, the bad, and the prejudiced. The hardest part, as it’s usually the first impulse, is to recognize that these are not my stories. But they are windows I was allowed to look through, and if I look closely, my own reflection is in that glass as well. These stories offer me entry points back into my own life and experience, offer frames that I can in turn offer others, hopefully, to show themselves back again in less fixed light. I think poetry is similarly a sustained act of listening.

AF: Are there any poets who come to mind, or books that come to mind, as having been especially influential to your work?

AC: Calvino and Borges really inspired me to pursue writing in my undergraduate studies. (I was originally an anthropology major.) Ben Marcus’s The Father Costume and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red warmed me up to the idea that I could pursue stories and poetry (and anything in between), though it was my professor, the poet and translator Michelle Gil-Montero, who finally pushed me through the door via MFA program recommendations, and my soon-to-be mentor Dan Beachy-Quick’s reading in New York City that sealed the deal. I’ve also very frequently returned to Jean Valentine and Alice Notley.

When I was writing my first book, Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow was influential, as was Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. DG Okpik’s Corpse Whale first gave me the idea to explore the Alutiiq language in poems. And I always return to Sherwin Bitsui’s work when I feel like I’m not paying enough attention to images in my own poems.

AF: What gets you out of bed in the morning; in other words, what inspires you, encourages you to keep going, writing, moving, etc.?

AC: Hmm, a kind of masochistic compulsion? (I’m kidding. Mostly. I think.) The MFA program was wonderful because of the flexible schedule it provided, but before the program and since graduating, I typically have to get up at 5 to squeeze in time to write before the day begins. But I don’t think I could not write. On the one hand it seems especially hard these days because there’s always some new crisis or injustice in the news and it can get a person down. It takes more digging to find the positive stories. Or to find a better angle for the negative stories, or to make space for something better out of those stories. But that’s something poetry has provided for me lately, a tool to process the news and the narrative and to find an angle in, or rather out of the fatalistic to a narrative that at least attempts to approximate something like hope, hope for a transformation if not a simultaneous silver lining. How we frame the narrative can have a tremendous impact on how we’re able to move forward and face each day. I also think poetry offers a space for conversation and an opportunity to slow down and pay attention, both of which are frequently missing in the course of my average day unless I take the time to participate through writing.

I think, especially after grad school, it’s incredibly easy to stop writing. No one’s checking in on you or your work. No one’s holding you accountable. But the same is true of living an engaged and present life. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to social injustices or communities impacted by war or climate change or historical trauma (if you’re fortunate, that is; for many there is no choice). It’s easy to remain transfixed on one’s own immediate needs and desires, to not pay attention or participate in the bigger picture. It takes a conscious and sustained effort to meaningfully engage in today’s overwhelmingly digital and anonymous (yet simultaneously global) world. For me, engaging with poetry is how I engage with others. It’s how I hold myself accountable. And, of course, I am fortunate to still be in touch with a wonderful community of friends and mentors—Dan Beachy-Quick, Camille Dungy, Joan Kane—who do to some extent hold me accountable simply in their support and encouragement of my work. That community is so important.

AF: And finally, are there any books or poets you have read lately that you loved, or would like to tell us about?

AC: It still seems so recent to me that I consciously decided to submit to poetry that I never feel well-read enough, and my pile of books to read is taller than my pile I have read. But books I’ve read lately that have left me truly floored are Joan Kane’s Milk Black Carbon and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Talk about books that are doing the work of demanding engagement, demanding to be heard. I believe Sherwin Bitsui has another book on the way, Dissolve, which I’m really looking forward to. I just picked up Michael Wasson’s This American Ghost, which I’m excited to read after hearing him read a couple poems [at AWP] in Tampa. And I just had the privilege of reviewing Jennifer Elise Foerster's latest book, Bright Raft in the Afterweather, which I highly recommend.

I’ve always been interested in work that bends genre as well, and recently picked up Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics. I’m really interested to see more works that create room for experimenting with image and text. Honestly, lately I’ve been reading more graphic novels than poetry. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, of course. But also Saga and The Wicked + The Divine. At the end of the day, I’ve always been obsessed by story.

  Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Nat Brut, Red Ink, and Mud City, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is an enrolled descendant of the Koniag Corporation and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. She grew up in Pennsylvania and currently resides in Colorado, where she is a research associate for a consulting firm specializing in supporting indigenous self-determination. Her debut poetry collection,  How to Dress a Fish , is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in Fall 2018.

Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Nat Brut, Red Ink, and Mud City, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is an enrolled descendant of the Koniag Corporation and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. She grew up in Pennsylvania and currently resides in Colorado, where she is a research associate for a consulting firm specializing in supporting indigenous self-determination. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in Fall 2018.

INTERVIEW WITH LOCKED HORN PRESS CONTRIBUTOR MOLLY RAYNOR

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Amanda Fuller chats with the poet and community organizer Molly Raynor about cataloging culture, youth organizing, her advice for young poets who do not yet now they are poets, and, of course, what she locks horns with. Want to know her advice for poets growing up as artists in the slam culture? Read on to find out!

AF: Your poem "A Brivele der Mamen" was a unique contribution Read Women. As narrative meditation on family, sexual identification and culture, and a safe space for endangered language, in this case Yiddish, what does your poem signify about your poetics in a larger sense?

MR: When my Jewish family arrived in this country, they were fleeing religious persecution and poverty. They spoke broken English and worked long hours i factories, but because of their white skin their children and grandchildren were able to assimilate- to stop speaking Yiddish and start speaking English without an accent. So today I am able to reap the benefits of my white skin privilege and “Standard English,” but I grieve for the language and culture that was lost in order for me to be here.

Although I do not speak Yiddish fluently, I wanted to include it, my small attempt to keep my mother tongue alive on the page the way we keep Poppa’s memory alive through the stories we tell again and again at family gatherings. I inherited my family’s legacy of storyteller. I feel it is my duty to be a keeper of culture, language and memory.

As a white middle-class American I have grown up with immense privilege that I see and feel constantly, but being a queer woman, I am also aware of the ways in which I am marginalized.

When I write, I try to navigate the complex intersection of all these identities. Language is the perfect lens through which to view cultural power and privilege. As Adrienne Rich said, “this is the oppressor’s language. yet i need it to talk to you.” My poetics are shaped both by my biological family and my chosen family/kindred spirits, a long list of madwomen writers who rebel against the social constructs of gender, race and sexuality through their writing- not only with the content of their poems but also their subversive writing style (breaking traditional grammar rules, taking risks, and playing with language in new, radical ways).


AF: Given LHP's interest in exploring spaces where conflict exists, can you tell us what you ‘lock horns’ with?

MR: It’s funny you ask that because I have been thinking about this a lot lately: the idea of “healthy struggle.” I have such a hard time with conflict. I avoid it at all costs. I find myself shying away from confrontations and being a passive aggressive people-pleaser. This is something I am actively working on, challenging myself to overcome. I think a lot of it has to do with gender norms and how women are socialized to communicate. Below is an excerpt of a poem I recently wrote about this:

 

fear is a skin i wear over my birth skin

to be unapologetic and born woman: too much friction

red and risen as thick thighs

chafing summer shorts

 

i’m sorry and smiley faces at the end of my texts,                

    just wondering when you’ll get here:)?

instead of

               you’re late.

 

it is an art, this softness,

this beneath-ness,

it is a learned

lowered lid and coy smile

in place of a snarl,

the twin that died in childbirth

 

i like to think i’m

           just kind

           just easy-going

           just

           just

           j(o)ust

but all the small jabs,

all the times i qui(e)t,

filter my light,

muddy my shine,

they swell in me, then deflate,

a sea of dead balloons and

wilted lillies i carry in my belly,

their green-brown slime-muck

a swamp of regret

My silence is what haunts me most. All the times I’ve been bystander to racism, sexism, homophobia, oppression in all its forms. Claimed ally but didn’t act. Not even in solidarity with myself. Didn’t go to the police either time I was raped in fear my rapist would be arrested. Didn’t called them rapist. Called them friend, called them by their name. Forgot my own.

Now in my 30s, I am finally ready to speak again. I believe it is my responsibility to bear witness to pain but also to capture the beauty in the mundane. Joy as resilience. Love in the face of death. Intimacy after rape. Writing is the place where my fear falls away and I get to be a more fierce version of myself- my alter-ego emerges and I feel so powerful. Poetry is where I excavate my voice, brush the dust from the bones and find my spine.


