Saturday 23 April, 2022
Poetry Center Festival at the Hamilton Club building on PCCC campus
An Interview with Poet Rosa Alcalá (RA) and Jan Beatty (JB)
Interviewed by Arianne Bakelmun (AB)
AB: So, Rosa, specifically you mentioned the tradition of oral storytelling and poems in your family. So I was wondering, was it therefore comfortable to express yourself emotionally in your family?
RA: That would be a “no” [laughs]. My father had memorized poems and it was sort of part of that tradition of knowing snippets of poems and knowing parts of poems that were part of popular literary traditions and things that were handed down. But that was quite separate from expressing emotion. You know, a lot of emotions were expressed in my house but you weren’t necessarily allowed to express the emotions that you, yourself, had. So there may be anger, there may be all these other things happening in the household, but if you sort of said, as my daughter often says to me, “that hurt my feelings,” [laughs] I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t tell my parents they hurt my feelings. So, I think I’m raising my daughter in a very different environment, teaching her to express herself. But I wonder if maybe that lack of outlet made me turn to the page. I was able to say a lot on the page that I couldn’t say out loud.
AB: Like, needed that space by necessity?
RA: I think so. And that’s probably still true. I mean, I say things in a poem that I would never say out loud. And I’m always even surprised that I end up saying the things I do. Like my poems surprise me by what I’m going to admit in them. [to Jan Beatty]: Wouldn’t you say that too?
JB: Oh, yeah, definitely. It’s a great vehicle for that, to be able to let some things out and say them differently.
AB: And Jan, you mentioned that you started to make a career out of being a poet after being a waitress for ten years? What was your first foray in your adult life into beginning that process?
JB: I mean, I actually don’t even use the word career. I don’t like that word.
JB: Because it’s art; it’s about poetry. I mean, I was teaching for many, many years, which is employment for me. And I just never really liked that word “career” because I feel constrained even thinking about it. But I’m committed to poetry and art.
So as a waitress I started taking one class at night at the University of Pittsburgh, even though I didn’t have money to pay for it. And then, I’d get all the notices in the mail, different colors, and then when I could get the money together to pay for one class I would take another. And that’s really how it went. And then eventually one of my professors said, “Why don’t you go to grad school?”
And I said, “I don’t see how I could do that.” I had a working class mindset that I just wasn’t thinking in those terms as a possibility. My adopted father was a steel worker and grad school was not anything that was ever thought about.
But when he brought it up, he said, “You’re writing good poems, you’re getting good grades.”
So I did. And once I got into grad school, then I started thinking of myself more as a writer and more as a possibility of doing that.
AB: And to both of you, is there anything that you’re preoccupied now that you’re working on expressing in your poetry?
RA: I finished the book but I started a few years ago thinking about the first half of my life. I’m fifty-three now and I started writing poems about my first experiences being a girl. What was the world telling me about what it meant to embody the body I had? What messages was I getting about that, either from my family or from the street or at school. Because I have a daughter who’s twelve, so think it probably had more to do with the fact that I had a daughter who was entering puberty versus that fact that I was middle aged. But maybe the two coincided. And I started thinking about what experiences was she going to have that were similar to mine at her age. You know, like the first time I was cat-called for example. Which happened around the age my daughter is now. And all these poems ended up in poems written to former selves, marking different stages of my life that informed my understanding of my sexuality and gender and of that cultural messaging. So, it’s somewhat of a poetic memoir. But that’s sort of completed now. We’ll see what happens with the manuscript. And I finished it during the pandemic miraculously, even while having a child home, remote learning.
JB: Yeah, I’m working on poems. I keep writing poems about the West. I have all these California poems. I mean, I’ve always loved California. I go there every year, but I go out West all the time. I’m just drawn there. So I’m about writing rivers and mountains a lot [laughs].
AB: Could you say a little more about what you think the rivers and mountains are about? Why you’re drawn to them?
JB: That’s a huge question. I think if I understood rivers and mountains, I would be a lot smarter and I wouldn’t need to write about it. But I think partially because I just finished my memoir American Bastard and I found out that my birth father was from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. So I’m from out West, in that way, so I think that’s part of the draw for me. And near the red river there, so I think it’s just that that zone of the continent that I just have to go back to. I think it’s related to that.
AB: I like how both of talked about how your next works are about being drawn back, drawn back to something and drawn back to earlier experiences. Thank you both. Thank you so much for taking the time, I really appreciate it.
