5x5: Diode Poets in Conversation
Assembled and edited by Paula Cisewski
In 2017, Diode Editions published three winners in their annual chapbook contest and the first winners of their inaugural annual book competition. The five poets, whose brief bios follow, asked each other a few questions.
Remica Bingham-Risher, author of Starlight & Error, winner of the Diode Editions Book Award, What We Ask of Flesh, shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Conversion, winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. She is the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University.
Paula Cisewski’s fourth poetry collection, quitter, won Diode Editions' 2016 Book Prize and her third, The Threatened Everything, was selected for publication in the 2014 Burnside Review Book Contest. Both are newly released as of early 2017. Cisewski is also the author of Ghost Fargo (selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize), Upon Arrival (Black Ocean), and a chapbook of lyric prose, Misplaced Sinister (Red Bird Chapbooks). Her poetry and prose have been honored with support from institutions including the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.
Tina Schumann is the author of three poetry collections, As If (Parlor City Press, 2010) which was the recipient of the Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize, Requiem: A Patrimony of Fugues (Diode Editions) which won the Diode Editions Chapbook Contest for 2016, and Praising the Paradox (Red Hen Press, 2019.) She is edited of the forthcoming anthology, Two Countries. U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press, 2017.) Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies since 1999.
Shelley Wong is the author of the chapbook RARE BIRDS (Diode Editions). She is a Kundiman fellow and a recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a MacDowell Colony fellowship.
Seema Yasmin is a poet, doctor and journalist from London currently living in the U.S. She trained in medicine at the University of Cambridge and in journalism at the University of Toronto. Her poems appear in The Coal Hill Review, Shallow Ends, Glass, Bateau and Diode, among others. Her chapbook, For Filthy Women Who Worry About Disappointing God, won the Diode Editions chapbook contest and was published in 2017.
Shelley Wong asks: How would you visually describe the progression of your collection? Is it a braid? A circle? An arrow? A spiral?
Remica: This is a smart question. I didn’t realize I’d been waiting to be asked this so I could figure it out, or name it, for myself. This links back to revisions and knowing when a collection is done. I’d say, before the collection was finished, it was just a ladder—it was moving toward the obvious, in the simplest way (chronologically through time) possible, and that made sense to me but was boring as well. Now, Starlight & Error is a complex braid or an elaborate natural updo—braids and three-strand twists interlocked in a chic coif.
Paula: Labyrinthine. A series of numbered ballads “from the labyrinth” fall between other winding poems in which the speaker is entering exits, retracing escape routes, and ultimately moving forward with effort, sometimes following a thread, sometimes in the dark.
Tina: I think a braid wrapped into a circle represents it best. The poems in my chapbook so strongly revolve around a period of time (not in a linear line, but back and forth.) and a specific person’s life (my father) that a braid in a circle seems appropriate.
Shelley: A series of arrows pointing toward and away places in landscape, memory and history. Some are connected, while others are broken off or repaired.
Seema: A tornado. The poems pick up momentum and guts.
Shelley also asks: How has doing readings to promote your [book or] chapbook given you new insights into the work? (eg, deciding what poems to read, noticing certain craft elements you hadn't noticed before, experience of reading the work aloud, etc.)
Remica: Doing readings with this book has been an experience because I don’t have set poems—I’m railing against having a planned set list—to read. Most often, I let what’s being read by others or maybe the mood or demographic makeup of the room dictate the poems. I’m learning the book is versatile, maybe even more than I hoped it would be, so I’m grateful for that. On another note, early on when I started reading the poems, I realized many were a great deal sadder or more melancholy that I thought—I swore I was writing happy family poems!—but sometimes the happy part is that I finally figured out how to work through the tumult enough to get it on the page.
Paula: For a while, I found myself with a few variations of that planned set list Remica rails against, and I didn’t like it. It was my own insecurity, I’m sure. I am so grateful when people have read the book and tell me which poem means something to them, because often it’s the one making me squirm that day or week, one I would not otherwise choose for a reading, and it’s a gift to see my work from someone else’s point of view.
Tina: I find these particular poems for the most part difficult to read in public, not because I get emotional, but because they deal with a pretty depressing scenario. Dementia is not exactly a crowd pleaser, but one that I am finding is very common in people’s lives. While reading them I feel I am bringing down the whole tenor of the room. So, I try to intersperse them with poems from my other collection and antidotes about my father that lend a lighter note. There are a couple of poems in the collection that I have found get a laugh from the audience or a sigh of recognition, so I try to stick with those for other readings as well.
