July 5, 2019KR BlogLiteratureUncategorizedWriting

Craft Is Not Monolithic: An Interview with Luisa A. Igloria and Amanda Galvan Huynh, Editors of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making

Earlier this year, I embarked on one of the single most important endeavors of my literary career thus far: an interview series with the authors and editors of craft books. It has been a long, fruitful process—resulting in new friends, deeper relationships, and many thought-provoking conversations—and I’m excited to share these interviews with the world.

This post represents the firsts in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Luisa A. Igloria and Amanda Galvan Huynh, the editors of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making, an anthology of essays on transformative poetics available for purchase here.

Luisa A. Igloria is the author of 14 books of poetry and 4 chapbooks. She is a Professor of Creative Writing and English and from 2009-2015 was Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. Her work was chosen as the 2015 (inaugural) winner of the Resurgence Poetry Prize, the world’s first major ecopoetry award.

Amanda Galvan Huynh is a Mexican American writer and educator from Texas. She is the author of a chapbook, Songs of Brujería (Big Lucks, September 2019). Amanda has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net.

Ruth Joffre: What was the first craft book you read, either in whole or in part? What did you learn from it (about craft or about craft books as a genre)?

Luisa A. Igloria: I did not cut my teeth, so to speak, in a US academic setting—my BA Humanities (Comparative Literature, English, Philosophy emphases) and MA Literature degrees were from Philippine universities—but, even so, many of the texts we were required to read were by American and/or European authors.

One of the earliest craft/criticism books I read in college was Theory Of Literature by René Wellek and Austin Warren; this work frames its whole discussion around Horace’s concept that literature should be “sweet and useful” (dulce et utile) and that an exemplary work of literature should provide evidence of both “coherence and complexity” in all its parts. The approach this favors is very close to the ideas of New Criticism/Formalism but also to the methods of phenomenology.

However, I also had teachers who opened my eyes early on to the importance of seeking “native” (not just western) models of thinking about what writers do with language and genre and “content” (in other words, craft). In this regard, I see a direct connection to the predicament I found myself in especially when I came to the US initially for my Ph.D. program in Chicago—it was difficult to find texts and mentors that spoke to me and my realities as one of only a very few writers of color (and immigrant writers) in my program.

Two other texts/writers introduced to me by college professors in the Philippines were Salvador P. Lopez’s Literature and Society: Essays (1940), which argues that art must be socially committed and witness to its specific milieu; and poet Jose Garcia Villa, who was expelled from the University of the Philippines and charged with obscenity in court for poems he wrote in Man Songs (1929). My early ideas about writing and craft were shaped by the camps/struggle represented by Lopez and Villa—socially engaged literature vs. “art for art’s sake.” But I also felt very dissatisfied by the sharp polarization of these viewpoints. While I believe that art must be socially relevant, at the same time I admire the artistic boldness of someone like Jose Garcia Villa: his “comma poems,” collages, and his audacity at performing and professing his poetics in the ’30s and ’40s; an exile, a brown poet, writing in a field dominated by mostly American and British writers.

One other craft text of central importance to me is Federico Garcia Lorca’s In Search of Duende—for its recognition of the deeper and more mysterious sources of art and practice, and how they are connected to the world of folklore, community and cultural traditions (so that through my understanding of Lorca, I can also include my mothers’ tutelage in the kitchen as part of my education in craft as a poet).

Amanda Galvan Huynh: In my first undergraduate poetry workshop, I received The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand. Each week my professor had us present on different poetic forms and by the end of the semester we had covered every form in the book. For an Intro to Poetry class, I feel this is a solid approach for new poets because before we can fly, we have to know how the mechanics function. This anthology shaped how I viewed craft books and I had classified them as books tied to the technicalities of poetry. My understanding of craft shifted when I encountered Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry in my first semester of graduate school. Her book gave, and continues to give, me my spiritual foundation for poetry. Rukeyser breathed life into the why of poetry, especially as an American writing in a capitalist society. Why choose this art? Why bear witness to the world? Even now, when I feel lost, I come back to this book because there’s always a revelation waiting to be discovered.

