THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
I came up with the title because the book is so much about female desire and the many ways society doesn’t quench our thirst. As for cover image, I made it! Water for the Cactus Woman is a full-length collection of poetry and photo collage illustrations. So, all my words and my visuals. I actually made it before the book was fully formed, but when it came to perusing my pre-existing body of work, I felt like only three images really fit. This was my favorite.
Three words: womanhood, questioning, wounds.
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create? Who lives in it?
I really wanted to explore my varied identities and challenges as a woman in a way that both felt diary-like and universal. None of the book’s characters are me, per se, but we definitely share things in common. Too many books still present a narrow idea of what it means to be a woman. Often that woman is white, heterosexual, middle class (or higher), college-educated, American-born with American parents, Protestant, and healthy. Some of my characters share aspects of this normalized identity, but they also exist outside of it and show alternatives to it, while still asserting themselves as women whose feelings matter.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
I strongly believe in “word vomits,” as I call them. Pour everything onto the page. Revise later. My first drafts are really about my gut. My revisions are more about structure and critical thinking. I tend to revise in isolation. I’ll listen to instrumental music that puts me in a contemplative mood and drink plenty of Bustelo.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
I started in a haphazard fashion and then kept re-reading and re-arranging until I thought I had the right flow. Choosing my images and placing them definitely affected the order, too. I did some printing, but mainly arranged the manuscript on my laptop.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
Vulnerability. Storytelling. Beautiful or innovative language.
What’s one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? (Or what’s your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book, or somewhere else in the process?
That would be “The Portrait Among Marigolds,” which appeared in Amazon.com’s official and now defunct literary magazine, Day One. It’s also in my chapbook, Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semiperfect Press). It’s about family lore, the relationship between mothers and daughters, the pain of womanhood, and the reconciling of identities from the “old country” and the “new country” that all children of immigrants experience. The poem came to be partially from family lore, partially because of this new story I embarked on for the chapbook. I wrote it specifically for the chapbook and later selected it for Water for the Cactus Woman because I felt it matched the tone and content of the full-length book.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey. And/or the most wonderful?
This was my first full-length poetry book. It was also my first book that incorporated all of my own original images. (There’s some of my original photography in my nonfiction history book, Hispanic and Latino Heritage in Virginia, but it also includes photos by my sister Helen Georgia Stoddard, as well as archival photography.) Choosing the images for the book was both the most difficult and wonderful part of birthing this book. In this particular case, I chose from my library of already-made images. I didn’t make images specifically for these poems or this collection. Sometimes I’m in the same headspace when I write as I am when I make visual art. Sometimes I’m not. It was really fascinating (and challenging!) for me to figure out what images worked with which poems.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
Yo, want to read a book about diverse women coming to terms with their fairly universal issues and get some surreal photo collage illustrations in the mix? I’ve got something for you!
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
To be a poet is to tell a story with your heart. That’s what scares me about being a writer—being so vulnerable. Experimenting with language gives me the most pleasure, but revealing something of myself and human nature is even more important.
I’ve heard poets say they’re writing the same story over and over in their poems. Is that true for you? If not, what obsessions or concerns reoccur in your work?
I go through phases. All of my chapbooks and mini poetry books from late 2016 and 2017 (which were titles I mostly wrote in 2014-2016) focus on racial, ethnic, and/or female identity in one way or another. There are definitely some overlapping narrative arcs.
Here’s the lineup:
• Lavinia Moves to New York (Underground Voices)
• Ova (Dancing Girl Press)
• Chica/Mujer (Locofo Chaps)
• The Eating Games (Scars Publications) – Available online for free!
• Jaguar in the Cotton Field (Another New Calligraphy)
• Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semiperfect Press)
• Harlem Mestiza (Maverick Duck Press)
• My Mother’s Pantsuit (Poems-For-All series)
• Frozen (Poems-For-All series)
• Crown Heights (Poems-For-All series)
• Naomi and the Reckoning (Accepted in 2017. Forthcoming from About Editions, formerly Black Magic Media. The title has a very limited web presence right now, so you won’t find a summary for it anywhere online. It’s a novelette with some poetry thrown in there. The story is about a young Southern, Catholic woman with a facial deformity who feels guilty about having sex, even after she’s married.)
