By Madeline Diamond '17 and Lauren Hudson '18
Felicia Zamora is the author of the books Of Form & Gather, winner of the 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press 2017), & in Open, Marvel (Parlor Press 2017), and Instrument of Gaps (Slope Editions 2017). Of Form & Gather was listed as one of the "9 Outstanding Latino Books Recently Published by Independent and University Presses" by NBC News. She won the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize from Verse, and has authored two chapbooks. Zamora is the associate poetry editor for the Colorado Review, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University, and is the 2017 Fort Collins Poet Laureate. She lives in Colorado with her partner, Chris, and their three dogs.
West Branch (WB): In a previous interview, you describe your entry into Colorado State's MFA program as "a very serendipitous affair." Could you talk about your path as a writer and what first drew you to poetry?
Felicia Zamora (FZ): There are irrevocable experiences and situations for every human that shape who they are. I grew up in poverty in America. I grew up bi-racial in America. I grew up with one parent in America. Common themes, yes, but one should not confuse common with dismissible. I start my answer to your important question with these statements because, like most people, part of who I am was shaped by circumstances I could not control. It's important for me to start here, because being a woman of color from a low socioeconomic class in America is the lens through which I see the world, how I experience life, how I navigate. I start here because nothing much was expected from me. Whether this lack of expectation came from my Caucasian grandparents who treated my brother, sister, and me with a cold disappointment because we were Mexican, or the rural Iowa community that put my sister in special education courses due to the color of her skin, I was just one more kid on welfare, one more poor kid trying to get by.
This question is an important one for me, because it requires contemplation of my path. I had spent so much of my childhood in survival mode that the idea of an actual path seems like a fallacy. I've had so many opportunities appear, a combination of the generosity of others, luck, and, yes, even hard work—yet to be honest, none of this was planned. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized poetry could be part of a plan. This is what I meant by the MFA being "a very serendipitous affair."
When I was young, my mother wrote children's books in her spare time, spare time meaning when she was not working in the local plastics factory or on the steps of the foodbank to provide for her family. She wrote fun and inspiring stories like Glasses for Tommy Tiger, The Bear Who Changes Colors, and Bette Butterfly's Strange Mirror. These books grappled with themes of otherness, being bullied, feeling afraid, and learning to see the world in a new light—themes that my siblings and I experienced throughout our childhood. I'd take these stories to school and my elementary teachers would read them aloud to the entire class. My mother reading to us from her own books is one of my favorite memories of childhood. She planted a seed, a deep rooted seed, inside my brain and inside my heart to love writing.
Despite my mother's passion, it was the 80's and a difficult time to get anything published if you didn't have money or resources. Rejection after rejection piled in from publishing houses. Eventually, my mother put her books away and stopped submitting. This too was a lesson: the hardship of rejection. It would be many years before I'd embark on my own experiences in this realm, but found that these memories prepared me, in some ways, for what has become my poetic life.
My mother's niche was children's books and mine was always poetry. From the first Junior Classics nursery rhymes and poetry books from the thrift store, I fell hard for lines and stanzas and words. Words have weight and I've always felt them. How could I not love poetry? I was drawn to poetry instinctually, for sure, but obligations of survival and this idea of logical contribution to society set in, where I must provide for me and, someday, my family.
Upon receiving a full scholarship, I was able to attend college. I was going to change the world, so of course I began as a pre-med major. When chemistry beat me up, I gave in to my strengths and became a communications major. The English minor snuck in, though. To this day, I can recall how I felt in Mary Swander's poetry class, reading for the first time, "Petals on a wet, black bough." It changed my life. Then Philip Levine's What Work Is, a book about factory workers, class identity, and family life opened for me, for the first time, the idea that poetry is for me. Then in Harjo's She Had Some Horses, I saw the words of a woman of color explode on the page. The damage was done: poetry was mine. I moved to Colorado for work in 2005, with a spark of graduate studies in my brain, and to my surprise, Colorado State University had an MFA in poetry.
And here I am: an unplanned poet writing poetry, all these years later. This detailed history of me, this transparency about my key identities, is to encourage all who are plagued with poverty or who think that the world doesn't have a path for them. Dare I speak to these folks directly? Poetry is for you. Poetry is for you. Poetry is for me. Poetry is for all of us.
