with Lisa Alletson:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
My Grade 3 teacher gave me a cage of seven white rats she won gambling. The male rat, Whiskey, impregnated the rest. Their babies escaped and got into my father’s hand-built, painstakingly-painted model train set– which had grown over the years to take up most of our living room. We’d see the rats’ red eyes flashing as they ran through tunnels, over paper mache mountains, and hid behind glue-waterfalls avoiding shocks from the rails. Around that time, I wrote a metered poem about dirt and pollution, which I remember word for word. Causation, I think. I stopped writing when I started a busy career in my early 20s and didn’t write again until two years ago in May 2019. (Thank you, Twitter).
First influences were: Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, e.e. Cummings. Anyone with two initials and a last name, apparently. Collections from the Brothers Grimm. Jean M. Auel, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury in my early teens. South African anti-apartheid writers Alan Paton, Andre Brink, Chris Van Wyk.
Q2: Who is your biggest influences today?
Lisa: It changes daily. My poetry books by Plath, Cummings, and Neruda have the most coffee and wine stains.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing?
Lisa: I was born during apartheid in Paarl, a vineyard village near Cape Town- where two oceans meet. Paarl means “pearl” – after its granite mountain rocks that glem in the rain.
We moved to the UK when I was three. Most weekends, my parents put us four kids and our tent in the car and explored, eating at pubs on the way. We’d wake in farmers’ fields with cows peering into the tent, and sometimes a bull. It was a great way to see places connected with writing; Shakespeare’s birthplace – Stratford-upon-Avon, Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, Stonehenge, the Cotswolds, Loch Ness, and our ancestor’s roots in Wales.
My parents would recite Wordsworth or Keats while we drove, or we’d break into a group version of Jabberwocky. I owe my love of writing to them and their fascination with writers like Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Lewis Caroll. They told us stories about the published writers in our family: my grandfather, a Cambridge mathematician and persuasive writer who wrote the curriculum books for South Africa, reforming a broken system, and our ancestor, the beheaded Sir Thomas More. Lots of rich fodder to inspire me. These moments gave me a life-long appreciation for writing.
A few years later we moved to Johannesburg. During apartheid, we lived in a segregated world. Violence on the news was the backdrop to life. My mother volunteered for race relations and raised us fiercely to be anti-apartheid activists. This political activity increased when I went to Rhodes university to study journalism. The ANC, banned at the time, would meet in our Great Hall. Students and professors alike would protest the apartheid government’s activities, which brought the police in with tear-gas. Chris Van Wyk’s poem “In Detention” opened my teenage eyes to the lessons from political poetry in the fight against apartheid. He wrote about the political prisoners dying in prison. The reasons given for their deaths were obviously false. https://drunkenlibrary.com/2017/12/11/in-detention-chris-van-wyk/ or more in depth https://gimmenotes.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ENG2602-POEM-In-detention.pdf
I moved to Canada in my late teens. The imagery and subject matter of my poetry often draws from political, geographic and cultural features of my years in South Africa, the UK and Canada.
Q3 (cont): Have any travels away from home influence your work?
Lisa: Spending a few months living in both New York and San Francisco broadened my perspective. The first Pride parade I attended was in San Francisco and it had a huge impact on me.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?
Lisa: Writing about my daughter, who has autism, in a way that helps readers appreciate the complex beauty of neurodiversity.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Lisa: I don’t think of myself as a poet, just a human. But there was a day when I decided to take it more seriously and work on poems and stories outside of Twitter. It was my writing-friend Deb Ewing’s birthday, which is also Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She never lets me forget it!
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Lisa: I play chess every day, which both relaxes and stimulates me. Walking through the forests and ravines near my house. Spending time alone at a lake that I write of often and carry in my veins.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Lisa: This Fall I have have a poem about my sister coming out in New Ohio Review, along with writing in The Lumiere Review, League of Canadian Poets, and Anti-Heroin Chic.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
The first stanza of “The Donkey” by G.K. Chesterton. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47918/the-donkey
“When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.”