Shelley: At readings, I tend to go with poems that musically read best, but I’ve been mixing it up with other poems and new poems throughout the year. My poems are mostly short lyrics so it took a while to figure out the right balance of briefly contextualizing a poem versus just going for it. I always include at least one Frida Kahlo poem (since she is so beloved) and like to read “To Yellow” as my shout-out to Asian Americans.
Seema: I was uncomfortable choosing poems from the chapbook for an offsite AWP reading. I knew the audience would be mostly white and I didn’t write my poems with that audience in mind. It’s one thing to imagine who might read your poems but another thing to see the audience bristle as you read. (That could have been my imagination.) It made me consider writing in Urdu.
Remica Bingham-Risher asks: Craft question: How do you approach revision? What are the markers for when a poem is finished (ready to be launched into the world)? A manuscript?
Remica: I should have known I’d be the one who ended up back at revision! I revised steadily throughout any writing process. I tell my students that I’m a “strident revisionist”; I usually revise any given poem 30–40 times before I feel it’s finished. This is also some of the joy of writing for me—the wrestling with the thing until it submits to itself more than to my on whims it, as—upon its completion—the poem is usually very different from what I thought I’d intended to write. I count a poem finished when it can be read aloud steadily without jarring interruption (from odd or imprecise diction, clashing sounds, etc.) and when the ideas presented therein have a sustained tension and clarity that create a kind of lucidity, though it may present itself differently depending on whether the poem leans more toward the narrative or, in contrast, the “lyric absurd.”
A manuscript is a more difficult animal to tie down. I had a sense that my most recent manuscript published by Diode (Starlight & Error) was done when I re-ordered the poems and was once again engaged by the body of the thing. There were multiple threads running through it—cosmos, progeny, soul music, brutality—and I knew the manuscript was finished when these elements felt interesting and balanced throughout.
Paula: My revision time varies drastically. I carry ideas around for a long time, take a lot of notes. Sometimes I pick a fight with a poem because my original idea won’t fit inside it, until I realize it’s been tricking me into having a stranger or more difficult idea. Then I surrender. However swift or prolonged the process, I have never once finished the poem or the book I thought I was beginning. Once I give in, I can begin to hear some resonant thing. It begins to come together after that.
Tina: This question has me thinking of the Paul Valery quote that says a poem is never finished; only abandoned. I think that is certainly true for some of my poems which I could have tinkered with endlessly and simply had to call it good. One of the questions I ask myself in the revision process is whether the poem is getting across my initial intended message or illumination, or is it going in another direction altogether and should I head in that direction? I remember a mentor early on telling me “Don’t tell me what you want the poem to be! Let the poem tell you what it wants to be!” So, I try to leave quite a bit of room for listening and flexible investigation, as opposed to imposing my will. Or as Billy Collings says “Tying the poem to a chair and beating a confession out of it” My approach to revision has changed over the years. I used to feel a strong sense of urgency to complete the poem at hand so I could move on to the next. That is a rookie impulse and one I think all poets must move through. Although I have never felt that version #2 or #3 constituted a finished poem. I might put the poem away for bit (out of sight) and come back to it weeks or months later to hopefully see it with fresh eyes. I sometimes find it helpful to make free association notes separate from the poem and just lay out my thoughts on the poem in plain prose. What do I think is missing? What was my original impulse for the poem and is that still needed or not? What images or metaphors might work? Which do not serve the poem? I find not having the poem in my scope of vision when this is done very helpful. I used to save every copy of each revision (upwards of revision #20.) I no longer do that, as I found that I very rarely went back to view previous versions. Unless I am playing with a change in form (say, single stanza poem to couplets) and I want to compare the forms before deciding on a final version. Now, whatever version I am working on is the current one and I move forward from there. That shift came with time and learning to trust my instincts and education. One of the indications to me that a poem is in good health and might be close to done is feedback from readers and other poets I respect. There often comes a point for me when I cannot see the forest for the trees and I need a clear-eyed outsider’s perspective. My writer’s group, poet friends and mentors from grad school do that for me. Another indication of a completed poem is when I feel a sense of emotional and psychological closure. That feeling is harder to put into words, but something takes place when the language, syntax, form and imagistic flow of the poem are working together that tells me I have served the poem well and told its “story’ as best I can.
With a manuscript it takes many readings, revisions (five years in the making for my full manuscript) and playing around with order and section breaks to begin to see it as its own completed life-from. I not only print out all pages and arrange them on the floor to contemplate order and how the poems talk to and support each other, but I have (thankfully) always had a mentor read the manuscript and give me feedback without any comment from me. Having the submitted manuscript come in as finalists in several contest and having press editors make positive unsolicited comments on the manuscript helps as well. At least I know I am on the right track and not BSing myself.
