Interview with Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley

Our blog editors, Maria Prudente and Joanna Cleary, were interested in interviewing writers about their obsessions and repulsions and how they influence writing. Scroll down to read their interviews with two writers we love, Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley.


LINDA ASHOK

Maria Prudente: I find that writers need to return to their obsessions in their work. Do you write about your obsessions and, is it challenging to find new ways to write about them?

Linda Ashok: I am not sure about what is implied by obsession. Are you referring to recurring motifs? The thing about my writing is that I never have to think too hard and I mostly go with the flow; writing is quite organic for me as I extract elements from my unsettling dreams. In this process, there are elements that appear quite frequently but they neither demand anything nor dictate. 

MP: Are you ever driven to write about what repulses you? How do you fight the urge to not write around it but through it?

LA: Like anybody else, I am repulsed by any kind of violence but I do write about it because it is therapeutic for me. It helps me to see the underlining of what we perceive as violence. It also builds familiarizes the readers to recognize violences they experience in their personal or public spaces.

Joanna Cleary: As a Communications and Branding professional as well as a writer, how do you think the increasing role of virtual reality and communication in our lives has affected your creativity and creative work? 

LA: Well, virtual reality has built and broken our lives in many ways. In my case, I leveraged virtual reality to expand my creative pursuit; I lived places before I literally travelled to those places. Imagining I am in a certain place, imagining the lives of people local to those places, helped me manifest my desire to live those places in real life through positive affirmations. I experienced their poetry, their struggle, their joys through virtual reality. So yes, it contributed a lot to my writing while also exposing me to a lot of toxicity that affected my mental health in several ways. That I am currently dealing with social anxiety is because of being overwhelmed by the duality of people as seen on social media vs real life. And of course when your life is affected, it does reflect in your work too.

JC: Can you speak to what inspired the title of your 2012 book of poetry, whorelight

LA: My book came out in 2017. I imagined a different name for it and that was whorefrost. But over the four years of its preparation, I found a mention of ‘whorefrost’ somewhere on the net and that really upset me. I wanted to have a unique name to my book. So I continued brainstorming until one day I coined ‘whorelight’ to define how light streams into our darkness, sleeps with it, and leaves everything illuminated. I feel it is akin to those sex-workers who somehow fill in a lot of void in the lives of their customers; and therefore ‘whorelight’ talks about many such moments and experiences that prostituted to fill the many spaces in my life forever inquisitive about meanings.

MP: I was so moved by your poem, ‘We Two Women Can Father A Child.’ Can you elaborate on how that particular piece came to be? 

LA: A certain phase of my childhood happened in the company of my biological mother and my step mother. My mother was too courageous to share her family space with my step mother and she did it to help my dad manage his finances better. In the wake of the world being more accomodating of non-binary relationship, that childhood experience of mine acted as a prop wherein I imagined my mothers discussing how they alone can father me without my dad being around. It is also a depiction of my queer sensibilities imagining two women fathering a child with more considerate human values.

JC: When I read “chew my tongue like a cannibal/ eating a red, fleshy berry” from your poem, ‘Tongue-Tied,’ I was  struck by the theatricality of language. Do you ever perform your work live?

LA: I do. But to myself. These poems are not for a listening audience as the kind of patience they have wouldn’t be enough to simulate the interior theatricality of the poem or poems as such. And even if I am given a very patient and perceptive audience, I would still refrain from performing it as these are very intimate pieces. 


JAMEL BRINKLEY

Maria Prudente: Writers seem to write a lot about their obsessions. Maybe that obsession is a place or a type of person. A writer I know constantly writes about going back inside her mother’s womb. Do you write about any of your obsessions?

Jamel Brinkley: I would say I do, but I’m usually not aware of that fact until after after I’ve written and I can retrospectively look at my work to truly see what I have done. For example, only in hindsight did I see that in my book I was writing about, and obsessed with, families, brotherhood and male friendship, masculinity, and love of various kinds.

