An interview with Alessandra Bava

LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS

 

MHR: Your poems are revelations. Do you believe in the Muse as a force of nature or supernature?

AB: I do believe the Muse exists. Whichever form it has, it is there and whenever she kindles my soul I write. I am unable to write unless I am driven to words by the Muse. I am not a writer who writes every day. That’s not how it works for me. I cannot force a single word out of my pen. The spark comes to me unexpectedly and I always write a poem from beginning to end in a sitting. Sometimes I realize that it is almost a trance-like experience. I am driven. Words pour out on the page. I myself am quite fascinated by the process.

MHR: You are a poet and a translator. Where do you think your passion for language(s) come(s) from?

AB: I guess my love for languages comes from two main episodes linked to my childhood. When I was 4 and 5 years old I spent two summers in a Kinderheim in Zug, Switzerland. The Frauleins who ran the place were German-Swiss ladies and the kids who spent their summertime there were from different countries. That was my first experience in a totally international environment. It was a sort of Babel to me and it made me consciously aware that languages were not barriers, that I could learn things in a different language. The second one is connected to the 5 years I spent in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where we relocated when my dad, who was an Engineer, was in charge of the construction of two oil refineries. I attended American schools. And, it was very much a “live or die” experience!  I had no other option than to learn the language. I remember I was quite fast at it. I guess I have always had a penchant for languages. I have learned French in high school and at University. I have a Master Degree in Foreign Languages. Today, translations are my daily bread. Languages have indeed shaped me!

MHR: What do you think are your dominant themes? I sense Love, History, Art, The Body, Womanhood- Woman-heart, and myriad other passions. Have I missed something or would you like to express something more?

AB: Yes, I guess you have captured many of the themes I am obsessed with or my demons. When I speak of demons, I refer to the Ancient Greek daimon, the inspiring force.  Love in all its facets is indeed one of them. Art and History, too.  Given the fact that I live in the Eternal city, I guess this is a sort of inevitable fate. I am the product of my historical past and my eyes and soul are imbued with art whenever I go for a stroll. I’d almost say it’s part of my DNA. The Body is a key element of my writing. Somebody told me my writing is “muscular,” I guess you can tell there is blood, sinews and heart in it! Womanhood is certainly there. Many of my icons are women and I celebrate them in my poetry.  I would always love to express more in my poems. I am attracted by many themes although the ones you have mentioned are possibly the ones I feel a closer bond to.

MHR: Your poem “Les Goddesses” gives very clear professions and pronouncements about female artistic impulse. What did writing this poem teach you that you want to impart to us?

AB: This poem was inspired by a visit to an exhibition on Contemporary Art in NY here in Rome a few summers ago. The video “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey was part of this show. I remember sitting in this dark room lit only by the black and white video itself and being literally captured in a vortex of images and recordings. Davey recorded her life on a tape as she walked around the rooms of her home. Her lens capturing frames of her inner life and of the changes in the outside world. Her words encapsulated what she loved most. I was touched by her mentioning Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinean poet I am very fond of, whose work I had discovered just a few months earlier. It seemed a sign. Les Goddesses is a declaration of love to oneself, to being writers/artists, to all the artists that inspire us. I wrote this poem in a sitting—as I do most of the times – the morning after attending the exhibition.

MHR: The body is explored in the poem “Landscape with Muse” and the lovely metaphors are succinctly defined. What inspires you to write the body?

AB: I love that poem. The body I mention in the poem is Helga Testorf’s body, the Muse of painter Andrew Wyeth. The Helga paintings are immensely beautiful and they depict a sensuous woman’s body in many different poses: on a stool, lying on a bed or even in plein air. I found very intriguing how almost nobody was aware of these paintings for a long time. How both Helga and Andrew kept their work secret even to their spouses. How the 45 paintings and innumerable drawings that span a cycle of almost fifteen years were stored at the home of one of Wyeth’s students. Those drawings and paintings are an amazing tribute not just to Helga, but to the woman’s body.  Wyeth candidly admitted that he had to fall in love with the model he was working with and you can tell! Those works simply teem with love.

MHR: Your inspiration for most of these poems are writers and artists to whom you are devoted. How does this devotion to creators sustain you as a writer?

AB: I feel a great bond with writers and artists in general. I guess the reason lies in the mutual need to recount the world via words, lines or color. Whatever the medium we choose, the aim is to depict the inner and the outside world as a present for viewers and readers. Literary works and artworks are gifts to the world. A concentrated expression of sentiments and feelings.

