Leap of Faith: A Conversation with Trista Cornelius

by S. H. Aeschliman

Trista Cornelius and I have been crossing paths for several years now, sometimes without our realizing it. Every spring, she and Perrin Kerns collaborate on the creative non-fiction class I took at Marylhurst University in 2012. The class in which I produced “On Voice,” a lyric essay that was published in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. The same issue in which Trista’s creative non-fiction piece “Running with Dragons” appeared.

Months later, not knowing who I was, she commented on the article I wrote for VoiceCatcher’s website about Liz Prato, and we finally connected. Trista, too, has been volunteering for VoiceCatcher; she writes the monthly grammar column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes.”

I looked Trista up on Facebook, and it turns out that she’s the same Trista my dad’s wife’s sister has been telling me about for years. The one who teaches college writing. I, too, used to teach college writing.

And if all those coincidences aren’t eerie enough, when we meet for this interview – at a little place on NE Fremont known for its made-to-order doughnuts – she tells me that two days ago she decided to take a leave of absence from her job as a full-time instructor at Clackamas Community College.

“It feels like stepping off a cliff,” she says, and my heart thrums in recognition. That’s how I felt, almost a year ago, when I quit my job at a university to pursue a full-time career as a writer and freelance editor.

She’s taking this leave of absence to pursue a dream: She wants to write and illustrate her own books. “I’m finally gonna give writing and art my full attention,” she says. I am tempted to jump up and down in excitement and wonder at the serendipity of it all, but I manage to stay seated.

Trista is a creative person who hasn’t done much creative work for the last several years, and it’s started to take its toll. “I think there’s potential for damage if creative people don’t make time to do creative work. You’re kind of not a complete person.”

Not giving her creative work priority has “turned the rest of [her] life into a black-and-white film.” She hasn’t felt whole, and she doesn’t think that’s healthy. To Trista, healthy isn’t just the absence of major illness; she wants to find a path to vitality. “I think people in general accept a quality of life lower than it should be,” she says, and adds, “The daily grind takes up all of our energy.” Now she wants to collaborate and create in daily life.

Taking this leap is scary, though. “There is a ton of fear in being creative,” she says. “But failure – what does that even mean?” It can mean being afraid to commit a drawing to paper because it might not turn out the way she wants. And when she’s writing, there are a lot of critical voices in her head. She has the notion – which she knows is false – that there is one right way to do something. “It’s not true, but it makes it hard to write and publish.” And to abandon her schedule, to open up her days to nothingness, feels very risky. But rather than see emptiness, she wants to see possibility.

Trista writes non-fiction, and one of her favorite topics is food. (I almost died laughing reading “Vampire Food” on her eclectic personal blog.) She’s written a book about her own “food transformation,” but, for several reasons, she can’t decide whether to query it. Part of her wants to finish it, illustrate it, and offer it up to people to read. Another part of her wants to find the perfect ending before calling it done.

She also has doubts about its marketability because, although it’s about food, it’s really about making big life changes; the book doesn’t fit neatly into one particular genre. But the truth is that it might be more about that old fear of failure than anything else. “Maybe I’m waiting for a fairy godmother to say, ‘You won’t fail. You can be confident sending it out.’”

Trista tells me that she has a friend who sews. This friend has to tear apart what she’s making three or four times before she gets it right. “Writing is like that, too,” she says, meaning it’s probably not going to come out perfect the first time, that it’s going to take time and energy.

But she’s noticed that she won’t start a project until she’s reasonably sure she won’t have to work so hard at it, won’t have to try it six different ways. “I don’t know why we do this,” she says, referring to writing. “It’s really hard.”

Why does she write, then?

“I think it was Cheryl Strayed who said you can’t run away from who you are. You have to be who you are and write from that place.”

As part of her process for deciding whether to take this leave of absence, Trista did a lot of digging through old things and reflecting on them, including a notebook she’d been using a few years ago. In looking through it, she was surprised to find that, at that time in her life, she’d been “on a roll. On the verge of something really cool.”

But she also remembers feeling like she wasn’t getting anywhere, like it was just a waste of time. Which is why she quit before the “something really cool” was allowed to emerge. She hopes that this time she can stick with it and continue to have patience with and faith in herself.

 

Trista CorneliusTrista Cornelius writes Voice Catcher’s monthly column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature, and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance editor. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Fearless: A Conversation with Celina Wigle

by S. H. Aeschliman

I’m expecting a short woman with short, dark brown hair, so when a tall woman with long blond hair walks into the café, makes eye contact and waves a small, rectangular piece of paper in my direction, my return wave is hesitant. “Are you waiting for me?” she says, smiling broadly.