Shelley: I try to keep an open mind and look for different ways for the poem to come into being. Copying the poem again and again and reading it out loud is helpful, as is experimenting with the line and the field of the page. To send a poem out for publication, it has to be its own live creature or moment that I am willing to set free. It should be a poem I would not regret having online for eternity. I felt ready to send my chapbook collection out because the poems had similar themes of transformation and resilience. The poems related to one another, but each had its own outfit. My bird sisters!
Seema: I saw a tweet by Eduardo Corral where he said he spent an hour or so revising a poem only to disregard all his revisions and go back to the original version. For me, that can be utterly frustrating or enlightening because it can spark new ideas. My first chapbook was written over the course of a two-week writing residency and was sent soon after in a very raw form to the Diode editors. I thought Patty Paine would be all over the manuscript with a red pen, but she chose to publish it in its raw form. I’m learning more about revising through the AWP writing mentorship program. I’m partnered with master poet, Jehanne Dubrow, who’s guiding me gently through the process and I’ve found there’s a point when I feel a poem sits more comfortably on the page and asks to be left alone.
Tina Schumann asks: For chapbooks authors: Why did it make sense to you to put these particular poems into a chapbook as opposed to a part of a larger collection?
Tina: These poems came out of a very specific situation, that of my Dad’s diagnosis of dementia and the two years that followed. Because the title, architecture, atmosphere, and lingo of the poems came to me before most of the poems were written that also pushed me to put them in their own house as it were. I felt strongly that the poems would revolve around the world of orchestral music, Opera and Jazz as these art forms were so central to my Dad’s life. This self-imposed structure strongly dictated to me that they were of a piece and needed to stand out as such. However, I do, at this point include three of the poems from the chapbook in my full collection due out in 2019, but those poems support the surrounding poems in a section that deals with childhood and reflections on both my parents.
Shelley: I had been working with a larger manuscript and decided to focus on a chapbook length to understand how to create an arc with multiple threads. With so many short poems, it had been a challenge to wrangle 40+ poems into a full-length collection. A chapbook order was much easier to commit to. I organized my favorite ones and found that they echoed against each other to create a particular music and world.
Seema: Chapbooks are like amuse-bouches before the poet’s main course—I love how they whet the appetite for a full collection and how much care small presses put into producing them. I had written about two dozen poems and showed them to Joaquin Zihuatanejo who suggested I submit them. So I did. It made sense to group these poems as a chapbook because they were linked in time and theme and I had no plans back then of writing a full-length book.
Tina Schumann also asks: For full collection authors: How long (approx.) did you work on this collection and how many contests did you enter it in before you won? How were you feeling about your collection at the time that you entered it in the Diode editions contest?
Remica: I worked on this collection for about seven years, which is about average for me. I had a very atypical experience with contests this time around; I entered five and placed in all of them, then accepted the offer of the first contest I won because I loved the press and they really seemed to get what I was trying to do with the book from the beginning, so I withdrew from all the others. Usually, I enter well over twenty contests for each manuscript. I was just fortunate it fell to the right eyes and hearts early on this time.
I was feeling happy about the manuscript—I felt that I’d really gotten the progression right in the final big revision and I was grateful that someone else felt that it was working too. I was also very glad to be writing love poems, even the most difficult of which were still praise poems, so I appreciated—and still appreciate—getting to rejoice in that.
Paula: It’s difficult to say how long I worked on quitter, because for a long time I didn’t know I was working on it. I knew I was writing a memoir in lyric prose with lots of labyrinth imagery, and I knew I was putting the final edits on another collection of poems, The Threatened Everything. At some point I pulled out pieces that didn’t work from both of those manuscripts and realized the misfits were talking to each other: most of the collection that became quitter had taken shape. I worked on it another eighteen months or so, in no rush, and gingerly started submitting the manuscript to a handful of presses I admire, but then Diode announced their first ever book contest. I have loved Diode a long time. I sent the manuscript to Patty and Law, then walked outside to tell my husband, “This one’s really gonna sting when the rejection comes.” Lucky, lucky me.
Paula Cisewski asks: What was your desire for what your collection would do as it was taking shape? What is your wish for your collection now that it is in the world?
