At this salon, Christina Olivares will read from her poetry collection Ungovernable (2021), and lead you through three writing exercises to help explore how you might articulate the smallest traces of memory in new poems, and how to think about writing sequences of small poems to articulate larger memories. You will use all of our senses, associations, dreamscapes, fantasies and validate the fragments that arise to power your poems. Memory lends itself beautifully to storytelling that breaks rules—because memory doesn’t always appear in a linear way, sometimes details are rubbed out, amplified or replaced altogether—and poetry gives us the flexibility we need to dive in, play with language and make new meaning of what matters most to us.
Choose one of the spaces from your list and draw/map the space on the page. Then, write couplets speaking back to that space.
Using the same space from before or a different space, imagine yourself free and the people around you free, now walk into the space…
Take anything that you’ve written and be intentional about the placement on the page.
What does you editing process look like? How many times do you go back to a piece you’ve written?
I published a poem ten years ago and I’m still using that to make other poems. Part of my family is Cuban and the first time I went back, there’s like a seawall in Havana to sit on. Usually people go there and strum music, lovers meet, people read their books… it’s a very active space. I was so moved by being there that I wrote a poem about it and it got published. I wouldn’t say that it got published too early but I keep using lines or fragments of that piece in other work.
There are certain pieces that I’ve written that are done. There’s a sequence about my father in No Map of the Earth Includes Stars. He struggled with mental illness and I wrote that through a series of petitions or prayers to a particular orisha in Santería, which is an Afro-Cuban religion I’m a part of, and that feels complete. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s so heavy that I don’t know if I can go back to them.
Everything else feels very up for grabs for me. Just because something is published and has an external stamp of approval doesn’t mean I feel it’s done (even though I sometimes wish it did so I could leave it alone).
Writing allows you to discover so many doors about yourself. How you keep up with it all? What keeps you motivated?
Every time I listen to a writer I like and feel like they’re saying something that makes sense to me, I try to be their friend. Those of us that have had more difficult life circumstances or more difficult things happen to us, we don’t know who would make a good friend. Sometimes it’s trial and error but my criteria is, is this person interested in my heart? Will this person be interested in me knowing their heart? Are they curious about me? Will they permit some curiosity about them? I made a community of writers around me that way. Part of what keeps me motivated are the people that are around me. Supporting them keeps you in a cycle of being inspired. Eventually, the community I’m in becomes my primary audience and the people I’m responsible to.
The way I try to exist in the world is as a poet; I’m curious about things and I want to try to figure them out, I want to listen to the people around me, I want to build more love around me… that makes me a poet as much as the amount of poems that I make.
Christina Olivares is the author of Ungovernable (YesYes Books, forthcoming 2021), No Map of the Earth Includes Stars, winner of the 2014 Marsh Hawk Press Book Prize, and the chaplet Interrupt (Belladonna* Collaborative, 2015). Olivares is the recipient of a BRIO Nonfiction Grant, a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Residency and two Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grants. In 2019, Olivares was an inaugural AAWW Witness Fellow. Her work has been published widely (including, most recently, in The Rumpus, Aster(ix) and by The Academy of American Poets). Olivares has taught as a visiting professor at the Rutgers-Newark MFA poetry program. She earned her undergraduate degree at Amherst College in interdisciplinary studies in education, an MFA in poetry at CUNY Brooklyn College and is pursing a PhD in English Education at Columbia University. She has worked widely throughout New York City as a youth worker, college counselor, teacher and administrator. She is a poverty and prison abolitionist and queer, mixed American-Cuban from the Bronx in NYC.
This event was recorded on April 30, 2021.