An Interview Series
1. What comes closest to meditation for you?
Diana Khoi Nguyen: I once tried a yoga class several years ago and absolutely hated the experience. It wasn't that I disliked the instructor, but the naming conventions (and perhaps the self-consciousness of the class). I think I was supposed to be meditating (or something near it) at some point in the class, but I couldn't get over my distaste for the experience enough to enter into a mentally quiet space.
Enter Pilates, which as it turns out, is nothing like that one yoga experience. I've been doing mat Pilates regularly now since stumbling upon it in New York (during my MFA). I love the simplicity of Pilates. Through it, I've gained awareness of the enumerations of my body--places, parts I don't often use, or use involuntarily. This awareness has enabled not only flexibility and strength, but more importantly, keen mental attention. Which is what I am looking for in mediation. And in poetry.
Kelly Cressio-Moeller: Making coffee in the morning: water just to boiling, grinding beans, 4 minute steep, then press the plunge. It’s my favorite religious experience.
Martha Silano: Yoga.
Sara Eliza Johnson: I have a difficult time shutting off my brain. I suppose reading a “light” novel comes close, in that I can easily lose myself in it. It used to be running before I injured my tendon. But, if I may be totally honest here, I think sex comes closest. It is one of the rare activities during which my mind doesn’t wander or get distracted. I am not a meditative person.
2. Describe a book you love, without naming it.
Diana: All the favorites I love are ones that left a significant stain on my heart. Which is to say, a lasting color, an impression, transformative feeling. And the ones I love tend to fall into a particular breed of feeling. Ennui, melancholia, sharp calm brightness. There's also this sense of slow (but not sluggish) vitality. A carefulness that arises from with watchfulness. Attention, yes.
In (hopefully) less vague terms: it is the 216th time your tongue licked at an ice cream cone as a child--neither the first nor the last, but that moment you weren't conscious of, can't remember really--but a moment that quietly supports your love of something which brings pleasure.
Kelly: Utterly changed the way I wrote and read; every single word necessary and meant more than it said. I read it when I was 19, and it cracked me open in the best of ways. Solidified for me that language was where my heart and head belonged. I have a first edition of this book that I’m grabbing in a fire.
Martha: A rollicking adventure about the Lewis & Clark expedition. (You do realize how difficult it is to choose only one book?)
Sara: A driver suddenly loses his sight in the middle of rush hour, and gradually the rest of the city falls prey to the same contagion. Soon all the people in the city except one—a doctor’s wife, who is immune—can only see white. Through the author’s labyrinthine and gorgeously permeable language, we follow the woman as she guides those who cannot see through apocalypse and decay, revealing the fragility and savagery of the human species. Everyone in the city is spontaneously and miraculously cured by the novel’s end. My favorite moment: the doctor’s wife tells the woman who has just said she knows she's beautiful because she dreamt it, “You were dreaming about the house because you felt safe and calm, it’s only natural after all we’ve been through, in your dream I was the home, and in order to see me you needed a face, so you invented it.”
3. How does your inner monologue compare with the poetry you create?
Diana: Perhaps this is strange to say, but my inner monologue is akin to a prelingual child; poetry is the vehicle through which I discover and come into a tribe who share tools for meaning.
Martha: My inner monologue is tone deaf, monotonous, and doesn't know what assonance or slant rhyme are. My poetry says things like black without pink Misleading! / Great panty subtle sassy/ very wife very keeps me, while my inner monologue says things like Oh, shit, I forgot to take out the garbage!
Sara: I’ve never really considered how those two things are connected, but I do think my inner monologue tends to be an anxious, associative, and restless one, and that my poetry often reflects that. The figurative imagery in my work, for example, is often one of violently associative transformations.
4. Do any rituals or habits surround your writing?
Diana: Physical logistics include low volume music (dream/indie pop), lack of humans, internet (for fact-checking/inspiration), and a comfortable, non-distracting location. I'm not a group-cafe-writing kind of person. Solitary confinement, but with privileges is more like it.
A season ritual is something I've nailed down only recently: November - February involve copious amounts of reading (non-fiction, fiction, poetry). March is the furious scrambling to compile lists of nouns, verbs, ideas, images. April is the insane poem-a-day torture / egg-laying henhouse. May - October is the drawn out editing, pacing, and assembling/disassembling of poems/a possible manuscript. Rinse, repeat. It's not a strictly self-compartmentalized ritual, of course. But productive parameters to keep me dancing in the 24/7 marathon with poetry.
Kelly: I’m slow to write as I work much of the poem out in my head; if I don’t have an idea of the landing, I find it difficult to lift off. Assembling notes (scrap paper, post-its, voice memos, orphan line notebook) then writing everything out longhand is what works for me (Rhodia or Clairefontaine journals, prefer fountain pen or Blackwing pencils) – an oil lamp or candle, too, even in the summer.
Martha: Blank books with no lines, approx. 5" x 7."
Sara: I usually write the new “seeds” of the poem in a notebook somewhere outside (or at a favorite cafe if it's cold or rainy). My favorite place to write while I lived in Oregon, when I was there getting my MFA, was a rose garden in a park near my house; in Salt Lake City, it has been more difficult to find a spot, but right now it is the picnic table in the backyard of my apartment building. And before I write down those first inklings, I flood my body with caffeine to jolt my brain out of its stupor. The true first draft of the poem is written later, at my desk, and often listen to favorite songs with headphones to drown out any noises and distractions.
5. What does the world need right now?
Diana: Empathy that derives from human citizenship before anything else.
Kelly: I think the world would be vastly happier if there were an ice cream sundae delivery service.
Martha: A car that runs on carbon-dioxide.
Empathy, always, for all living things.
A native of California, Diana Khoi Nguyen is working on completing her first manuscript in Lewisburg, PA. She has poems and reviews are in or forthcoming in Poetry, Lana Turner, Kenyon Review, West Branch, and elsewhere.
Martha Silano has authored four books of poetry, including The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia Books 2014). She also co-edited, with Kelli Russell Agodon, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice (Two Sylvias Press 2013). In 2015, Two Sylvias Press will release a second edition of her award-winning first book, What the Truth Tastes Like. Martha’s poems have appeared in Paris Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and North American Review, where she received the 2014 James Hearst Poetry Prize, as well as in many anthologies, including American Poetry: The Next Generation and The Best American Poetry 2009. Martha edits Crab Creek Review and teaches at Bellevue College.
Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s poetry is forthcoming in burntdistrict, Gargoyle, and Iodine Poetry Journals. You can find her previously published poems at Boxcar Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Crab Orchard Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Poet Lore, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review, Tinderbox, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. Her poems have been nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. She shares her fully-caffeinated life with her tall husband, two ever-growing sons, and their immortal basset hound in Northern California.
Sara Eliza Johnson grew up in Stratford, Connecticut. She is a graduate of Cornell University and received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Best New Poets 2009, Crab Orchard Review, Tampa Review, Memorious, Shenandoah, Vinyl, Willow Springs, Iron Horse Literary Review, Verse Daily, Pleiades, Meridian, and elsewhere. Her first book, Bone Map(Milkweed, 2014), won the 2013 National Poetry Series.