MP: Are you driven to write about what repulses you? How do you face that challenge head on?

JB: I think I’m driven to write about what fascinates me, about what I have questions about, and perhaps that sometimes means writing about what repulses me. I think the challenge is making sure that what I’m writing about is interesting to me, so if feeling repulsed is the only response I have to a character or action, then I probably won’t write about it. Complicated or even contradictory emotion is key in driving and sustaining my interest in any story.

Joanna Cleary: According to your website’s description of your collection, A Lucky Man, the work “reflects the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class—where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.” Can you speak to what luck means to you? Is it an obsession or a repulsion, or both? 

JB: I wouldn’t say that luck is a repulsion; maybe it’s something like an obsession. On the one hand, luck, or the idea of being lucky, is one that I mean to take seriously in the book. I hope that every story contains at least one moment of genuine joy or pleasure or grace for my characters, the kind of moment that makes one feel lucky to be alive. On the other hand, or at the same time, I do mean my invocation of luck to be seen with some irony. For the protagonist of my title story, for instance, luck comes to mean something painful. His life hasn’t turned out the way he expected. And the idea of being fortunate, of being blessed by fate, means that his sense of deserving good things in his life is a lie. What I’m talking about now isn’t unrelated to the myth of meritocracy, which, for some reason, so many people in this country believe in wholeheartedly.  

JC: According to your website, you have many literary events and workshops coming up. Can you speak to how you find that participating in these events influence your work as a writer?  

JB: It’s a real pleasure to meet with readers of my work and with those who are interested in reading my work, and it’s fun to meet with people who are devoted to the writing life. That said, there is a difference between being an author (a public figure) and a writer (a private figure), and participating in all these events has pulled me away from writing. I’ve felt less like an artist than a promoter of my own work. In response to that feeling, I’m learning to be a little less precious about the conditions I require. For example I’m learning how to write in the sterile environments of hotel rooms and, at times, even on airplanes, instead of always needing my apartment, my desk, my coffee mug.

JC: Can you tell us about your current writing fellowship at Stanford?

JB: The Stegner Fellowship is a two-year gift of time and money for which I am very grateful. I benefit from the amazing writing and insights of my peers, the other fiction fellows, when we meet for workshop every week. And we all benefit from working with the Stanford creative writing faculty, with incredible people like Elizabeth Tallent and Chang-rae Lee.


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Author of whorelight, LINDA ASHOK is the 2017 Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Chichester, UK. She is the publisher of RLFPA Editions, Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts that funds the annual RL Poetry Award (since 2013), and the founding editor of the Best Indian Poetry series. For features, press coverage, published works and more, visit lindaashok.com

 

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Photo credit: Arash Saedinia

 

JAMEL BRINKLEY is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. A Lucky Man is his first book. He lives in California.

Interview with Jenn Givhan

In celebration of International Women’s Day, our blog editors, Joanna Cleary and Maria Prudente, interviewed poet and novelist Jenn Givhan for the Inklette blog. Read on to know more about the women writers who inspire her, writing about motherhood and lots more!



Maria Prudente:
In your collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, you include the experiences of what you call “different mother-entities”. What compelled you to write about women through the collective experience and difference in motherhood?

Jenn Givhan: When I first tried having a baby, I experienced infertility and loss. Though I felt like a mother and mothered the unborns of my heart and imagination, I could not bring a living child into this world. At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in literature, focusing specifically on Latinx views and portrayals of motherhood, searching for mothers outside of the narrow definitions of birthmother that Western society put dataURI-1552097845512upon the lexicon, and found that in many other cultures (Latin American/Mexican, for instance) much of the mothering work is shared by tías, hermanas, abuelas, primas (i.e., female relatives) and I was taken, for instance, with Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and the role of Nacha, the abuela figure, the magical cook, an indigenous woman who is the primary caregiver of Tita as she grows up, and then later, adult Tita as the wet nurse of her sister’s baby, who becomes a Nacha-like figure to the girl, raising her in the kitchen. As I searched through the literature and began forming my own poetics, I asked questions of motherhood such as is the infertile woman the fertile woman’s doppelganger? Does she represent a fear of being without value in patriarchal society? This all helped me develop a poetics of motherhood outside of the patriarchy in my first collection and beyond, and I’m currently working on a lyric-hybrid memoir Quinceañera with Baby Fever that further delves into my experiences as a Latina growing up on the Mexicali border, examining the cultural stigmas toward childbearing and mothering in the Latina community filtered through my own experiences with teenage sexuality, contraceptives, abortion clinics, miscarriages, and violent relationships with machismo boys/men.  

