Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Andrena Zawinski

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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.


Andrena Zawinski

is an award winning poet and educator. Landings is her latest poetry collection (Kelsay Books, Hemet, CA, 2017). Her previous book, Something About (Blue Light Press, San Francisco), is a 2010 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award recipient for excellence in literature. Her first collection, Traveling in Reflected Light (Pig Iron Press, Youngstown, OH, 1995), was a Kenneth Patchen competition winner. She has additionally authored five chapbooks. Zawinski compiled and edited Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry (Scarlet Tanager Books, Oakland, CA, 2012).

Her poems have won awards for free verse, lyricism, form, poetry of social concern and have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines including Quarterly West, Gulf Coast, Nimrod, Rattle, Blue Collar Review, Progressive Magazine, Pacific Review, and others. Her poetry has been widely anthologized in American Society: What Poets See, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, So Luminous the Wildflowers Anthology of California Poets, Veils Halos and Shackles, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Raising Lily Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace, and in many more.

Zawinski has contributed as Features Editor to PoetryMagazine.com since 2000, showcasing emerging and celebrated poets with equal attention. She is on the Poetry Board for The Literary Nest. She also founded the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon in 2007, a social group that continues to bring together a diversity of talented and accomplished poets.

Zawinski has a long legacy of feminist organizing, consciousness raising, and direct action in the Women Against Violence Against Women Movement. She co-founded Women Against Sexist Violence in Pornography and Media along with the National Radical Feminist Organizing Committee. She was a founding collective member of the Gertrude Stein Memorial Bookshop and worked as manager of the cultural feminist collective, Wildsisters, Inc. restaurant and entertainment space. Zawinski remains committed to poetry and the condition of women and the working class worldwide.

Zawinski is a veteran teacher of English writing of early childhood through college students. She taught at Allegheny Community College, in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, for the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and International Poetry Forum, for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and at the University of Pittsburgh. She recently retired as a popular English composition and creative writing instructor at Laney College in Oakland, CA.

Some of her honors include Allen Ginsberg Awards, Emily Stauffer Poetry Prize, Ina Coolbrith Award, Milton Acorn Prize, Mulberry Press Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, Triton Salute to the Arts and those that came from Akron Art Museum, Artists Embassy Dancing Poetry, Alameda Arts Council, Bay Area Poetry Coalition, Black Bear Review, Black Hills League of American Pen Women, Sacramento Poetry Center, Sacramento Public Library, Sarasota Poetry Theatre, Soul Making Literary Competition, Taproot Literary Review, Tiferet Journal.

Of her work, Len Roberts described her poetry as “strongly imagistic and tightly rhythmical” while Lynn Emanuel characterizes her writing as “an articulate, urbane, sophisticated voice …[that] seethes with savvy…packed with a bristling ironic intelligence.” Grace Cavalieri calls Zawinski “the poet we find when we’re in luck.” Of her latest collection, Landings, Poet Laureate Rebecca Foust has deemed the collection as “…Part paean and elegy to what was, part lyric and dirge to what is, Landings asks the question of what remains—where we land—after great loss, then answers the question in poem after glowing poem…a book that offers wisdom and solace and one you will take comfort in reading again and again.” Author and Editor Carolyne Wright has said that “Zawinski knows that the missing are never wholly gone, and despite the frequent harshness of human interaction, in these Landings, she embraces the richness of human experience, and praises the courage of those who go on living as if they could do anything. Jan Beatty, Creative Writing Program Director at Carlow University, has said: “…Zawinski’s is the necessary voice of the truth teller, speaking trouble among the beauty. These poems breathe compassion with no borders… In these brave poems, the blood moon blazes red-orange/sunbeams at its edges—as we feel the fire of brutality, the heat of desire and great loss, and the colors spreading out onto our fragile, beautiful lives.”