I haven’t had my coffee yet and the brain isn’t fully functional. Finally, I manage to ask, “Are you Celina?”

“Yep, that’s me!” she says and bounds across the floor to my table. She shows me what she’s holding: a VoiceCatcher bookmark.

Everything about this woman screams, “ALIVE!” Judging by our all-too-short conversation, she dives into experiences headlong, with little hesitation and no fear.

Exhibit A
Celina has been a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in Japan, a Muslim wife in Malaysia, an English major, a nanny, a radio sex talk show host, and a graduate student of genetics and human sexuality.

Currently, she’s an improvisational spoken word artist, a steampunk fashion model, a post-partum doula, a self-published author of three poetry chapbooks under the pseudonym Celestial Concubine, and a co-editor of the first three online issues of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions.

On the horizon for Celina: a job as a nanny in New York City and the possibility of mentorship with a professional dominatrix. Not kidding. She’s also just getting started as a freelance ghostwriter and editor.

And I can tell this doesn’t cover everything; it’s only a glimpse into what she does and who she is.

Exhibit B
When asked, “Why are you moving to New York?” her immediate answer is, “Why not?”

Exhibit C
Celina self-published her chapbooks by using friends’ art for the covers, having the pages copied and bound at Kinko’s and hand cutting frames into the covers. But she didn’t stop there. When her most recent chapbook came out, she threw herself a book release party. She rented the space ahead of time, choosing a date before she’d even started making the chapbook; sent the invitations; and was still cutting out rectangles in the cardstock covers with an X-Acto knife as people came up to her at the party to buy a copy.

Exhibit D
Once, Celina had a high fever. She woke up the next morning to find the fever gone and a poem on her computer.

She decided to print copies of this poem, entitled “Give It All You’ve Got,” roll them up into little scrolls and pass them out from time to time – on the street, at the mall, wherever. She’d just walk up to someone and say, “This is for you.” She estimates she’s handed out thousands of these poetry scrolls.

Sometimes she’ll be invited into a stranger’s house and see her poem on their fridge, and she knows she’s touched someone’s life.

Exhibit E
One day several years ago Celina saw a flyer for an open mic at Tony’s Tavern on May 13, her birthday. She took it as a sign. “I’m going to go to that open mic and I’m gonna read at least one poem. Even if it kills me.” That was her 23rd birthday. She went every week for the next year and a half.

Eventually she read at other open mics. “It was completely different and exactly the same. Here are people being honest about their lives.”

Celina’s work
Some of the topics Celina writes about: rape, teenage abortion, spirituality, gender identity, and sexual identity. She writes about things she has struggled with or is struggling with, and she publishes, she says, “Because people said, ‘Thank you. I want more,’ and I said, ‘Okay, let me get on that.’”

She’s gotten feedback that her poetry has helped people. “In getting books out there I hope that somebody who needs to hear them will find them.” As a result of publishing, she’s also had people approach her offering to help her through some of her own struggles.

She also does improvisational spoken word, sometimes opening for bands at places like The Blue Monk, The Jade Lounge, and The Secret Society Ballroom. She’ll have a line or theme in her head, get up on stage and just start speaking. Out comes a poem.

Or she’ll do something she calls “The Game,” where she’ll ask for words from audience members and then use those words to speak a poem on the spot. “Being present and speaking is just what I do,” she says.

She says the improvisational poems “turn out to be some of [her] most creative poems,” and she describes the process as “magical.”

Celina’s philosophy
I’ve only just started reading my work in public and can’t imagine being brave enough to do improvisational spoken word. But I can see the value in spontaneous creation. So I ask her how people like me might find other strategies for injecting spontaneity into our creative processes.

Celina thinks for a moment and then says, “I was really scared of my words.” My heart clenches in recognition and I have to hold back the tears. In order to not feel afraid, she used to get drunk to write, and then she found that what she wrote while drunk were “true things, honest things.” She shared those writings with people, and they liked them.

She encourages people to figure out what they need to do to stop holding back. It could be something small or it could be a big life change, like distancing yourself from people who don’t support you.

“My advice is to stop being afraid. And whatever it is you need to do to stop being afraid, do it.”