WB: In your new collection Of Form & Gather, wings are a recurring motif. In the final series, titled "& wings made of matchsticks," you write "flight, also, dwells in bones & actions." How does flight act as a metaphor?
FZ: The concept of flight fluctuates in constant metamorphosis throughout the book. Metaphorically, flight takes the form of many things, including risk, the desire to be more, what restricts our decisions, the possibilities of the human mind, being delicate, freedom of self-discovery, fragility, fear of becoming or not becoming, the inherent need for transformation, the denial of one's abilities, how language conveys imagination, and hope for collective accomplishment. In the section you specifically mention, the voice contemplates its own evolution upon seeing a sparrow's shadow above the meadow, without seeing the sparrow itself. Here, flight represents the power of imagination, to envision what hides from our view, and the ability to become what we see ourselves as. The voice asks, "Once you see the sparrow-shadow, is not part of you … burnt upon the retina." We dream ourselves. Our becoming, our growth, not only lives in physicality, but even more so in our actions. In many ways, we are both the designers and the creations of our own imaginations.
WB: We are curious about how you directly address the reader in your poetry. This resonates in poems like "Peel-back," the last line of which reads, "You ask a question & the question stares back, blank, in dare to answer." What is the speaker's relationship with the reader, and how does it develop throughout the collection?
FZ: The speaker's relationship with the reader is a complex but necessary one, rooted in a bound journey. The use of second person implicates not only the reader with each use of the word you, but also the writer. A fine line exists when a writer passes into the realm of reader, even of her own words. A triad of voices arises in these poems: speaker to reader, speaker to speaker, and speaker's mind to speaker/reader. In writing you, I speak to me as much as to the reader. Then the italicized third voice, the internal voice, appears and speaks to the speaker and reader, asking, and sometimes pleading, the speaker/reader to say and think throughout the book.
The poems found second person to be the creative element to resist forgetting, to resist the urge to wonder less, to remain ever present in the words and lines of each poem, to form a journey, and to gather reader and speaker simultaneously. Magic occurs when the mind reads you and you over and over again. Perhaps this magic leads to a transporting or immersing of reader in the poems. Even if the exact feeling is hard to define, the speaker and reader intertwine in these poems. By the end of "& wings made of match sticks," speaker and reader converge at and on the page, in recognition of the work done together, calling the self (reader, writer, mind) out as maker. I suspect some will love their you being called out while others will find it distasteful.
I'd love to say all this was intentional when I began writing the manuscript, but from the advice of my mentor and friend, Dan Beachy-Quick, I trusted the creative process and you organically emerged on the page. My hope is that readers will find themselves, find their you in these pages, even if just in glimpses, and ruminate on what's revealed.
WB: You mentioned the idea of "calling the self (reader, writer, mind) out as maker." Your poetry reflects this theme of self-transformation through language; for example, in the section that begins, "to mold & be molded from" (p. 60). Do these themes echo your own evolution as a writer? If so, how?
FZ: Absolutely. I am a person and a person becoming at all times. I am simultaneously being made and a maker. The intersectionality of many identities come with any writer to the page, myself included. This intersection creates a lovely and complex writer/page relationship, and also a perfect combination for self-evolution.
The process of writing poetry constantly reveals me to myself. I research when I write. I discover when I write. I am lost in words and wonder when I write. There are many times I write a poem, step away from it, and come back to the poem with little recollection of the words on the page. It's not meditation, it's not hypnosis, yet, for me, a definite artistic phenomenon occurs. Understanding my own process as a writer allows me to adapt how I write, including meticulously editing while I write a poem, researching before and during the poem's creation, blocking off enough time to write a poem—in its entirety—in one sitting, and being okay with not loving what appears on the page. Poets are writers obsessed with intricacies; we could spend a lifetime in the editing phase. My preference is to trust myself as a poet, give the piece my all in the moment, then move forward. Some may think this is horrendous approach, but I find that this trust in myself combined with intensive reading of other's poetic works heightens my writing skills more so than over-editing.
No overarching idea built Of Form & Gather. Instead, each poem accumulated until I stepped back and a breathing, pulsating artistic creation came to life. Will all my manuscripts develop this way? Who knows? Recognizing my ever-evolving journey means to be comfortable in the recklessness of poetry, ambiguity of the artistic process, and to trust in what shows up on the page. As Dean Young exquisitely states in The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction, "To be only comprehensible is to be fully known is to be already seen, predictable. The next poem must shake us, must wake us, must entice us toward the denied, the disallowed." I hear Young talking to me as a writer, not just my writing. Young nails it when he says, "Poetry is when the animal bursts forth, inflamed. It ain't always pretty." Exactly. Exactly.