The Interview

1. When and why did you first decide to write poetry?

This question makes my head turn two ways: first to “When did I first write poetry?” and then to “When did I consider myself a writer of poetry, a poet?” I was first inspired by poetry after being hungry for mail as a girl landlocked by sweltering summers and frigid winters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My boredom and curiosity took me to scanning ads in the back of my mother’s magazines, tape quarters she gave me to file cards and send them off in the world of mail order. Some of the earliest arrivals were, of course, the autographed star photos and stamps for a collection; but I actually requested “A Coney Island of the Mind” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti!) and

Howl,” (Allen Ginsberg!), which became both my introduction to poetry and my license to speak my mind in that genre.

It wasn’t really until my twenties, however, that I actually came across the musicality of poetry through Dylan Thomas and the powerful force of poetry through Sylvia Plath. And that’s when I started writing and never stopped, but then also never more than stuff for-the-drawer that I shared with friends but never saved. (I did get a couple of publications under a pen name, and those went into the drawer as well.)

Around 1990, once I started collecting the work and reading in public, I considered myself a poet. I was fortunate to receive encouragement through an audience of both peers and established writers. I participated in workshops with poets I admired who were available to me through the University of Pittsburgh’s Writing Project (Jim Daniels, Lynne Emanuel, Len Roberts), but I never pursued an MFA degree. As a single parent with a BS and M.ED already under my belt along with a short stint into a PHD program, I was delighted instead to be surrounded with people hungry to write and to read poetry, to revel in the passion of poetry.

My first full collection went to print in 1995, having won Pig Iron Press’ Kenneth Patchen Prize in 1993 selected by Joel Climenhaga (who had actually palled around with Patchen). Right after that, honored to be on stage as an “Up and Coming Writer” with two of my mentors, Daniels and Emanuel, at an AWP Conference, I was for the first time paid for my work and went before a really large audience instead of those of small cafes and bookstores. Having had returned from a Prague Summer Writing Program, I was surprised by Pittsburgh Magazine’s Harry Schwalb Excellence in the Arts Award in Literature with honors as “One to Watch in Literature.” There was no turning back to wearing the mask of a pen name or to muffling my poetry in a drawer.

1.1. Why did you request Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg?

City Lights happened to have ads in one of the magazines…I remember Look and Life and Screen. But not which the ads were in which magazines. The city lights books cost fifty cents then in the mid-60’s, if I recall correctly. I was young enough to trick or treat, which I did as a beatnick after reading them and putting it all together.

I actually have anew poem about that. It was called “Girl, waiting to be filled” but I changed it to “mailbox.” I met Ferlinghetti at a party for his paintings. Joyce Jenkins introduced me to him as a real fan. I told him the story, and he said he wished more people would share that sort of thing with him. Later I won through Paterson Literary Review two ALlen Ginsburg honors prizes.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Then? Not at all. I lived and was schooled in a working poor community where the most literary experience I got was being punished to recite Shakespeare in class for the crime of passing a note. My option taking a letter grade drop. I chose the latter. Of course, I became widely aware and moved by contemporary older poets legacy of verse through time.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

Wishing. Wishing I were a fast writer, wishing I were a disciplined writer with a schedule and projects, wishing for an inspiration so strong that I can’t stop writing. The reality is that I am a slow writer, lack a schedule, and am a writer who never embarks upon projects that publishers love to pitch. I enjoy the act of discovery in writing because, as E. M. Forester asserts, and I believe: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Delays inevitably appear along the way as I revise. This can be polishing phrases and descriptions, tightening lines and stanzas, or finding on the stage of the page what form a piece should take—one unpunctuated sentence, sonnet, haibun, pantoum, villanelle, poetic prose, narrative free verse? I revise more than I generate text.

