I am a poet.
I began seriously writing when I was seven years old. I remember making my first few lines in the diary. I convinced my paternal grandmother to buy it when we went uptown one day. This was during summer break when we, my sister and I, would stay with her for our annual visit. Beans and tortillas were all we ate, running in and out of the kitchen all day long and back outside, gulping a spoonful each time we passed the stove.
Wanting to write was a conscious choice for me at a young age. The book, Frederick the Mouse by Leo Leonni, was my early inspiration. I learned the power of words to make one whole, feel well-fed, and warm through that acclaimed children’s book. Frederick being a mouse poet, helped his family get through the coldest part of winter with his poems when their stores ran out.
Today I am the City of Madison Poet Laureate and the first Latina in this role. I served one-year as of January 2021. I have published three of my own collections of poetry and have a new one coming out soon. I have edited and co-edited books, journals, and zines, including the Spring 2019 edition of the Yellow Medicine Review. I went back in 2015, in my late forties, to get my MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I graduated in May 2017.
I also serve as the vice-chair on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and help pick the state’s poet laureate biennially. I consider myself a literary ambassador in my role as poet laureate. Balancing my volunteerism, writing, appearances, and readings with my full-time job takes some organizing. It helps to have a partner who is an artist as well. We recently made Sundays full art days in our house.
Do you write in more than one genre? I do write in other genres, earning two Pushcart nominations, one for an essay and another for a poem. I write short stories, sci-fi and am working on a memoir right now. I took a class with IAIA alum David Tromblay in Fall 2019 and got a good start on my memoir. Poems are my favorite, though.
Tell us about your writing process: Everything for me starts in longhand. I edit on my computer. When I get stuck, I move it back to the page and write it out in longhand to figure out what went wrong in the editing process. I write in my body: hand to wrist to arm to core to heart to brain and back. I write fast on the page and have long practiced automatic writing. My pen always ahead of my brain, my conscious self. I am often surprised by what comes out on the page. The pen admits what I have been avoiding. That’s when writing gets exciting when you are a conduit of sorts and along for the ride. Sometimes lines come to me at night when I am dreaming. I do edit my poems voraciously and enjoy the rigorous process. I think this is where the real writing is now, in the editing. I find inspiration easy, but then I need to work with what I have created and sculpt it on the page until I am satisfied with form, white space, and sound. Poems take you where they want to go and are not done until you have read them in public. I read my poems aloud as I edit, but they sound different in my study than they do at a venue with actual people present. I do not consider a poem done until it has been shared orally with others. When I was a younger poet, I tried out poems at open mics to test them. Now I can record them and listen back, but it is still worthwhile to share them with others for final edits, in my opinion. Poems sound different when you read them to a live audience that one word makes a difference.I also think it is important to read other poets’ work, old and new. I like the idea of poets in conversation with each other across time and space and genre. Some of my poems are in direct response to another poet’s poem I heard them perform or something I read in print or online. I learned in graduate school that I love theory and continue to study. Listening to poets and writers read their work is a real pleasure for me. How you hear the words in your head versus when it is a public performance is enlightening. I listen to poetry readings, lectures, or conversations with writers when I cook these days or travel to visit my family in Chicago or Milwaukee.
What are you currently working on? I just received my contract from Finishing Line Press for my newest collection, My People Redux. This is the 2nd half of my master’s thesis. In Light, Always Light, also published by FLP in May 2019, was the first half. I graduated in May 2017 and spent a long year re-working my poems. In Light, Always Light, accepted in August 2018, was a finalist for their New Women’s Voices Award.
Concurrently, I am working on another collection of poetry that focuses on the history of us humans. This involves research. I am enjoying the process and taking my time. Some of these poems are published, and some are still being edited. I need to continue to push them out into the world. I was also working on my memoir in fits and starts.
In my role as the poet laureate for the City of Madison, I will be judging the annual Bus Line Poetry contest soon. I have many upcoming scheduled readings for a book I just published under my small press Art Night Books in November 2019 called, Through This Door – Wisconsin in Poems. This is a collaboration with the most recent state poet laureate, Margaret Rozga. The book took us over a year to put out and is the second time we have published a collection together. I served as co-editor for this collection in addition to being the publisher, and we have had a good response. Twice we have been on the radio, NPR stations, and I have logged many hours at the post office mailing books out across the state and country. We had to go back to the printer three times now.
