A poet who has also written for magazines including Maxim and CosmoGirl, Lisa Marie Basile discusses the importance of making poetry accessible to a larger community while still recognizing that it is not for everyone and must remain “challenging and honest, not lazy.” Although she long questioned womanhood and feminism, when she founded The Caper Literary Journal, Lisa took her inspiration from the rebellious Flapper era when women challenged society’s expectations in order to get closer to gender equality. With her first book published, a collection of vignettes about New Mexico in progress and a successful collaborative writing effort that raised money for Haiti under her belt, Lisa is now heading to Mexico to continue to probe what she considers to be a major aspect of her work: the relationship between writing and environment, people and culture, location and self.
Your writing experience is quite varied: magazines that range from Maxim to CosmoGirl, poetry, a book and founding the Caper Literary Journal; what form of writing do you enjoy the most and do you find it difficult to switch between genres.
I love to write for any reason, but my real love is for poetry. Switching between editing and writing is difficult, though. When I write my own work and edit it, I am coming from the perspective of myself. I never write for readers. When it comes to journalism, I do write for the reader—that is where editing is necessary but also trying. Because journalism is so straight-forward, it trains me to think of sentences in one very particular kind of way. When I sit down to write, those same boring ghosts come out and can keep me from being creative. I suppose, though, when the time comes to creatively write, it finds a way. Writing poetry and fiction is infinitely rewarding than other sorts of writing. Feelings are harder to write than facts but that is never a bad thing.
How important do you feel it is to make poetry more commercial? For example poetry has been used in advertising, featured on MTV, and sold on Itunes. Is that good or bad for poetry?
I think it’s divinely important to spread the word about poetry. It’s wonderful that mtvU promotes poetry with their Poet Laureate program and that MTV airs spoken-word shows. Poetry, to me, is a safe temple. I come and go as I want, always welcome and inspired. Keeping poetry sacred is important. If people want to promote it and earn money from it, they need to understand its many facets: it goes well beyond Hallmark cards and beyond the words of the 19th Century white man. Poetry is humanism. It should be read and written by people who want to understand the world and its many people. It should always be part of a constant state of renewal and growth, and so long as people keep it fresh and undefined, it will keep blossoming. Anything that can be done to keep poetry alive is essential, so long as (like some music and like some film) people don’t tolerate the bare minimum. Poetry should always be challenging and honest, not lazy. But, I’ve never seen poetry as a high money-making field so it may never be commercialized or dumbed-down. And, because it is my temple, I like that.
As a young person writing poetry, what do you think are some ways to engage young audiences?
When I was younger, I was engaged through mere exposure. Some people aren’t as fortunate. There are people who have never truly read poems or don’t know that modern day, young people are still writing them. I think it’s key for educators at the high school and junior high school levels to engage students in writing and poetry. Not only does this expose them to great work, it could trigger the writer in them.
It’s important, too, to go beyond John Keats or Robert Frost. Students need to know that poetry is a form of expression happening in their neighborhoods and in their cultures and in their households. While, for example, the Romantic poets are masters of their craft—and should be read—there is so much more going on. There is a road not taken, and that is the road where many educators never walk, ironically. I spent many years being taught the same poems by the same (white male) poets. What about Gwendolyn Brooks? Pablo Neruda? Cornelius Eady? I think it’s important to be exposed to and write the poetry that makes people think about things they encounter every day: race, truth, loss, the urban, the suburban, the rural and the foreign. This of course can be done in literal and metaphorical ways.
One of the most important things to do, also, is to get students involved with literary journals and literary clubs starting in the junior-high level. Sports and drama clubs are so popular—and that’s fine—but what of those of us, sitting in the corner putting our literary journal together, that were saved by the words? Continue establishing literary journals and clubs.
Also, I’d encourage them to submit to my journal, Caper.
Do you think that poetry is more of an individualized practice or does it need to be community based? For example do you think programs like the People’s Poetry (http://www.peoplespoetry.org/) are important ways to build audiences or do they undermine the seriousness of poetry?
