BY LISA HIGGS
Eloisa Amezcua is an Arizona native. Her debut collection, From the Inside Quietly, is the inaugural winner of the Shelterbelt Poetry Prize selected by Ada Limón. A MacDowell fellow, she is the author of three chapbooks and founder/editor-in-chief of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry. Her poems and translations are published or forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. Eloisa lives in Columbus, OH and is the founder of Costura Creative.
Lisa Higgs: From the Inside Quietly is formatted with each section beginning with an “E” poem that is reflective and questioning. How do these poems set up themes of each section, and also create larger arc to your book?
Eloisa Amezcua: The “E” poems are actually some of the oldest poems in the collection—and there are a few from the series that didn’t make it in. When I was putting the manuscript together, I realized that four of the scenes depicted in the poems captured some of the core ideas in the book overall. I wanted each one to ground the reader, to give them a sense of what was to come while still leaving some room for the reader’s imagination to connect dots.
LH: Given how intimate these poems are—even a news report of a murder enters your home more directly given your father’s psychiatry practice—did you find there were any boundaries you did not want to cross in your poems, personally or as part of your relationships with others who populate your poems?
EA: There are poems in the collection that my family, or certain members of my family, dislike. And I’m okay with that. As a poet, I think there’s a difference between airing one’s dirty laundry and in being honest to the spirit of the poem and in raising the emotional stakes for the reader. Of course there are boundaries I won’t cross, but that said, my poems aren’t entirely autobiographical, chronological, or “factual,” and I don’t think it’s my job as a poet to clarify that for readers, per se.
LH: The consistency of the voice in these poems suggests a common first person “narrator” in the collection, but your response indicates that there are perhaps different personas, or that there is one persona at varying degrees of closeness to you, the poet, in different poems. What drew you to the first person (singular and plural) in the majority of your poems? Are there any characteristics you would ascribe to this strong first person voice that holds common from poem to poem, autobiographical or not, factual or not?
EA: I like the first person singular because of the intimacy it creates with the reader. Often I find myself, as a reader, drawn in when I approach a poem that’s written in first person, for no other reason than that it provides me a lens into someone (or something) else’s thoughts and emotions and experiences in a way that neither the second nor third person can achieve.
LH: This collection hints at a relationship between language and body. How do you see this relationship playing into how we as humans come to an understanding of self? Does being bilingual and a translator have an impact on this relationship for you?
EA: I have a new series of poems that’s essentially one long list of things that make me sad and in one of those poems is the line “we exist entirely in our own minds.” An understanding of the self or “identity” is just a naming, a declaration of the things we believe we are (or are not), and that naming happens through language. We come to understand ourselves in relation to the world around us—the things that happen to us, the things we happen to, those we surround ourselves with, and those we distance ourselves from, right? We live in these bodies and have experiences in them, and all the while we’re translating our thoughts and feelings into words, into language (verbal and non-verbal), so to me, we’re all translators. We all have a relationship between language and our bodies—they’re inextricable from each other—and for better or worse, I think I’m just hyper-aware of it. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about.
LH: Imagery of violence against women is replete throughout the collection—yet you navigate this difficult territory without allowing it to overwhelm the reader. When you ordered the collection, was giving readers space to take a breath something to which you felt you had to pay attention, or did the book’s ebb and flow come together organically?
EA: Violences against women (small and large, inflicted by everyone including oneself) are a part of everyday life. Whether it’s femicide, or being followed home, or being called chubby and believing it, it’s an exhausting recurrence when you move through the world as a woman. My intention when ordering the book wasn’t to give the reader room to breathe, but rather that the reader recognize the quotidian nature of these violences, the way they’ve become commonplace even to those of us experiencing them, by sprinkling them liberally throughout the collection.
LH: The poems in From the Inside Quietly vary in form and length—from couplets to sectioned poems of small stanzas and line lengths to poems like “Faint” and “Notes,” which stretch out lines and have a feel of prose, just to name a few styles. When does a poem’s form manifest itself to you—as you first draft a poem, in revision, a bit of both? Do you have a general form that seems most comfortable to you or that you use most frequently, or is playing with a variety of forms part of what drives your process?
EA: I typically go into a poem knowing what it’s going to look like—the poem teaches me how it wants to be written as I write it. I’m very interested in how form plays a role in the reading of a poem, i.e., how a reader learns to take in a poem based on how it appears on the page. It’s about pace, having control over the speed at which the information reveals itself to a reader. As a writer, you put a poem out in the world and the world will do with your poem what you allow it to.
LH: Does your role as editor of The Shallow Ends impact your writing process in any way? Has your revision process changed at all based on your experiences editing a journal? Did you find your role as editor helpful as you put together your first collection?
AE: The Shallow Ends was still in its infancy when I was putting together my first collection, but I’ve always had the luck of being able to approach my poems as if they were written by someone else. People love that phrase about being one’s own worst enemy, and I think that’s true in a sense, but I’m not my worst enemy, I’m my best, most critical editor. If there’s one thing I learned in all of my years of formal training as a poet (undergrad and grad school and life in general, I suppose), it’s to trust my editorial instincts whether I’m reading a poem written by me or from the submission queue for a journal I edit.
LH: Being your “best, most critical editor” is truly a lovely way to think about revising one’s own work. What steps might a poet take to reach this stage of not being the worst enemy of one’s work, but being its best editor? The task seems to require a (Herculean at times) mental effort to remain positive about writing that hasn’t yet met its potential…
EA: I think it’s good to distance yourself from your own work. I mean that literally, with time and space. Sometimes I write a poem and don’t look at it for weeks or months and that distance allows me to be a bit more objective than I would be five minutes after writing something down, you know? And it’s not always a positive experience. Sometimes I return and realize that there’s maybe a salvageable line or two but that the poem overall wasn’t working.
LH: Along with your work as editor of The Shallow Ends, you have taken on the role as the founding agent of Costura Creative, a talent booking agency for contemporary poets and writers. What inspired this new venture, named in mind of the Spanish word costura—the line where two things touch, where two things are sewn together? What—other than artist and audience—do you hope your agency will bring together at the costura?
EA: I started Costura because I’m impatient. Latinx representation in contemporary poetry is, to put it mildly, sad. We make up 1/5 of the U.S. population, so how can it be that only one Latinx writer has ever won a Pulizter in poetry (William Carlos Williams, posthumously) or that until 2016 no Latinx writer had won a National Book Award for poetry? There are multiple presses that have been publishing poetry for over 20 years that don’t have a single Latinx woman/femme poet on their catalog? There are many things missing in our current literary landscape and I couldn’t just sit around waiting for someone else to create them. And I think it’s important to remember that—that we have the power to create the spaces we want for ourselves within our community.
Costura isn’t a Latinx agency exclusively, but the fact that it’s Latinx-owned and that it represents some amazing Latinx writers, along with writers from other marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds, is important. It’s a booking agency, yes, but it's also a small community in itself. It's a group of folx whose work and voices I believe in and want to share with whoever will listen. I think these artists and their words have the ability to change lives, and I take my role in facilitating that seriously both in working on their behalf and in service to all the communities their work reaches.
Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook will be published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2018. Her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize from the Newcastle Center for the Literary Arts. Her work has been published in numerous literary journals and been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, and two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards. Currently, Lisa is the Poetry Editor for Quiddity, and her reviews can be found at Kenyon Review Online and the Poetry Foundation Online.