Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Donna Snyder

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.


Donna Snyder

Described in Amazon as “work as an activist lawyer advocating on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities has garnered multiple prizes and recognitions. In 1995 she founded the grassroots, not-for-profit Tumblewords Project in the West Texas/Southern New Mexico/Northern Chihuahua region. She continues to coordinate its free weekly workshops, occasional publications, and performance events in the El Paso area.”

The Interview

  1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

I began to write poetry when living in Santa Fe, New Mexico litigating a class action law suit against two branches of the USA federal government. My clients were a class of over 10,000 disabled Native American children. There was a heavy briefing schedule and I had no support staff, so life was stressful. My first husband, a dear and creative soul, dared each other to join a writing group we heard about. I wrote fiction and memoir until the leader, Joan Logghe, gave me a bilingual book of poems by Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo. That book changed my life.

It had never occurred to me that my childhood scribbles were “poetry.”

I had been told I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. I believed it until moving to Santa Fe in my early 30s.

Another prominent poet told me I was too old to become a poet.

People there pegged me for prose. They liked my stories based on growing up poor in rural North Texas Panhandle. Soon thereafter I moved from Santa Fe to southern New Mexico and became active in the spoken word scene. Poetry was good for brief readings as part of an open Mic. And the people there didn’t pigeon hole me.

1.1  What was it in Neruda and Vallejo that captured your interest?

Both poets were passionate and wrote about things that made sense to me. Both wrote about common people and common life in beautiful but common vernacular. Until reading them, my concept of poetry was alienating. I thought it all rhymed and was written by upper class Brits and New Englanders.

I was not educated in poetry. I had read little of it and did not know the “rules.”

Neruda and Vallejo opened my eyes.

Around that time I also became immersed in Mexican and Mexican American cultures. Poetry is a living thing in both.

Should I go on?

3. How is it a living thing?

For one, it is taught in Mexican primary schools. It is a natural and inherent part of their socialization and education. It is nothing for the shyest, non-English speaking 2nd generation immigrant child with the slightest encouragement, to write good poems about their life and loved ones. Doing poetry workshops in the schools is a breeze in this borderland I live in.

Also, poetry is valued in the culture. Mexican currency has pictures of historic poets like Sor Juana de Inez and Nezahualcoyotl. Dos Juana was prominent in the court of the royalty in the Spanish colony. Before the conquest, Nezahualcoyotl was a great poet king of the triple alliance that ruled Mexico.

Mexican Americans have a thriving Chicano culture. Poetry was a big part of the Chicano movimiento, that is, the Chicano civil rights movement and cultural renaissance.

Political rallies included and still include poets.

Plus I was in the thick of the political movement. I worked at Centro Legal Campesino, a legal aid office for farm workers, almost all of whom were Mexican migrant workers. I spoke in public constantly. I met leaders of the farm labor movement such as the great César Chávez, and leaders in the Chicano literary movement.

All my clients were campesinos and campesinas. All my co-workers were Mexican or Mexican American. Even when I left southern New Mexico and Centro Legal Campesino and moved to El Paso, Texas, almost all my clients were immigrant workers from Mexico or first or second generation residents of the USA.

4. So your poetry speaks directly with their voices.

My partner of 12 years was a Mexican poet. He was killed at age 44 in a fall. I later married a Mexican American artist well known for his murals focusing on the local culture.

I do not speak with their voice, but what I write is informed by their voices.

I also was an activist lawyer on behalf of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, as well as people with addictions. Those clients influenced my poetry as well.

4.1 In what way?

I worked daily with people affected by these conditions. I had both sympathy and empathy. I gave public presentations at least weekly. I internalized these issues. Plus, being a poet who lived with artists, I knew a thing or two first hand. As well there was mental illness in my family of origin. All these experiences formed me as a human as well as a writer.

My husband the visual artist, who died suddenly at 54 from an undiagnosed medical condition, identified with Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth, a great novel. Need I say more?

I also read Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and other notable writers described as mentally ill.

4.2 You say “mental illness and developmental disabilities, as well as people with addictions. Those clients influenced my poetry as well.” How did it inform your writing?

I believe working closely with people who had schizophrenia can be considered to have freed up my earlier writing to embrace a more surreal and hallucinogenic use of imagery and internal monologue. I’m thinking of a few poems in particular. Moreover, living with people who had bipolar disorder or personality disorders expanded my understanding of people as a whole. Those experiences and the widening of my understanding had to influence my writing, whether or not this minute I can point to specific examples. I believe I was better able to give myself over to flight of thought and the rush of imagery.

Let me add that it is not just clients and artists who immersed me in mental illness. The legal profession is known to have a higher incidence of bipolar disorder, depression, and addictions. In my last decade of practice I had five lawyer colleagues who killed themselves. In that time, I can recall one writer who killed himself. Not counting the artists and writers who died young due to excess.