Poetry is very serious, and is very personal to the poet. I respect poets that do not share their work or need validation. I also respect poets who want to share their word. When groups of intelligent, poetry-loving people put community-based poetry programs together, the outcome is usually wonderful. I will be honest and say poetry is not for everyone and some people do undermine it by creating writers groups that tolerate weak writing and patronize their writers with “good job!” remarks that are painfully untrue. That doesn’t hurt anyone but the writer. And it definitely doesn’t make a good name for poetry.
But for the most part, poetry groups consist of people who truly want to become better writers and spread a good word. I think People’s Poetry is excellent and I respect their every move, including their virtual poetry gathering. Other websites I love that promote work are Redroom and She Writes, both of which I take part in when I can.
How does being a poet affect your view of the world?
I am not sure being a poet has affected my view of the world, but I am sure my view of the world has affected my being a poet.
Who is the “I” in your poems? Are they autobiographical?
The “I” in many of my poems is humanity, and that encompasses me, you and the people that we love and hate. I don’t always write true scenarios, but I always write true feelings. For me, poetry has always been autobiographical in some sense, whether I write about myself or the lives of others. Even if I am writing about volcanoes haunted by naughty dead children, there is truth to it.
You are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Caper Literary Journal of which you once said that it is built around the concept of saloons and flappers, can you please explain this?
I created Caper’s aesthetic out of love for the Flapper era. It was a time when people were rebellious and challenged a lot of society’s expectations. Women weren’t afraid to cut their hair or speak their minds. This was one huge step in a long path toward some semblance of gender equality. I think writing reflects and inspires society. It should be challenging, willing to change, open-minded and socio-culturally conscious. That metaphor for Caper Literary Journal has really come across, and the submitting writers have beautifully represented the idea. I am truly lucky to read their work.
One of the initiatives you led was the “Vwa: Poems for Haiti,” which featured over thirty writers from different professions and from all over the world. Proceeds from the event went to help charities including the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Yele. Can you explain how you put this group together?
When the Earthquake in Haiti happened, I wrote a poem called “In Pits, Bon Dieu.” I shared it with some literary friends and noticed that people were interested in writing as well. I put a call out for writers through Caper Literary Journal and had hundreds of submissions. It was glorious. While only some were chosen for the Vwa: Poems for Haiti anthology, everyone who submitted had a beautiful heart. The anthology was printed in March and consisted of dozens of poets’ work. It is available online for purchase, and I send the royalties to relief efforts. The writers involved were the most inspiring aspect: the whole project beamed with humanity. (The book can be bought at: https://www.createspace.com/3435289)
You have talked about the clichés in poetry and how the lack of attention to detail makes a poor poem. What are some of the things you look for when reading submissions for your literary journal?
Good poems are all different. Though some come along and stun me with two lines and some simple words, others tell haunting, grandiose stories. A stellar poem isn’t one with a specific structure or topic. It has magic, sincerity and is written in such a way that I know only that writer could have written it. A bad poem is uninformed, contrived, lazy, makes generalizations, uses cliches, and doesn’t come from an honest standpoint.
I had a professor once (an acclaimed writer by the name of Ellease Ebele N. Oseye who used the pseudonym Ellease Southerland) tell me that good writing takes you to the intersection of terror and beauty. I live by this.
You are currently working on a collection of vignettes about Mesilla, New Mexico and have said that you prefer to live in the desert. How important is environment and location for you when it comes to writing?
I feel that environment is one-third of what makes up my work. While the other parts consist of language and thought, environment is always there, staring me down. I live in New York City and while I appreciate everything is has done for me, what I am truly interested in is the beyond. How can I ever hear all the stories and listen to all of the voices from one place in a constant state of construction and smoke? There is a beauty here, and that is undeniable. But for me, being in a place where there is nothing but you and the expanse of mystery, that is where I can unravel and learn. The deserts of the Southwestern United States are dashed with the mark of history. The place itself seems to be pure and yet haunted. There is so much space and quiet to connect. It isn’t about nature. It’s about being able to hear yourself.
