April 26, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsLiterature

Micro-Interview: LA Poet Emily Fernandez

This is the fifth interview in an ongoing series about the intersections of writing, teaching, and identity. Read Past Interviews in the series: Kathy Kottaras,  Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mike RoseVirginia Pye.

Emily Fernandez has lived in California almost every year of her life, except for a three-year tour in New York, where she graduated from NYU with an M.A. in English literature. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Pasadena City College where she runs the Visiting Writers series with her colleagues and also organizes the annual Pasadena City College Poetry Day celebration each April. Her new chapbook, Procession of Martyrs, was just released by Finishing Line Press. She is a proud member of the LA womyn’s writing group Las Lunas Locas. Her poems have been featured at Poetic Diversity and Verse Virtual

Photo Courtesy of Finishing Line Press

 

Kirsten Ogden and Emily Fernandez talked using Facebook Messenger between December 2017 and April 2018.\

Emily, Tell me about your new chapbook out from Finishing Line Press, A Procession of Martyrs .

I was a fiction writer for a long while, but I realized I don’t have what it takes to revise a novel, at least not right now. When I started writing poetry, I still had the mindset of a prose writer. I was thinking about character, voice, and narration. Many of my poems are told in different voices. I wanted them to read like Dylan songs. In college I didn’t have a television so I would listen to Dylan’s songs. I could easily get the emotional weight of the lyrics, but when I tried to figure out the plot, I never could. I liked the puzzle of it, the string of imagery that is from both the past and present, from fact and fiction. There are also some really personal poems in there too.

Procession of Martyrs was selected by Finishing Line after you submitted for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook series. What do you like about the chapbook genre for poets?

Chapbooks are wonderful. They are not the museum exhibition. They are the first art show at a little gallery off the main strip. They are little gifts, hints about the magic that is still to come, and they are essential for new poets.

How did the idea for this chapbook come together?

So the title poem is “Procession of Martyrs.” It’s actually about camellias. I love camellias because they bloom in January, my favorite month in Los Angeles. When I would go to Descanso Gardens or the LA County Arboretum with my boys, we would walk under the camellia bushes and all around the flowers had fallen of the branches and were the ground in full form. My boys and I would pick them up and they were so heavy and still so intact. I kept wondering — why do they fall off the branches like that? I imagined them like martyrs sacrificing their lives at a young age for something they believed in wholeheartedly. I thought that would be a nice way to start the book. Then I took my narrative poems, often about people who did something tragically strong or daring (but not always) and interspersed them with the personal poems.

Procession of Martyrs

Camellias form
in decorative orbs
like forbidden fruit,
bloom like bursting

hearts, fall, not
bit by bit, petal
by petal, but
completely.

Dark dirt
is littered
with the heavy
flesh
of their sanguine
sorrow.

Your boys accompany you on a lot of these nature treks! You have two very active young boys, and you do a lot of adventures with them to the beach, hiking, the zoo, etc. How do space and landscape find a way into your work?

I don’t know how many poems I have written about the beach, especially the waves and the way they come at you when you are in the water! Being out with my boys in nature is where I gather my images. I also just love, love, love watching nature documentaries with my youngest son. This planet is so awful and awe-full. It makes me want to come out of my skin! I think after I watch a pack of wolves capture a young elk or an iguana hatch from an egg and realize he has to run for his life because 20 racer snakes are about to strangle him and eat him so they (also) can survive, I am forced to question my own strength, my place in the world, our evil, our drive, why pain is so entangled with living. I don’t know – it makes me crazy, and I carry it with me until I can make a metaphor out of it.

When did you first know you were going to be a poet?

When I was in third grade the school newspaper asked our class what we wanted to be. Most girls said cheerleader or actress. I wrote assuredly “a writer and a farmer’s wife.” The first part stuck, and my husband and I have raised a garden and some chickens so that kind of stuck too. I just love stories and words. I always have, and I know I never want to lose my imagination. I could never just live in this reality. I need the escape of a good metaphor.

And now you’re a teacher! What do you love most about teaching poetry to students? A lot of teachers bemoan the undergraduate poet and the poems about first kisses and deep thoughts.

I’m all about the first kiss and deep thoughts! Students can be so much more risky and are willing to lay it all on the line when they realize they can. First they have to find the image or what I call the “anchor.” I ask them to think about this: what is the core truth, and what is the vehicle that will take the reader to that truth?

What were some of your subjects as a young writer?

I was pretty “goth.” Maybe I still am. I had an interest in the tragic and the morbid. Maybe I still do! I loved Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath when I was young. I remember when my mom found one of my early poems in high school, it caused her some concern. I think I had been reading Poe or Maupassant (who is a great storyteller!), and I wrote a poem about somebody contemplating violence. I even wrote it with jagged lettering! (Laughs.)