 

Celina WigleCelina Wigle is an Oregon native and graduate of Portland State University’s English Literature program. Her mystic alter ego, the Celestial Concubine, has produced three chapbooks and a spoken word album. Celina has spent three seasons as co-editor of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. In her spare time she cares for new families and babies as a postpartum doula.

Editor’s note: VoiceCatcher will miss this dynamic, multi-talented woman who, over the past four years, has stepped up to volunteer whenever we needed her. Celina has staffed our Wordstock booth and our used book sale; she was the first to respond when we sent out a call for editors for our online literary/art journal; she recorded our March, 2013 Central Library reading and produced the version that now appears on Lewis and Clark College’s “Oregon Poetic Voices” (oregonpoeticvoices.org). Whenever we needed an extra hand or a creative push, Celina was there.

We are grateful for all you have done for VoiceCatcher, Celina. You will always be a part of our community. And, Big Apple, watch out! You’re in for a creative jolt!

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance editor. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Persistence Is A Virtue: A Conversation with Liz Prato

by S. H. Aeschliman

Liz Prato has literary credits that many writers would be proud of. Her prose pieces have been widely published, appearing in journals whose titles I actually recognize. She’s won awards for her fiction. She has four Pushcart nominations. She is an associate teaching fellow at The Attic Institute and teaches private classes at Annie Bloom’s Books. She’s the guest prose editor for the (forthcoming) Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. Her essay “In Sickness and in Health” was featured on the Sunday Rumpus yesterday (June 16). And she’s recently been invited by Forest Avenue Press to edit an anthology of short fiction. Judging by her photo, she can’t be much older than I am. So, of course, I am insanely jealous.

When I finally get to meet her in person, my first question is, “How is it that you get to do so many cool things?”

“I put myself out there a lot,” she says.

That’s right: She actually asks for things she wants.

She adds, “The absolute worst thing that can happen is they say ‘no,’ and that’s not a terrible thing.”

The conversation flows from what Liz asks for to what goals she has for her writing career to what she’s currently working on. A memoir, it turns out. “ Which I never thought I’d want to do,” she says. “Ever, ever, ever.”

“Why not?”

Because, she says, there’s too much memoir out there already. She pauses – the dense air of deliberation seems to hover in the space between us – and then decides to share that it’s also because the things she’s writing about are “hard to revisit.” She already had to live through them once; she never expected to want to go back and relive those experiences.

I don’t want to push her too directly on that subject – I know what it’s like to write the hard stuff –  so instead I turn the conversation aside slightly and ask one of my favorite questions for writers. “Why do you write?”

She says that she started writing stories when she was about six years old, and she dreamed of growing up to become a writer. But then there was a ten-year period of time where she kind of forgot about it. When she went to college, she decided to study pre-law instead of creative writing. But every time she had a what-should-I-do-with-my-life moment in her 20s and 30s, she always came back to writing.

“Why do you keep writing?”

She chuckles and mentions that, in the class she teaches at The Attic on how to submit to journals, she asks her students that same question. “It’s important for them to know why they’re publishing,” she says.

Then she goes on to explain that at first she published for validation. Getting published in journals was also a step toward publishing a book of short stories, which is something to which she aspires. But now she publishes because it feels good to have people read her writing. To have a product rather than just things in her head. To have a conversation with readers about what it means to be human.

“But when you put a piece out there, isn’t that kind of one-way? More of a monologue than a conversation?”

“It’s not a monologue,” she says, looking mildly shocked at the suggestion. “Readers are actively involved. They each have their own prism they bring to the work. And hopefully they continue to think about it after they’re done reading and have the opportunity to talk to others about it. I encourage my students to think of writing as having an intimate conversation with readers.”

About that whole submitting thing. How does she go about it?

In the beginning she only submitted to journals that paid for writing, but that’s no longer the case. It’s important to be realistic about expectations. “Unless you’re a top-level author or genre writer, you’re not going to be able to support yourself through [writing]. I’m not trying to say it’s right or okay that writers don’t get paid. It sucks that art isn’t valued but reality TV is. I don’t know what the solution to that is.”

Now she submits to journals she respects and whose content aligns with what she writes, regardless of whether or not the journal pays, and if her stories are rejected she tries again.

Liz says that women especially tend to let “no” stop them, which is why she encourages women writers to keep trying, keep pushing, keep submitting. “Actually doing it is the important part,” she says. In her experience, it can sometimes take submitting a piece 20 to 30 times before it’s accepted somewhere. Most often, she admits, she’ll give up on a story after she’s submitted it 25 times without results. But if she re-reads it and still thinks it’s really good, then she keeps going with it.

