Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Amy Shimshon-Santo

Wombwell Rainbow Interview

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.


Amy Shimshon-Santo

a writer, educator, and urbanist, believes the arts are “a powerful tool for transformation,” both socially and personally. She connects the arts, education, and urban planning in her work. Holding a PhD and MA in urban planning from UC Los Angeles, an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and a BA in Latin American studies from UC Santa Cruz. Amy is an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University where she heads the Master of Arts Management program. She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning. Amy lead the ArtsBridge program for UCLA Arts and her efforts provided the foundation for the University of California’s first visual and performing arts education degree in the state. Amy represented the State of California at the National Endowment of the Art’s Education Leadership Institute, where she was a founding member of Create CA. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in creative nonfiction and Best of the Net in poetry. Amy’s essays have appeared in Entropy, and have been published by SAGE. Her work has also been published by University of California Press and State University of New York Press, and can be found in Public, Teaching Artist Journal, Tiferet Journal, Critical Planning, Entropy, Yes, Poetry, Zócalo Public Square, and Lady/Liberty/Lit, and more. Her book of poems, Even the Milky Way is Undocumented, is forthcoming with Unsolicited Press in 2020. Amy is found on http://www.amyshimshon.com.

Twitter: @amyshimshon
IG: @shimshona

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

Poetry was my first (written) language. I intuitively wrote with line breaks since I was a girl. I didn’t call it poetry, but it was how I wrote. A kind of birth mark.

What has changed in my relationship to poetry is how I read, and my entanglement with editing. Writing is natural. Editing is more like design, or how I imagine carpentry. My brother is a carpenter. My grandfather was too. I just build things with different materials and tools. Words instead of wood. Punctuation marks instead of nails. When I edit, I want the poems to look me in the eye, sound good on the tongue, and tell some kind of story.

Essays are another matter. I know precisely when that started. I had to write an essay to apply to college. It felt like ice skating in outer space. Complicated, maybe even impossible. Now, I’ve grown to appreciate the process of writing essays, and am almost always tinkering with one. They help me observe and think. Essays are architectural, 2D dwellings for bigger ideas and worlds. I see a light and run into them without a plan, get lost in the chaos of the experience, and finally figure out what wants to be said. I feel a sense of wonder and satisfaction when they are done.

I write poems every morning, and whether they are “good” or not, they’re my medicine for living. They are my thermometer for authentic living. They help me know myself, and seek freedom despite whatever may be limiting me in the material world.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

The first poet I remember hearing was Maya Angelou. Listening to her wasn’t just witnessing a vocalist and spoken word master, it was witnessing a woman being phenomenal herself. That’s what I remember first and foremost — “Oh! Look, a woman! Maybe I can be one too!” Hearing her made me feel like it was a good thing to be a woman. She was tall, with a wide arm span, and a voice that commanded attention. She took up space, but trampled no one. She wrapped her hair in stamped cloth, and wore canvas cargo pants. Her poetry was music, a polyrhythmic bumpa-dee-bump-dance of living. She baked Quiche Lorraine. I went home and found a pair of canvas cargo pants my own size. She’s been a lifelong inspiration.

I studied in Nicaragua and Mexico in my twenties, and dove into works of César Vallejo, Nicolás Guillen, Pablo Neruda, Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegria, and Giaconda Belli. I read their poetry aloud to myself. That was how I developed an intimate relationship with Spanish, and, later, Portuguese via capoeira music. I was raised in California, and heard Spanish on the yard in school. Eventually, I picked it up, and poetry helped. The poet Francisco X. Alarcon welcomed me into his Spanish for Spanish Speakers class, and poetry came flooding in. Reading aloud, I loved the sound on my lips. Learning a language is a kind of love relationship. This happened to me in three languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese).

My mother’s first language was Hebrew, but my dad was monolingual English. He lost his mother’s native Russian, and I lost my mother’s Hebrew and Yiddish. I wish I’d learned the languages of my own origins (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian), but I picked up the ones that loved me back, the ones I lived with.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I don’t want to feel dominated by anything, even great poets. If anything, poetry is about freeing myself from all kind of domination. I don’t seek to dominate or be dominated. I seek equilibrium and honesty. I seek wonder and gratitude for living.I am grateful for the presence of older poets. Since I am getting older every day, even my silver hair is a flag to the aging process. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I am of the nature to die.” I watch older poets to see how they navigate living, and, also, aging. How can we live and write well at every stage of life? How can we be creative at every stage? I read and listen to ancestral poets, and I embrace my relationship to the archive. I feel them as extended family — people who were whispered into, just like me. Adrienne Rich. Mary Oliver. Toni Morrison. Zora Neale Hurston. I don’t compare myself, I just feel related. Living well is not a competition. I’m not trying to achieve or prove anything, just take advantage of being alive.

