Ten Questions for Alison C. Rollins


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Alison C. Rollins, whose debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes, is out today from Copper Canyon Press. Drawing on Jorge Luis Borges’s fascination with the library, Rollins uses the concept of the archive to uncover and investigate ideas of loss, progress, and decay. As Terrance Hayes writes of the book, “The small and large darknesses catalogued here make this a book of remarkable depth.” Rollins was born and raised in St. Louis and currently works as a librarian for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry ReviewMissouri ReviewPoetry, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem and Callaloo Fellow, she was a 2016 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.

1. How long did it take you to write Library of Small Catastrophes?
The poems in Library of Small Catastrophes were written over a three-to-four-year span. However, I would venture to assert that the book has taken a lifetime to write in terms of the necessity to live, experience, read, and hone my craft over time. Robert Hayden in the poem “The Tattooed Man” has the phrase: “all art is pain suffered and outlived.” While I don’t hope to glorify suffering in the service of artistic practice I do think it is important to celebrate living, awareness, observation, and the act of being present in the world. Many of the poems in this book are based on experiences that I have witnessed or been a part of and I had to live them and be present within them to in turn translate them into poems. I want to equally highlight time and labor because this sort of question can in some ways place greater value on Library of Small Catastrophes as a product rather than on the living required to make the physical object of a book. I don’t seek to glorify suffering but living requires exposure to both joy and pain (in often highly unbalanced ways for certain bodies in the context of the United States). I wish to celebrate living and to do so not always in relationship to measured productivity or a finished product such as a book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
It was challenging to accept that with the birth of the book all the other seemingly limitless possibilities for the project in turn died. There is a certain finitude to publishing a book that makes me a little uncomfortable in the sense that the work becomes a fairly static thing. I can’t continue to edit, reorder, change the cover art, etc. To go back to question one, I try to privilege the concept of being in process over something that is finalized. In Parable of the Sower Octavia Butler writes, “The only lasting truth is change.” If Butler is right, which I think she is, we all need to work towards increasing our tolerance to change.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
A large majority of the poems in Library of Small Catastrophes were written during the day at work in libraries. I don’t have a daily writing practice or formal schedule. I read on the bus ride to work and I write in stolen moments while at work. Much of my writing is in direct contact with other forms of labor that I am directly engaged in. Writing retreats have been especially helpful to me to carve out writing-intensive periods where I can focus.

4. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process?
Having to contextualize the book from a marketing and press standpoint was something that was not initially on my radar. I hadn’t really thought of the skill necessary to step back and frame the work within the context of a blurb or a synopsis. It is a really interesting and rather separate endeavor from writing the actual individual poems that came to make up the collection. To articulately explain what you see the overall project as functioning to do can be oddly challenging and unexpected at the end of the publication process.

5. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Marian Engel’s Bear, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. I’m currently reading Renee Gladman’s Juice, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. I am a librarian and voracious reader so this literally changes every other day.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
This question depends a lot on context, realities about how literary canons function, systemic inequity, as well as how “wider recognition” is being defined and measured. This is a very difficult question to answer but I will offer in response the names of three poets: CM Burroughs, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Dawn Lundy Martin. I will also say Phillis Wheatley for good measure.

7. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
I am probably a lofty romantic but I wish people in the “literary community” extended more grace to one another and more often than not embraced curiosity and awe as lifestyles. I wish that people read more widely and embodied a belief that there is space at the table for everyone—and in turn found this notion to be freeing rather than threatening. While I realize sales-driven approaches and the economics of the publishing industry are arguably necessary evils, I wish that as an industry we didn’t underestimate readers and their capacity or desire for strong innovative writing. I would argue that all people are hungry for access to beautiful words, fresh ideas, and moving storytelling. Lastly, I am surely imperfect but I genuinely strive on a fundamental level to be a kind person. I don’t think extending grace to myself and others should result in my being viewed as any less talented, intellectual, and critically rigorous. We could all use more kindness.

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Time. In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel Alexander Chee writes, “Time is our mink, our Lexus, our mansion. In a room full of writers of various kinds, time is probably the only thing that can provoke widespread envy, more than acclaim. Acclaim, which of course means access to money, which then becomes time.” I could not agree more.