MHR: Do you believe we can channel other voices as poets? I do. In your poem, “Las Dos Fridas” impeccably taps another heart. Can you speak of the process in writing this poem?

AB: I hope to be able to! Frida Kahlo has inspired several of my poems. I turn to her as a sunflower to the sun. I remember distinctly how, maybe 25 years ago, I walked into a bookstore and, in the Art section, I saw a book dedicated to her. I was unaware of her work. The cover depicted a detail of her “The Broken Column” painting. In it, her backbone is a column and her body is pierced by nails as a feminine version of St. Sebastian. That sense of suffering struck a chord in me.  I bought the book and have read almost any book I could find about Frida over the years. Reading her diaries has enabled me to “hear” her voice. This is why I’ve attempted to write this poem in first-person. This poem is inspired by her painting “The Two Fridas,” basically the two versions of her same self. The way she saw herself and the way Diego Rivera liked her. It’s a big painting that I’ve seen “live” here in Rome. It’s a painting that deals with the dissolution of the self, with her divorce from Diego. I have been there myself. I have experienced the end of my marriage and I have had to put together the pieces of me that were left to move forward. I can totally relate to that exposure of one’s heart. This is also why I could quite confidently use the “I” POV in this poem.

MHR: Your poems are homages to artists and writers in “Love & Other Demons.” What does your worldview say to the reader in your best guess of what is in their minds as they read these poems?

AB:  Many of the poems in “Love & Other Demons” are a tribute to writers and poets I love. I hope to be able to convey to the reader this same love as it is, after all, what ignites me to write most of the time. I couldn’t imagine a closer way to touch my heart or to understand the motives of my writing.

MHR: In “Caravaggio-like Love” the form’s suspension is calculated perfectly. How did this poem come to be? Was it lightning fast or a more laborious step-by-step kind of poem?

AB: This poem is inspired by the very physical act of walking barefoot for a while and having dusty feet and then lying on the bed close to my boyfriend John who was asleep. The first thought that came to my mind was my favorite painting by Caravaggio, The Pilgrims’ Madonna, in the Roman church of St. Augustine.  In it, two pilgrims are kneeling in front of Mary who is holding Baby Jesus in her arms. The canvas shows us the dirty feet of the wandering pilgrims as they revere the woman in front of them.  Mary is wearing a crimson red velvet dress; whose color is unparalleled.  This is a love poem for John. That red expresses in a truthful way the passion I feel for him. It was written in one sitting.

MHR: And lastly, do you believe in absolute Truths with a capital “T?” Please elaborate why or why not.

AB: This is a very philosophical question and I could write a whole essay on it! To keep it very short, I will say that I believe I have developed a more Relativist approach over the years.  I find it more and more hard to relate to absolute Truths. Truths are indeed many.

Alessandra Bava

Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator living in the Eternal city. She is the author of four chapbooks: Guerrilla Blues, Nocturne, They Talk About Death and Diagnosis. Her poems and translations have appeared or are upcoming in magazines such as Gargoyle, Plath Profiles, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Waxwing. She has edited an Anthology of New American Poetry and she keeps working at the biography of a contemporary American poet.

 

 

Buy Love & Other Demons:
https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/love-other-demons-alessandra-bava

MHR and J Bruce Fuller: The Dissenter’s Ground

dissenter-cover-3-SMALL HALF
J Bruce Fuller’s The Dissenter’s Ground (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017)

 

MHR: Did you envision the chapbook before writing many of the poems or did the poems come and you sensed their cohesion for a collection?

J: This chapbook was written as a complete piece and I wrote it essentially as one long poem, from start to finish. To me, it is a book of questions that had been bothering me for a long while. It is also a love letter of a sort, a love letter to Louisiana, but also a love letter to William Blake.

MHR: “It is that I have no one else to turn to.” Why William Blake?

J: Since the book came out a lot of people have been asking me this question. I’m not sure why a late 20th-century swamp kid would turn to a pre-Romantic British poet for answers. I have been to Blake’s grave, which was a dissenter’s ground outside of the consecrated burial space used for believers. I have always been interested in that idea, that even in death we can be separated for our beliefs. It seems so foolish to me. But in Blake’s time, religious dissent was much more consequential than it is today.  I have always loved Blake’s work of course, but even I find it strange that he showed up in my work this way. I think the differences in our work and times didn’t matter to me much. What interested me about Blake was his life, his views on religion, and his prophecies.