Remica: I am always interested in the collection sustaining tension; that is my primary interest for a book that I am writing or reading. My hope for this book as opposed to my other books was that I could paint a family portrait that all those in the family (the children too), and those outside of it, would understand and find compelling in some way—maybe they’d see glimpses of their own living or memories or maybe they’d just find ours striking enough to keep making their way through them. That’s still my wish for the collection in the world.
Paula: The book explores ways out of participating in broken systems, deadening habits, bad jobs, shitty internal dialogue. In that sense, it’s been a kind of liberation to wear the title “quitter” with pride. I would like to live up to that, which is more a wish for myself. As for the book in the world, I know I posed this question, but it turns out I don’t know the answer. I hope it speaks to someone. I hope it plays well with others.
Tina: I wanted to represent my father, his life, and his passions honestly. I wanted to represent the difficultly of watching a loved parent and an intelligent person lose their mind. My fear all along was that I was not only betraying my father by exposing his frailties, but portraying him in a harsh light, that there was not enough tenderness and understanding intertwined with the ugly reality of an being a long-distance caregiver to a father who was not always interested in being a parent. Now, of course I know I told the truth through my perspective, and after all it was my father who preached the truth above all else. If he were alive and in his right mind he would be proud of me for telling my truth. Which is a very odd paradox to image.
My hope for the book now is that an adult child who is in the position of care giver to an ailing parent can find some sense of support through these poems. I also hope that any reader will get something out of them, for whatever purpose suits them.
Shelley: It took a while for me to believe I had a place in poetry, and I am so thrilled to be part of this year’s Diode cohort of five women poets, including three women of color. I hope that my collection, in any small way, is an affirmation to Asian Americans and the LGBTQ community. When I wrote the poems, I was emerging from a long period of silence and the poems helped me think through that emotional space. I wanted to write about queer desire and the aftermath of a relationship, but not fall into the trope of queer women tragedy. That still holds true—I want queer women to be seen in all of our complex, messy, and beautiful humanity. And I want to take up some sky out as a rare bird, as a fourth-generation Asian American—to say that we’re here, and not just that we survived, but that we lived and are living.
Seema: I wanted it to speak a truth about religion and sexuality that I wasn’t seeing much elsewhere. Now that it’s out there, I’m just glad it exists. I’m not pinning hopes and dreams onto it.
Seema Yasmin asks: I come from a medical background where success is constantly measured and there are many metrics for it, whether it's how much your patient's tumour has shrunk, how many papers you published in a year. How does your history and culture affect the way you think of success? Do you think about success? What does a successful poet do?
Remica: What a loaded question, Seema! I am completely absorbed by the first part—How does your history and culture affect the way you think of success? This summer, I am writing lots of ethnographically-researched family and American history poems (I have also just read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I’m sure has made me drill deeper into the implications of history and culture on our being even now), so I am asking myself and my poems each day, what do we have to live up to? As I am researching my grandmothers, I am very aware that I am carrying their dreams on my back, so this puts a pressure on the poems that I’ve never really experienced before, though I write often about family. Something about digging into primary source documents and meticulously researched texts makes me hyper-aware of all of these people’s actual living, and I am trying not to be overwhelmed by the accountability that this demands of anyone brave enough to try and unearth them
I think about success in terms of how well poems are working. I hold them up to the light of others—other poems I’ve written and poems written by those I admire. Much of the poet’s job is to be original, to work to create the unique lens. So, a successful poet writes until the poem is moving and clear, as clear as possible for that poet in that moment. One has to say it as well as they possibly can in this place and time (and for me that takes months and sometimes years of revision) for a poem/poet to be successful to me.
Paula: Ideas connected to success—outside of saving a life or living and creating with intention as Seema and Remica mentioned—seem frequently tied to ideas about “worth” and “deserving” that feel destructive and that I would like to permanently quit. I don’t know what successful poets do, except continue to write poems that will make them better poets and better versions of themselves.