RJ: Of Color was first conceived at a kitchen table, in response to the lack of craft books written or edited by people of color. How did you go about making the idea a reality? What hurdles, if any, did you encounter along the way?

LAI: After Amanda and I shared our stories and experiences of feeling the same lack of craft texts by and for writers of color we crafted a call for submissions in January 2017, and drafted a general timeline. We put up our CFS on social media and also began disseminating the info among our networks. At the same time, I started querying a number of publishers/presses to see if they would be interested in our project. At the AWP in 2017, I also visited a number of prospective publishers at their tables in the book fair, talking up our anthology proposal and asking if we could follow up on any interest. One independent publisher expressed a strong interest in working with us, and we went as far as having all material on hand and our writer-contributors provided contracts, when owing to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, this publisher had to suspend all its projects. Our entire anthology project was forwarded to The Operating System, to query if they might be willing to adopt it and oversee its completion and publication. That was fortunately the case, and we are very grateful that the kind of project our anthology represented was something that also fell in line with its vision.

AGH: Ideas have the ability to manifest without hindrance; however, it’s usually the follow up work that can derail so many projects. Logistically, we put out a call in January of 2017, made an Of Color Facebook page, shared with our communities, and waited. The waiting was the hardest part because we did not know who would answer our call. I remember we had to extend the deadline because one of our first deadlines fell during midterms. During our waiting period, Luisa started querying potential publishers until we found a small publishing company willing to back us without the finished work. This helped us promote the anthology and gain confidence with our potential contributors. However, along the way this publisher encountered unfortunate circumstances that led to suspension of all their planned projects. Fortune was on our side as the anthology found its way to the wonderful humans at The Operating System. They were willing to move forward with the anthology, and we’ve been humbled and grateful for them taking the leap with us.

RJ: The essays in Of Color are wide-ranging in subject matter and theme, exploring questions of identity, the complexities of being a bilingual writer, the relationship between poetry and music, and the poet’s connection to place, among other things. How did you decide on the order of the essays? What interesting juxtapositions arose in the process?

LAI: We are so lucky indeed to have, as you put it, such a wide range of authors and approaches exploring different facets of the experience of being a writer of color, and applying these to their thinking on questions of craft and aesthetics. We read through all the selected contributions many, many times, and proposed a reading order that (we think) allows one essay/one writer’s voice to link to the next. We tried to represent as wide a range of thinking about “craft” as was possible from these contributions, ranging from the Foreword where Mai Der Vang talks about the importance of ritual and grounding in family and cultural traditions alongside any talk of poetry; to essays that consider physical labor, perspectives on mental health, musical influences, and traditions of reading among the primary sources for shaping a writer’s poetics.

AGH: The essays are wide-ranging and match our multifaceted selves. I still remember carrying the essays around and spreading them out on my floor. There’d be back and forth discussions, between Luisa and I, as we really tried to listen to how these essays were talking to each other. What common threads did they have? Which ones were gravitating toward each other? Our contributors were talking about craft through intimate experiences revolving around mental health, bilinguality, modes of non traditional learning, music, grief, literary heritage, and more.

RJ: Many writers of color, both in Of Color and elsewhere, have written about the pressure that writers of color face in workshops, where they are often silenced, asked to validate the “authenticity” of characters of color written by white authors, and expected to point out racism where no one else does (thereby taking the pressure off the white people in the room). As students and teachers of craft, what classroom rules, procedures, or conversations would you like to see more of to prevent this?

LAI: As a writer who has occupied both spaces that you refer to in this question (having been a student, and now teaching workshops, literature, and craft courses), I’m very aware of that kind of tacit demand that writers of color “perform” their “authenticity” on the page. When directed at a teacher of color, that kind of demand extends to one that asks for badges of certification or proof of their “authority” to hold forth and “profess” what they know about writing—I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a classroom where I’ve observed a student ask their white professor on the first day, “Have you published anything at all?”