When I thought about the politics of my region, climate change, the natural disasters we’ve been through across my lifetime, it seemed to me that we too are surrounded by prophecies. There is a new warning about our environment every day, and yet many ignore or refuse to believe them. It dawned on me that in our current political climate, people of religious persuasions refuse to believe these scientific prophecies, just as in Blake’s time people of reason refused to believe his religious ones.
MHR: Do you experience a type of prophecy when writing poems or in the moments before a poem comes to the fore?

J: I wish I could say yes, but at least in the last few years that moment of spark has been more mechanical than prophetic. Either I am more disillusioned now than I was as a young poet, or I have learned so much more about the process of how a poem is created that my process itself has changed. I will say that sometimes I have an idea for a poem that needs to ferment in my mind for a while before I start writing it down. Those moments could be considered a sort of prophecy.
MHR: Do you see yourself using the device of epistolary poems in the future, speaking to other poets or non-poet persons?

J: I do love the epistolary form. I think of all the voices/personas in my poems the epistolary voice I use in The Dissenter’s Ground is the closest to my own real voice. I really was talking to Blake about my fears, and it is a vulnerable place to be. I think we can achieve much in epistolary writing. I love call and response poetry between two poets. I am sure I will continue to use it.

MHR: To what else do you dissent beyond the scope of the chapbook?

J: I mentioned vulnerability, and I think I need to be more vulnerable not just in my poems but in my life as a poet. I have been silent on many issues for too long. I laugh things off and joke around, I rarely say anything political, either online or in daily life. It’s not that I am not thinking about these issues. It’s that I have a fear of disappointing anyone, a fear of causing dissent. I am afraid to use my platform as a poet to speak on issues I am passionate about, and I am ashamed of that because so many poets around the world have had their voices silenced politically. I am very fortunate and often I am very ashamed of it. There is a culture of humility in my upbringing, and there are social and familial repercussions for anyone who tries to rise above their raising. Because of this, it is hard for me to even suggest that I have a platform. But I have a responsibility to tell our story and our situation to those who are unaware of the serious political and environmental problems we face. To speak for others is to dissent in my culture. To acknowledge that we have done this to ourselves is to dissent. It is a betrayal. To get an education is to dissent in my culture. To achieve success. To leave. To return. There is an irreversible cost.

I just got back to California a day ago and shouldn’t even be answering these questions right now, because I am particularly homesick. But I can’t hide behind professionalism out in the world, no more than I can hide behind the status quo back home. To be vulnerable is to dissent in the macho southern culture I was brought up in, but I am realizing that vulnerable is exactly what I have to be.

MHR: Are we doomed to our drowning here in south Louisiana? Can you speak to this to increase awareness for those who aren’t as environmentally conscious about the plight of our coast?

J: It hurts me to say so, but yes, I think we have done irreversible damage. The changes in society needed to reverse it are generations away. I have no faith in the government to reverse course on the thousands of policies that caused it. I hope that eventually, the world at large will come around but for us, it will be too late. Maybe it will happen when New York City starts to flood, or other major economic areas around the world are threatened. But as with many Pacific islands and many low-lying areas across Southeast Asia, we will be lost before it is fixed. This is an economic issue as much as anything else. It is too economically unfeasible to save small populations of wetland fishermen in remote areas that many Americans have never heard of.

Many of Louisiana’s problems, in particular, are man-made. We have built a levee complex on the Mississippi River that stretches for over 2,000 miles. We have tried to control flooding not understanding that floods built the land we live on. We have built canals for logging and the oil industry that introduce salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into brackish and freshwater ecosystems. We have traded meager returns on our oil and natural gas reserves for devastation to our wildlife and fisheries.

And what the outside world must realize is that we didn’t do this because we are stupid hicks that don’t know any better. Louisiana is a poor state with rich resources. That paradox is a result of the fleecing of us by Washington for generations. It has created a culture where we are the ones destroying ourselves for the profit of others. Many in my family work for the same oil and gas industry that is sucking us dry and destroying our environment. When they want to build a pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin we won’t have the national outcry that we saw with the North Dakota Access Pipeline. There will be no hashtags. We will build it ourselves and be grateful to have the work, and that is a direct result of the poverty of this place.

MHR: In our lifetimes, we have not had an unobstructed horizon on the Louisiana coast. Can you relate personal experiences from your youth and another from your adulthood that illuminates your disillusionment that is touched upon in The Dissenter’s Ground?