I even thought that my other forthcoming full-length, Belladonna Magic (Shanti Arts Publishing; no online presence for the book yet, but it was accepted in 2017), wasn’t political. That lasted all of two seconds. This poetry and photo collage collection is about womanhood and nature. It’s not all pretty and flowery, though. Mother Earth gets raw. And why shouldn’t she? Climate change is real.
Do you think poets have a responsibility as artists to respond to what’s happening in the world, and put that message out there? Does your work address social issues?
Yes, poets do have that responsibility, but it doesn’t always have to be pre-meditated. As a poet, you internalize so much. That extends to politics and social issues. We live in a world saturated by politics and socio-economic challenges. Politics touch even our most mundane choices and experiences. What we eat is a political choice—and when we have no food because of poverty and lack of access, that’s a political matter, too. What we wear is a political choice, especially if you’re a woman, a gender non-conforming person, and/or an ethnic or religious minority whose culture requires distinctive dress.
My work does address social issues, especially those related to women’s rights, race relations, cultural identity, and religious tensions. My personal identity and upbringing made me aware of peace and conflict resolution at a young age. I grew up in a predominantly white, upper middle class suburb outside of Washington, D.C., but my family didn’t quite fit into our neighborhood. My mother, who is a Salvadoran immigrant and cradle Catholic, was often confused for my “Mexican” nanny. She was a fairly traditional housewife, whereas many of my classmates’ mothers were career women. My father, a white, native New Yorker, spent much of his early life in a blue-collar environment. While he did graduate from a fine art school and later a university with a top-rated photography program, he didn’t share an alma mater in common with the other parents, who all mostly attended the same schools. He worked very hard as a cameraman for national television and made an excellent living. But we lived in a neighborhood where most families had both parents working very good jobs, not just one. As such, my mother scrimped and saved to make sure we stayed there, mostly for the nationally ranked public schools.
Just in that brief peek into my childhood, you can see how my touching on topics like immigration, race, education, social class, and religion would be inevitable. Sometimes I explicitly mention political figures or events in my work. When I don’t, politics come out, anyway.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Yes! Definitely. I really do read widely. As my friend and fellow poet Mari Pack says, we know a lot about the “borders” of many things because of it, but we’re generalists for that very reason. Right now I’m in grad school for digital and interdisciplinary art, so I’m reading a lot of digital media history, theory, and criticism. Sub-topics include cybernetics, online privacy, bio art, the New Aesthetic Movement, and the culture of surveillance. My M.F.A. is visually oriented, but it requires a lot of reading and non-fiction writing that’s grounded in relevant history and theory.
I’m also doing a fair amount of career reading, especially as it pertains to writing grant, residency, and scholarship proposals. LinkedIn articles are my daily go-to, but I’ll seek out career books, too. That sort of reading influences my creative writing (often in a mocking or critical way because I have big problems with so-called “meritocracy”), but it also helps me learn how to get opportunities to write. For instance, last summer I was the visiting artist at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian affiliate in Maryland. I made 11 sculptures as part of a public art project and worked extensively on my private projects, which definitely included poetry. Scoring that residency relied heavily on knowing how to craft a convincing proposal. Once I was selected, I had the time and space to create. Such an opportunity is precious.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m finishing the long process of revising my novel, Moon Fish. Every once in a while, I will divert myself with other projects. The main diversion is my novel, Conejita, which isn’t as far along as Moon Fish. I’m also adapting my chapbook, Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semiperfect Press, 2017), into a stage play and creating visuals for my full-length collection, Lust at Tea. Last but not least, I’m sending my chapbook, Clam Ear, out into the world and waiting to hear back on my full-length collection, Desert Fox by the Sea.