9. What trait do you most value in an editor?
I value most an editor with an expansive imagination. More specifically, I appreciate an editor that does not succumb to a limited imagination in terms of my identity/subject/position in the world and what that means in relationship to my writing and the potential readers of my work.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Terrance Hayes relayed the Thelonious Monk quote, “A genius is the one most like himself” during a craft talk at a writing retreat that I attended a few years ago. It truly resonated with me because without sounding cliché I think writing should be connected to the constant ever-evolving work of discovering, (re)imagining, and (re)claiming one’s own selfhood.

Ten Questions for Andrea Gibson




This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Andrea Gibson, whose new poetry collection, Lord of the Butterflies, is out today from Button Poetry. Exploring questions of gender, identity, love, loss, family, and politics, the poems in Gibson’s book “seamlessly spin hopelessness into hope, fire back at social norms, and challenge what it means to be human,” writes Them magazine. An LGBTQ activist and one of the most celebrated spoken-word poets in the country, Gibson (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) began their career in poetry in 1999 with a break-up poem performed at an open mic in Boulder, Colorado; since then they have gone on to win four Denver Grand Slam titles and in 2008 won the first-ever Woman of the World Poetry Slam. Gibson has performed on stages throughout the country, is the author of four previous books of poetry, and has released seven spoken-word albums. They live in Boulder. 

1. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tour quite a bit and struggle to find time to write on the road. When I’m not touring I write constantly, sometimes up to ten hours each day as it’s the most fulfilling and nourishing blessing in my life. I write at home, in any room where I can close a door behind me and have privacy because I most often write out loud, sometimes yelling, sometimes whispering at the walls, and that’s an awkward (and comical) thing to have anyone witness. I very rarely write sitting still. I pace and pace until the poem finds its way to the page.

2. How long did it take you to write Lord of the Butterflies?
It was written over the course of two years, the first poems sparked by the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and others by the election of Trump. Like many writers, I’ve never in my life created so much as I have in response to our current political climate. I actually had to contact the editor several times to see if I could add one more poem to the book, as I was writing so much up until the final due date.

3. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?
This is my first book published with Button Poetry and it’s been fascinating to watch what goes into putting out a book with a publishing company that has such a large online/video/social media presence. I’d admired Button’s model for quite a while, specifically because of how many youth have fallen in love with poetry because of them, and I’ve been mesmerized by all of the different mediums they highlight in the release process.

4. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
I’ll speak to something I’ve seen significant positive changes in over the years, something I’d like to see continue to keep changing for the better—and that’s the publication of writers who might have been previously classified as “slam poets” or “spoken word artists.” To be skilled in the art of performing one’s poem doesn’t negate how powerfully that poem can live on the page. Great poets like Danez Smith are proving that both spaces can be mastered by an artist, and it’s been beautiful to watch more and more people recognize that.

5. What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry—currently Jeanann Verlee’s Prey and Lino Annunciacion’s The Way We Move Through Water. I also just finished Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, which I picked up after reading it was one of Hanya Yanagihara’s favorite books. And I’m finally, after many recommendations, reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

6. Who is the most underrated author, in your opinion?
The first who comes to mind is Donte Collins, mostly because I think this author could win every prize there is to win and still be deserving of more. When I first heard Donte read I was stunned, pummeled by beauty, like that twenty-minute reading would be enough light to sustain me for a year.

7. What trait do you most value in an editor?
The ability to be blunt. As harsh as it may sound it’s really important for me to know I have an editor who is willing to say, “Take this entire poem out of the manuscript.” And that’s not to say I don’t have feelings when that happens, but that kind of honesty helps me feel significantly more solid about what I’m putting out.

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I’m a very slow writer. Some wouldn’t think so because I put out new work quite often, but that’s only because of the number of hours I spend writing. It’s not rare for me to spend twelve solid hours going over and over a single stanza.

