Poet Of The Week

Christine Stoddard

     August 27–September 2, 2018

Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American artist and writer. She is the author of several poetry collections including Water for the Cactus Woman (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) and Jaguar in the Cotton Field (Another New Calligraphy, 2017) as well as the nonfiction book Hispanic & Latino Heritage in Virginia (The History Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in publications such as the Huffington Post, the Feminist Wire, Bustle, Marie Claire and PANK, while her films and visual art have been shown at the Queens Museum, New York Transit Museum, FiveMyles Gallery and elsewhere. A founding editor of Quail Bell magazine, Stoddard has received grants and awards from the Puffin Foundation, ArtBridge, Folio: and the Library of Virginia, among other organizations.

Author photo by Michael Spanel

Postcards to Heaven

Mami taught kindergarten at the Catholic school
at the end of our long and dusty road.
Because of this, her serpentine handwriting
was as perfectly beautiful as her slender fingers.

On Saturdays, Mami sat at our dinner table
and stared at the mini cactus centerpiece
until the scrambled words in her mind
found the order of filed school children
eager to drink from the water fountain
on a fiery desert afternoon in June.

Then she wrote.

“Querida Madre.”
“Querida Mamá.”
“Querida Mami.”

Her mood dictated the greeting,
Not that I ever gleaned
more of her message.
Mami me dijo que
the postcards were for Abuela,
not me, the little nosy one.

Sometimes she spread postcards
out on the table and
invited me to craft a message.
She tried to entice me with
pretty pictures and
glittery gel pens.

But I never followed her siren call.
I had no words for Abuela,
at least none suitable for a postcard.

What would I write?

“Querida Abuela, I resent you.
You have robbed too much of
my mother’s love for me.
I wish you were alive so
I would never have to
visit your ugly grave again.”

How do you sign off a postcard like that?
“Love?” “Hugs?” “Sincerely?”

—From Water for the Cactus Woman, Spuyten Duyvil, 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I originally wrote this poem for my chapbook Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares (Semiperfect Press). The chapbook traces the narrator’s painful journey toward understanding the legacy of gender-based violence in her family. The narrator’s mother worships her mother, who died young. That worship results in unhealthy nostalgia that often prevents the mother from living in the present and paying full attention to her daughter. Together the poems show how the narrator tries to understand her mother’s idealization of her own mother and how trauma gets passed down from one generation to another. Another poem from the chapbook that remains near and dear to me is “A Portrait Among Marigolds,” which first appeared in Amazon’s now-defunct literary magazine Day One. It’s the first poem in Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares and sets the stage for the story that unfolds.

What are you working on right now?

I am finishing my final edits on my novel Conejita before submitting it to publishers. It’s prose, not poetry, but I’d like to think it’s poetic. I’m also working on a book of poems about my attempts to understand the history and culture of El Salvador. El Salvador is both my mother’s homeland and the place where my parents met, but I only visited it for the first time this year, at age twenty-nine. This month, I’m beginning my artist residency at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on East 70th St in Manhattan, so I’m beginning to plan and sketch what I’d like to accomplish. We’ll see what happens.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me is waking up and writing in bed while my husband sleeps in. It relaxes me to see him sleeping peacefully and dreaming presumably happy things. When he wakes up, we will cuddle and have breakfast before really starting the day. Every day is different for me because sometimes I work from home, other times I go someplace for work, and I’m also in grad school. Since I’m a writer and an artist, it’s a good day if I’ve created something I’ve decided is worth keeping at least until the next day. It might not be a masterpiece, but I’m satisfied if I had the time and space to make a real effort, did so, and want to move forward with the work. A good day also involves reading or watching something that makes me think or feel.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was born to a New Yorker father and a Salvadoran mother in Virginia, where I lived most of my life. Growing up in suburban Washington, DC, I always dreamed of moving to New York City. Because of my interests, artistic bent and friend group, Brooklyn made the most sense. When I first moved here, I had a sublet in Bushwick for about three months and worked as a writer and editor for a couple of startups. At night, I wrote fiction and poetry and made art because that’s what I really wanted to do. It’s what I still want to do and will always want to do: tell stories in my own way. In Brooklyn, there’s a robust community for the arts and I never had that to the extent I wanted in Virginia. Here, I have a peer group that wants to create and share their creations with diverse audiences. The Internet has certainly changed how writers and artists can distribute their work, but it can’t replace the in-person experience of living in a big, creative city. My work ethic didn’t truly flourish until I came to Brooklyn. Luckily, most of the time it feels like play, not work.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Ocean Hill with my husband and we’ve been here more than two years. I like that we have room to spread out and that it’s generally quiet, at least compared to surrounding neighborhoods. Our apartment faces a park, so it’s nice to wake up to all the birds and trees. We can also walk to several other green spaces, such as the Weeksville Heritage Center and Marion Hopkinson Playground. My favorite spot is our rooftop, where I make art and have a fantastic view of Manhattan. The neighborhood hasn’t changed significantly since we moved here, but that’s because big-time gentrification hasn’t hit yet. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to that. Among the advantages are lower rent, historic architecture and a neighborhood with character, not Starbucks blandness. The main disadvantage is the city’s negligence toward a place where mainly black and brown people live. Residents pay taxes, yet garbage pickup is spotty and you can forget about recyclables. I’ve lived in neglected areas before, but the suburban version. I lived at a couple different addresses in Northern Virginia’s Bailey’s Crossroads/Seven Corners area. Bailey’s has an outsized immigrant population with a high poverty rate in a largely affluent region. There’s a dearth of sidewalks and green spaces, and the traffic is notorious. It’s hard to feel connected to your neighborhood when you need a car to get every single place. In Ocean Hill, we have sidewalks, the subway and local businesses that you can get to by foot. Plus, there’s stoop culture, so you have more opportunity to talk to people in passing.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