J: The oil rigs on our horizon have a large role in this book. To me, they are the image of climate change. They are a symbol of beauty in a way, but they are also unnatural, and to me, sublime. I was terrified of them as a child. They are dangerous places and I have known many who have been injured or killed out there. They stand over our coast like monuments, to remind us.

I have lived in many places around the state, and as a child, I spent a lot of time in rural areas where the landscape shaped my view of the world. In my poems, landscape is a major character, if you like, and as a boy, I loved the fields and the marshes and the swamps. The woods loom large in my work as well. The thought of the loss of these places weighs heavy on me, especially because I picked a career that is almost guaranteed to take me away from home for the majority of my adult life. It is a sobering thought to think that the home you grew up in may not exist when you are able to return. I am terrified of being lost from this place forever, and Americans, in particular, would do well to remember that it can happen to us too. The immigration debate in this country comes from a place of incredible privilege, the privilege that most Americans cannot even fathom the idea of being a refugee.

Many of us learned that lesson with Hurricane Katrina, which has turned out to be one of the most life-altering events of my adult life. Many of us scattered and tried to build a new life in other states, states that if you recall, did not want us. They didn’t want our poverty, our crime, our burden on their infrastructure. Those of us who were able to return found military guards with machine guns patrolling the streets. I remember returning to New Orleans with my father and saying to him how much I thought it looked like an occupying force. But America has forgotten that too. Once it left the news cycle it was out of sight out of mind.  We had to pick it all back up again, and I have felt in the last decade that people have forgotten how nasty some people were towards us. I heard talking heads on the news say over and over, Should New Orleans rebuild? Why don’t they just tear it down and start over somewhere else? I heard people say You knew it would happen and chose to live there anyway.  Some thought we deserved it. And I won’t forget it. I am incredibly angry still.

 

MHR: “We will take drowning too far” is a powerful statement and holds mystery in that it goes beyond physical death. How did this line come to you, if you recall?

J: I think I realized that we are culpable in some way and that hurt me. But I also realized that we are a part of a system that makes us culpable, sometimes without us realizing it. These realizations led me to think about culture and memory. There are so many things we have forgotten. Parts of our own history that have been erased or assimilated into some form of new cultural memory. Louisiana voted overwhelmingly for the people who have imposed these destructive policies on us. Louisianans, whites especially, have bought into this narrative that our problems come from somewhere else, someone “other.” But we are forgetting a few things. When America purchased Louisiana they found themselves with a large population of French-speaking Catholics whom they did not want. Assimilation became law. It became illegal to speak French. Our culture was reduced to Mardi Gras beads and drive-thru daiquiris. A show for tourists. And we have forgotten. And the Acadians were brutalized and forced to flee their homes and settle here, to eke out a living on land no one wanted, the same land that is being destroyed now. And the crawfish we learned to live on is now a rite of passage for tourists who think us quaint and backward, who think we are stupid, the same people who profit from our oil, the same people who told us not to rebuild. And we have forgotten.

And now is it our turn to harm those we deem too different from us? To refuse refugees? To abandon equality and human rights? Have we forgotten who we are? Cajuns, Creoles, we too are “other,” and once they have removed all the easy targets America will remember it too, and we will have to face our own reckoning.

And Louisiana, whose land is disappearing faster than anywhere else, we have elected a man who thinks climate change is a hoax. We ourselves believe it. We who have suffered hurricanes and been told by America not to rebuild. We who have suffered floods and been told not to rebuild. We’ve suffered their oil spills, their sinkholes, their pipelines, and gotten nothing for it and still, we have forgotten. Do you think Trump will save us when we drown? Why would Americans act any differently towards us than they have in the past?

We have forgotten who we are. Pourquoi, pourquoi, pourqoui? We are drowning ourselves. Prends garde à toi.
MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. How can someone purchase The Dissenter’s Ground?

J: Directly from the publisher at hyacinthgirlpress.com, or feel free to contact me via my website jbrucefuller.com and I will be happy to send you a signed copy or just chat a while.