“But what if all the rejection gets to you and you start to lose faith?” I ask. “I mean, isn’t it possible that we might like our own creation but that it doesn’t appeal to anyone else? How do you deal with the doubt?”

In that case, she says, she workshops it again or reads it to some friends or colleagues. If some of her readers like it, then chances are that there’s an editor out there who will, too.

“Don’t give up,” she says, “and don’t let ‘no’ stop you. Ever, ever, ever.”

 

Liz Prato Liz Prato writes and teaches all over Portland. Her stories and essays have been published in nearly two dozen literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Subtropics, ZYZZYVA, and Who’s Your Mama? (SoftSkull Press). When Liz isn’t working on her memoir, she’s scheming ways to be among sunshine and palm trees. Her not-so-recently updated website is www.lizprato.com.

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance editor. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

In Dreams Begin Collaboration: A Conversation with Diane English

by S.H. Aeschliman

The idea for VoiceCatcher came to Diane English in a dream. “Literally came in a dream,” she says. She’s sitting in her new electric wheelchair in her studio apartment, the colorful silk scarves hanging on the back of the bathroom door providing a multi-colored halo effect around her head. (Note: I might be idolizing her just a wee bit.)

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the idea for an anthology or an organization, per se, that came to her in a dream. But the phrase voice catcher came to her. It haunted her; she couldn’t imagine what it meant or what to do with it. She wrote a poem called “Voice Catcher,” but even that did not satisfy.

Around the same time, the women in her writing group – a group led by Emily Trinkaus, whom Diane credits with making her “feel brave” – were talking about self-publishing their work and distributing it beyond the members of their own group. “Why wouldn’t we want to get our work out?” Diane asked.

But they wanted to by-pass the formalized process of waiting for their work to be “blessed by the gods-that-be.” When Diane suggested distributing Xeroxed packets of their best poems to a wider audience, much in the same way that neighborhood newspapers were distributed, one by one the women volunteered talents – graphics, making flyers, marketing – that would lead, nine months later, to the first issue of the VoiceCatcher anthology.

“Just enough time to have a baby!” I say. One of my catch phrases.

“That’s exactly what I thought,” replies Diane.

A Story about Community

Before I met Diane, I decided, based on the fact that she is one of the founders of VoiceCatcher and has recently self-published a book of her poetry, that this would be an article about self-empowerment. And at one point, Diane describes the way VoiceCatcher came into being as “a testament to how much we can do on our own.”

But before I leave her apartment, she lances me with a stern gaze and says, “This is very important to me. This is not a story about me. It’s not about my writing or honors or achievements. This is about a community of people supporting one another.” She adds, “I believe this came through me. I take no credit.”

This reminds me of the way writers – or creative types in general – sometimes talk about their creative process as being more passive than active. They don’t create; they are a vehicle for the creation. The work comes through them, not from them.

Diane has thrown a wrench in my plan. This becomes less a narrative about self-empowerment and more about service to a higher cause: to whatever planted the words “voice catcher” into Diane’s consciousness or to the women in her writing group—Jenn Lalime, Sara Guest, Marti Brooks, Elizabeth Jones and Stephanie Shea—or to the greater community of women writers and artists in the Portland-Vancouver area.

But as much as my inner feminist rebels against the idea that a woman wouldn’t own up to her own awesomeness, I have to admit that I see a benefit to thinking about it in this way. Because Diane doesn’t take credit for the idea, there’s no sense of ownership over it. This has allowed VoiceCatcher to evolve over the years without anyone’s ego getting stepped on.

Actually, I don’t know that for a fact, but my experience of the organization so far would seem to support that hypothesis. When I volunteered to start writing interviews, I knew I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to merely transcribe a conversation, and I didn’t want to pretend objectivity in my articles. I wanted to be transparent about my perceptions of interviewees and how I interacted with them and their ideas. When I asked Carolyn Martin, President of the Board of Directors, whether she was open to my putting my own spin on the convention of interviews, she said she’d be thrilled.

This is a totally different form of collaboration than what I’ve experienced in the past. It’s a version of collaboration that, until now, has only existed in my fantasies. Instead of having a stable structure that plugs round pegs into round holes and square pegs into square ones, VoiceCatcher flexes to accommodate new volunteers, who bring different strengths, needs and visions to the organization.