A while ago I read the series of essays on craft that Matthew Salesses published at Pleiades and how the way in which we teach creative writing is “…teaching a kind of cultural norm. This is because we base “craft” off of what affects a literary, American reader.” I try my best therefore to find other ways to vary the conversations around the table so that, for instance, the practice of silencing the writer until all workshop commentary has been made is not the only way we talk. For instance, if we all, including the writer, only asked questions, what kind of workshop would that produce? If we took turns looking at the ways nouns and verbs build on each other and on the imagery of a text, what kind of reading would that produce?

In order to decenter those expected cultural norms of “a literary, American reader,” I try to always build reading lists that are diverse, and introduce students to writers they might not otherwise encounter in their college experience. There are many other practices besides these, and this is a work which all of us must undertake. It should not be the burden of writers/teachers of color alone.

AGH: My journey to poetry did not start with an English degree. As an undergraduate student and as a Latinx, I had to go into the sciences for my first degree. I mention this because I did not pursue poetry until 2012—so that’s less than ten years in this community. When you place my challenges from the last decade beside Luisa’s hurdles, and understand that if things have slightly improved for a BIPOC, then you can see that we still have a great deal of work ahead of us. We have progressed because our students of color became our professors of color; however, right now our professors are stretched thin as they’re trying to uplift our community while simultaneously battling everyday microaggressions in these environments.

I do not see these workshop experiences disappearing until diversified poetry collections and craft books are taught to the majority. This responsibility cannot be the crux of professors of color. Teaching diversified texts needs to be a priority for white professors as well.

I am hopeful these changes are already being implemented, and that we will have more craft texts by BIPOC. I emphasize the craft texts by BIPOC because their existence also validates us in the classroom.

RJ: Amanda writes in her introduction of the negative effects of being one of the few people of color in a majority white academic program. One of those effects is double consciousness exhaustion, wherein an individual is drained by the effort of having to think both about your identity and about how it’s perceived by others (something not expected of white people). How has this exhaustion affected you personally and professionally? What strategies have you developed to combat it?

LAI: Ah. Exhaustion indeed. And it is not only physical, but also psychical/emotional. It seems like something I continue to experience almost on a daily basis. Recently I was invited to read at a series; the email invitation mentioned a specific honorarium amount. I was informed that the amount had been transferred/forwarded to me; when I looked, the amount did not correspond to the initial figure. When I informed them about the discrepancy and my confusion resulting from it, I was assured that I had been paid. So then I had to go back and produce the original invitation, and was placed in the position of having to prove that I was not the one making a mistake; placed in the position of someone who might appear to be only interested in the monetary compensation. Another example is being questioned about my inclusion of the 3 National Book Award (Manila) listings on my resume; the (white) faculty member who made this comment seemed dubious about their veracity, since according to him no American writer has been accorded more than one National Book Award (this was before Jesmyn Ward’s accomplishment of being the first American novelist to win the National Book Award for fiction twice). I have simply decided to firmly call out every instance like this, and point out what it does and what effects it has on writers like me.

AGH: I did not realize how much this exhaustion affected me until I attended VONA for the first time. The whole experience caught me off guard. When you are “on” for such a long time you tend to be ready to fight verbal challenges at any moment: “This doesn’t sound authentic.” “Are you sure it wasn’t a phase?” “It doesn’t make sense to me so it’s not going to make sense to your readers.” “This doesn’t speak to me.” “Do you really need to keep Spanish in your poem?” I was ready to defend my existence because of my collective workshop experiences.

Instead, I kept falling into the reverberations of acceptance and understanding. While this lifted me, I also felt a loss. What could have been achieved if I entered this community sooner? If I could work and build in this type of environment, always?

From here, I learned to surround myself with my own community. We have little control of our poetry cohorts, and sometimes we luck out and build strong bonds and sometimes we leave and that’s it. However, we have the ability to create a supportive writing community for ourselves. I would recommend for any BIPOC to find people who let you feel and be the most free. In our current literary world, I think it’s so important to find your people—to find people who understand you and will uplift you.

