If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I would begin by preparing brunch for Maya Angelou. I have eaten her quiche lorraine, and I would like to return her kindness. When I was a girl, my parents brought me with them to an epic loft party in San Francisco that lasted for three days with musicians, poets, artists, and activists. We celebrated all day, slept at night, and it would kick off again the next morning like a train with different stops. During the party she read from And Still I Rise. I should say, she sang it. Witnessing her recite, dance, and cook made me believe that growing up to be a woman could be a phenomenal thing. She danced with me, and whispered “If I was still teaching dance, I would teach you for free!” The words we say to each other can do tremendous good. Their ripple effect can go on, long beyond the living.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Writing is a practice. I write everyday, and am not afraid to do it. Turning writing into something for other humans to read is more challenging. That’s when fear can creep in. I can be afraid of how my writing might be received. Do I want people to know this about me? Is it something that should be shared? I can’t reason with fear. Fear would always win. Instead, I tell myself that fear may, or may not, be accurate. Avoiding taking risks would prevent me from experiencing the unknown. Write anyway, I tell myself, even if you are afraid. Especially if you are afraid.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Crush is exactly the word. When it comes to writers, my crushability is polyamorous. I don’t always know how to act around writers I’ve crushed on literarily. I kissed Sonia Sanchez’s hair once at a book signing. Inappropriate. I’ve taken selfies with Eileen Myles and Patricia Smith because it turned out we had friends in common. Not so bad. When Donika Kelly complimented my shoes after a reading I swooned right in front of her partner. Relax. I almost levitated during a reading by Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong, and Rita Dove. Pure enthusiasm. When Nikky Finney and Natalie Diaz read at AWP I positioned myself in front of the podium. Face the music. I hugged Naomi Shihab Nye after one of her readings. Necessary. How to deal with a literary crush? Remind yourself — just because you’ve read someone does not mean you know them. It just means that a total stranger was able to reach you in a very personal way.
What books are on your nightstand?
Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self Regard has been a kind of torah for me. I’ve dreamed many nights with Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems, Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, Eileen Myles’ I Must be Living Twice, and Mary Oliver’s Devotions close at hand. I like to read different things simultaneously. Poetry and prose. The current stack is Camille Dungy’s Black Nature, Arecelis Girmay’s Teeth, Billy Ray Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. The books are mixed with notebooks, one arm’s distance from my pillow.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I love this question. It makes me think of Aracelis Girmay and the ampersand. It belongs to her. She also used dots like bullet holes in The Black Maria which was painful and visceral. Girmay made me reconsider what punctuation can do emotionally, and, also, graphically. I love the hand-slash-space-making-movement of a good em dash. S.A. Sukop turned me on to em dashes. An em dash is a gesture that the Orisha Ogun would make while dancing. It slices the line without stopping the flow. It is more assertive than a comma. If I had to choose just one, I’d settle on the simplicity of the period for its finality. It is a hole, a circle, and the end.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
In high school I learned that literature was the materia prima for theater, music, and social change. My English teacher, Peter Sawaya, was also my Theater teacher. Once he taught a rock poetry class where we analyzed lyrics. John Prince asked us to blow up our TVs and eat peaches. Find the simple pleasures. Create a home to nourish your family on things that you all make. That’s what I did with my kids. Home became an antidote to the world outside where women and children were not often taken seriously, and where racism and patriarchy were consistently troubling.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
“Write. I want to read you.”