Favorite places and times of day or night to work?
I’m a night owl by nature, but my daily life doesn’t always allow for that schedule. When I do get to stay up late, I love to work at my kitchen table. It’s a hand-me-down from my husband’s grandmother. Because my husband and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment, the kitchen table practically kisses our piano. It’s a cozy space. On a normal weekday, I’m generally on campus at the City College of New York in Harlem, where I languish in my art studio. On the days I work from home, I love pulling my laptop into my canopy bed and burying myself under several blankets. I’m all for comfort.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
1. Gwendolyn Brooks
2. Nikki Giovanni
3. Sylvia Plath
4. Maya Angelou
5. Ada Limón
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
Who do you go to for love and support when writing and art-making get lonely? My husband, David. Every ship needs a harbor and he is mine.
Order Water for the Cactus Woman.
Christine Stoddard is a former Annmarie Sculpture Garden artist-in-residence, a Puffin Foundation emerging artist, and an M.F.A. DIAP candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY). Her work has appeared in special programs at venues like the New York Transit Museum and the Queens Museum, as well as publications like The Feminist Wire, Bustle, Marie Claire, The Huffington Post, and beyond. She is also the author of Water for the Cactus Woman (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing), among other titles, and the founder of Quail Bell Magazine. This summer, she will be a visiting artist at Laberinto Projects in El Salvador.
Lovely follows I Carry My Mother, in which you elegize your mother, Florence Newman, and trace your grieving process as you simultaneously celebrate her life. What theme or group of poems sparked Lovely for you, and how do you see it being related to or a continuation of I Carry My Mother?
I am constantly writing poems, so after about two years had gone by since the publication of I Carry My Mother, I decided to look at what I had to see if a collection might take shape. I was surprised that there were so many poems about my mom; I thought I was done writing about her. I now see (and it should have been obvious) that I will never be done writing about her. And I am grateful for that. Other themes that emerged were childhood memories, aging, political poems, and love poems. This book is different than past poetry collections of mine such as I Carry My Mother, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and Still Life with Buddy each of which tells a cohesive story from beginning to end. Lovely is broken up into sections, and each section has a different theme.
Nostalgia’s hard at work in this collection, as you reflect on your childhood in New York City and your relationship with your mother, both as you’re growing up and growing older. Since we can’t return to all the homes in our memories, we often feel a longing for those spaces, even those that were imperfect. In “The Chanukah Game,” I love these lines that embody the realization of the passage of times as our lives run out: “Whose flame will last the longest?// Fifty years flicker by./ My Persian cat turns twenty.” What sort of longing or desire to return to your past and to your family of origin compelled these poems? Is the role nostalgia plays in your poems now different than when you were younger?
As I was writing this book, I was caring for my father, who died on December 12, 2017. I was acutely aware of the fact that he was 90 and at the end of his life. During this time, I moved him from my childhood home into independent living; the house was sold and torn down. It was the end of an era. As a child, I watched that house being built. Because it has now been torn down, we are the only family that ever lived in it. Going through my parents’ possessions was very emotional, as my dad had to downsize from a four bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment. So yes, I was longing to return to a time when my family was intact, and when I was young and innocent and protected. I think I long for that now more than ever, as I adjust to live on this planet with both my parents gone.
In “Home Safe,” the young narrator is sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy. In “First Death,” the narrator experiences her first death, of a young female friend, and doesn’t quite grasp the solemnity of it. “In Sleepaway Camp, 1969,” the narrator relives kissing a young African-American boy in secret at night. Talk about what you wanted to convey about childhood in Lovely – are there any lessons learned or certain way of seeing you wanted to share specifically with readers?
I wanted to explore these and other events with the perspective of looking back, in some cases, half a century later. I feel more compassion now for the child and teen I was. I was not a “happy camper” for much of my young life and now, looking back, I can see why. There is no one to blame for my teenage malcontent. Everyone did the best that they could. I feel more compassion for myself and others, as I realize that everyone has burdens to bear. I hope some of the poems convey that.
