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.
lives and writes in Philadelphia, where he serves as Founding Editor or Empty Set Press and Associate Editor at Occulum Journal. He is the author of Flowersonnets (2018), Heroines (2017), and Nazareth, forthcoming from Apep Publications in 2020. Angelo’s work has appeared in Mookychick, Prolit Magazine, Metatron, Dream Pop Journal, South Broadway Ghost Society, Yes Poetry, Luna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere online and in print. For more information, follow him on Instagram @angelocolavita and on Twitter @angeloremipsum, or visit his website angelocolavita.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing when I was around 9 or 10 years old. Mostly stories at that point. Poetry came to me when I was about 13 or so. I wrote poetry and fiction for a while until my mid twenties, and then everything started coming out as poems. I think for what I like to do with language, poetry is the most suitable medium. Although I do still write fiction every once in a while. My new book, Nazareth, is an epic poem—so I suppose that counts as both. That’ll be out sometime next year with Apep Publications.
I’m not sure if I can answer the “why”. It’s just a compulsion. I don’t really question it. There’s no, um… motive.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess my mother. But it’s not like she sat me down and said “this is poetry.” I grew up with books, so I remember reading Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings when I was really young. They were the first, I guess, legit poets I ever read. Cummings was profound for me. Some of his stuff still blows me away. It’s mystifying, beautiful. I like challenging work. Dickinson was challenging too, but in a different sense. I also grew up listening to punk and metal, so I’ve always considered song lyrics as poetry. Music and poetry are kind of inseparable. Hip Hop influenced me a lot in that way too, obviously. Poets really just want to be rock stars. Some probably even think they are.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Very. I find myself reading older and older poetry more and more often. I try to learn from whoever I can. I’m also fascinated by artistic lineage. I’ll read someone I like and then read the poets they’ve read. I’m just generally into history too, so love it when I’m able to talk literary history with other writers. To be honest, it wasn’t always like that. I used to just read, like, postmodernists and beat writers (and I still do, of course), and thought anything that wasn’t super-contemporary, or whatever, was bullshit. But as I matured as an artist I was able to see just how avant garde, say, Beowulf is. I don’t know how dominating older poets are anymore, though. It seems like the canon is being reconsidered. It’s a shame how few contemporary poets haven’t read Ovid. A lot of poets nowadays just seem to want to read their friends’ poetry, if any. Which is good, but also hinders your own development as an artist. While I’m all for smashing the system and reconsidering the canon, I still believe a writer should know as much about what came before them as possible. I guess that’s what I mean by “artistic lineage.” Like, knowing what led up to your work reading the way it does. Your influences and your influences’ influences, and so on.
I have a few people I’d call mentors, too. Pattie McCarthy has said things to me like “your poems reek of cigarettes,” and I know exactly what she means. She’s turned me on to Harryette Mullen and Ted Berrigan. She lets me know when I write “beyond the poem,” which I definitely do in my first few drafts. Jim Cory and Chris McCreary are also great to talk to. We’ll get coffee and trade work and talk poetry and poets and I really value their feedback. I also occasionally share a correspondence with artist Marianne Holm Hansen, whose visual and typographic poetry I just love. She’s sent me some of the sweetest and most encouraging messages.