What started with one woman’s dream quickly became a communal endeavor that has evolved in response to new community members’ passions and abilities as well as to a changing socio-economic environment. This culture of collaboration must have emerged precisely because Diane and the other women who founded VoiceCatcher didn’t “own” it. And today it provides more women than ever with opportunities to share their talents in ways the original founders never dreamed.

 

Diane EnglishA California transplant, Diane English retired early from her education/administration career and relocated to Portland hoping to find a refuge to focus on her writing. She experimented by writing memoir, then a screenplay. All the while, a private poet was practicing. One of her workshop teachers said it takes at least ten years as an apprentice to become a poet. That was fifteen years ago. She still calls herself an “Apprentice Poet,” but has compiled a small chapbook of her poems, Sunbreaks & Magic Acts. Her poem “Late Bloomer” won an Honorable Mention in 2005 from the Portland branch of the National League of American Pen Women.

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Starting Conversations: An Interview with Robin Schauffler

by S.H. Aeschliman

I meet Robin Schauffler on a sunny Friday afternoon in February at the Bagdad. In preparation for this interview I’ve read “High Priest,” which was published in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, and three other pieces she sent at my request. Two are from her memoir about living in Mexico; one is about family, growing up and growing older. What stands out most about Robin’s style is the description. Her writing is like the Oregon rainforest: lush, vibrant and textured. Alive. You could get lost in the forest of imagery and spend a whole afternoon fingering the leaves of a single paragraph. There is emotion there, too. One moment I am smiling, the next my heart expands with recognition, and in the next I’m tearing up.

Robin says she’s always written, mainly journaling. As she gives me the brief life history I’ve asked for, I long to read those journals. After college, Robin and her husband, Peter Samson, bought an old school bus and started a traveling school called High Country School. But after eight years of making little money, owning few possessions and sleeping on the ground as often as in a bed, she and Peter shut down the school and settled in Portland. They got good jobs – she teaching at Catlin Gabel, he at OMSI – and, in her words, “got very busy and important.”

It was during this time that Robin took some writing classes at the Northwest Writing Institute. But it wasn’t until she and her husband quit their jobs in Portland and moved to Morelia, Mexico in 1997 that she started to think of herself as a writer. In the three years they lived in Mexico, she “wrote like a madwoman,” she says. “There were so many stories just kind of screaming out at me.”

Mexico may have turned her into a writer, but she credits Kim Stafford and Martha Gies, at least in part, for turning her into an author. After moving back to Portland in 2000, she got involved again in the local writing community, taking more writing classes to work on her stories from Mexico. One day, she says, Stafford asked her, “What would it feel like to put a few of these stories together?”

His question got her thinking in that direction, and over the next several years, Gies “relentlessly pushed me to continue making my stories into a book.” The result was a 100,000 word manuscript, tentatively titled My Michoacán, that took her about 13 years to write, including the three years she and her husband spent in Morelia.

This particular project is important to her because she wants to start a conversation about our relationship with one of our closest neighbors. She points out:

You say “Mexico,” and people think palm trees, beaches, margaritas. Illegal immigrants. Kidnappings and people getting their heads blown off. But there’s also normalcy. And it’s a really different normalcy than here. We have a picture in our heads of what Mexico is, and that affects so much. It applies to our day-to-day lives, our government policies, and how we treat the people who live in our communities.

This project is also important to her because

So many people have said to us, “I wish I could do something like you did!” And the fact is, they could, and they should, and they shouldn’t wait. It is so valuable, so important … to get out of our own familiar culture. Everyone can find a way to be immersed in a different world, even if it’s not for very long or very far away. Peter and I were pushing 50 when we went to Mexico; we both had our 50th birthdays there. I want to encourage others to take that leap.

Although Robin has had several sections of her memoir published in various magazines and journals, she says shopping for a publisher for her book is slow-going because, in her words, “I don’t work hard enough at being published.” So far she has found places to publish mainly through her connections: friends who are writers, teachers of writing classes, classmates, writing groups. She’s also turned to Poets & Writers magazine, Writer’s Market, and newpages.com.

When I ask her for advice on how to get more involved in the local writing community, she suggests joining Willamette Writers and signing up for their newsletter; signing up for the Soapstone community announcements; taking classes at The Northwest Writing Institute or The Attic Institute; going to writing events, like book launches and readings at Annie Bloom’s Books or Broadway Books; and attending the William Stafford birthday celebrations in January.