The gorgeous prose poem “Maidel” (along with poems like “The Price” and “My Mother’s Stories”) is a collection of cliché motherly admonitions: “I ate nothing but Tums when I was pregnant with you. Boys are easier to raise than girls. Just wait till you have a daughter. But Mom, I don’t want to have children.” This is juxtaposed with tender poems like “My Mother Cups Her Hand”: “My mother cups her hand around my cheek/ And draws me close until we’re head to head // We know that she’ll be dead within a week.” The mother-daughter relationship is so complex, especially as the daughter turns to caregiver for her aging and dying mother. Is there a catharsis or unburdening in writing these two types of mother poems?
I love writing about my mother because it brings her close to me. Since I often write in her voice, it’s like she’s sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. And I love giving readings that feature these poems, because I get to hear her words through my own voice and share her with others. It’s funny, things she said that angered me at the time, such as “I’m cold, go put on a sweater” amuse me now. I don’t know about a catharsis, but I do know writing poems about my mother makes me very happy. It’s almost like dreaming about her, which I consider a visitation.
I loved your tiny, hard-hitting poem, “Old Age,” that reads in its entirety:
“The cat, so afraid of an ice cube’s sharp clink,
Now stirs not a hair as I mix a stiff drink.”
This joins other poems in which the narrator contemplates a bristly chin whisker at age 61, watching her brother’s baby son turn into a man, watching her Persian cat turn 20, contemplating how weeds survive despite their outcast status, “they believe in their wild and glorious beauty” and “they can weather any and every storm.” You write about aging with grace and humor, without being cliché or depressing. How does growing older inform your work now?
Well, I have become a “woman of a certain age,” that certain age being 62. Which feels different, now that both my parents are gone. I really thought I would remain young forever! As a young woman, I received, for better or for worse, a certain amount of attention because of my appearance, sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted. It’s interesting to now be invisible in certain ways. This is somewhat of a relief, and at the same time, something to adjust to. It’s interesting to watch my body change, to watch the changing ways others relate to me now that I am in my sixties, to watch my own response to my changing reflection in the mirror, and to watch how my friends change as they age as well. This is very rich material to explore in poetry!
In “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey,” the narrator says, “The first thing I do/ when I realize I am a lesbian/ is hack off my hair./ The second thing I do/ is cry.” You’ve included poems that address the experience of being gay in America, like “That Night,” memorializing the victims of the June 2016 shooting in an Orlando nightclub and “Teen Angels,” where you remember six victims of gay hate crimes. If a young, gay person (and/or poet) reads this book, what do you want to tell them about how this part of their identity will inform their lives? Is there hope for a future where they don’t have to fear being beaten or killed for being gay?
I am always hopeful that the world will become a safer place for all of us, and a big part of that hope stems from interacting with young people who are working so hard to make this happen. I am constantly inspired by their dedication, passion, outrage, and commitment to social justice. I hope that the love poems in the collection, which mostly center on my 30-year relationship with my beloved, provide a balance with the poems about violence against LGBTQ+ people and show that our lives are possible, despite the odds stacked against us.
This book is also an exuberant celebration of same-sex love and a long life partnership. These poems stood out to me as being especially resonant: “Your Loss: To the Lovely Butch In Front Of Me At The A&P,” “Paradise Found,” “Night On The Town” and “Ghazal For My Beloved.” Tell me what the job of a love poem is, and how do you write one that covers new territory?
It is so hard to write a love poem that is original and new. Love is a universal theme and yet each person’s love is unique. So that is what I see as the job of a love poem: to speak to the common experience of all of us and yet be specific and communicate what is unique about the love between the two particular people featured in the poem. As Jack Kerouac so famously said, “Details are the life of the novel.” They are the life of the poem—particularly the love poem—as well.
