Interview with Poet Lisa Chavez

This month’s featured poet hails from the East Mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Described by fellow poets as supportive and possessing a particular intuition for sequencing poems in a collection, Lisa weighs in on such topics as the creative process, the role of the MFA and the genesis of her poetry. Here then, following a poem from her most recent collection, is this month’s poet interview:

In an Angry Season

They’ve gone to witness the river’s mad
descent into spring. The heave and thunder
as the ice shakes itself from the shore,
the way the frozen slabs–pachyderm grey
and similarly sized–shear one into
another as the Yukon shudders awake.
From a hawk’s height the pipeline bridge
mocks the river’s riot and churn. Perched
there, they watch–then his pale hand
turns her tawny face to his and
they kiss, roar of loosed ice echoing.
They are both just nineteen.

And now they sit, hands clutching brown
bottles, in a one-room cabin turned
tavern. A wooden counter, scabbed over
with men’s names. A naugahyde couch,
slouching by the door. One man at the bar,
face flat in a puddle of beer.
His phlegmy snores. The room choked
with smoke. The one they call Dirty Dave
is telling a story: “We picked up this squaw
hitching her way into town. Weren’t no room
in the cab, so she crawled in back. I went after her.
I said, whatever you hear, boys,
don’t stop this truck.” Laughter.  He grins,
gap-toothed and mean. Leers at the girl.
“I like it when they fight.”  She shivers.
Twists at a strand of her black hair.
Her boyfriend draws her closer.
Six men–they’ve been drinking
all winter. One girl. One nervous
boyfriend. A mining camp a hundred miles
or more from town. And Dave stares
at the girl. “What do you think of that?”

And she thinks: There is so much evil
in this world. And she thinks of her hand,
squeezing the bottle till it breaks, scraping
this man’s face to bone with the shards.
And she thinks of the river, how in some
angry seasons it could not be contained–
bridges snapped like thread, whole villages
devoured by the Yukon’s flood and fury.
And she hears the river shift and growl.

1. Tell me a little about your inspirations. In other words, what, or who, inspires you to write and create poetry? 

My inspiration has changed over the years. I used to write more out of a sense injustice: I believed, and still do believe, that poetry can be a vehicle for change.  I haven’t given that up, but I’ve also written a lot about issues that were really personally compelling: on issues of race, gender and class, for example, and now I find it easier to address some of those big topics in creative nonfiction rather than in poetry. One thing that has not changed, however, is my love of story and character: poems often begin because I become fascinated by a character and his or her story. I see the poem as a way to live another life, however briefly, and to really get inside someone else’s head.

When I’m looking for inspiration, photographs are a great trigger – photographs of people are great for creating characters. Several of the poems in my second book come from photographs. Reading poetry is also great inspiration.

2. Often poets and writers are involved in a number of creative projects beyond writing. Tell me about some of the other ways you express your creativity. 

For years, writing was pretty much all I did, and when the writing wasn’t going well, I felt creatively stuck. I think I had that kind of perfectionism that some artists have: I know I’m not nearly so skilled in other art forms, so I tend not to try them.  But in the past few years, writing had gotten much too serious and it just wasn’t fun anymore, so I decided to try some other creative projects, with absolutely no expectations.  And it was really fun!  I’m not a good visual artist by any means, but I enjoy a number of crafts, from paper crafts and altered books, to fabric art. I still can’t draw or sew very well, but I make do, and have fun.  I particularly like anything that involves collage and found art:  making new things out of old stuff.  In some ways it reminds me of writing: rearranging things until they make a pleasing pattern, the same way I may move words around on a page.

3. What has been the role of poetry in your development as a creative person?

You might say poetry has been the extended metaphor for my creative life. It is not all of it, but it has been a long-lasting mode of expression.  I started writing stories at 4, when my grandmother taught me how to write, and I never stopped. I thought I’d be a fiction writer, because mostly it was fiction I read and was nourished by, but even though I am very much a narrative poet, fiction is by far my weakest genre.  I never even tried to write poetry until I was an undergraduate, but once I discovered it, I felt like I’d found my form, and kept going with it.

Still, not everything works in poetry. Sometimes I want to “tell” rather than just “show” and I’ve been writing creative nonfiction almost as long as I’ve been writing poetry.  The two genres go well together, I think, and when I want a larger palette, creative nonfiction is a good option.

But writing is just one aspect of my creativity. I don’t hear people talking about this a lot, but for me one hazard of being a writer and academic is how professionalized writing becomes, and how tied to the job it is, and for me, this has stolen some of the magic of writing.  It seemed like work, not fun.  I’ve considered switching to genre fiction to get some of the playfulness back (I could literally write about magic then, if I’m writing fantasy!) and I do have some fantasy and sci-fi projects in the works.  I also regained some pleasure in writing about dogs on my blog—it’s so far removed from my work that I can feel free to just follow my interests.  But much of the rest of my creative life is something that is not professional in any way:  it’s the various projects I work on at home–dying cloth, making collage paintings or artist’s books, gardening, or whatever.

4. What is your view on education in the creative process. Is an MFA an important credential for artists and writers to attain?  

I think an MFA can be very useful, but it is certainly not the only route for artists.  What it does best is give artists and writers a time to fully devote themselves to their art in a way they will likely not be able to do again.  The best part of the MFA is the time immersed in writing, in taking classes, in writing, in critiquing writing, in teaching writing.  It’s a great gift, and a great way to hone craft.  That said, it certainly won’t guarantee people an academic job, nor will it even guarantee publication.  It’s an apprenticeship, and what comes after is up to the individual writer or artist.

5. What are your current creative dreams and goals?  

My current interests may not initially seem related to art, but I think they are. I’m really interested in holistic healing and a more holistic lifestyle in general; in fact, I’m planning on taking classes in things like aromatherapy, herbalism, etc.   From what I’ve discovered so far, holistic healers are incredibly creative people, working in a way I’d never considered, as their creativity is focused on health, both spiritual and physical.  They are also very intuitive in a way that really resonates with me as an artist, as so much of art begins in intuition. This kind of study will open up a new way of looking at the world that is rooted in the physical and energetic, rather than in just the intellect. I don’t know where this will take me as a creative person, but I do know that it has already energized my life, and I know that for me, health must be based in the physical, spiritual AND creative life, and I’m looking forward to what comes next creatively.

Lisa D. Chavez has published two books of poetry: Destruction Bay and In an Angry Season, and has been included in such anthologies as Floricanto Si! A Collection of Latina Poetry, The Floating Borderlands: 25 Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Fourth Genre, The Clackamas Literary Review and other places, and has also been included in several creative nonfiction text books. Her most recent essays appear in An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working Class Roots and The Other Latin: Writing Against a Singular Identity, forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press.

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