MP: How does your identity as a Mexican-American women influence how and what you write?

JG: My identity as a Mexican-American woman is embedded in everything I write—even when I don’t explicitly examine my cultural heritage or reference it in my work—because it is linked to my worldview, my deepest belief system, how I view the world and myself. As I discussed before, my work tends to examine mothers at the center, all the variations and possibilities for what mother means, and my own Mexican-American mother is at the heart of this. Everything I write grapples with the complexities inherent in straddling cultures, roles, expectations. Where mainstream U.S. culture would ask me why on earth, for instance, I’d try having a baby while still a college student, why I’d adopt a baby in grad school, my Mexican family never once questioned my deep desire to be a mother, even so young. Now, I’m examining the changing perspectives in my culture and re-evaluating the expectations I felt so crucial, and I’m showing my daughter all the myriad choices she has—she’s eight years old, and we’re already planning for Harvard, which is where she says she will attend college, and which we’re visiting this summer after a book expo for my first novel. I love the Mexican-American woman role model I can be for her—she sees that I’m a mother, yes, but that’s just one aspect of who I am and the possibilities she can hold for herself, if she so desires. She is growing up to know her own strength, and that’s the most powerful aspect of our Latina badassery I can pass onto her.

“Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.”

Joanna Cleary: Trinity Sight, your debut novel about a woman’s journey through a dystopian New Mexico, combines indigenous oral-historical traditions with modern apocalyptic fiction. What inspired you to do that? 

JG: I started out writing a story about a woman in New Mexico who loses her family and is on her own, and must find her own strength if she hopes to reunite with them, and perhaps more importantly, to see who she always was, with or without her family. The core of this story, then, is very close to my own heart, and speaks to my own greatest fear(s). Because my own family is from New Mexico on my great-grandmother’s side, and has roots to the Puebloan peoples, the stories that I was researching as I was reclaiming my own family history became enmeshed in protagonist’s search for strength and resilience. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a “post-apocalyptic” book, but the stories of the ancients here in the Southwest lend themselves to the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the indigenous peoples here have long known of and recorded in their sacred stories. I’m so grateful that my own inner journey connected with the ancients’—and that I’ve been able to glean a different perspective on dystopian fiction from a Latinx/indigenous perspective, centering us in our lands.

MP and JC: Which women writers have influenced you the most?

JG: My work follows the tradition of lucille clifton, who writes, “we have always loved us” and “come celebrate with me/that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and failed,” and Audre Lorde, who writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” My work follows my forebears Sandra Cisneros, Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Toni Morrison, and Ana Castillo, and through paths tread clearer by contemporary poets Lisa D. Chavez, Natalie Diaz, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith, and Margo Tamez. Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.

MP and JC: What do you think is the most important message to share with emerging women writers?

