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.

 

Interview with Read Women Contributor, Karyna McGlynn

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Carly Joy Miller talks to the brilliantly honest, and hilarious, Karyna McGlynn about redemption and poetry, participating in Read Women, what she's working on, and what gets her horns locking. Want to know if Karyna McGlynn ever judges a book by its cover? Want to know about her “shameless concept album,” and what the "dilapidated mansion of [her] poetry is built upon?” Well, read on, dear friends...

CJM: When we put together Read Women, I thought of you immediately—I think because your first collection, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl’s title poem dealt so much with confronting the speaker’s past-self/girlhood along with confronting her mother, another female presence. What was your reaction when you read Read Women? And do you think gender influences your poetry, in general? And why, or why not?

KM: I’m flattered that you thought of me! It’s such an honor to be in the company of all these amazing ladies. When I first read the anthology, my reaction was visceral—much like when I first read the Gurlesque anthology Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum put together a few years ago. I thought, where has this been? Something positively electric happens when you put a whole bunch of lady poets between the covers.  And it’s not a litany of gross-sounding “women’s issues.” It’s a pop & sizzle in the diction, a syntax that is both alert & sinuous, a bestudded embrace of conflict, a wry hilarity that I recognize in my gut.

If I said gender didn’t influence my poetry, I would be a huge liar—hence, a hypocrite, since I constantly espouse my belief that good poetry is about “getting all the lies out” (even when making stuff up). Also, everyone would laugh at me, because it’s patently obvious that gender is the bedrock that the dilapidated mansion of my poetry is built upon. The “why” is more difficult. Perhaps because I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps because language is gendered and inescapable. Perhaps because drag queens played a pivotal role in my early life, and I came to see womanhood as a type of performance that was both glamorous and doomed. It certainly doesn’t help (or hurt) that I watch a ton of old movies and am constantly gnawing happily on the tendon of gender stereotypes: the long-suffering wife, the social climber, the sex pot, the crazy spinster, the femme fatale, the fast-talking girl reporter, the precocious little sister, the hysterical mother, the virginal ingénue, the ditzy dame, and so on. My absolute favorite actress has always been Katherine Hepburn, and I think that speaks volumes, so let’s leave it there.

CJM: Given the concept of what LHP is—exploring the spaces where conflict exists—what are the issues that you like to “lock horns” with?

KM: As you already mentioned, I like to lock horns with my past and my past selves. I also take issue with the notion that women aren’t funny, and that their attempts at humor are often seen as histrionic. I become both angry and mystified when critics imply that performance and/or imagery are the lowest rungs on the poetic totem pole (?!). Finally, I become preternaturally perturbed when someone implies that my poetry has nothing uplifting or joyful or redemptive about it. Sometimes I point them to Bly’s “Warning to the Reader,” but I always wonder: does this person not know what redemption looks like? It’s fraught and complex; it happens in process. The sublimity is often packed in the sinews of the language. The joy is in the mouth-feel, the unpacking, the recognition of truth.

CJM: As a writer, reader, and editor, what do you look for in poetry? What surprises or enchants you? And would you also mind sharing a favorite book or two that you’ve read in the last two months?

KM: I look for great titles, opening lines, and (I’m slightly ashamed to admit this, but, in the case of books...) covers. After all, those things serve as advertisements in a sea of poetry and I need an excuse to start reading in the first place! I look for a sophisticated understanding of grammar and syntax (even if all those rules are being bent or discarded in the poems themselves). I look for poems that scare me, for poems that constantly seem on the verge of failing but somehow pull it off (thrilling!), and for poems that create intimacy via truthfulness (or the illusion thereof) so that I feel like the poet and I are getting drunk together and they’re whispering secrets in my ear. Obviously I look for imagery and metaphors that make me jealous and don’t feel belabored. I look for humor and I look for humanity. I look for vulnerability & vigor, invitation & invective, enjambment & jouissance. I want the poem to remind me of dreams I was too lazy to write about. I want to be seduced & slipped into the surreal without realizing what’s happened to me. I want to be intoxicated, and I want to hear the poem in my head. The ultimate mark of any poem’s success for me is if I want to read it aloud to people at the next available opportunity.

The books that embody these things for me right now are Lo Kwa Mei-En’s Yearling, Diane Seuss’s Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish, Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things,  Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium, Robyn Schiff’s Revolver, and Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow. I can’t recommend these books enough.

CJM: How are your current projects, Hothouse and A Week of Kindness, building on, or moving away from, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, and your chapbooks, Alabama Steve and Scopionica?

KM: Both Hothouse and A Week of Kindness represent opposite ends of the same spectrum for me. Hothouse borrows Alabama Steve’s humor and pairs it with many of 1994’s themes, but I think it ended up being an easier read than both. I wasn’t playing nearly as much with disruptions in form and narrative. The poems employ relatively standard syntax and form. They’re haunted, yes, but in more of a realistic, friendly way that is actually confessional as opposed to the performance of the confessional, but that’s perhaps a bit misleading because Hothouse deals very directly with my tendency toward performativity: gender as performance, masking as revelation, the domestic as a theatrical set, etc.

On the other hand, A Week of Kindness is anything but naturalistic. It’s a book-length poem based on Max Ernst’s surrealistic novel-in-collage, Une Semaine de Bonté, and you could say it takes my obsession with the female gothic to the extreme. I basically made a “narrative” out of Ernst’s collages where the woman in every plate is always the same woman:  my narrator. It’s a baroque, formally complex, anachronistic, ekphrastic Künstlerroman. How off-putting does that sound?! It’s overwhelming, for sure, but I also employ a lot of humor and (hopefully) syntactical delight. Ernst’s book is so well- constructed in terms of its symbolism, motifs, and organizing principles, that, despite the surrealism of the “narrative,” I think there’s a strong intuitive spine and incantatory nature to the whole spectacle that keeps it from becoming a bore. At least for some readers; I certainly don’t think this book is for everybody. For example, it’s going to take a very particular type of press to want to publish something like this. Ideally, I want the book to appear in five separate volumes (or color-coded chapbooks) divided into days of the week the way Ernst’s “novel” originally appeared. And, yeah, I want them to be letterpress. It’s a shameless concept album, so I might as well own it!

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Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande  Books, 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books, 2009), and three chapbooks: The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions, 2016), Alabama Steve (Sundress, 2014), and Scorpionica (New Michigan Press, 2007). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, PloughsharesBlack Warrior Review, AGNI, Ninth Letter, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna’s honors include the Hopwood Award, the Verlaine Prize, and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. She recently received her PhD from the University of Houston, where she was the Managing Editor of Gulf Coast. She is currently the Diane Middlebrook Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin where she serves as the Senior Poetry Editor for Devil’s Lake.