9. What’s one thing you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
It’s a dream of mine to one day write a musical. When I’m writing poems I almost always write to music, and I collaborate with musicians often during live performances. I’ve always been hyper focused on how the words and rhythm live out loud, and I’m constantly writing songs in my head. I think it would be a magical experience to collaborate on a production that features so many different artists.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Write what you are terrified to write.” When I was first given that advice I struggled to write for almost a year because I wasn’t yet ready to write what I was afraid to write, and I didn’t want to waste my time writing anything else. These days, I consider that advice every time I begin a poem. I pay attention to what requires courage to say, and I do my best to try to say it.

Andrea Gibson, author of Lord of the Butterflies.

Andrea Gibson, author of Lord of the Butterflies.

Ten Questions for Jos Charles


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jos Charles, whose new poetry collection, feeld, is out today from Milkweed Editions. Charles’s second book is a lyrical unraveling of the circuitry of gender and speech. In an inventive transliteration of the English language that is uniquely her own—like Chaucer for the twenty-first century: “gendre is not the tran organe / gendre is yes a hemorage,” she writes—Charles reclaims the language of the past to write about trans experience. “Jos Charles rearranges the alphabet to survive its ferocity against her body,” writes Fady Joudah, who selected the collection as a winner of the National Poetry Series. “Where language is weaponized, feeld is a whistleblower, a reclamation of arts domain.” Charles is the author of a previous poetry collection, Safe Space, published by Ahsahta Press in 2016, and is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and a Monique Wittig Writer’s Scholarship. She received an MFA from the University of Arizona and lives in Long Beach, California.

1. How long did it take you to write the poems in your new book?
I began writing many of the poems in feeld in 2014; I had a compiled set of them in 2016 and completed the edited, to-be-published version in 2017.

2. Where, when, and how often do you write?  
When writing the poems that make up Safe Space, I was working retail and then an office job. So I would spend, on a productive weekday, one to two hours writing and editing and about two to three hours a day reading, researching, and taking notes. Weekends I was more intensive. With feeld, I was writing during an MFA program, which meant time was a little less discrete. I wrote an hour or two a day, edited for about two hours a day, and spent four or so hours reading and taking notes. I’ve maintained something close to that now. That said, there can be weeks I don’t write and weeks where I’m writing much more. I write at my laptop, phone, or in a notebook, and just about anywhere.

3. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process?
The most unexpected thing is how people have found uses to my work. I say this not to self-negate, but to communicate the surprise, the praise, of people coming to find, leave, return to art.

4. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
If you can get into a funded program, yes—it is better pay, hours, and easier than working retail. If you can afford to pay for an MFA, it seems you have access to most resources the MFA provides and your money would be better spent elsewhere—like paying for someone else to get an MFA. It seems to me not worth going in debt over.

5. What are you reading right now?  
I recently reread Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and manuel arturo abreu’s transtrender, both of which are beautiful works. I recently subscribed to the Trans Women Writers Collective, which sends out a booklet of writing by a different trans woman writer each month. If you’re able, you ought to sign up for it.

6. Who is the most underrated author, in your opinion? 
I frequently have been finding myself recommending Eduoárd Glissant’s poetry. Le Sel noir is a particularly astounding work.

7. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
Its problems are many and the same as the problems most everywhere else, just articulated in a “literary” way. I would, ideally, want the conditions that give rise to all these problems to be fundamentally removed. This would include “big” things like the United States government as it exists, has existed; profit, private ownership of public goods and labor. The old socialist hopes. It would also include those “smaller” things like behaviors and words and presumptions. In lieu of this, if not this, until this, I could see, as a kind of coping with these conditions, an extramarket or extragovernmental body that organizes material support for writers. A public fund where writers get together and try to decide what to do with the pharmaceutical, supermarket, and other such kinds of money that somehow found its way—through tax write offs, donations—to “the writing community,” to be distributed to the most vulnerable within that community. Of course, violences are not equal, so there would need to be some sort of weighted system to determine distribution of funds based on “quantifying” larger social exclusions. I imagine there’d be fewer prizes and grants and more public goods and services—like housing for writers without fixed addresses or legal support for incarcerated writers, online or mailed lending libraries. This would require middle-class, largely academic-situated writers to forgo their grants and, many having faced financial and housing instability before, unfortunately, to become adjacent to those horrors again. That’s what is at stake though. It’s a messy thought for a messy time.