JG: Believe in yourselves, beauties. Believe in yourselves so strong and resilient, so neverending, that no one, no one, can knock you down longer than it takes you to brush yourselves off and stand up, stronger, taller, braver than before, and to put your whole heart out there again and again and again. People will try to keep you down. And you will fall sometimes. And it will hurt. I wish I could say it won’t, but it will. You might not publish your first poem or story or even your tenth. You might have to send your book a hundred places. All the while you are putting your entire heart out for the world to see, keep learning. Keep growing. Keep shining. Stay open. When doors shut in your face, knock harder, knock louder. Knock the effing doors down. Climb up the fire escapes. Never, ever give up. Keep studying. Keep transforming. Keep shutting down the patriarchy. Shut that shit down every single time. And this all starts here: believe. In yourselves, in your truths, in your worth. As I believe in you. Together, we will change this whole world. ❤


15521042047946229.gifJENN GIVHAN, a National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert. She is the author of four full-length collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series edited by Billy Collins), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize chosen by Ross Gay), and Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, forthcoming 2019), and the chapbooks: Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press) and The Daughter’s Curse (Yellow Flag Press). Her novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, are forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize chosen by Monica Youn, the Pinch Poetry Prize chosen by Ada Limón, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place chosen by Patricia Spears Jones, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review, among many others. Givhan holds a Master’s degree in English from California State University Fullerton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter @JennGivhan. 

Insert PIN

 

he draws a pinhole

breath, bowling ball sunk

in the sternum. gutter-

bound before the foot

flick. his brain is

all pins and needles

poking the pink ink

in his throat. mouth

a crumbling pyramid. his

teeth a collision of

ghosts. he tries to

think happy thoughts. how

the pinwheel spins in

the summer breeze. and

that reminds him of

his mouth again. a

ten car pileup. his

fat tongue flipped. wheels

spin under the sun.

a hot flash that’ll

melt the spine. a

failed mechanism that coping

  1. the shrink gave

him four steps. but

when it strikes, her

voice sounds like the

squeal of hoping. his

mouth, a slaughterhouse. watch

the rotten meat plop

off his conveyor belt

tongue. watch him try

to pin down the

anxiety before it swallows

him. boy forgot the

PIN code. locked out

his own head again.


MATTHEW COONAN is a poet and teaching assistant from Long Island, New York. He is a three-time SUNY Oneonta Grand Slam Champion and received the “Best of the Rest” award for his poem “Fish” at CUPSI 2015. His poems are published or forthcoming in The Drunken Violet Review, 35mm Magazine and Inklette. Matthew is also pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Stony Brook University.

Sol Invictus

You have heard it said the sun never rises

and this is true                    soil furrows out

night from day                notes whisperlong

in the open country past mountains

calling like some figure cast in marble &

paint like dancing at the summer carnival

 

fabric hangs from my shoulders thin

& open in the breeze who more than I

to know myself this perfect sun

of gold            of fathers            of reigns

unconquered on the temple steps

that stretch from door to dresser

 

waiting where wind will wind whip

sharp on legs shorn of memory

this body          gold and perfect

buried.           in a cloud of light

and draping the way it is said

I do not rise                 I unfathom

 

eruption of memories into the sky

cast down clouds like distant tribe

sol                   the sun                  I

invictus           unbent                 I

move between realms I cannot name

turn the earth beneath my feet

 

like a field fallow-full                              like

the wind that catches in this skirt

hung on my ankles        like voice

caught in my throat      this invocation

drying out dew in the morning


RYAN MURPHY is an MFA student at The University of New Mexico and mostly drinks a lot of water and tries to stay out of the sun. Ryan‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Manzano Mountain Review, Beech Street Review, Inklette, and Garbanzo, as well as a very talented pigeon delivering hand-rolled poems to upper story apartments.

A Brief History of Mine

 

On the day after I was born, six cranes took off

from the side of a cropped green hill. The hill

was not a hill in the Chilean sense

 

but instead a zero: round, hollow, subtle,

a void filled with tragedy and possibilities

and above all, things that didn’t matter

 

like ads: a book, three weeks my elder,

that continues to be my older brother,

to whom I bring all of my new ideas so that he will be proud

 

and he shows me how, of course, they were actually his,

that they were already on the page,

three weeks before I was born.

 

In a rage I throw the book into a black hole and fly

to catch the cranes. They are far away but I follow

their tracks in the sands of beaches at the ends of the earth

 

yet each time that I am certain I have captured one,

it turns into the ghost of the book, and, laughing, tells me

to wake up. I am on the green hill, that cipher of nothingness,

in the middle of the unknown continent where I was born.