AF: Can you speak about your work organizing creative community, such as your work with RAW Talent in Richmond, CA, the larger Bay Area and The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, MI. What is the role of the poet in advocating social justice?  What advice do you have for artists in terms of balancing important community or "traditional" work with personal artistic endeavor?

MR: In every social movement throughout history, the arts were a major catalyst. People need to feel inspired, riled up (both angry and hopeful) and poetry can do that. I love art that sparks dialogue and creates change, even if that change is just within the artist. I think we must start with ourselves first because communal transformation cannot come without individual healing. We have to do work on ourselves in order to do work in the world that shifts the culture.

For me, being a poet and a poetry educator/youth worker go hand in hand. Coming up through the international spoken word community, having lots of mentors and support from my peers was crucial to my development as an artist and a human being. Because I had watched Jeff Kass build the Volume Youth Poetry Project from the ground up in Ann Arbor, I had a blueprint for how to create a spoken word program. I saw the way Volume changed so many of our lives, how we found our voices and identities through writing and performing, how we connected with like-minded youth and developed deep friendships across age, race, gender identity, etc. With RAW Talent, I was hoping to replicate the writing community I was blessed with growing up.

I think it’s important for those of us who do community work to make sure we don’t lose focus on our own craft. During most of my twenties, I invested the majority of my energy into building RAW Talent and put my writing on the backburner. A few years ago, RAW Talent merged with an awesome youth center, the RYSE Center in Richmond, becoming RYSE’s Performing Arts Program. Once RAW became more established in the community and had the infrastructure/support needed to function, I was able to challenge myself to reclaim my writer identity and creative process. How can I push the youth I mentor to dive deep and write their most vulnerable work if I’m not doing the same? How can I encourage them to overcome their fears and perform in front of hundreds if I say “my performing days are over”? I am still a work in progress and must carve out the time and space to write. I owe it to myself.

 

AF: What advice do you have for young poets, or for poets who don't yet know they are poets?

My fear for young/new poets is that you will go through what I went through when I got too caught up in the culture of poetry slams. I started slamming at age 15 and after winning the Ann Arbor youth slam a few years in a row, I choked under the pressure and stopped slamming altogether. While the slam got me started and I deeply appreciate that, it also locked me into a certain kind of writing that was more for scores than for myself. Once I figured out the formula of a strong slam poem, I had a hard time breaking out of that formula. I lost my authentic voice.

When you begin writing to perform or get published, there is always that danger that you will stop writing for you and start writing for them. That you will have the audience in your head throughout your entire process, thinking of how they will react to each line. So my biggest piece of advice is to kill the editor in your head during the actual writing time. I still struggle with this because I have the urge to go back and fix up each line as I write it. Make it perfect. But it’s not supposed to be perfect at this stage -- it’s supposed to be messy. Cliche. Confusing. And then you go back and make it pretty. So here’s what I’ve been trying lately: writing for 20 minutes straight without letting myself stop, then go back and pull out the strongest lines, then fine-tune those lines. That way, I really let it all come out without the pressure of feeling that I have to use everything I write.

Write for yourself! Write the thing that is caught in your throat, that scares you, that you’ve been trying to push to the back of your mind. Write about the regret that keeps you up at night and the joy that propels you through the day. In writing for yourself, your audience will naturally connect to the authenticity of your poems. They will be inspired by your bravery, so in healing yourself, you will help others heal too.


AF: What are you reading now/is there anything you’ve read recently that you’d like to tell us about.

MR: I just recently wept for two hours straight while reading The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. So, so beautiful. Some of my favorite fiction and non-fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Corrigedora by Gayle Jones, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and anything by Edwidge Danticat, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Selah Ann Saterstrom, and Junot Diaz.

In terms of poetry, I could go on forever, but my faves are: Mariama Lockington, Lauren Whitehead, Yalie Kamara, Angel Nafis, Shira Erlichman, Danez Smith, Liz Latty, Chinaka Hodge, Jose Vadi, Saeed Jones, Louise Erdrich, StaceyAnn Chin, Carrie Fountain, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux,  Ross Gay, Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Jeff Kass, Ishle Yi Park, Sonya Renee Taylor, Carlina Duan, Zaphra Stupple, Donte Clark, Marje Kilpatrick, Ivori Holson, Nya McDowell, Ciera Gordon, D’Neise Robinson, Ziana James, Nia Snipes, Micah Brumfield, Sterling Gilder, Sarah O’Neal, Brittany Floyd, Dennis Kim, Michelle “Mush” Lee, Neruda, Amanda Fuller, Audre Lorde.