As far as others go, I’d say maybe Claudia Rankine and Susan Howe are two older contemporary poets who just consistently produce what I consider flawless work. There’s also Myung Mi Kim, Douglas Kearny, CA Conrad… Not to mention the writers my age and younger who I think are phenomenal. But that’s another thing altogether.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
That depends on what I’m writing and when I’m writing. Under ideal conditions, I like to sit, meditate, daydream, waste time… just getting lost in the piece. I typically sit down to write at night, around 9 or 10pm. I’ll have about ten to twenty tabs open on my browser (I always do research), and I’ll bounce around between them and the open doc. Other times, especially during the semester, I have to make time to write whenever possible, since I’m so busy. I always carry around a notebook. I’ll write fragments, images, little bursts of alliteration… whatever comes to mind. Then when I can sit down, piece them all together. But either way, the real craft comes during the editing/revision process. Whether a piece starts at scattered notes or floods of thought, my more conscious and deliberate decisions are made in revisions. I’ll usually have several drafts of several versions of a poem before I settle on one presentable draft. I also like to read new work aloud, at poetry readings or to myself, so I can hear how the words play together. Sometimes a thing seems like a good idea on paper, but doesn’t work when you actually read it. I meticulously scrutinize. Is the alliteration timed well? Is this internal rhyme necessary? Is this cliché and can I use it? Where do I need to soften and what needs sharpening? I nix any and all unnecessary language. I have to be able to justify every letter. If not, it’s gone. Most of all though, I do a lot of listening. The poem will tell you what it needs and it’s my job to make that happen. Sometimes it’s totally different than what I’d set out to write, but I just have to suspend my ego temporarily and do right by the piece. I have to be willing to do that or else it’ll all come out forced or belligerently sentimental. Emotion is important, but emotion alone isn’t what makes a poem successful. Or fun. People forget sometimes that art should be fun first. If it’s not fun to write, it won’t be fun to read, and you’ve essentially wasted the reader’s time and your own. That said, I don’t shy away from writing garbage. A lot of the time you just have to write bad poetry and clear it all out to get to the good stuff. A thing that helps me in that case is sitting with a poem for a bit after I think it’s finished. I’ll write, revise, read it half a million times, revise, then step away for a few days, a few weeks, start another poem, read something, and come back to it with a clear head and most likely revise it again. Maybe it’s overkill but I think the care and attention shows in the work once I say it’s finished. I’ll never just write something one night and submit it the next morning.
5. What do you write about?
Oh, all sorts of things. I always draw from my own life and my perspective of course, but I try not to write about “myself.” There are way more interesting things to write about. My first chapbook, Heroines, was about my experience with addiction and early recovery. Flowersonnets is a book of visual poems about death and regeneration. My new book, Nazareth, deals with Hellenistic and Gnostic mythology and astrology in the form of an ancient epic poem. I just write about what interests me. I’m really into magick and the occult, so I guess that shows up frequently in my work. But regardless of the imagery, I write about love, anxiety, death, confusion, god, capitalism, animals… Anything is really fair game. I’m aware of the, um, esoteric thread that runs through most of my stuff though. It’s almost always been that way. But I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole myself and make all my work just about one thing. The “about” in poetry is secondary, at best. I’m more interested in what a poem is doing than what it is saying.
5.1. “what a poem is doing than what it is saying.” Please can you elaborate on this?
Oh sure. I mean how the poem functions psychologically/emotionally/spiritually the way it’s crafted. I’m thinking of a few examples. Well since I brought up cummings earlier, his Grasshopper poem stands out as something that “does” more than it says. The text, on a subconscious level—to read it just feels like a grasshopper. You just kind of take it in. Something about the movement of the eyes as you scan across what’s there feels like the movement of a grasshopper, the personality maybe of a grasshopper. It’s a fun poem but also really smart. And cummings doesn’t just throw syntax out the window. He actually really just manipulates it within the rules. He takes into consideration how letters and punctuation look. Considers placement in relation to other letters. It’s really fantastic. When I was a kid this was the most amazing thing I’d read and I’m so glad I read it when I was young. If I were older, I probably would not have been able to suspend my analytical brain enough to really appreciate it. [I’ll attach an image of it to this email if you want to include that]. Another example is H.D.’s “Trilogy”. There is an eerie sense that, while she’s talking about war, there are two times quite distant from each other, and two different locations, which she (for lack of a better word) superimposes upon one another. The collection is written predominantly in couplets, and there are double entendres throughout. So here is where a poem’s form serves the content masterfully and subtly. Also, I will say again, that this is another reason why knowing literary history and traditions comes in handy—the rhyming couplet form, being used heavy in Greek war epics. That’s another tip-off from H.D., too. And the emotional impact in either case is not hindered, but magnified.