Hyacinth Girl Press is a micro-press that publishes up to 6 poetry chapbooks each year. We specialize in handmade books of smaller press runs. We consider ourselves a feminist press and are particularly interested in manuscripts dealing with topics such as radical spiritual experiences, creation/interpretation of myth through a feminist lens, and science.

hyacinthgirlpress.com

FULLER

 

J. Bruce Fuller is a Louisiana native, and is currently a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His chapbooks include The Dissenter’s (Hyacinth Girl Press 2017), Notes to a Husband (Imaginary Friend Press 2013), Lancelot (Lazy Mouse Press 2013), 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World (Bandersnatch Books 2010), and Flood which is the winner of the 2013 Swan Scythe Chapbook Contest. He is the co-editor of Vision/Verse 2009-2013: An Anthology of Poetry (Yellow Flag Press 2013). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, Pembroke Magazine, The Louisiana Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Louisiana Literature, among others. He is the editor and publisher of Yellow Flag Press. He received an MFA from McNeese and a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

MHR and Katie Manning on “Tasty Other”

MHR: Many of the poems were sparked by dreams you had. Do you find that writing from dreams liberates your language?

KM: I’m not sure I’d say that it liberates my language, but writing from dreams definitely liberated my form. My tendency is to write in highly structured ways that can feel too tidy, but the shiftiness of dreams forced me to get messy in my writing process.

MHR: Each of the poems resonates the rich aura of pregnancy. Did you find, when writing the book, that the subject of pregnancy could be further explored?

KM: I was really resistant when I started writing pregnancy and baby poems. Fortunately, I realized that I should let myself write rather than fighting against my preoccupation and disruptive physical state. Each pregnancy is so different physically and emotionally, even for the same woman across pregnancies, so I think there will always be more to explore with pregnancy.

MHR: Even the poems that read like fables are grounded in the real world. Do you consider your work in this book “fabulist?”

KM: I have thought of the dream poems as connected to fabulist or speculative writing, and some of the poems do respond to and tweak existing narratives, but then there are many poems in the book that are firmly in the realm of nonfiction.

MHR: You have created a fertile world in which the reader can apprehend the poems even as the poems suggests more mystery beyond the words. Do you think you have succeeded in striking that balance in the open-endedness of the work?

KM: I do feel pretty good about the way this collection seems fairly accessible to non-poets and non-mothers (and I’ve had a couple of men say that reading my poems took them into pregnancy and childbirth in a way they could not otherwise experience). I was hoping to capture the wonder and terror of becoming a mother, and I was hoping to capture some moments of clarity in the midst of the strangeness.

MHR: Many of the poems open chasms of fear that arise from the dangers and “unknowns” of pregnancy.  Did you find that writing these anxieties alleviated some personal fears?

KM: Actually, recording the pregnancy dreams and writing from them made me aware of fears that I hadn’t consciously realized and articulated for myself before. Whether or not writing them alleviated the fears at all, it did at least make me aware of them.

MHR: These poems do not look away. You have some very stark and harrowing images. I commend your bravery. Did you ever think of these poems as charms to ward off misfortunes of pregnancy?

KM: Oh, I hadn’t thought of them as charms, but thank you for seeing that possibility. I was interested in writing about pregnancy and birth in a way that acknowledged the surreal, painful, dark parts and not just the sentimental pastel images that we often associate with baby showers and newborns.

MHR: You use the line “Once upon a time there was a mother” as a device interwoven in the sequencing of the poems.  Do you see these interjections as creating segments, or as places to take a breath?

KM: Originally, those section breaks were a stand-alone poem, first published in PANK as “A Whole Mother Story.” An editor at Sundress Publications suggested that the poem, which takes place entirely in footnotes, might be an interesting organizational device for the book, and I ended up taking that suggestion and using each footnote as a section heading. I think it might be both things that you suggested—those interjected footnotes did create sections of the final manuscript, and they also provide those moments of pause.

MHR: In a couple of poems, we pick up on your time spent in Louisiana. Can you speak to these poems and give us a bit of your impression of Louisiana culture as you experienced it?

KM: I lived in southern Louisiana for three years for graduate school, and I had a wonderful time there. It sometimes felt like we’d gone to another country entirely because the culture is so distinct. We fell in love with the food and the many, many festivals, and I was fascinated by the pervasiveness of Catholicism even in secular realms; when we went to an omelet festival, a priest blessed the giant pan before the cooking began. One of the poems that is especially rooted in Louisiana is “Mother Mary Comes to Be,” a multi-part poem inspired by a life-sized statue of Mary in someone’s front yard down the street from where we lived. In the poem, I explore my fascination with Mary as both virgin and mother (an impossible standard for women, incidentally), and I had a good time imagining Mary at Mardi Gras.

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

KM: My pleasure! Thank you for asking.

 

Katie (25)Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, and her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, is the 2016 winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. She has received The Nassau Review Author Award for Poetry, and her writing has been published in Fairy Tale Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, So to Speak, Verse Daily, and many other journals and anthologies. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.