During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Sarah A. Chavez.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Sarah Chavez: It’s funny, but I think a lot about what poetry does and how it has functioned in my life, but hardly ever why I ended up devoting myself to it. I did have other creative outlets: I played piano briefly and am fair at drawing; I even got within a class or two of an art minor with a focus in mixed media, and had a lovely professor encourage me to keep going with it, formally or not . . .
Sometimes I think what dictates the activities in my life – and to some extent, the people – is a sort of trial by fire or survival of the strongest, what’s left after the fall out. I love painting and drawing and collage, but those mediums are in some ways delicate, high maintenance. They require certain conditions, special spaces, a variety of instruments which can be costly: brushes, good pens and pencils, chalk, glues, epoxy, canvases. In comparison, poetry is like the working person’s art. All you need is something to write on and anything to write with. I used to write on the back of receipt paper while waiting to hear “order up” when I waited tables. I wrote in fifty cent notebooks between classes in college, and before that between chores when I lived at my mom’s. I’d take a pocket notebook out on ten minute cigarette breaks when I worked as an administrative assistant. Poetry (& writing in general) is portable and low tech, accessible. There’s a lot said about poetry being difficult and hard to understand, but ultimately, if someone gives a poem even cursory attention, whether or not they think they don’t “get it” overall, they will see an image, recognize a feeling, hear a pleasing set of sounds. Life, and our understanding of it, doesn’t happen in one linear comprehensive experience; it is snatches & moments. In that way I suppose poetry has always felt the most natural, it provides for me the best way to process and appreciate what I encounter in the world.
As for the poebiz landscape, I don’t know. It can be pretty rough, especially if you come from outside the literary/art/academic world. There’s so much insider knowledge no one tells you. I didn’t even try to publish a poem until I was getting ready to graduate with my MA, and I only did it then because I’d decided I might want to eventually apply to a terminal degree program and I found out you needed that sort of credential to be seriously considered. Once I started sending out my writing though, I realized it was a lot like other jobs: you just need to try, learn from experiences, & don’t stop; not if you think it’s what you want. Of course this is not to say sending out again and again after repeated rejections is easy, but when I look at the grossly low number of women, queer people, & people of color (this is true of other industries as well, such as academia), it becomes more than just personal desire for some perception of success. Navigating the poebiz and getting my work out into the world becomes about visibility and asserting the rights and talents of traditionally marginalized groups, about influencing the aesthetic of the literary landscape.
FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
SC: A few things in particular I am influenced by are music, visual art, & oddly enough sociological theory. Music especially has been huge, not a specific singer, band, or style of music, but the feelings elicited. I’ll become obsessed with a band or singer and will listen to them over & over again until the mood has fully seeped in. That mood usually attaches to social and/or personal associations, and it’s those together that the writing comes from, like I’m trying to recreate the mood or feeling of the music through my writing. Similarly, with the visual art, the influence is about having feelings awakened. The sociological theory though, that helps me intellectually understand and translate the feelings, especially as they relate to other humans. I want to understand the context from which both positive and negative behaviors and choices come from, especially as it relates to ethnicity/race issues and social constructions of gender and sexuality.
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?
SC: What I tend toward, both in what I write and want to read, is narrative and rooting in the physical. Language is about communication and communication, ultimately, is about connection. I want to use sensory details and the recognition and empowered engagement with our own bodies to aid in understanding. What makes art & literature meaningful to me is personal growth toward social harmony. I appreciate the skill & technique art for art’s sake takes, but at this stage in my life, I’d rather have visceral connection than marvel at solely intellectual endeavors. I want to see & touch things. I want to encounter something outside myself, but told to me in such a way that I feel it through my bones and blood. I think in many ways this is most challenging. It takes skilled craft and hard work to create that kind of situation, while maintaining the feeling of being organic. I want art & literature to work, to earn its keep, have a purpose outside itself.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
SC: I can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but when I was around 13, my friend’s mom stole a notebook filled with poems my friend and I had written together, set them on fire, and tried to have me arrested.