AF: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

MR: possibility / morning glories outside my window / the stack of poetry books next to my bed / getting to work with young people every day / pumpkin ice cream / making earrings / badu’s remix of hotline bling / my parents’ love / green curry with eggplant / sunshine pouring through the window / tacos / nina simone / strong coffee / writing / hot showers / storytelling / oakland / phone calls from my sister / daydreams / travel plans / handwritten letters / dark dark chocolate

 Molly Raynor is a poet, educator and community leader. She has facilitated creative writing workshops in prisons, juvenile facilities, halfway houses, high schools, teen centers and summer camps and has traveled from coast to coast performing spoken word and organizing youth slams. She’s a two-time Ann Arbor youth poetry slam champion and has coached both the Ann Arbor youth team and the University of Michigan slam team. She’s published two poetry collections and has been featured on National Public Radio. Molly graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 2006, where she created her own major: Critical Pedagogy and Activism Through the Arts. After spending six years as a member and leader in several spoken word programs and collectives (the Volume Youth Poetry Project, Ann Arbor Wordworks and the Cypher), Molly moved to the Bay Area in 2007 and founded RAW Talent in 2008. She is the recipient of a Jefferson Award for Public Service as well as a Teachers 4 Social Justice Award. She currently loves and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she is a Program Director for The Neutral Zone.

Molly Raynor is a poet, educator and community leader. She has facilitated creative writing workshops in prisons, juvenile facilities, halfway houses, high schools, teen centers and summer camps and has traveled from coast to coast performing spoken word and organizing youth slams. She’s a two-time Ann Arbor youth poetry slam champion and has coached both the Ann Arbor youth team and the University of Michigan slam team. She’s published two poetry collections and has been featured on National Public Radio. Molly graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 2006, where she created her own major: Critical Pedagogy and Activism Through the Arts. After spending six years as a member and leader in several spoken word programs and collectives (the Volume Youth Poetry Project, Ann Arbor Wordworks and the Cypher), Molly moved to the Bay Area in 2007 and founded RAW Talent in 2008. She is the recipient of a Jefferson Award for Public Service as well as a Teachers 4 Social Justice Award. She currently loves and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she is a Program Director for The Neutral Zone.

Interview with Read America(s) Contributor Elizabeth Acevedo

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Carly Joy Miller chats with the luminescent and awe-full Elizabeth Acevedo about myth and myth-making, how she approaches different genres, and, of course, what she locks horns with. Want to know what surprises her when she's on tour, and what her poetry obsessions are? Read on to find out!

CJM: Liz, your poem “La Ciguapa” won our inaugural Locked Horn Press Poetry Prize. We’ve described the poem as “both chronicle and incantation—it weaves story and fact, history and herstory, oppression and expression to create a potent piece of commentary on one corner of our complex and multifaceted America(s).” Would you mind describing your experience of writing this poem? 

EA: I am fascinated by the rich and mythic storytelling that exist in the Dominican Republic. It is a nation where the folkloric weaves seamlessly into the everyday. In researching the his/story of the Ciguapa I was amazed at how the myth has various origins and varying ways of portraying her. I wanted the poem to capture the stop and start of telling a story that has no clean beginning. I wanted to capture what it’s like to be a people that come from so many cultural mixtures that even the most well-known myths have been muddied in the storytelling. But ultimately I was interested in the forgetting of myth, in the forgetting of names.

CJM: You’ve been touring not only the U.S., but Europe as well over the last year. Your poems, “Hair” and “Spear,” have been featured on Cosmopolitan and PBS over the last year as well. How has your work going viral impacted your tour, and what has your experience touring been like thus far?

EA: I’ve been incredibly surprised by the response to some of my work. The fact that hundreds of thousands interact with my poetry is amazing because the poems come from such specific moments and conversations that when writing these pieces I never imagine how many people would see themselves in the writing. For the most part, many audiences that encounter me on tour aren’t always familiar with my work so it’s great to be able to introduce new people to these poems. That being said, sometimes I do the more popular poems and someone in the audience is mouthing the words along with me and it fills me with awe. Here’s a stranger with my words in their mouths, that they’ve memorized and committed to their body. That’s amazing.