One night, a man hit on me in the McDonald’s near the Ralph Ave stop. When that didn’t work, he tried to sell me crack. This was while my husband stood in line to buy the man a meal. I’d been sitting with him, listening to his riddles until he ran out of them. McD’s was very busy that night. I remember ordering a McChicken, but I didn’t eat it until my husband and I got back to our apartment.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

A poetry community is an in-person and online community where I feel uninhibited and can be vulnerable. It’s a place where I can ask questions, share early drafts, request feedback, find a proofreader and more. It’s a place where I can read others’ work and have it resonate. It’s a place where we can share our books with each other, organize readings together and support each other’s careers. The community I have in Brooklyn is largely a more developed version of what I already had through Quail Bell, the literary magazine I founded and Gretchen Gales now runs. Quail Bell is an online and occasional print magazine that publishes real and unreal stories from around the world. When I founded it, our editors and contributors were scattered across the globe. We had a small concentration in my college town, but most people were college students or recent grads. Since those early days, a lot of those same people moved to Brooklyn. Along the way, we’ve met new folks and lassoed them in or began new collaborations with people we previously knew only online.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Mari Pack, Deniz Ataman and Jessica Reidy are some Brooklyn poets I know from founding Quail Bell as an undergraduate at VCUarts in Richmond, VA. All of us have ties to Virginia and met before we moved to Brooklyn. Though we differ in our approaches, we have some of the same artistic sensibilities. That includes our appreciation for supportive arts communities. One way we interpret community is through collaboration. All of us enjoy exploring ways to bring poetry off the page and into unexpected formats or experiences. Because of this, Mari, Deniz, Jess and I have collaborated on several projects, most recently our poetry film Mud Want. Another poet I should mention is my friend Ben Nardolilli. We actually didn’t meet in Richmond. We met in our hometown of Arlington, VA, back in high school, though we didn’t become friends until later. Ben’s also been involved with Quail Bell, though he and I haven’t collaborated on a film or book project yet. There’s still time.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I was lucky to have poetry mentors early in life. The first is my mother, who is an avid reader in Spanish and English and occasionally French. She regularly read to me as a child and encourages my love of reading even today. I will always appreciate the time she spent taking me to poetry readings and other writing events in middle and high school. Another early mentor was Cheryl Crockett, a DC-area poet who ran a poetry series at my local Barnes & Noble in Arlington when I was a teenager. Often I was the only person my age at Crockett’s series, but I never felt out of place. The environment was kind, welcoming and exciting. Several of my K–12 teachers influenced my taste in poetry, too. Most notably, there was Señora Marilyn Barrueta, my high school Spanish teacher. It was thanks to her knowledge and enthusiasm that I came to understand and love poetry written in my mother’s native language. In college, I took literary translation courses because of the seed Señora Barrueta planted. While at VCU, I was most grateful for my cinema professor, Mary Beth Reed, who introduced me to film poems, and Belinda Haikes, who introduced me to digital poetry. Both of those professors inspired me to think more expansively about what poetry is and can be.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I recently read The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary, a collection of tweets from teens and young adults following the death of Freddie Gray. It struck me as a work of found poetry. The tweets were so carefully curated and ordered. While they formed a narrative, more than anything they captured the cacophony of voices from that moment in time. The book brings insight into media coverage of police brutality and protests, legal issues surrounding law enforcement behavior, Baltimore’s black identity and more. One reason I’m so interested in digital culture is because it’s so pervasive. It transcends our screens and affects our lives in the flesh. The 2015 Baltimore Uprising is a reminder of that. In my own creative work, I’ve recently been obsessed with capturing what it’s like to be a woman on the Internet, as well as investigating online portrayals of my mother’s native El Salvador and East Brooklyn, where I now live. Fox Women with Tweets, Tierra Madre and East Brooklyn Reverie are all examples of poetry films that touch on these ideas. I’m trying to read more works that investigate the bridges and divides between our digital and real-world lives. Today I learned that Legacy Russell, the new associate curator of exhibitions at Harlem’s Studio Museum, wrote a book called Glitch Feminism. As soon as the title comes out from Verso, I want to get my hands on it.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I really need to read books by the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. As a Salvadoran-American and a literature lover, I’m embarrassed that I never have. I’ve only read the handful of poems that were on display in a historical exhibit about his life and career at the Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán in San Salvador. I’d like to start with El turno del ofendido (The Injured Party’s Turn). Dalton dedicated the book to the Salvadoran police chief who filed the charges that nearly got him executed. Pretty ballsy.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