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing humbles and excites me. Stepping up to the page is like accepting a dance with the eldest salsero on the dance floor, and knowing you have to fully commit to keep up. Listen in 360 degrees. Flow. Editing is more laborious, and can be exhausting. When the work is finally done, and it reaches readers, it re-energizes me again. Re-energizes sounds too mechanical. It feels more like glow. Writing is the glow left inside my body after the words come through.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
There are myriad traps. Self sabotage. Lack of time. When I was a young artist, I made a bonfire and burned a stack of diaries as tall as my body. I turned my voice into ash. This event inspired the last poem in the collection “esh.” At the time, I was afraid that writing was distracting me from being a serious dancer. I’d bought into the limiting notion that I could not do more than one thing. The burning was an act of violence against my creative self. I burnt the languages and collages I’d made on the train riding from home to rehearsal and back again. Now, I know better. Don’t start fires, especially not inside yourself. Many years later, a friend taught me a new word. “You are a polymath,” he said. Over time, I have relaxed into my multiplicity. What I could not burn out of me became a defining trait.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
That would be time. The pull between living and making a living. My creative life has always had to coexist with the responsibilities of being independent, and heading a household. I’ve been the trunk of the tree. This next phase of my life will include more time to write, and more of my sustainability derived from writing related pursuits.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. I will put a book down and leave it, but I’m learning to give books a chance. Be patient with them. Once I set down Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things until my daughter told me it was one of her favorites. My daughter is a bibliophile, and one of my favorite writers. I trust her opinion, so I picked it up again and read it with new eyes. The icky orangedrink lemondrink man made the book one of my all time favorites.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Emotions are powerful, disobedient things. Strong feelings can make for empathy, care, and good storytelling. Like many writers and artists, I have a rich emotional life. Writing and performance have given me an outlet to express strong emotions in a fruitful way. Meditation practice has also been centering for me. I was raised in an immigrant household where you were supposed to be strong and not let anything stop you, much less feelings. My friend Michelle Talley taught me that one can’t rationalize emotions into submission. They are what they are. Feel them. Find the message. They are important information. I’ve learned how to move around inside them, and let them flow through me. Your emotions are there for a reason, and can help guide you toward a more fulfilling life.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Glenis Redmond had a catalytic effect on my writing life. I met her in the state capitol when I was doing advocacy work. I don’t know how a poet wound up at an arts advocacy conference, but there she was. She had us harvesting words from gemstones and trees in her workshop. She wanted to make us rich with language. After class, she came over to me and said, “so, you are a poet.” I always had been, but I was undercover. She saw me, and said something. That sparked a pivot in my life, and we’ve stayed in contact ever since.
Gayle Brandeis has been a catalytic force in my writing life. I worked with her during my MFA studies. After graduation, she pushed me into the ring and published my work. She is an outstanding teacher. As an educator myself, I know great teachers when I see them. I have learned a tremendous amount from her as a writer, activist, mother, and a mentor.
Adrian Cepeda has been my poetry buddy for the past five years. We read and provide editorial support for each other, and are in each other’s writing corner.
Deena Metzger is a writer, and auntie, who reminds me of the bigger picture of writing and living. I sit in her writing circle each month with writers who are my elders. This helps me imagine a life in writing over time, and how I can grow into myself as a small elder. In her presence, I feel I am sitting at her feet and learning how to age as a writer and facilitator.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
My mother is a visual artist who worked in series, so I know what that looks like. You knead the materials for years until you have had enough, or you get excited by something else, and then you shift. I pay attention to what wants to come through me. I’ve written about family and parenting, teaching and learning, immigration and migration, polylingualism and diaspora. My imagination wants to trouble overly simplistic narratives about family, identity, nationalism, and belonging that never fit me or mine.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Putting together this poetry collection placed a microscope on a specific period of my life. Selecting and sequencing the work was an existential process that revealed a larger journey. Each poem is its own experience, but, together, I noticed the story of a single mother raising her kids, and herself, in an intercultural, multifaith, transnational family. My daughter told me she saw the book as a story of radical truth and self acceptance. I can see that. It is a book I needed to get out of me to welcome the next phase of living.
Dance and writing use different materials, but they are similar. The process of choreographing a full length concert resembles the making of a book. You take what you have been making, and spread it out. You listen to what the different works might want to say to each other. In dance, a standard mainstage performance lasts 90 minutes. You have two 45 minute acts to fill with work with an intermission in between. In the book, I divided the collection into sections. In performance, you experience the journey of the story with the audience at the same time. In writing, it’s a delayed response from readers that is spread out geographically. Different times. Different spaces. In dance, the art object is your body and you remake the work anew every performance. You can’t hold it and reread it, like you can a book. There are no flipping of pages back and forth. There are no margins to write notes in.