I consider myself a literary ambassador as a poet laureate and this has opened up many doors for me. I want to continue to do that for other writers. We need community and support. I would not be where I am today without the networks I found all along the way. Nor, without people sharing opportunities with me and freely offering up what they know, and being generous. I believe in the power of art to heal, connect and create community. It is a record of our lives and our history. I am so happy to be on this journey at this moment in time.
Here are comments about my work by two poets I admire:
The poems of In Light, Always Light afford space for the lyric to clarify and delineate the self “… through the ravine to the seam / the V peak of the hills / where dappled light spills / between rocks and discarded beer cans.” Here Angela Vasquez presents poems that struggle to contend with family history, a history of diaspora and relation, of assertion and insistence that the reader and the poet must bring to bear the imperative of “yes, yes fight back.” The poems travel, as we do, to observe the poet in the eternal dimension where one must write, and read — “Let me sit in sadness for a spell. / I need to write this out.”
–Joan Naviyuk Kane, 2018 Guggenheim Fellow
The poems in Angie Trudell Vasquez’s In Light, Always Light honor the illuminating power of poetry, but they also speak eloquently of racial injustice and the dark “inherited grief” that is its offspring. These are poems of history, endurance, and remembrance. They vividly story the strength and survival of migrant ancestors “who built railroads / with broken backs” or shared “mole recipes on parchment.” In those relatives “passed. . .to vases of bone and ash,” Vasquez recognizes the fleeting quality of human reality. Like our forebears, we are mere “half blinks of history,” “we are magic dying.” But in this volume, Vasquez offers her ancestors colorful and enduring literary lives. “Poets,” she writes, “resist the death of a people” and “beyond death, art speaks.”
Kimberly Blaeser, author of Apprenticed to Justice, Wisconsin Poet Laureate 2015-2016
If people want to connect with me, the best way is email: email@example.com
My website is www.angietrudellvasquez.com, and my small press website is http://www.artnightbooks.com
We have Beatrice Szymkowiak here to tell us about poetry.
Beatrice and I are alumni of the Institue of America Arts. We graduated with MFAs in 2017. Hers in poetry, mine in fiction writing.
My research includes environmental literature, Indigenous contemporary poetry, and translingual literature. I am also particularly interested in Caribbean literature.
I am currently working on my creative dissertation, entitled B/RDS, a poetry collection that questions the Western heuristic approach to nature, and that has for a starting point, the iconic Birds of America by John James Audubon.
Book title and blurb and any comments about any other of your books:
Red Zone (Finishing Line Press, 2018) explores the WWI environmentally ravaged landscapes of my childhood.
Praise for Red Zone;
“Before the shrapnel, before the night in hell on the way to hell, and after that night, too, we were: ‘naming the woods.’ RED ZONE does a lot of things, but it also draws our eyes to the risk of our own departure. Description, sure. Timing, of course. But cognition and argument also? Szymkowiak makes me want to read more.” Joan Naviyuk Kane
Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of several poetry collections: Milk Black Carbon, The Straits, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, Hyperboreal, Milk Black Carbon, and forthcoming Dark Traffic. She is the recipient of multiple awards, fellowships, and prizes, including a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and an American Book Award.
“In a complex meditation on the destructiveness of war and the persistence of nature, poet Beatrice Szymkowiak explores France’s Zone Rouge, the area so devastated by war that people are still forbidden to enter, where things still blossom and explode. Where “crows burst” above the land of “unexploded explosives.” Where “slow soil & / shrapnel” yield to “a murmuration of starlings.” In the long poem “Fleury-Devant-Douaumont,” the page itself becomes the zone, mined & grenaded & shrapnelled by words, words that begin to merge, becoming neologisms of compost—”betweenroots,” “shrapnelspades,” “inboots.” In the end, despite human interventions, “yellow-bellied toads frogs salamanders / crested newts thrive” and “corpses tuber / into russets.” Szymkowiak has written a crucial book, especially critical as the entire globe quickly becomes a Red Zone.” Jon Davis
Jon Davis is the author of several poetry collections, including Improbable Creatures, Preliminary Report, Scrimmage of Appetite, and Dangerous Amusements. He is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry and the Peter I.B. Lavan Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
Do you write in more than one genre? I do write poetry and non-fiction
Tell us about your writing process: My writing process varies following the projects. However, I often start a poem with a list of words, images, and an idea or a conceptual arch. Once I have a first draft, I revise until I feel that the poem does or evokes what I wanted it to do. Then I let it aside for a while and go back to it for additional revisions. This pause between two revision processes is necessary, as it creates a new perspective on the poem.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The very first word of a poem!