RJ: In her introduction, Luisa expresses a wish for writers of color: “Let there be a steady effort to compile lore and take inventory of strategies, intersections, bridges; to map histories, to sight possibilities for the future.” This wish emphasizes that craft is not monolithic or set in stone and that it benefits from input from the community. How do you envision this communal effort changing craft as we know it? How do you see Of Color contributing to that change?

LAI: We have said in either of our introductions or on some of our social media postings that we don’t see Of Color as being prescriptive/definitive or an end point in the conversations regarding writing and craft especially as it relates to POC/BIPOC. We’re excited that it is in the world as a physical text, that someone might hold in their hands to read and/or use in a classroom or workshop or other setting. And I really like what you said about craft not being monolithic or set in stone. What we’ve learned has been learned from a plurality of sources outside of and in addition to whatever we might consider indigenous to our own positions and experience. They include a range of personal, academic, collegial, and other sources. So I see this conversation to be one that will continue to evolve and change, branch out, become collaborative, build off of precedents (even those that develop away from ideas/sets of practices that might not work well in other kinds of circumstances/situations). I’m elated that we can be part of that continuing conversation through Of Color. I think that besides invoking community, another thing we all need to work on is communal reciprocity—that is, taking up the effort to make the energy of inclusion actually make the rounds.

AGH: The craft of poetry is ever-evolving in correlation with our poetry community, and our community continues to shift and evolve. It’s truly beautiful to be a witness to this time. With BIPOC visibility on the rise, I feel as if Of Color’s a lighthouse affirming the truth that we are still here. We are still creating change and walking through doors other BIPOC before us have opened. I can only hope this anthology opens pathways for future writers and for them in turn to pass that light forward.

RJ: Which craft books or essays have been most formative for you as writers? Knowing what you now know about craft books as a genre, which craft books would you recommend to beginning writers and why?

LAI: I was only introduced to texts like Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook when I began teaching in an American university during my Ph.D. studies. Since then I’ve discovered a great many other helpful craft books besides this, and some of those that I have found to be of particular help to beginning writers are Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Lynda Barry’s What it Is and One Hundred Demons. A couple of “genre”-focused texts that I like is Phillis Levin’s 500 Years of the Sonnet, and Rose Metal Press’s Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (ed. Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov). Dao Strom and Neil Aitken’s De-Canon Project Writers of Color Discussing Craft: An Invisible Archive is a most excellent and important resource.

AGH: My top two craft book recommendations would be Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. I would also recommend Neil Aitken and Dao Strom’s list. I’m trying to read my way through the list.

RJ: What non-craft books have you read in the past few years that, either through their success or failure, forced you to rethink some aspect of craft?

LAI: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart. Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. Among so many others.

AGH: The books that come to mind would be Lynda Barry’s What It Is, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. These texts helped me think about poetry in hybrid forms (i.e. art, music), caught in the nets of two tongues, and how to understand and navigate communities where I am the minority.

RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?

LAI: A few small final touches are being made on my manuscript Maps for Migrants and Ghosts, which was selected as one of two Co-Winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition in Poetry (it’s forthcoming in 2020). Also, I think I am in the middle of organizing a new poetry manuscript. Loosely, it’s about the ways in which (im)migrants and other people from formerly colonized countries experience geopolitical, economic, environmental, personal and other crises today—how these were already blueprinted hundreds of years ago, at first contact. I’ve written many of the poems that will go into it, but I know I will be writing (and revising) more.

AGH: I’m finishing up edits on my first chapbook, Songs of Brujería, coming out with Big Lucks later this year. Since January I have dived into the world of essays: personal and craft. With personal essays I feel like a shoe on the wrong foot, but I’m moving forward and continuing to learn. As for my craft essays, I’m exploring and researching bilingual craft elements of poetry. Through this, I hope I will be able to understand my own stylistic choices on a deeper bicultural level.