CJM: Given that LHP is focused on exploring spaces where conflict exists, what do you “lock horns” with?

EA: Oh, shit. Gender norms. Cultural norms. Colonial mentality. Anti-blackness. Anti-indigeneity. Patriarchy. I’m always plowing into those walls head on.

CJM: You have a chapbook, titled Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, coming out from YesYes Books this year. And while we’ve been trading emails, we received the news that your full-length poetry collection, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm, won Tupelo Press’ Berkshire Prize! You are seriously on fire. What are the chapbook and full-length about? Are they related at all?

EA: The full-length did grow from the chapbook organically. Beastgirl is a contemplation of the myths we forget, the ones we remember, and the myths we make of ourselves and the places we occupy. It has a lot of poems where the speaker is contemplating historical figures in the Dominican Republic and their effect on "The New World": the mythical being La Ciguapa, the chieftain Anacaona, Columbus's Santa Maria, The Parsley Massacre of 1922, DR's Dictator. 

Medusa Reads La Negra's Palm uses those myth poems as a springboard and introduces one of the most well known mythological creatures in western literature: Medusa. In the full-length Medusa and La Negra play a central role at considering the questions: what does it mean to be a monster? What does it mean to be someone's mission to slay/save you? How does one survive in a world that continuously wants to seduce or erase or kill them?

CJM: You also recently sold a Young Adult novel in verse (congratulations again!) .Because you’re working in two different genres, here’s a two-part question: what is your approach when you comes to writing in either genre, and what advice would you give to writers who are just beginning to submit their work or send queries out for their collections?

EA: The fiction, primarily young adult, takes a different headspace in that I need to carry the whole narrative before I sit down to write or edit. Not in the early phases, but once I've figure out the plot I'm like a soccer mom ushering her kid from activity to activity. I keep a strict internal pace on what is happening to my character and where they need to be next, and how they're getting there. 

With poetry I'm obsessed with a particular topic (colonialism, Harlem, blackness, my family) and I write from every angle, I find entrances into the poems I have explored yet. To quote my friend MK Foster, "I write what haunts me" until it doesn't or until I can't. With fiction, I need a tighter rein on where the story is going; I allow play but ultimately I know there needs to be a more final sense of arrival. I don't necessarily feel that pressure in my poetry. Not that I seek to provide answers in either fiction or poetry, but in fiction I'm more aware of how the entire piece is paced and how closure will or won't be provided as I'm writing. Whereas in poetry, I allow intuition to guide me and then I arrange a manuscript accordingly. 

Advice to writers who are just beginning to submit their work? Oh, this is tough. Always be working on something else. My first novel (to be published Winter 2018) was not my first novel. It's actually my third. Every time I was submitting the work I was also writing something new. In general, I keep a tight schedule of when I revise and when I'm doing new writing so that I always have a project to look forward to as the rejection come in. I'm never bogged down by them because there's something else I need to focus on. 

The poetry manuscript was rejected more times than I can count and I was disheartened but I also didn't take it personally. Which is tough, because it is kind of personal, no? The stories I am choosing to tell and how I am choosing to tell them are good enough to be finalist or to be read but never good enough to be published. That's personal! But I just try to remember there's a reader for everyone. And the work doesn't stop because a poem didn't win a contest, because a manuscript hasn't found a home. The work is in creating and surprising yourself and writing what feels truest to how you are in the world today. Publishing can be a form of validation, and certainly a form of reaching readership, but writers aren't publishers. That's not our job. Our job is to write. And I think if you keep that in sight it makes beginning to submit and query easier. All I know, is I can't die with these stories inside of me. And I let that be my guiding principal on focusing on what needs to happen with my writing time, instead of what didn't happen with a submission. 

Elizabeth Acevedo holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion as well as a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Notre Dame Review, Callaloo, Puerto Del Sol, Poet Lore, and Beltway Quarterly. Her manuscript, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, was a finalist for the YesYes Books Vinyl 45 Contest and released in October 2016, and her full-length collection, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm, was the winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize and will be published by Tupelo Press. She lives in Washington, D.C.