What kind of research do you do? As my poetry work often incorporates non-fiction, I do extensive research: reading essays, articles, historical documents, watching documentary films, etc.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I am interested in writing more non-fiction, and I have recently developed an interest in epic poems. But you never know what might come up!
How do our readers contact you?
My website: https://szymkow9.wixsite.com/bszymkowiak
Twitter account: @OhOldOcean
Buy your book?
Welcome – What book would you like to tell our readers about?
Don’t Leave Yet, How My Mother’s Alzheimer’s Opened My Heart (She Writes Press, 2015) recounts my journey toward understanding our complicated mother-daughter relationship as she struggles through the early stage of dementia-type Alzheimer’s, and my ultimate discovery of compassion and love that goes beyond familial duty.
Do you write in more than one genre? I enjoy the challenge of poetry, creating, and recreating experiences to connect with readers. Finding a precise image or metaphor and using concise and descriptive language engages my mind in sometimes unexpected ways. The discovery can be exhilarating.
What brought you to writing? I was an English major at the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee. I admired twentieth-century novelists and poets and wondered if I had it in me to create my own work. It wasn’t until after my father died that I began to explore poetry as a way to express grief. A decade later, when my mother was diagnosed with dementia-type Alzheimer’s, my teacher, the terrific poet Ellen Bass, suggested I might explore my experiences further if I went beyond the parameters of poetry. It was then that I turned to prose. It allowed an expansiveness I needed to convey all that I wanted to say. I started by writing vignettes, followed by full scenes with characters, dialogue, and description. Soon I had pages of material with a sense of connectedness.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write in my home office, where morning light provides a calm atmosphere and from where I can observe a yellow rose tree and a bevy of finches on the thistle feeder. I don’t tolerate distractions. But I don’t mind my Shih Tsu, Cody, who snores ever so slightly on his bed directly behind me.
Tell us about your writing process: I usually begin writing with a black ballpoint and a Mead notebook. I wrote most of my memoir in notebooks. When I had enough material, I transcribed it into a document on my laptop. I labeled each draft so as not to lose anything interesting or significant. Now I use the same process when writing poetry.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Revision is the most challenging. Yet, it’s the part of writing that I enjoy most. I revisit each image and metaphor. When a metaphor doesn’t do its job, I make a list of ten others and then choose the one I think works the best. I also read a poem out loud to gauge the effectiveness of line endings and stanzas. I admit I’m a perfectionist.
What are you currently working on? I’ve recently discovered some old poems that go back several years. I’m trying to revise them but often find myself starting over. I hope to also return to blogging in the near future.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? The poetry critique group of California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch, which I lead two times a month, has offered much-needed support as I labor with some of my poems. The members are careful listeners, and they offer critique with enthusiasm. I’ve found the structure and discipline necessary to keep on writing.
Who’s your favorite author? It’s hard to choose just one. I always look forward to reading Jack Kerouac, John Irving, and Jennifer Lauck. My favorite author of all time is John Steinbeck.
What is the best book you ever read? The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I’ve read it at least three times. I admire its structure, honesty, and intense feeling.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took five years to write Don’t Leave Yet. I belonged to a writing class in 2004 with Ellen Bass, reading pages each week from my notebook for critique. My mother passed away in 2008, and I was uncertain as to whether or not I could continue to write our story. Ellen, and my fellow writers, were instrumental in my effort to bring the manuscript to its completion a year later.
How long to get it published? Don’t Leave Yet was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference writing competition in the memoir category in 2011. One agent from San Francisco who attended the Conference found the book interesting, but that was it. I pursued other agents with no luck. Then I heard about Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press. I worked with an editor she recommended. She Writes published my memoir in 2015.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew to enjoy? When I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I thought I might cross her off my list. But when I discovered Truth and Beauty, I was hooked.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I began writing Don’t Leave Yet without an outline. By the time I completed the third chapter, I had decided an outline was necessary since I wove together scenes of the present with those of the past. It was a way of keeping characters and events clear in my mind.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I plan to continue placing my poems in literary journals if I’m lucky. I will also enter my chapbook, Treading Water, in more literary competitions with the goal of publication. It was recently named a finalist in Blue Lights Press writing contest.
Do you have any advice for new writers? First and foremost, be true to yourself. Write what’s meaningful and what you love. Observe the world. Read widely. And don’t ever let others tell you that you can’t write.
How do our readers contact you?