Youth and writing are both about experimentation. I was innocently doing that.

I feel like we a losing our understanding of the power of metaphor and imagination, the idea that dangerous possibilities can live on the page and in our minds and we shouldn’t be afraid of them because they aren’t real.

I get what you’re saying here for sure. There’s a heavier focus on needing “proof” even though we’re sometimes willing to accept false truths if it sounds good. Somehow the imagination and its power is getting lost.

We are much more reality based now. We like memoirs and reality shows etc. Fundamentalism is also on the rise, and also the idea of proving everything scientifically as though it has to be real and of this world to hold truth. But real truth, Truth with a capital T, often is found in the metaphor, the imaginary. I know I got off topic here, but I believe if we let go of “reality” more often, we might see ourselves and our connections to each other in more light. It’s almost a spiritual thing for me.

Who are some of your favorite poets to teach your students — those poets who reach that “capital T” for you?

Matthew Rasmussen was the poet that spoke to me so deeply that I decided to move from fiction to poetry. I also love Natalie Diaz, Robin Coste Lewis ,Tracy K. Smith, and Ocean Vuong. I love learning from my students, too. They blow my mind all the time! I think that students who want to be poets should read lots of poems. Let yourself get lost in the language. Find words or images that give you pleasure and carry them with you until they become poems.

You are a strong advocate for your students outside of the classroom—a true teacher activist! I know that you’ve done a lot of work on behalf of homeless students at your home institution, Pasadena City College, from helping provide an emergency fund to working towards housing for homeless students. Does this ever find its way into your work? Or maybe this is a larger question about the role of activism in poetry and in the lives of poets?

Yes—the poetry and activism that move me the most are doing the same things—they enter the difficult places of suffering, longing, and alienation in order to bring attention, healing, and hope. They are pro-dignity and pro-redemption. They rip our hearts open. They teach us to be justice-minded and merciful.

How do you balance your writing life with your role as a teacher?

I don’t write much when I’m teaching, so I guess I don’t balance it well! Teaching and lesson planning are their own wonderful art forms. Luckily, I have been a part of a women’s writing group, Las Lunas Locas. They taught me how to get a draft of a poem down in thirteen minutes. The rest is all revision.

It sounds like Las Lunas Locas has been instrumental for you. Can you talk a little bit about women and community for poets?

I think there is a freedom in a woman’s writing group. Women are told to be silent about certain topics and a nurturing group of women can create a sense of freedom and healing from these constraints. More importantly, and I think I stress this for my students in my poetry classes, it is almost more important to know what our strengths are as poets instead of hearing a pile of criticism. This is especially important for new writers who are developing their voices. Being in any kind of group that is nurturing to each individual is so important.

We seem to be in a time right now where women’s voices are being championed in different ways than they have been in the past—the landscape seems to be changing.

Yes, it’s hard to say what the current contemporary landscape of poetry is right now, but when I walk out my door and look at the poetry landscape, women are everywhere. It’s breathtaking to see this and I personally gravitate towards women writers. I love what men have to say too, of course. The truth is, women have always been published because women read. In fact, in Hawthorne’s time he wasn’t the most popular writer by a long shot; Fanny Fern was, and she was good. Now if we are talking about who gets acclaim with “the ol’ boys club” of the canon or who wins the awards, that’s another story. It’s a story that is certainly a concern, but it doesn’t have to determine the landscape if readers and teachers don’t let it. I am so thrilled that Tracy K. Smith is our poet laureate! I’ll leave it at that.

It’s National Poetry Month! A lot of our readers are currently engaged in a “30-poems in 30-days” challenge. Do you have a writing prompt you can share?

Yes! Think of one image that you’ve seen in the last few days. Research that image. Think about what you feel about that image. How does that image speak to you? Now write.

Ivan

Why have you come to my door
with your unkempt hair and bad breath
your knees cracking with every bend?

How long did you stay
awake those first few nights
cradled in stained corners
trying to fold yourself up
like last year’s newspaper?

What was it like — that moment
when you became the concrete,
your grizzled cheek melting
into ground like discarded gum,
when the bones surrendered
in the shivering battle of rattling cold?

Did the wrench of your jaw unclench
and one darkness take over another
turning you into an untouchable heap,
a broken monstrance of your soul?

And did sleep finally come to you
like a lover, like covers on a baby?

Did you wake finally knowing
that my body burns
like votives before the Virgin,
longing to comfort you?

 

Emily Fernandez’s new chapbook, Procession of Martyrs, is available now from Finishing Line Press. The Chapbook Launch takes place on April 26, 2018, 7-9pm, at Book Show in Highland Park, Los Angeles.