WB: Of Form & Gather demonstrates the "recklessness of poetry" in part through its poetic form. We are interested in how the forms and techniques you employ shape the collection. How did your formal style develop as you wrote the manuscript?
FZ: Limits intrigue me. This book is all about limits: limits of form, limits of the line, limits of body, limits of the mind, limits of the poem, limits of punctuation; but, this book is also about limitlessness. How through forms and structures, such as the body and nature and stanza and line, we learn so much about what we are capable of, who we are, and what we connect to. My intent was to focus on the poems, not on form, but forms revealed themselves in the book anyway, quite recklessly. Once I wrote "Where you find yourself," I felt compelled to write another in the same form, and then another. Three major forms evolved throughout the book and became pressure epicenters for the poems. The forms required an even more delicate consideration of the poetic relationships in the book: word-to-word, word-to-line, word-to-poem, line-to-line, line-to-stanza, line-to-poem. Each of these components must be purposeful and inter-relational. The forms mimic the connectivity and circular nature of the book in its questioning. Form brought a limit into the equation; a limit that did not stifle the growth of the poems, but instead heightened them.
Punctuation also played an integral role in the limitlessness of the poems. When writing, I read each poem aloud many, many times. In this process I adapt the words, lines, and punctuation based on how the poem develops on an auditory level, with pause being a huge component of the poem's success. The abundant use of the semicolon, em dash, and ampersand haunts the pages and poems. The semicolon's purpose here is to ghost the idea of connection of main clauses over and over and over again. These poems found the semicolon a necessary punctuation to replicate breath and rhythm throughout the book. At times, our thoughts run on, just as the semicolon-ed lines do in the poems, which was a technique used to imitate the way people think, almost simultaneously, with just enough of a pause for real consideration, but not too long of a pause to forget what was just being considered. Punctuation really stitches these poems together and demonstrates another type of gathering in the book.
WB: We found the poem "The America Gap" to be unique in the collection because it directly addresses political questions, rather than those prompted by introspection. Continuing our discussion of form, we notice that despite its more public subject, this poem is formally consistent with the rest of the collection. What are the limits of this poem, formally or otherwise?
FZ: Yes, this poem definitely stands out due to its political and social contemplations. I remember the day I listened to this podcast and felt compelled to write. I think the form, which I was already using in the manuscript at this time, gave the poem some guidance and allowed me to engage in a difficult topic that could have been overrun and misstepped with too much emotion. For me, sometimes emotion can hijack a poem and move it away from its necessary artistic evolution. The limit became an anchor for the voice, a place to begin. It's interesting to start in form, though it's not usually where my poems begin. The form gave me courage to write about other deep considerations in my life which are diversity, equity and the fight for social justice. Language is a huge part of this as well. We are all rivers, supplying and destroying simultaneously; we all have a hand in the way we treat each other as humans. Perhaps the poem itself was a demonstration of my belief that art is activism. With this in mind, the poem comes full circle as this demonstration comes with its own can of introspective worms. Poetry, in so many meaningful ways, is littered with layers.
WB: In your work, it seems that there is tension between emotion and form that enables you to write poetry that considers the current social justice discourse effectively. What is the role of poetry as an art form in activism?
FZ: Activism is action and involvement to achieve goals, political or otherwise. Poetry deeply lives in this space too. Poetry allows for the voices of the voiceless to be heard. Poetry encompasses experiences, transports readers, moves readers, makes readers think, challenges our institutions, and gives people a place to turn to in difficult times. As humans, we decide to act on issues we believe in and are willing to fight for. For some, poetry may motivate and fuel, gathering and propelling conversations. For others, it may educate and surprise. For others still, it inspires and gives them courage to continue to fight for their convictions and human rights. The key to activism, however, is diversification: approaching issues from many angles and dimensions to spark change. Poetry is one of these angles; it's an important angle, as every angle is, but it cannot be the only angle. By collaborating activist efforts, the chance for change increases. I constantly remind myself: okay, I've written the poem, now what? The now what is important for me. There's always another vote, another protest, another senator to call, another angle to take.