This friend of mine and I started writing limericks after my maternal grandfather gave me an Ogden Nash book. As is a convention of the genre, though the book contained many limericks that were cute and harmless, there were also many that were crude and, let’s just say, “inappropriate;” of course our favorites were the bawdy ones. My friend and I both had difficult home lives, but hers was particularly bad and we disliked her mother quite a bit. So whenever her mom would commit some new sort of terrible (or just the same old terrible all over again), we’d write mean limericks about her. The poems were often making fun of her appearance, or how she smelled. They sometimes focused on how pathetic we thought she and this guy she was dating were. We wrote them all down in a standard college-ruled, red-covered, spiral notebook that I kept with me all the time. And it wasn’t just filled with our limericks, but also some of my deepest young teenager thoughts, feelings, and fears.
One day my friend and I decided to take the bus somewhere, or maybe we walked to 7-Eleven, I don’t remember which. Either way, we knew we’d wouldn’t be gone for too long, so I just left the notebook on the dining room table. When we returned, we didn’t expect anyone to be there, because her mom often left in the late morning and didn’t come back until after dark (if she came back at all). The mobile homes we lived in had stilted side porches that went half the length of the structure, so when we turned to go up the steps, at first all we saw was smoke and the back of her mom’s house dress. As we went up the stairs, she turned to look at us, revealing the notebook smoldering in the pit of their Webster grill. I don’t remember what she said, but it was definitely screaming and something about how could we and we were terrible people and I was a bad influence and she never wanted to look at our faces again. She commanded I leave her property, but I said I wouldn’t leave without the remains of the notebook. She said if I didn’t leave she would call the police and say I was trespassing, I said “good, call them.” I was going to charge her with destruction of property.
One of the things that has stuck with me all these years and helped shape my understanding and relationship with art was the realization that writing caused that out of control situation (and it did get more out of control). Part of my friend’s mom’s yelling and crying was quoting some of the lines from the limericks back to us so we could hear how cruel they were. It occurred to me later that even though those dumb limericks were just born out of the imagination of two teenagers messing around, those poems were powerful. They evoked rage and pain and humiliation. We certainly never intended for her to see them, but it was more a fear of half-hearted grounding than anything else. It never crossed our minds that what we said and wrote could truly, fundamentally affect someone else. Since then, I’ve never forgotten the potential power encased in a poem. Even though reading was always a source of comfort for me, it was that experience that made me think maybe I could not just consume the words, but write them too. If I could be so affected by what I read, and my friend’s mom could be so affected by reading what we wrote, there seemed to be limitless possibility (and power) in poetry.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
SC: Argh, this is such a difficult question! There are so so many . . . If I have to pick one or two, and I stick to poetry because this is a poetry blog, and I don’t feel comfortable picking something more contemporary because I have thought about them less, then in my current state of mind, taking into consideration multifaceted awesomeness, then the two that have come to me first are Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Words: Selected Poems and Philip Levine’s What Work Is, and Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New. And I totally just cheated. Twice. It’s cheaty to pick selected works, and I totally gave three titles instead of two. Anyhow, one of the characteristics that make these books so mind-blowingly awesome is their shared ability to accessibly discuss difficult emotions and social concepts while tightly controlling craft. Levine and Nye have both been criticized for being too plain-spoken. This is silly though, because why exactly is the striped down word or image “plain?” Precision is a talent and if someone can be precise, clear, and emotionally resonant . . . shit. Sometimes the best way to communicate about the things that are most difficult is to strip them down to the physicality of the experience. And while Rich doesn’t often have that criticism leveled at her work, she is also able to create sensory worlds in her poems that can set the body on fire. It’s a good fire, the kind that makes you feel more alive, makes you want to be a better person. I guess ultimately, that’s what these books have in common and why everyone should read them: you walk away from the poems wanting to be a better human to other humans.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
SC: Not that I can think of. I thought the provided questions were wonderful and I deeply appreciate the invitation to think more about these topics and to share my thoughts with you.
FFF: Thanks so much for participating in this series, Sarah!
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts and Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, as well as the journals North Dakota Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Her debut full-length collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.