I visited Mesilla, New Mexico and saw a much different way of life. People were kind, patient, inspired and in love with their place. Their pride came from the landscape’s beauty and from the border culture that defined them. In New Mexico, I met the writer Denise Chavez at the Border Book Store on a tiny, sunny calle. It was entirely incidental. I didn’t know she was there, and yet she told me some of the most significant things I’ve heard as a writer. She said to me that where I was standing was truly in Mexico, not America—despite the fact that the Juarez-El Paso border is about an hour away. It inspired me to examine people and culture more closely, and to listen to what location tells me.
I am going to Morelia, Mexico in July for almost three weeks. I’ll be writing from Mexico about my experience. I think I will have a book’s worth of thoughts when I return. I think Mexico has something to tell me, but I haven’t found out what yet.
Your book, “A Decent Voodoo,” which is to be released in 2010 features over 50 poems which you describe as addressing “notions of femininity, language, God and death.” Can you explain why you chose these concepts and how their connect to each other?
I don’t consciously choose topics—many times they choose me. I had a sad childhood. I suppose I spent most of it trying to grow up and take care of myself. When I suddenly became an adult I thought I had escaped. Though the tangible things that hurt me once receded and became very faint, the problems remained. This is true for many people. Your past comes to haunt you. It speaks through writing, for me. My ghosts aren’t lost. They know exactly where they want to be. So the same concepts come up. I spent a lot of my life questioning feminism and womanhood. I had no specific examples of feminism or femininity to help give me perspective. Death, too, has always been paralyzing. It scares me because I have no idea what it feels like to believe in God. The suffering voices of others find their way in, too. Critics of Cesar Vallejo, my favorite poet, said that he was constantly guilt-ridden by not being able to cure the suffering of others. I feel very much that same way. In my life, I’ve met people and cultures that have shown me how they deal with the same issues. I also hear them crying. I write about what I learn from them. I think it’s through all the vastness that we finally learn about ourselves.
How hard has it been to represent yourself and get published?
I feel blessed (by fate or by coincidence or by God, I’m not sure) to be a writer. While it is so hard to shine, there are so many resources and passionate people who want to help along the way. I continually research the literary community and try to connect with others—through my literary journal or other means—and find ways to show my work and my passion. Getting published starts with bravery. You just keep planting your garden. The flowers wilt and die. Then they stand and sing. Someone notices, someone passes. You keep planting. It is difficult, and very rewarding. I now have a book, “A Decent Voodoo,” being released on Cervena Barva Press, and I am so in love with that.
Given that you keep a blog, how does blogging differ from writing for print publications, in terms of audience, process, intention, purpose, style, etc.? What was your motivation to start and keep a blog?
I started keeping a blog in 2005. I did it because I wanted to write. I didn’t necessary want to share the work. It was filled with awful poetry. As the years went by, people read it, and I read over the old work. I started to change as a writer. I wrote new things. I never wrote about my daily life. I only wrote creatively. The blog evolved. Today, it is very different. It is a virtual diary of my evolution. Embarrassing, of course—but it means something to me. I also keep a website that keeps my official writing information up-to-date. But the blog represents change. It reminds me that we grow.
What is one question you would want this interview to ask and what would be the answer?
Q: Will you show us a poem?
A: Family Recipes
You had your lights softly on little nightstand to the left of your table,
asked me: cómo? I do not know how to do this anymore.
There were no more clean towels, and all the children had scratches,
Adelita burned her fingers on
and Rodas thinks serpents are chasing him,
and they are not Quetzalcoatl
Soy tan solo, you (finally) admit,
so I bring you in the kitchen
and we talk about sewing dreams into
branding sustenance so that
every child swallows happiness
from today on,
el lunes, my babies
will be happy,
Poem by Lisa Marie Basile