My writing happens largely at the computer and has since I got one in the late 80s, a Macintosh that whistled like a teapot. On my screen are always one or two poems I am working on that I visit and revisit. And there are files: Works-in-Progress that contains things near completion along with a Seeds file that holds the typing up of scribbles from napkins, receipts, note book pages or descriptions and ideas that might germinate one day. I dip into these files whenever inspiration doesn’t grab me by the throat and demand I find my voice to speak. And then hoping. Hoping the poem is ready to move into my Submissions file, hoping the poem deserves an audience through publication, hoping it fits into the scheme of things of a current manuscript, hoping it will touch someone in some way whether in tenderness or with ferocity.

4. What motivates you to write?

What motivates me to write can be anything in the present moment or distant past from newscasts to poetic tomes that spark imagination to fly into the blank of the page: singing birds and beached whales, roller skates and coal mines, porch swings and fireflies, suitcases and moonbeams, all of it (in the words of Marianne Moore) “the art of creating imaginary gardens with read toads,” revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Writers I read when young were mostly doled out as high school assignments dictated by teacher preferences, so most of that fell on my deaf ear of a rebellious student. Perhaps if someone would have drawn a line between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, I may have cocked that ear. Remember, I did not attend an MFA program in my college years—I was actually and ironically in “teacher training.” Often having characterized myself as a self-taught poet to students in my creative writing classes, this I felt encouraged them to take risks beyond the sanctions of academia to become their own best teachers.

Contemporary writers I have read by choice are the ones who have most influenced me: Adrienne Rich’s consummate truth telling, Marge Piercy’s poignant narratives, Dana Gioia’s beautiful use of tradition, C. K. Williams’ depth of emotion, Sharon Olds’ candor and accessibility, Carolyn Forché’s passion for the personal as political, Yusef Komunyakaa’s musicality and truth telling, Martin Espada’s social consciousness of common folk, Wislawa Szymborska’s plain speak. These I return to again and again for both solace and inspiration.

6. Why do you write?

That’s not an easy question, but I have an easy answer. I suppose it’s the same reason a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a musician makes music. It’s a drive combined with a self-perceived talent. For me, as a poet, everything is my canvas, my clay, my notes. I am the consummate eaves dropper—whether on how the humpback hills green in spring or an animated conversation unfolds between a parent and child on a train. I am always watching, always listening—ears, eyes, mind, heart always open, open to it all.

7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?

Don’t imitate, but do be informed by writers that have come before you and writers you admire who are writing right now. Be part of a community of writers: take a class, join a workshop, attend conferences, go to readings, participate in open mic opportunities. Read a lot of writers. Re-read the ones that tug at your heart over and over again. Start local and go global—let your voice be heard in hometown publications and venues, and as you steady your feet on that ship, sail out to other places you dream to be. It’s limitless.

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

Earlier I said that I don’t embark upon projects, and what I meant by that is that I am not one to sit down and write a book of, for example, all nature poems or all poems of work or only family poems. I am completing a new manuscript now that contains, of all things, those nature poems, poetry of work, family poems, plus political poems and even a couple of quirky ones that might bring an aha and ha-ha. I also continue (since 2000) to be Features Editor for PoetryMagazine.com, an online only magazine since 1996, that has gone biannual: I invite six poets twice a year to showcase their work there. There is a popular Women’s Poetry Salon that I founded in 2007, for which I organize gatherings about every six weeks that one to two dozen women attend at a time, an informal social group that feeds us with a potluck of poetry and food outside our regular work writing and publishing. Finally, I am honored to have been recently invited to be a guest editor for the Poetry Sunday column for Women’s Voices for Change, something in the offing. There is, of course, the ongoing process—when I am not writing or revising I am submitting poetry for publication and giving public readings.

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Andrena Zawinski

  1. Thanks for sharing this interview. I always like to know how a poet begins, why poetry became so important in one’s life. I think poetry is a calling (at least for me it was) & I was called early–I was still in the 7th grade.
    Is it true that you knew Laura Ulewicz? She was a wonderful poet & person. I know Steve Vincent is working on bringing her work into print as an accessible book. Where do you live now?

Leave a 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.