An hour isn’t enough time to learn everything I want to about Robin Schauffler, especially since it’s become clear that we share a strong interest in cross-cultural exchange, in taking flying leaps out of our comfort zones in order to experience other ways of being in and perceiving the world, and in sharing what we’ve learned with others. As we say goodbye, we learn that we’ll be reading together on April 5, 2013 at Space Monkey Coffee House, and I’m glad to know that there will be an opportunity to continue the conversation.

 

Robin Schauffler Born and raised in Oregon, Robin Schauffler has traveled in every US state and in Latin America. She has lived in the East and Southwest, but Portland is the place she always
comes back to. From 1997 to 2000 she and her husband Peter lived and worked in Morelia, Mexico. “High Priest” is one chapter of her unpublished memoir about their life
there. Today she writes and teaches English in Portland, and she and Peter still visit Mexico whenever possible. Her work has appeared in Open Spaces, Oregon English Journal, Street Roots, The Sun (“Readers Write”), and Oregon Quarterly on line.

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

The Heart Part: An Interview with Carrie Padian

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by S. H. Aeschliman

By day, Carrie Padian is a poet, creative non-fiction writer, dog-mom, change management specialist in the IT field, volunteer with Write Around Portland,
student and student leader. By night, she’s usually asleep. I first met her in a creative non-fiction writing class in 2012 and was struck by her insightfulness, both about her own life and about others’ writing. Since then I’ve come to know her as a people-organizer and an expert cookie cutter with a ready wit and a knack for creating the communities she wants to see in this world. It was through her blog, Sweet Nugget, that I fell in love with Carrie’s poetry, which is sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, and often vulnerable. Her poem “We” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions.

The following email interview has been edited for length, but luckily Carrie’s voice is strong enough to withstand the chop-and-slash.

How long have you been writing?
Growing up it was always my older brother who was interested in writing, so I shied away from it. It was his thing, so it couldn’t be mine. I still wrote here or there – letters to myself, journal entries, stories – but I didn’t consider any of it to be “real” writing, “legitimate” writing. Then about six years ago, in the midst of the worst breakup of my life, I started a blog to kind of deal with my internal business, get some of the muck out of my head and work through it on paper. It got me in the habit of pulling out the emotions, arranging them in a way that told my emotional truth.

Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to be exactly what you want.

– The narrator’s coffee in “Compliance” by Carrie Padian

In a way the blog was like one long letter to the people in my life, reassuring them that, even though I was going through something really tough, I was still living, I was still okay. And it helped reassure me that I wasn’t really alone in the world, no matter how I felt in that moment. So it was writing that connected me back to the world, to the people I loved. It just made sense to keep writing and forging those connections.

Why do you write?
I write to feel connected to the world around me. It’s the same reason I read. It’s that feeling you get when you read a poem or a passage that perfectly communicates some secret joy or pain you’ve been holding onto and you realize you’re not alone in feeling that way. When I write a poem and put it out in the world, it’s like an open invitation to the rest of humanity. Come to my feelings party! Bring your sorrows and a good bottle of bourbon and we’ll be forever friends.

In everyday life, what’s your inspiration for writing?
Relationships are my number one inspiration because they’re so fraught with intense joy and uncertainty and fear, but I love also writing about friendships and family relationships and power dynamics and just the way we fit together as people in our social world.

This is not how I wanted this to go down. In my mind I was perfection, a vision of lithe coolness as I slid the key across the table to you, casually inviting you up to my room. In my mind you were all too eager to go, drawn to me like a magnet’s pole, dying to touch your midsection with my midsection, complete.

– from “Where the Line Is” by Carrie Padian

Do you have an overarching vision for your work? For example, do you hope that your work will reach a particular audience, convey a particular message, etc.?
The one thing I ever hope to say with my work is that we are not alone, no matter how weird or scary or overwhelming our circumstances.

And if I could reach just one audience, it would be hot, sensitive poet dudes. Because, come on, they’re hot AND sensitive AND they like poetry. It’s the trifecta.

What is your writing process?
I wish I could say I had a regular writing practice where I get up an hour early every day and sit down and write, but I’m afraid it’s much more chaotic than that. I write when I’m intensely bugged about something and that feeling needs to go somewhere. I write when I’m sad and there’s nobody around to talk to about it. I write when I’m secretly in love but not sure if I should tell him yet. I write to remind myself that I exist.

I click the thing to download the show where the chubby girl snags the obnoxious guy – Mr. Darcy in argyle and skinny jeans – because it activates that part of me, the heart part that doesn’t get much use unless it’s breaking.