4.3  You have had a lot of grief to process.

My second book is called Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal. I didn’t name it. The publisher contacted me with the concept after learning that in 12 years I was widowed twice, my father died, two brothers-in-law died, six colleagues died, four by suicide, three close friends died, a 16 year old dog died, and a 14 year old dog died.

Then in the next 2 years two close friends died unexpectedly and my two favorite dogs of all time, boxer sisters, died. And then my sister died the next year.

All those deaths before I was even 60.

So I can’t deny the truth of your statement. But, as someone told me, Everyone’s father dies. Everyone’s spouse and siblings and dogs die. Everyone’s friends die as we age.

Oh, yeah. One more thing. In that same 12 years, I lost my job due to poor health. I had to take early retirement. After a busy, demanding, and fulfilling career as an activist lawyer. This was a body blow. Or rather it had a huge impact on my self-image and identity.

4.4 How did that body blow affect your writing?

I have a whole book on death and a fair amount of my other two books have related poems. And since then I keep on writing more poems on loss. Many of my published poems relate to these issues.

Including my most recent.

Unlike many writers, I don’t choose the subject matter of my poems. They come to me in a rush. Without intent or planning on my part.

And without much crafting.

I’m not a schooled writer.

Even my legal writing, tends to seem to come out of me on its own.

Some people don’t respect my poetry because of this lack of crafting and mental struggle.

5. What is your daily writing routine?

It’s mutable, affected by physical and mental health. In general, I tend to read most puff the day and write into the wee hours. However I create most of my poems during Tumblewords Project workshops on every Saturday afternoon except holiday weekends. The focus is on the practice of writing and reading aloud. Whoever shows up will write on the spot and then immediately read it aloud as we go around the circle. Everyone writes. Everyone reads. With limited feedback so as to stay within the creative moment rather than switch to editing mode.

I founded the Tumblewords Project in 1995 and continue to present free weekly workshops and occasional readings. Here’s some background info.

Tumblewords Project – ABOUT

Tumblewords Project
About TumbleWords Project
Tumblewords Project is a grassroots, not-for-profit weekly series of free writing workshops founded in 1995 with seed money from the New Mexico Arts Division. Originally the workshops met at Concilio Campesino in San Miguel, New Mexico and was called the Mesilla Valley Tumblewords Project. Shortly after the first workshops, I moved to El Paso and began presenting workshops in Segundo Barrio as well, and dropped Mesilla Valley from the name. After a few years of…

6. What motivates you to write?

I dunno. I just enjoy it. I feel much better when I write. In the moment, if it’s good, I enter a state of flow, both in the psychological meaning as well as in the musical and improvisational context.

Now that I no longer practice law, writing is my sole identity. I have no children. What remaining family members I have are far away, distant, and are not a source of the ready identity family or clan often provide. I have writing, Tumblewords, writing colleagues I correspond with all over the world, and my four dogs.

Writing and my dogs keep me alive.

7. What is your work ethic?

When I practiced law and worked as an activist, people consisted me a workaholic. 12 or more hours a day were normal. Now, work ethic is affected by my health. Every day I read many hours, but I no longer write every day. When I am on deadline, whether externally or internally imposed, I tend to work around the clock.

Organizing Tumblewords and putting out press, or p.r., requires several hours a week. I’m always looking for new presenters or devising new workshops for me to present myself.

Honestly, the year after my two boxers died, I hardly wrote. I just cried all the time. That was the year after the second man widowed me, near the end of that spate of deaths and during a period of serious health issues. I kind of lost my way for awhile.

I still published when people solicited me or nagged me. Mostly boo

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Ten years ago this would have been a far easier question, as my pool of potential favorites was much more limited. Now I read all the time. I know writers from all parts of the world, most of whom are not world renowned with traditional, corporate publishers. Some of these writers, of whom I learned from the online social networks and blogs, as well as the multitude of literary journals I encounter now. Naming favorite contemporaries is a risky business. Additionally, I’m constantly encountering new writers who blow me away.

A list of favorites and influences would truly be too long to detail.
9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read good writers. Read bad writers. Read every day. Write good stuff and bad stuff. Write whether or not you’re in the mood. Buy journals and other people’s books. Go to readings at least once a month. Submit to journals and anthologies. Cast your bread upon the waters; support other writers and independent publishers.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m writing three reviews and looking for publishers as suddenly all the editors who published my book reviews are no longer available by some sad coincidence. I’m gathering collections. A couple small presses have expressed interest in publishing books. One collection might be loosely called poetry related to maths and sciences. Another about Eros and the end of passion. A third of ekphrastic pieces. I have just begun thinking of a collection of my reviews. And recently I’ve noticed an accumulation of poems that relate to my dogs.

I just had a poem come out early September 2018 in Inanna’s Ascent, an international anthology. In August 2018 I had three poems appear in Lummox 7, an annual journal out of Southern California.

This has been a year of writing blurbs and reviews, which are fun but a great deal of work.




3 thoughts on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Donna Snyder

  1. Pingback: Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Donna Snyder | poetry from the frontera

Leave a Reply to The Wombwell Rainbow Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.