An Interview with Poet Mahogany Brown (MB)
Interviewed by Arianne Bakelmun (AB)
AB: What was your first introduction to poetry?
MB: My first introduction to poetry was in an oratory competition for fifth grade. I memorized James Weldon Johnson. That was my first understanding of what poetry is. My first time writing my own poem, standing next to it, and bringing it to the world was when I was twenty-one. So, it was a very long stretch.
AB: What was it about that poem in fifth grade that made you want to continue?
MB: Actually, it didn’t. No, I ran from it for a while. And, when I was in high school I realized that the reason I was running was because I was told what kind of voice was valid for poetry and it wasn’t mine. So while I memorized James Weldon Johnson and felt akin to it because it reminded me of my grandmother’s church, it wasn’t necessarily how I would write a poem. So, I didn’t feel like I could. In high school I then was in a poetry class that went awry. And she basically just said, “No, don’t write like that.”
And so that was it. I didn’t want anything to do with poems again until twenty-one. That’s when I returned to like, I did like James Weldon Johnson, I do remember Maya Angelou. I don’t have to wait for others to validate my poems.
AB: Do you remember what it was, at twenty-one, that led you to those conclusions?
MB: If I’m honest, I did the poem by a dare. It was just like, “Let’s just do it! Let’s just both do it.” So me and my aunt signed up the next week and I did the poem and she did not. And I got up, and I’m scared, I’m shaking, and I got a standing ovation [laughs]. And I was like, “Oh my god I don’t believe that happened; alright, your turn!”
She said, “Nope!”
I was like, “WHAT?” Like, then it was too late. I was addicted. So ever since then I’ve been writing my own poems.’
AB: What was it about the feeling that got you addicted?
MB: I think, people not telling me to be quiet, not telling me that my voice wasn’t valid, and feeling like I wasn’t alone. I was a little isolated with these arguments and ideas and concerns and questions. It was no longer just me in my head. I could pose those questions, even poetically, and then have a community to talk to about it.
AB: Do you know what the fear was about? When your hands were shaking?
MB: I think anytime you’re telling the truth there’s a vulnerability. There’s a fear of being misunderstood. So I just wrote it all up into the human condition, the experience of just wanting to be heard and held, regardless of if you agree with my findings or not. And so, I think that’s where that tension first presented itself. Even now when I share poems, I’m still nervous but not afraid.
AB: Yes, but really the nervousness shouldn’t really go away because then it means that you’re not risking being vulnerable.
MB: Exactly, exactly. When you feel that you’re like ok, “Maybe find something else.”
AB: And what was that poem about, at twenty-one, when you did that competition?
MB: It was benign. I can’t even imagine, it was like, somebody was cat-calling, I don’t know. It was one of those poems where you’re kind of free-versing it, what happened in the day and that I’m a woman.
AB: It was more about the experience than the content of the poem at that point?
MB: Yeah, I think it was more about telling the truth. Like, “You talk to women this way and we don’t like it.” And, it being in 1998, that really wasn’t common, that women were like, “Don’t talk to me like that.”
It’s like, “What? I’m giving you a compliment; smile.” Things like that. Definitely, that was the heat of it.
AB: Are there any other storytellers in your family?
MB: My grandmother is an amazing storyteller. She’s really good. It’s funny because my uncles, and even my dad, I remember them rapping Dolemite lyrics. And Dolemite is really a poet. A raunchy poet, but I feel like with the lyric style and my uncles, it made sense. It makes sense that I’d be so in tune with it now. But yeah the paternal side of my family, they’re great storytellers.
AB: Ok, so that’s your grandmother on your dad’s side?
MB: And she had eight kids, all boys and one girl.
AB: Are you one of many siblings too?
MB: No, my mom had three. I’m the youngest but there’s not a lot of us, not like my grandmother.
AB: Are your siblings also into expressing themselves in a similar way?
MB: No, it’s funny. My sister, she’s like a marketing or sales person for UPS. My brother is really amazing at customer engagement and he runs distributions for restaurateurs.
AB: Have you ever felt that feeling of risk with even expressing your voice in your own family?
MB: For sure, yeah. I mean, the poems that I’m sharing are all, not necessarily just confessional, but informed by what I’ve survived. And that doesn’t always make people feel like they’ll be safe. You know like, “Oh know that thing that I did, it’s gonna come out.”
And, I’m like, “Yeah, it is [laughs]. Should’ve did better.”
AB: [laughs] Yes, thank you so much (for the interview), I appreciate it.