I did try something that resembles performance publishing once. It lasted seven days. Placeholder Press published a flashbulb chapbook I made during the pandemic called Endless Bowls of Sky. It was available in print internationally for one week only. People posted photographs of the chapbook on social media, and I got to see the chapbook travel all over the world like I wished I could. It was fun watching people receive their special editions in the mail during quarantine.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
The best money I’ve ever spent as a writer has been every tax dollar invested in our public library system. Public libraries made it possible for me to raise my kids to become literate and curious. They made it possible for me to keep studying and learning. I do daily walking meditations listening to audiobooks on the LA Public Library App. I appreciate the added benefit of hearing writers read their own work. Toni Morrison. Thich Naht Hahn. Kiese Laymon. Sandra Cisneros. Louise Erdrich. Amazing.
My son is a musician and an audio engineer. He was able to turn Even the Milky Way is Undocumented into a sound object — an audiobook. I hope that listeners enjoy the print and audio versions, and I’m happy that the audiobook will make the work more accessible.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Participating in theater taught me that language has power. Once I was cast as Alice in a school production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I remember looking out across the checkerboard stage at a boy pretending to be a Caterpillar smoking a hookah. “Who are you?” he asked. My voice left my body and floated out into the space. The audience was listening. Rows and rows of blue plastic chairs with human beings inside them, listening. That was my first memory of ever feeling like I was heard as a child. It is so important to listen to kids. The arts can do that.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I am a dragon. It chose me.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I try to finish what I begin. I have a list of book ideas written in blue light on the inside of my skull. I keep track of them in my sleep. I’m slow, but persistent. The next one up is a collection of essays that is nearly done. I can’t wait for them to live next to each other inside of one book.
What does literary success look like to you?
Literary success means living a life nourished by reading and writing, and being able to participate in the world of publishing and performance as a creator and collaborator. It means having writing in the center of my creative process, what I do for a living, and my activism and public service. Literary success means being able to speak to these times and be heard, to help other people find and use their own voices, and to generate better futures for our children, grandchildren, and the planet.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I don’t see genders as opposites. I prefer the notion of gender identity as personally inscribed along a spectrum. Do it your own way. That is true to my experience. I have never felt that I quite performed my gender correctly. I learned this at six when I was called a tom boy because I wanted to play ball during recess. Once a grandfather gave me a Barbie. I cried. I exchanged it for a football and was happy again. Gender norms have always seemed a bit absurd to me. I am the kind of woman who likes to move, sweat, think, and play.
I aim to write compassionately about all living things. My writing has focused on the worlds of women and children. My son appears as a male character in Milky Way. I write about his sound. His form. He is depicted as a possibility, as beloved, as a loving brother, as a person in danger of racist violence, and as an inventor of music. My father also has a cameo in the book. He walks across the page with a granny smith apple. There are male spectres in the book. They have ghostly presence.
I don’t like corruption and our future depends on disrupting dominant hierarchies. In “Naked Congress” I ask the senate to undress. I use a similar approach in an essay about my paternal grandmother where I introduce the dead members of the House Un-American Activities Committee in a courtroom scene. I wanted to dispel the negative spectre that McCarthyism and xenophobia staged around my family, and countless innocent people. I wrote about their bodies, their pencils, their coffee, and their XY chromosomes. These white men were empowered by Jim Crow, and were not held accountable for the damage they did through any process of reconciliation. In this case, I didn’t care much what the characters might think of my depictions of them. I did hope that my grandma would find it funny. I laughed while I typed. It was a kind of literary vengeance.
What did you edit out of this book?”
The seed prayers and meditations I wrote to myself to help me keep going, and grant my imagination permission to continue.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Not writing isn’t an option for me, at least not now. I wrote quietly. Now I write publicly. I will keep on writing, and creating spaces for more people to do so.
Amy Shimshon-Santo is the author of EVEN THE MILKY WAY IS UNDOCUMENTED. You can purchase a copy in print, as an ebook, or an audiobook today.
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