– from “Why I Do It” by Carrie Padian

In what capacity do you work with Write Around Portland?
I work as a volunteer facilitator. The thing I love the most about WAP is their focus on building community between the writers in their groups. Through the process of writing together, sharing our writing and giving feedback, we can build little bridges between people who might have come into the workshop feeling isolated or overwhelmed. And that’s the kind of thing that lasts far beyond the workshop itself: the connections people make to each other by bravely sharing their writing. They’re opening up, they’re telling their truths, and I feel incredibly lucky to be even a tiny part of that.

What advice do you have for someone in the Portland area who’s interested in getting more involved in the local writing community?
Make online friends with the writers you love. If you hear a local writer giving a reading and you liked it, add them on Facebook. If you read a poem or essay or story that knocks your socks off, connect with that person via Facebook or Twitter and just pay attention. Not only will you get to see what the writing life is really like, you will find out about writing events coming up and who the other local writers of interest are.

What does a writer need to know in order to get published?
Getting published is the one situation in the writing world where you have absolutely no control over the outcome. You can get all your ducks in a row, submit a perfectly lovely manuscript with the juiciest-ever twist ending, and the person doing the reading that day is just not into it. Publishing is like dating. It’s very likely there is a soul mate publishing house out there for your work right now, but you’ll never find it if you give up after the first rejection letter. Keep learning, keep refining your approach, keep believing in the worth of what you have to offer and, eventually, you will make a connection with someone who can’t get enough of the delightful writing that flows out of your fingertips. In short: Don’t give up.

What are you working on right now?
I feel like I keep writing around the edges of a memory prose-y poetry collection about my love life – or sometimes lack thereof. All I need is a happy ending to bring it all together. So call me, poet dudes!

 

Carrie Padian Carrie Padian is in love with Portland and the written word. She spends her days facilitating workshops for Write Around Portland and exploring new ways of bending language to her will in the creative writing program at Marylhurst University. Her work can be found in the upcoming books Code Poems and Loving For Crumbs – An Anthology for Moving On as well as on her website.

 

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Capturing the Essence of Things: A conversation with Willa Schneberg

by S. H. Aeschliman

The first thing I notice about Willa Schneberg when I meet her in person at the Oregon Jewish Museum is that she’s wiry, compact and energetic. She gives off an aura of strength, or maybe it’s resilience.

The second thing I notice about her is the accent: East Coast. New Jersey? Later I’ll be reminded that she’s from Brooklyn.

She has invited me to join her and her friends today on a tour of her exhibit, “The Books of Esther.” She is business-like. Certain. She reminds me of a teacher giving instruction to a class. In a way it makes sense: She is the expert here. But I can’t help thinking that her manner is a little at odds with the subject of her exhibit.

My larynx “The Books of Esther” is about the life of Schneberg’s mother, who is dead. She had cancer of the larynx, her larynx was removed, and for the last several years of her life she wrote down everything that she would have otherwise said aloud. Esther’s notebooks are here, as are excerpts of her writing that Schneberg has scanned. There’s a photograph of the mechanical voice box Esther refused to use. A video with snippets of Esther speaking in a time before her larynx was removed.

Willa's exhibit I am surprised to see ceramic replicas of some of Esther’s things. Why has Schneberg recreated her mother’s notebooks and WAAC cap in clay?

She says she wanted to capture the essence of the things. It is her act of interpretation, her way of drawing the viewer’s attention to what she finds important: the designs on the notebooks, the names on the cap.

I will take care We have finished our tour, and Schneberg wants to know if we have questions. “Why did you choose to make this a public exhibit?” I ask. “Why not keep these mementos of your mother private?”

She says the exhibit is to help anyone who has ever experienced loss and grief. For anyone who has lost a parent or who will lose a parent. Which is all of us.

I try to imagine how it would feel to refashion my dead mother’s things in clay with my own hands, as Willa has done. My mother is still alive. The word loss haunts me.

When I start to cry, Willa touches my elbow and asks, “What’s coming up for you right now?”

In my head I’m already calling her Willa, though she has not given me permission to do so.

The stories behind the work
A few days later, Willa and I have a Skype date. We talk about her process for her most recently finished work, A Good Time to Die. It’s a collection of linked poems about her father, her mother, and herself: line poems, prose poems and “found poems” – poems she found in transcripts of conversations between her and her parents.