It really depends. I prefer to read one book at a time, cover to cover, but it can’t always happen that way. Right now I’m an MFA candidate in digital and interdisciplinary art practice at the City College of New York, CUNY, so I have to read a range of works that relate to contemporary art and digital culture. That’s in addition to what I’m reading for my individual research and artistic practice. During the academic year, I’m strategic about my reading. I try to plan what I will read and when at the beginning of the semester. Something that’s both wonderful and overwhelming about grad school is that I’m constantly discovering new books to read. This includes physical books and digital texts. On that note, I don’t have a preference for physical books over digital texts per se. It depends on the content and spirit of the book. I love a beautifully designed and printed physical book as much as I love an immersive, interactive digital text. When I read for school, I take way too many notes. When I read for pleasure, I rarely do. I might note things to look up later or lines that I like, but I don’t read with a pen in my hand when I’m trying to relax.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d love to write a sequence of poems all about the awkward, confusing, eye-rolling world of LinkedIn, especially from the perspective of a woman. I’d start with found poems and go from there.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I adore the outdoors. I’m not too outdoorsy in an athletic sense, but I do like to be outside when I’m reading and writing. My father took me kayaking and canoeing a lot as a kid and you can bet I always had a book to devour before or after we splashed about. Since I’m studying at City College right now, I enjoy reading and writing in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. During artist residencies, I try to read and write outside as much as possible so I can get some fresh air while I’m away from New York. Last summer, I was the artist-in-residence at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay region, and earlier this summer I did a residency at Laberinto Projects in Lago de Coatepeque, El Salvador. I basically camped out at both places. Gorgeous scenery calms my anxiety and enlivens my imagination; I know I’m not the only one. During the school year, I’ll also read and write in my campus art studio or at the campus library. They aren’t exactly scenic, but they are quiet. I’m very productive at those sites, even if there are prettier places on campus.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I work for the Art Deco Society of New York, so I’m going to have to cite Brooklyn’s Central Library. It’s an Art Deco treasure and obviously a literary treasure as well. Prospect Park is another space I love. (Psst, the Prospect Park Zoo is Art Deco, too!) Those are probably predictable answers and ones many other Brooklynites would choose. Less predictable places I love are UrbanGlass, the Eastern Parkway branch library, FiveMyles Gallery, Bushwick Public House and Brooklyn College. UrbanGlass is where I take glass classes; most recently I did a weeklong summer intensive in glass painting. The school is considered one of the best glass schools in the country and offers incredible facilities. They also award merit-based scholarships four times a year, so submit your visual art portfolio in any medium and see what happens! Eastern Parkway Library is one of three branches within walking distance of my house, but it’s also where I’m an artist-in-residence this summer. FiveMyles Gallery is such an inclusive, positive space for Brooklyn artists. I’m still beaming with how well they treated me for Lady Pandora, a video installation and photo-collage exhibit I did there in February, with an opening-night poetry reading. Bushwick Public House is my go-to late-night venue when I need to plow through client projects and grant proposals but don’t want to stay home. Brooklyn College is the closest CUNY school to my house. Sometimes I can’t make it all the way to City College, so I’ll go to Brooklyn College and use their library or other facilities. Brooklyn College has a stunning campus and is a part of what makes CUNY such a necessary New York City institution.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the steaming kitchen in your eyes,
And what I taste on your tongue before you conjure it,
For every thought feeds me as good as it flavors you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Eh, I’d rather not pay tribute to the guy who cheated on Beyoncé, even if his indiscretions led to the creation of Lemonade.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s exactly where I need to be right now.