Featured Poet: Callista Buchen

Interview by-Natalie Solmer

I first met Callista Buchen shortly after she moved to Indiana, about 5 years ago. She read in the Soft River Reading Series, which was an amazing project run by Wendy Spacek. That night, Callista read image-rich poems about Mars, as well as poems about miscarriage. I was so excited to meet her and ask her to come to my poetry group that I had at that time. Happily, she accepted. Fast forward five years, and Callista just published the full length book she was working on when I met her, which is entitled, Look Look Look. She spoke with me about all of this via email recently. She also contributed a brand new poem to this issue, which you can link to at the bottom of this page.

Callista Buchen holds an MA from the University of Oregon, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Kansas. She is an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the creative writing program, advising the student literary magazine, The Apogee, and curating the visiting writers reading series.

The winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest and the Lawrence Arts Center’s Langston Hughes Award, she is the author of the full-length collection Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, October 2019), the chapbooks The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, October 2015) and Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, October 2017). Her poetry appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, Salamander, and others, while her reviews have been published in journals like Prick of the Spindle, The Literary Review, and The Collagist. She also writes frequently with the poet Amy Ash. Their collaborative work has appeared in journals like BOOAT and Poetry South, as well as been featured in the Inflectionist Review and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.

NS: Congratulations on the publication of your first full length collection of poems, Look Look Look, out with Black Lawrence Press! Also, thank you for taking the time to talk to The Indianapolis Review. As you reminded me recently, I met you several years ago at a poetry reading, and you ended up coming to my poetry group (now defunct, sadly–no time for it!) where we workshopped some of the pieces that are in this book. I wanted know more about the process of writing and editing the collection–you explained in an interview with The Adroit Journal that the impetus for the book was having your first child and the subsequent feelings of being lost and overwhelmed that followed the event. You also mentioned that in one workshop setting a male colleague thought that the poems were too much “women’s writing” and could not appeal to a male audience. I guess I have several questions here–how did you navigate finding readers to help you revise and shape the book? Do you have a solid group or community that you share your work with? And circling back to that comment from the male colleague, do you think about audience when editing? Do you have a specific audience in mind?

CB: Thanks very much, Natalie. It is always such a pleasure to get to talk with you! You were the first person to welcome me to the Indianapolis literary community when I moved here, and I’m so grateful for all that you do for writers here and beyond.

My process for writing, revising, and editing Look Look Look was shaped by the realities of my early days of parenthood. If I was going to write, it could only be about what was happening right in front of me. I simply couldn’t see past or beyond it during that time. At once confined (I barely dressed or  left my house) and liberated (sleep deprivation and general desperation sent my imagination into overdrive), I wrote to understand what had happened. Though it took years before I could really read again (my first community tends to be the community on my bookshelves), I would meet up with other writers from my grad program (usually while wearing my baby on my back), and we would write in coffee shops or in the café section of the grocery store or even at my house during nap time. Being near other writers doing the work, just that proximity, helped me return to the page and made me believe that writing could still be possible. Likewise, later on, meeting with the writers’ group that you ran, trying out material with those thoughtful readers, was such a delightful and helpful experience.

While I did experience some pushback on the level of content from potential readers in workshop situations, like that male colleague who argued that the manuscript would be unrelatable, even unreadable, for readers who are not women, given its focus on motherhood, it was difficult to take comments like his seriously (and generally, they were rare). The implied argument of such a critique is that we should write for and about men to avoid this problem of unrelatability, which is nonsense, not to mention condescending to readers. Readers are brilliant, and we should trust them. Art that engages the domestic experience and/or gendered experience is not inherently less meaningful or less artistic than other content, and there are decades and decades of truly amazing work that takes motherhood as its subject as proof. Likewise, that version of “relatability” is a terrible measure for merit (there are so many more interesting ways to explore texts), and I resent the notion books that deviate from it are only fit for specialized (implied: lessor) audiences.

In the end, I tried to write the thing as it seemed to want to be written and trusted that if I did that, it would find its readers.

NS: Your lyric essay, “Belly Sea,” about your experience of pregnancy, won a DIAGRAM essay contest and foreshadowed Look Look Look, as both your book of poems and the essay are in similar forms and explore similar topics. Both have a kind of hybrid existence–short, lyrical prose paragraphs. How do you decide when to write in longer forms such as the lyric essay and how do you know when something will become a shorter piece (the prose poems)?

CB: The answer that I want to give, and which is mostly true, is that I try to be a good listener and a good steward of each piece. As a writer, my job is to listen to the thing that I’m making and discern its signals. I want each thing to become what it should become, and I’ll worry about category, which feels like a consideration for publication rather than drafting, later. “Belly Sea” might be a bit of a cheat—when I read it, I think of it as a long prose poem rather than a lyric essay, but I’m not particularly interested or invested in the distinction (it feels more connected to with what preconceptions readers might bring with them to the piece, rather than anything intrinsic to the piece itself). Vingetted as “Belly Sea” is, those vignettes don’t stand on their own as individual pieces, while the poems of Look Look Look do, and perhaps that is the difference.