Because the book is a mixture of poetry genres, she’s been having a hard time finding a publisher. But she says, “I’m interested in breaking through traditional genre constraints.” My heart beats a little faster when she says this. I too am interested in defying conventions.

Though she doesn’t say specifically how long she’s been working on A Good Time to Die, I get the impression it’s been a long time. Years. As evidence: the original title of the project, Three-Way Conversation, inspired the name of her website.

Her husband, Robin Bagai, was her first reader. “He’s a great editor,” she says. “He has a wonderful ear [for poetry].” Then John Morrison and Francis Payne Adler – two writers from her monthly peer writing group, The Odds – read her manuscript. She also relied on Barry Sanders, a professor at PNCA, about whom Willa speaks with respect and affection. When he said he thought the manuscript was ready, she started sending it out. “When the rejections start coming in, then you look at it again,” she says. Every time she sends it out, she finds something new to revise.

“Writing is about truth telling”
When I ask Willa why she writes, she tells me the story behind a poem from her third collection, Storytelling in Cambodia. In Cambodia during the genocides, a woman living in a village controlled by the Khmer Rouge was able to get an extra ration of soup – just weak broth with a few grains of rice – because she hid the body of her dead son. “People need to know about stories like hers,” she says.

I ask her why she makes her work public, and she gives “The Books of Esther” as an example. “We all know what it’s like to lose someone,” she says. “Everyone has a mother, and everyone’s mother will die. It’s a metaphor for people who don’t have a voice. I wanted her words to be sung.” She’d wanted to show her mother’s ability as a thinker and a writer. To make people think about their own mothers.

“There is a universality about personal experience,” she says, and I start getting really excited. “That’s what we know is the best writing anyway,” she says. “You use specific descriptions. You paint a picture with words.” This is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to do with my creative non-fiction: connecting with others through the specifics of my experience.

She explains her work as an artist as looking carefully at the world and transcribing what she sees. “Writing is about truth telling,” Willa says. “Emotional truths, not factual truths.” One advantage to writing poetry over memoir, she mentions, is that there is “a seamlessness between emotional and factual truth.”

The company of people who care about creating
But Willa also makes her work public because it’s a way of participating in community. “It’s wonderful to feel there’s some validation coming from the external world,” she says.

Some of the communities she’s involved in include Oregon Book Award winners, Friends of William Stafford, Literary Arts, The Odds (her writing group), VoiceCatcher, the Jewish community, and a Buddhist Sangha in Portland. She’s also on the board of Calyx Press, a feminist press out of Corvallis, Oregon. And she’s participated in communities through winning fellowships and residencies. She appreciates feeling respected by other writers and being in the company of people who care about creating.

Willa encourages other writers to find support through their local writing communities. When I ask her for ideas, she suggests going to open mics like the ones at Stonehenge Studios or Back Fence. Willa also suggests going to readings, joining or forming a peer writing group, and taking classes at The Attic Institute.

Where truth and beauty intersect
Later, after the interview is over, I reflect on what we’ve talked about: social justice, community, process, concrete details. I think about Willa’s poem “Tiny Monuments,” the one that was published in VoiceCatcher6. The image of these rusted metal canisters shining like multi-colored jewels. Whole worlds in themselves. I think about the poems from Storytelling in Cambodia that are on her website and the photo she took of a pile of human skulls. I think about the ceramic sculptures of Esther’s notebooks and about the notebooks themselves.

Willa’s art is where truth and beauty intersect. The subjects she chooses are often painful or horrifying. But she chooses details that bring out the beauty in those subjects. Not in a way that romanticizes them or downplays the sadness. The beauty and the sadness exist side-by-side. She helps us see both. Somehow her art manages to present the horrible truth while offering comfort at the same time.

As such, Willa’s poetry is a form of witnessing. She gives voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Like the woman in Cambodia. Like her mother, Esther. Like the people at the mental hospital whose cremated remains went unclaimed. And that’s exactly what Willa has set out to do: to archive, to be political, to narrate the emotional realities of those who would otherwise go unheard. Willa Schneberg, too, is a catcher of voices.

More examples of Willa’s ceramics and photography

Willa SchnebergPoet, ceramic artist and photographer Willa Schneberg moved to Portland in 1993 after spending a year doing social work in Cambodia. Of Portland, Willa says, “It suits me. I love living here.” She has a private psychotherapy practice in the Pearl and teaches poetry workshops. Willa’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and her book In the Margins of the World won the 2002 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. She’s currently shopping for a publisher for her manuscript A Good Time to Die. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website.

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.