As in I Carry My Mother, you take inspiration from other poets like Wallace Stevens (his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” becomes “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother” in I Carry My Mother and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poet” in Lovely), William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop – and make their poems/poetic forms new. What attracts you to doing this, and how did you choose which poets/poems to honor this way?
I love writing imitations and am so glad that this is seen as a legitimate form. In I Carry My Mother, many of the poems I chose to imitate were favorites of my mom. In Lovely, my process was a bit different. “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackboard” actually came about because of a typo! Other poems such as “The Span of Life” by Robert Frost upon which “Old Age” is based and “The Walrus And The Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll upon which “The Writer And The Messenger” is based were chosen because of my great admiration for them.
We’ve talked about this before, that many of your poems are written in rhymed stanzas, with some in more traditional formats like ghazals, triolets and villanelles. You even create your own forms, as with “My Mother’s Stories,” where you create a compelling portrait out of soap opera titles. Please talk about your prosody – what draws you to these forms specifically?
I love writing in form. I find it very challenging and very satisfying. It’s a good way to exercise my poetry muscles. I don’t understand why more poets don’t write in form. Why wouldn’t I turn to forms that are centuries old and that were and are still being employed by poets with far more experience and talent than I (Shakespeare! Marilyn Hacker! Stanley Kunitz! Marilyn Nelson!) Writing in form takes a certain type of concentration and really forces me as a poet to look at every single word in a poem and make sure each choice is absolutely perfect. The forms I use often use rhyme and repetition and I find the tension between the predictable pattern and the unpredictable variation of the pattern a wonderful balance.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
Ordering the poems is very challenging. It is not haphazard at all. I look for ways the poems speak to each other and my hope is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in that the result is this group of poems in this specific order sparks a conversation between poet and reader.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
The poem “Between Flights” is a poem that inspired the title Lovely, as readers will see. It encompasses many of the themes of the book: aging, loss, standards of female beauty, nostalgia, etc. I think it is very close to the heart of the book and was actually written in an airport (or more accurately, the first draft was written in an aiport; each poem of mine goes through between 10 and 20 drafts or more).
“I knew a woman, lovely in her bones”
And so I name them Lovely and Lovelier
these two young beauties sitting before me
at the airport, the older one braiding
the younger one’s hair. Lovely is perched
on the edge of womanhood as surely
as she is perched on the edge
of her black vinyl seat, lost
in concentration as she combs
her fingers through Lovelier’s hair
separating it into several hanks
and holding them aloft like the reins
of a filly who has consented to be tamed.
Lovelier kneels on the floor
back straight and neck elongated
like a Modigliani model
a Mona Lisa smile playing
across her glossy lips.
Or perhaps I am wrong.
Perhaps the older one is Lovelier
her elegant arms drifting up and down
like a principle dancer
as she weaves Lovely’s hair
into an intricate French braid
too stylish for her young
face which still boasts freckles
across her nose like the spots
of a doe too small to leave her mother.
And now the braid is done
and the younger girl lifts
one hand to the side of her head
patting it gently to make sure
it is perfect as she is perfect,
and the older girl sits back
to admire the good work she has done,
and I, who was once just as lovely
if not lovelier than the two of them
put together, sally forth
toward my own gate as they rise
and fly past me to soar into their lives.
Can you share any wisdom you’ve learned during your prolific career with young women writers that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Write every day. Read as much as possible. Find or start a writers group with other poets who will be honest with you about your work. Revise, revise, revise. When you send your work out, don’t “submit” it. “Offer” it. That way it can never be “rejected.” It can be “accepted” or “declined.” Above all else, be kind to other writers. When any one of us succeeds, all of us succeeds.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, Still Life with Buddy, Nobody’s Mother, and Signs of Love, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Newman has received many literary awards including poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and a Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association. Her poetry has been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Evergreen Chronicles, Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Lilith Magazine, Kalliope, The Sun, Bark Magazine, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Seventeen Magazine and others. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award Finalists. From 2008-2010 she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she lives in Holyoke, MA and is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Visit her online at http://www.lesleanewman.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.