SEAN C.C. ROBERTS is a writer and environmental scientist, descended from deep Texas roots on one side and a long line of nomads on the other. He has lived for the past several years in Valparaíso, Chile, where he is an alumnus of the Neruda Foundation’s La Sebastiana Poetry Workshop. Tweets @seanccroberts.

The Star

 

you see I’m trying to get

away from the booze hound

in the Mexican cantina

under these festive chili lights

like it was Christmas in July

like a heat spell that foretells

the end of the world

and launching off the planet

with a tear in the eye

and a hopeful woman floating

in her silver zero gravity suit

and that star just a number

where our great great grand

children will begin again

life with the same mix of

tragedy and vice and loneliness

and occasional tenderness

and a glass of green fantasy

but even here they come up

with those faces of broken

blood vessels like sculptures

rough-hewn from a raw scream

saying I left my distortion box

out there in the rain and now

it’s picking up signals from old

Soviet Union cold war days

prairie wind and mile on mile of

empty road rolling right back

where the needle goes in

and the nurse explains this may

make you a little dizzy

and she’s right and what a glorious

sea it is and that rickety dock

I dive from into liquid sky

to swim out through the sun’s eye

into clouds of unknowing where

I see the great architecture of

crystalline light bridges that

I realize I’m only making up

as I look through a manhole

cover in the ground in the

city of the dead that trembles

with a breath and shatters

as I’m sucked back into

Langley by the sea

Island spirit floating

in the never never mist

where when the desperate reach

that point of exhaustion

the last of the fuel burned

the lights gone out and the final

relative buried in the common grave

I’m out here and take nothing

but what fits in these pockets

with the screen door open

and wind like a ghost rushing in

walking out through empty streets

and every step feeling like now

I’ve made it so I’ll start again

realizing wait a minute wait a minute

as those steps circle back to town

over and over with less

to return to but the Bulldog

over the bay with the last

fishing boat beached and listing

dry on the sand and armies of

crabs none too happy with the way

the water’s been clouding down

march up over the pylons

growing bigger as they come

their claws flashing like swords

as they descend on the homes

and click cut pluck up

sleeping people and snap

timbers in apocalyptic devastation

ha                   that’s one

to wake up from in a daze

saying what a doozy

to an empty room on a gray day

dressing slowly as a good citizen

filling a lunch box with an apple

and a sandwich wrapped in wax paper

and heading up the old road

under the mill smoke piling up

with tin hat crane operators

and massive movement of earth

as I pass the gate and stand among

the red spirits of the yawning

excavation pit while the whole

scene vanishes with a voice narrating

weather trends and ship lanes

and drinking songs and memories

old lays and things thought gone

you’d never believe were true

and making it up as we go along


DOUGLAS COLE has published four collections of poetry and a novella. His work is in anthologies and journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry. His website is douglastcole.com.

Midlife Valentine

 

You will not believe me when I tell you there are years

you will want nothing more than sleep and to be kissed

senseless by the quiet.

 

There were other years you thought you needed beauty

the way the girls in fairy tales need magic rings, or locks

of hair, or golden coins, a talking bird, a shoe.

 

You will not believe me when I tell you it’s the wanting

that you’ll miss the most once your lap is full of everything

you thought you’d go without.

 

Those years you made a compass of desire, the way

you make a paper heart by folding it in half,

and cutting what is left of it away.


JEN STEWART FUESTON is a poet and freelance writer. Her poems have been published in a number of journals, most recently Mom Egg Review, Pilgrimage, and Ruminate. Her chapbook, Visitations, was published in 2015. She has taught writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as internationally in Hungary, Turkey, and Lithuania. Jen lives in Longmont, Colorado and keeps busy chasing her two young sons, podcasting, pitching pop-culture articles and working on a couple new chapbooks.