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I can’t think of any impediments unique to my writing life, only impediments that are obvious, manifold, to life in general that happen to additionally hinder my writing life: money, other people, myself.

9. What’s one thing you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?    
I would like to one day run a local, worker’s paper. It would include creative work, organizational events, opinion pieces, and lots of collectivizing of labor, goods. It would also inevitably be time-consuming and a financial failure.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Saeed Jones once said—and I may very well be misquoting—poets don’t make money. If they have money, it came from somewhere that wasn’t, at least initially, directly their writing. Maybe support from parents, another job, or, if lucky, eventually and in addition, a grant here and there, an academic or nonprofit job. As someone who had been writing and publishing for close to ten years before making any money off of my writing, and then certainly not enough to sustain myself, it was good to hear at that time. Which is to say, in a system that doesn’t value writing, but only the marketing possibility of the writer and the written object, to write is the “success” itself. It’s both disheartening and astonishing. So you make a market of yourself and keep what you can off the books. Along the axes of familiar identarian violences, this is typical: You cross the street to walk over there, you shut up there to speak over here, you sell your wares to buy some shoes—and if not shoes, a coke; if not a coke, a book; if not a book, a bag of rice. And what isn’t your wares? 

Jos Charles, author of feeld. (Credit: Cybele Knowles)

Ten Questions for Emily Jungmin Yoon


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Emily Jungmin Yoon, whose debut poetry collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is out today from Ecco. In the collection, Yoon explores gender, race, and the history of sexual violence against women, focusing in particular on so-called comfort women—Koren women who worked in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II. Yoon was born in Busan in the Republic of Korea and received her BA at the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She won the 2017 Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize for her chapbook Ordinary Misfortunes, and has been the recipient of awards and fellowships from Ploughshares, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the Poetry Foundation, among others. Yoon’s poems and translations have appeared in the New Yorker, POETRY, and the New York Times Magazine, and she serves as poetry editor for the Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers Workshop. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Korean literature at the University of Chicago. 

1. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at home, usually late night. I find that poems in my head become louder when everything is quiet. I write rather sporadically now, so there isn’t a fixed schedule, but when I was writing the poems in A Cruelty Special to Our Species, I would write maybe three to five days a week.

2. How long did it take you to write A Cruelty Special to Our Species?
To completion, about four years, but a good chunk of the poems came in early 2015, in the last semester of my MFA program at NYU—that was a very fruitful period.

3. What has been the most surprising thing about the publication process?
That time goes by so quickly! It took a little more than a year for the book to be published after the signing of the contract, and I felt like I just couldn’t wait. But after rounds of proofreading and editing, a year had already passed.

4. Where did you first get published?
My first magazine publication was the Claremont Review, a Canadian magazine that publishes works by writers and artists in the age range of 13 to 19 from around the world. It was very exciting and encouraging to see my poems in print among others.’ I’m grateful for the space that CR provides young creators.

5. What are you reading right now?
I am reading the complete works of Kim Su-young’s poetry, from 1945 to 1968. His poetry influenced a lot of other poets, and I’m interested in his relationship to language, as he was writing post-liberation and when linguistic nationalism was rampant.

6. If you were stuck on a desert island, which book would you want with you?
Maybe an instructive book on how to survive in the wild…. But for joy, Li-Young Lee’s Rose. There are so many amazing books, but Rose was my first love in poetry.

7. Who is the most underrated author, in your opinion?
She’s more unrecognized than underrated, perhaps, but: Ronyoung Kim. She was the author of Clay Walls, which is the first novel written in the U.S. about Korean immigrant experience. Published in 1986, Clay Walls was the first Korean American novel. Not many people now seem to know about her or the book, though it was nominated for the Pulitzer.

8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Stress from non-writing work, for sure. I have to deliberately and strategically clear out space and time to not think about any of that and focus on reading and writing poetry.

9. What trait do you most value in your editor?
I appreciate Gabriella Doob and Dan Halpern for their warmth, support, and trust. They believe in my vision and are just wonderful people.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Jericho Brown said to our class at Aspen Words, “Be your ultra-self.” I tend to be pretty self-conscious when writing; I think it’s good to be concerned and careful about specific words and their implications, but sometimes it disrupts the flow. So I try to imagine what a bolder, wilder, and more carefree me would say. Any part that doesn’t sit right can be edited later.