On the other hand, with a book like James Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover,” the piece doesn’t “do” as much. It’s a great idea for a book. You know, the description on the back cover promises everything I want in a poem: involves spirits, an ouija board, it nods to Dante’s Comedy… but the book itself doesn’t do much. He drops the ball completely. It meanders for long stretches and never lands. He explains spooky things more than the poem itself is spooky. And for such a massive tome, it doesn’t deviate or do anything dynamic structurally, syntactically, linguistically. Basically it just bores you and by page 50 (of it’s 700 or so pages), you just put it down and move on to more interesting shit.
So, that’s really what matters most to me. There are only so many things we can write about, and even fewer things we can read about. So what a poem does, how it works, is definitely more important than what it says. And I don’t at all mean to imply that what a poem says isn’t important. But I always ask myself, “is this interesting?” and “what is this doing?” rather than “am I explaining myself clearly?” or “is this relatable?” Sometimes—most of the time—we have to step outside of the linearity of reality and fact in order to get to the real truth honestly and accurately.
Attached here is the cummings poem mentioned above:
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Well I definitely draw from writing I dislike as much as I do from the writing I love. I love breaking syntax, which some poor writing does accidentally. But I read that stuff like “oh god I’m using this.” And I manage to find away to make it intentional—give it purpose and heart. There’s a lot of heart in bad writing where perhaps craft and skill are lacking. It’s not like everything I was ever into was always amazing. I’ve been into some bad writers before. I just take what I need from them and move on. I’m also influenced a lot by visual art and music. The metalhead in me just loves dark imagery. That, combined with being raised Catholic, kinda led me to explore the occult. So I’m really interested in that and the practice of magick and that inevitably shows up often in my work. But my favorite writers are all very intentional with their deliberate use of language. That’s kind of my barometer when evaluating my own writing. If there are any frayed edges, it’s because they need to be there that way.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
That list can go on endlessly. And it’s constantly changing, too. I admire a lot of writers for a lot of different reasons. Too many to name right here, right now. I’d be too afraid to forget anyone.
9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I’d tell them to write as often as you possibly can. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. Even if you don’t finish anything. Even if you don’t submit work. Even if you don’t know what to write. I’d say to constantly challenge yourself, your skill. Write what isn’t comfortable—in every sense of the word. Experiment with style and form. Read your work out loud, to yourself and at open mics. Write even when you aren’t writing—in your head while at work or walking down the street or wherever. And read other writers’ work as much as you can.
Don’t worry about what kind of bylines you have or style or genre or followers you have. None of that matters if what you want to be is a writer.
If they were asking me how to become a writer in a “professional” sense, I’d say to read as much as you can. Familiarize yourself with current journals. Know the type of work different small presses are publishing. Get involved in a literary community of some kind. If there isn’t one near you, then start one—a reading series, a zine, whatever. Bring that to the general public, not just other writers. People will notice. You can make space for yourself and others. That is most important. Whatever you do, do it as much for others as yourself.
10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Right now I’m working on a new book entitled Nazareth, which is going to be published by Apep Publications sometime in 2020. In the meantime Apep is releasing a gorgeous broadside of the opening poem “Invocation of Urania” within the next few weeks. Nazareth is a heretical book-length epic poem based on the mythologies of astrology, paganism, and abrahamic religions. It’s actually 33 individual poems which bleed into each other to tell the story of my main character, so basically, it’s read as one poem in 33 parts. Kind of tipping my hat to classical epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and John Keats’s Endymion, but, of course many occult and other sacred texts I’ve read. But still, it’s super modern and weird and I’ve been experimenting with old conventions like kennings, epithets, alliteration, and circumlocution, within the epic form. It’s kind of a bigger project now than when I started it. I always want to produce something that hasn’t quite been done yet. Jeremy Gaulke, Apep’s Editor in Chief, will be illustrating it. He and Cara make such beautiful books. They really have an extraordinary eye for design and layout and know how to really compliment the writing. The synthesis of poetry, illustration, and design are going to make this thing one beautiful work of art. That’s all I can really say about it right now, though. I wouldn’t want to spill my popcorn in the lobby.