Unlike Bob Kaufman, I don’t want to disappear when I die. That is not because of ego, it’s because I want to remain in relationship with other writers always, whether I am living or not. The archive has unfathomable dimensions.

Intersectional women deserve to be in there along with everybody else. I want to be a part of that, even if I am just one tiny blue-green thread, or a strand of red-tangerine.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

My knee jerk reaction to that question is, “If I told you I’d have to kill you.”
I guess I’m protective of the creative process. It’s a mysterious thing, not something you can just pick up in a supermarket by the dishwashing liquid. Although, maybe that could make a good grocery shopping poem.

I have daily and seasonal writing routines. As a working person, and head of household, I start my day early with writing and ashtanga before work. With limited time, I accumulate small pieces of writing throughout the academic year and rely on the slower summer months to piece mosaics together. I value my job, but my writing life needs time too. So, when other folks dream of summer vacations, I long for stretches of quiet time off the grid. Nine months a year belong to my students. The summers are mine, and I am loyal to them because writing is a necessity.

5. What motivates you to write?

I have a writing self that wants to be expressed. It is my duty to care for her by letting her write whatever she wants. I write to fumble around in the dark and pull out stories. I write to face these times, and shine some light on living in the 21st century. Writing satisfies my adventurous spirit, and helps me feel less powerless as a woman, as a single mom, as someone from an immigrant family where many of us have gone unnoticed, injured, or completely erased.
I write to be surprised. It’s the shake-shake-shake of a brown paper sack with something hidden inside. Once I was in Panama working on a popular education project. There was a carnival tradition that involved a pillow case. You fumbled your hand around inside, landed on an object, and pulled it out. Jumbled inside the sack were everyday items and things that were taboo (For example, an enormous blue dildo). Face the mystery. Take a risk. Laugh. Gasp. Weep. Feel something. Write.

6. What is your work ethic?

Fierce. I’ve been called a work horse, and I think that’s pretty accurate. Maybe a work centaur. I write every day, even if it’s just 20 minutes of jottings, so that I know how I am, and what I am thinking about on a deeper level. If I did not need a job-job, I would wake up, do yoga, write all day, and take a walking meditation at night. My idea of a good time. Throw in some dancing and we’re set. Because of writing, even if one “job” ends, I’ll just return to my real-forever-job which is stringing words together. Writing gave me my life back. Wouldn’t you work hard for something that gave you such a gift?

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

The books that I read to my children when they were young influenced me as much as those I read when I was a child. They gave me a second childhood, perhaps one I never had. I collect books and try to adopt their courage. The stacks are to get lost in. Find a stool and pull out a book. This also applies to music and dancing. This applies to visual art and film. This applies to ferris wheels and lagoons. It applies to public libraries and the internet.

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

I spent months this year in the clutch of Toni Morrison’s On Self Regard, before she passed. Her intellect is expansive. Just. Expansive. Among the living, I am enriched by the enthusiasm of local writers Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, Genevieve Kaplan, and Ikia Noel because they are great practitioners, advocates, and instigators of writing. Gayle Brandeis, Deena Metzger, and Dan Bellm are guides for me toward how to write and be an upstanding human. I delight in the work of Gloria Carrera, Natalia Toledo, Aracelis Girmay, Ross Gay, Tiana Clark, Natalie Diaz, Nikky Finney, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Yusef Komunyakaa. They crisscross different cultures and languages. Their sentences break things open. They inspire me.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I used to be a dancer and choreographer. Dancing required having a big open space, limber bodies, music, costumes, lighting, gels, sound equipment, a van, crates of costumes props and instruments. I needed 30 minutes to an hour just to warm up, and then hours for rehearsal.

Writing is a creative practice that is accessible to me at this stage of my life. All I need is a pen and notebook. With those two things, I can go anywhere.

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

Write. Read. Observe. Express. Welcome the sound of your voice. Listen attentively to the world. Truth is a good pair of shoes. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there. Leap.

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

My debut poetry collection EVEN THE MILKYWAY IS UNDOCUMENTED will be coming out in 2020 with Unsolicited Press. My son and I just recorded an audio book version and I’m excited about that. Recording that was memorable. I sat down at the microphone with him at the console. Yikes. Then I realized what I was about to do and what he was about to hear.
“I am sorry. Some of this is hard,” I said.
“I am honored,” he said.
Just wow.
Spoken word is a very particular kind of conjuring that I enjoy. Not enjoy. Adore. I don’t sing, but I will seduce the fuck out of the world with a sentence. It’s good fun. Serious magic.

I completed a collection of essays that is under review, have a new essay in the brain-que-que, and a collaborative poetry book on the horizon. I don’t want to say more until they are fully formed, but I’m really glad that writing keeps coming. That’s the whole point of completing things — make space for what wants to come next.

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