Tina: Good question and one I think that is most likely measured by the individual poet. Certainly, the worldly or visible success of a nationally known poet like Sharon Olds is a success level different from a poet who has had a few poems published and is working on their first full manuscript. But I would say they are both a success in the poetry world, considering the fierce competition. I know when I had my first poem published I told my husband I could now die a happy woman. In that moment I felt a huge surge of personal success. Something I dearly wanted had been achieved. Of course, I kept writing, pursued an MFA and kept submitting my work. The high of acceptance can become a bit of an addiction. The writing itself is a compulsion for me and so I have never felt that the process of writing a poem was a success as such. That was going to happen regardless of anything else. It felt more like breathing and eating, something essential. Although I do feel a kind of satisfaction with myself when I finish or start a poem, and a sense of peace since poetry serves as therapy as well. When I feel a poem is up to a certain self-prescribed standard (which is difficult to articulate) I then feel that something must be done with it.. Having it simple sit on my hard drive in status does not feel like success. I know that in academic circles one must have at least one full collection published and an MFA in order to qualify to teach. Is that a successful poet? I think it must be to those who wish to teach and publish. I have had no desire to acquire a teaching position (yet) and so for me getting my poems published in respected journals and anthologies felt like success on one level. Winning two book contests and having those books published felt like success on another level. It was particularly important to me that my work be published by editors who did not know me personally. I wanted to know that the work spoke for itself and was not influenced by a personal relationship in any way. That also felt like success. The poet and editor Christian Wiman wrote a very interesting book on this topic called Ambition & Survival; Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press, 2007.)
As far as history and culture are concerned, my parents instilled in me a duty to finish what I started and to tell the truth. That was the two biggies for them. My mother was an immigrant from El Salvador and I think she was naturally attempting to prove her worth as a citizen in everything she did, including her children. Perhaps that rubbed off on me as well. Other than that my parents thought I was a success if I got out of bed in the morning, went to school and contributed in some way. They were not people who pursued career or academic success, they worked hard at jobs they did not like very much in order to feed and shelter their kids. Out of the five children in my immediate family only two of us pursued advanced degrees and that was through our own volition later in life. Higher education or public notoriety was not a goal of my parents for their kids or themselves. I think that idea felt completely out of reach for them. However, they both deeply admired artist and read widely, my father especially loved poetry, so I am sure that influence had something to do with me wanting to be seen as a “successful poet” by him and others. The addendum question to this question seems to be will one ever feel that they have “arrived” as a poet. I certainly hope not. I remember the poet Marvin Bell, who was then in his 70’s told us in a workshop that when he was a young poet just starting out he dearly wished to be published in Poetry magazine. He thought if he could just get one poem published in Poetry magazine he would be completely satisfied. Then one day he DID get a poem in Poetry magazine and he said his immediate next thought was that now he needed to get TWO poems in Poetry magazine! So, I think the pursuit of a new poem and another acceptance is probably as close as engaged poets get to any fleeting sense of success. I might feel differently when and if I make it to eighty.
Shelley: I see success in poetry as an engagement with poetry over time. I have a hard time defining professional success in poetry because it’s subject to who has access to that success. My success goal is to sustain a life with time for poetry.
Remica Bingham-Risher, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is an alumna of Old Dominion University and Bennington College. She is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. Among other journals, her work has been published in The Writer’s Chronicle, New, Letters, Callaloo and Essence. She is the author of Conversion (Lotus, 2006) winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, What We Ask of Flesh (Etruscan, 2013) shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Award and Starlight & Error (Diode, 2017) winner of the Diode Editions Book Award. She is the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University and resides in Norfolk, VA with her husband and children.
Paula Cisewski's fourth poetry collection, quitter, won Diode Editions' 2016 Book Prize. She is also the author of The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Press), Ghost Fargo (selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize), Upon Arrival (Black Ocean), and several chapbooks, including the lyric prose Misplaced Sinister. She has been awarded fellowships from the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. www.paulacisewski.com
Tina Schumann is a Pushcart nominated poet, the author of three poetry collections and editor of the anthology Two-Countries: U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents, a collection of flash memoir, personal essays and poetry from over sixty-five contributors (Red Hen Press, 2017.) Her debut poetry collection, As If (Parlor City Press, 2010) was awarded the Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize for 2010. Her second collection, Requiem. A Patrimony of Fugues won the 2016 Diode Editions Chapbook Competition. Her full collection, Praising the Paradox is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2019. This collection was named a finalist in the National Poetry Series, the Four Way Books Intro Prize, New Issues Poetry Prize, and others. www.tinaschumann.com
Shelley Wong is a Kundiman fellow and the author of Rare Birds (Diode Editions). Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Sixth Finch, Southern Humanities Review, Verse Daily, Vinyl, The Volta, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, a Peter Taylor fellowship from The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and scholarships from Fine Arts Work Center and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She holds an MFA from the Ohio State University and a BA from UC Berkeley.
Seema Yasmin is a poet, doctor, professor and journalist who lives in Texas by way of England. She is author of For Filthy Women Who Worry About Disappointing God (Diode Editions). Her writing explores how religion influences sexuality and the ways in which women of color reclaim their bodies, sexual agency and power. She trained in journalism at the University of Toronto and in medicine at the University of Cambridge.