The real answer, or to put it more generously, the complementary answer, is that the form of Look Look Look reflects the circumstances under which it was drafted. As it is for many of us, my writing practice has always been inextricably linked to the constraints of the rest of my life. The poems are short prose boxes. They are short because they had to be in order for me to compose them—my life was fractured and in pieces, organized by tasks related to keeping other people (and myself) alive, and this is reflected on the page (many poems were first drafted as notes on my phone, composed with one finger while I nursed a child in the middle of the night or while I paced in the living room with a teething baby). Likewise, I felt confined in my home and in this role—I can picture that apartment perfectly, even now, nearly five years after we left it. I know it much better than any home I’ve had before or since. The bounds of that space became the hard, blocky edges of the prose poems.

NS: I am particularly intrigued by the structure of your book. It is divided into five sections, and the second poem in each section (all of them titled “Flashes”) deviates from the main form used in the book (the prose poem). These “Flashes” poems are often image based fragments of memory, but we do not know whose memories they are. There is a deliberate confusion of perspectives–I, you, she/he. I found these poems to be wonderfully evocative and suggestive–one line simply states, “I’m sorry for yelling. I’m sorry for yelling. I’m sorry for yelling.” And then, a couple lines later, “My daughter’s greatness is a canyon, is a flood.” These “Flashes” break up and excite the prose poem form while reproducing the disorienting and extremely challenging state of motherhood, which I know well! Can you say more about the impetus behind the “Flashes” poems and about the structuring of your book?

CB: You say it so well! They are an important part of how Look Look Look fits together, and I love what you say, that they “break up and excite the prose poem form while reproducing the disorienting and extremely challenging state of motherhood.”

There is a mix of perspectives among the prose poems, in that some are in first person, while others use second or third person, but there isn’t a mix in a single prose poem. I think most of the time, the speaker holds it together, unified enough to be coherent for a poem, but the “Flashes” poems offer some relief, where many versions and times exist at once. The prose poems are in the present, confused as it is for the speaker, while the “Flashes” poems are outside time. That is, they reach both back and forward, blurring the boundaries between the mother’s childhood and the childhood of her children, leaning into the bewildering chaos to not just represent it, but to make it an essential part of the speaker’s journey over the course of the book.

As I was drafting the poems that would become the manuscript that would become the book, I found myself painfully hyper-present in those early days of parenthood—it took everything I had to survive minute-to-minute. I was always there. In that there-ness, everything seemed to break down, including the boundary between my life as an adult and my life as a child. They don’t tell you ahead of time that you end up reliving your life as your child lives theirs, that you have to do it all over again. The “Flashes” poems are the speaker unraveling what it means to be there.

NS: One thing you said in your interview with The Adroit Journal has really stuck with me–“My shocked post-partum mind convinced me that I had two choices: I could stop writing altogether, or I could try to write about what I was experiencing, building upon and expanding beyond the work of “Belly Sea.”  In this process, I could record and analyze a sometimes-terrifying fluidity of self. That record functioned as a kind of personal anchor…” Part of why this quote is so important to me may be because like you, I also have two children and a demanding career. You are a professor at Franklin College, and you direct the creative writing program and the visiting writer’s series there. In addition, while motherhood becomes easier as babies turn into children and become more independent, older children need other forms of attention that are much more complicated and challenging. We also have a terrifying world right now that we are responsible for preparing them for–threats of war, so much hatred and division in our country, and the devastating effects of climate change. I often feel that I should take the first choice you spoke of, ‘stop writing altogether’, simply because I am so overwhelmed and upset, and writing can seem so frivolous. However, I manage to keep scribbling here and there, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this topic? Has your writing process changed now that your children are older? Any advice for how we keep going?

CB: Oh, goodness. This is the question. Becoming a parent confirmed my weakness, my vulnerability, the limitations of my own capabilities and the limitations of the world as it is. This confirmation has not changed as they’ve gotten older, though, as you say, there are parts of parenting that have become easier, even as other parts are more challenging.

I find existing in the world in this time, knowing what we know about the past, present, and future, incredibly difficult, and it feels important to acknowledge my own privilege here, that this is much more complicated and more dangerous for those facing additional sources of oppression.

Certainly, the practical parts of writing are easier now than writing while caring for infants and toddlers, perhaps even improved by that experience. I can create longer blocks of time in which to work, and I’m much faster and more efficient than I was before children. I don’t treat my writing time as overly precious. I have no elaborate rituals before I start, and I write everywhere, including swim meets and the grocery store. I can read and think more than I could when they were young. I travel. I sleep a lot more and most of the fog of the early days has lifted.

Most days, I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer or as a parent. I love my children. I try to make that love real and present in their lives. I feel what you are saying about responsibility. I struggle with bringing them into a world where I know they will suffer and will suffer in ways for which I cannot prepare or even imagine. Maybe it is writing itself that offers a way to keep going. An act of creation, writing is essentially hope. It is saying something new can be.

NS: Lastly, I usually ask the featured poet about their thoughts on Indiana and/or Indianapolis because part of the reason for me starting this journal is that I feel there are so many misconceptions about Indiana and the writers and artists that live here (mainly that people think they don’t exist!) I know that you are somewhat (?) new to the state, but I was wondering if you would be willing to share your thoughts about living here as a writer?

I’ve been here for almost five years now, and even in that time, it seems like the literary community has continued to grow and expand in important ways. There are so many writers here doing the work, both their own and lifting up the writing of others. Amazing bookstores. Tons of readings and open-mics. Plus, I feel like so many writers who live elsewhere come through Indiana—I’ve been to more readings and seen more literary heroes here than anywhere else I’ve lived. In this way, we’re a kind of literary crossroads. It has been good for my work and good for me. I’m glad to be with you.

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