Emily Jungmin Yoon, author of A Cruelty Special to Our Species.  (Credit: Jean Lechat)

Ten Questions for Jasmine Gibson


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jasmine Gibson, whose debut poetry collection, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This, is out this month from Nightboat Books. In poems that inexorably tie the personal to the political, Gibson speaks to the disillusioned in moments of crisis, whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or in the long, slow echo of the Syrian civial war. “Reading this collection is like listening to love poems on a dock while watching transnational cargo ships on fire and sinking,” writes poet Tonga Eisen-Martin about the collection. “Here there are no gods of private causes. Just words dashing on our behalf, only a breath’s distance in front of the beast.” Gibson is also the author of the chapbook Drapetomania, released by Commune Editions in 2015, and coauthor, with Madison Van Oort, of the chapbook TimeTheft: A Love Story (The Elephants, 2018). Originally from Philadelphia, Gibson lives in Brooklyn, New York.

1. How long did it take you to write Don’t Let Them See Me Like This?
The book was written over the course of three years. It has changed a lot from what it was originally supposed to be. I thought it would only be two years of work, which is what it was at first. Different things happened, choices made, no love lost, and now it’s a three-year-old maenad waiting to be born.

2. Where, when, and how often do you write?  
When I first started writing about five years ago, I would go to this specific bar in Manhattan’s West Village and do a whole ritual. I’d get my paycheck, get a book from St.Mark’s Bookstore, then a banh mi, and then four margaritas in I’d start writing in the darkness of the bar. I did this ritualistically: a specific day, a specific time, a specific bar, alone in the dark. I don’t do this anymore. I like writing in the sun, in bed, in the middle or after kissing. I’m a true Leo, I love love, and writing is like love. It’s painful sometimes, but it really burns you in a way that everyday stuff doesn’t really do. It reminds me of this Bobby Womack quote I saw once: “I live for love. I’ve always been tortured by love. I don’t mind the pain. I want to be the king of pain.” And in a way I, too, love to be the King of Pain, Queen of Ache.

3. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?
Everyone says time, but babies come when they want to come, that’s what books are like. I’d say the most surprising thing is how the publication process really makes your world smaller and prepares you for postpartum from your book. It gives you a little taste into the way people think about you and your work. It’s really truth telling.

4. Where did you first get published?
I got published first by Commune Editions. They were, at that time, the only people to really dig my work before anyone else.

5. What are you reading right now?
Raquel Salas Rivera’s Lo terciario / The Tertiary, Reek Bell’s A Great Act, and Claude McKay’s A Long Way From Home.

6. Who is the most underrated author, in your opinion? 
Authors outside of institutions. That’s where the most interesting work is coming from. With institutions, it’s always this bait-and-switch thing that happens that puts a straight jacket on people’s work.

7. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Myself, sometimes I’m unsure, sometimes I’m hubris. I think when I wrote TimeTheft: A Love Story with Madison Van Oort, I was able to balance out my own thoughts with her level headedness.

8. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
My most genuine response would be that it was more accessible to voices that are pushed to the margins. But also I think this response gets perverted by the publishing and literary community, which is why you have “special”(fetish) issues to talk about subjects that are just normal ways of living for a lot of people. So, I’d say: more incendiary small presses and zine makers to the front.

9. When you’re not writing, what do you like to do? 
I like to hangout with friends, drink, talk to my mom and sister, and go on dates with my partner. I like reading about strange factoids and record shopping.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
There is none really, either it’s classicist or unfeasible. I think sincerity is important to the process of writing, because the work really can speak for itself, and no one can pimp that out. So, mine is this: Get in where you fit in, and where you don’t, break it.

Jasmine Gibson, author of Don’t Let Them See Me Like This. (Credit: Sean D. Henry-Smith)

Alison C. Rollins, author of Library of Small Catastrophes. (Credit: Maya Ayanna Darasaw)

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  • April 22, 2019