From one of mine, “Spectrum”
“My daughter wears my DNA like a casualty”
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
I’m part of several Twitter writing groups that offer a positive, safe space to read poems aloud, dig deeper and write about what I can barely think about. Sometimes, along with another Twitter-writer Paul Corbeil, I’ll take writing workshops. It’s great to do a workshop with a friend so you can discuss it afterwards. Paul encourages me and gives me confidence in my writing. Get yourself a writing group/partner if you don’t have one!
On the publishing side Barlow Adams, one of my favourite fiction and CNF writers, convinced me to submit poetry I didn’t think think anyone would publish. Turns out he was right. He’s insightful about the publishing world, in which I’m a newbie, and I appreciate how he pushes me.
with Erica Abbott:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Erica: I started writing poetry (outside of more than just a class assignment) in my high school poetry club. The advisor who ran the club was such a huge influence in my poetry journey and though I only got to be part of it for one year, it left such a lasting impression on me. Members of the club would write together after school every week and explore new forms and poets. The poetic influence that sticks out the most to me is Mary Oliver. Her poem “The Poet With His Face In His Hands” was the first one I read as part of “entry” into the club and “Wild Geese” was another one I read early on. Her work, and the teacher/advisor that first taught it to me, had such an impact on me.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Erica: My biggest poetic influences today are those I’ve learned from—poets I’ve taken writing workshops/courses with. Sierra DeMulder, Megan Falley, Andrea Gibson, Sabrina Benaim, Kelly Grace Thomas, Katie Manning, Todd Dillard, Jon Sands, and so many others. And every single one of those people led to the discovery of even more beautiful voices within the community. Their words and their teachings made me want to continue learning and writing as much as possible.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?
I grew up in the greater Philadelphia area and while I’m not sure I could pinpoint anything specific as influencing my writing, I know it has. Even back in high school when I was more focused on creating visual art, it was incredible being so close to museums and getting to visit them for trips and such. Even being within just a couple hours of New York City has been a huge influence for me because how can you not be inspired by that city? But, locally, even the press who published my first chapbook is Philly-based so I absolutely feel such a creative connection there and I can’t wait to start exploring more in-person events and meetups as things start opening up.
Travels away from home have also definitely been a contributing influence on my writing. Several trips that I’ve taken have inspired pieces, especially ones I’ve written in workshops and continue to refine. The one time (so far) that I’ve traveled internationally was to Guatemala and that was absolutely a big influence. I wrote in a journal every night there and the whole experience really helped expand my worldview and influenced my creativity. With all the places I still hope to go to someday, I can’t wait to see how travel continues to influence me.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?
Erica: My chapbook Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, which came out at the end of last year. It’s my first collection of poetry and receiving the news last summer that it was being published was such a dream come true. It’s very much focused on my mental health and a lot of dark spots that had occurred in the previous few years and the positives/moments of light that kept me from being swallowed by everything. It definitely speaks to where I was personally a lot, but I think anyone can still find themselves within the words and I’m very grateful when people tell me that they found so much meaning in a poem and saw their own experience in it as well.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I think it really all goes back to my high school poetry club (and the teachers that made me really love poetry in the first place). I don’t feel as though I’d be the poet I am today without that early influence. When I got back into reading poetry more often in 2017, the writing also came with it and I knew I wanted to keep learning and growing.
There was also a particularly inspirational point when I went to an Andrea Gibson show a month before everything shut down and their poetry just moved me so much. I really think that ultimately led me to take the first step with writing courses/workshops during the pandemic—the first of which was centered on spoken word. It’s always funny how the seemingly small things can ultimately lead to such meaningful connection and opportunity.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Erica: I love theatre so usually, it would be going to see a show in either Philly or NYC. Of course, I haven’t had the chance to do that in over a year with the pandemic, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it. Other than that, I like watching TV, especially anything Disney, reading, and getting out and exploring the city when I have the chance.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?
Erica: I’ve got work forthcoming in Serotonin, FERAL, Chaotic Merge, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Jupiter Review. Some of my most recently published work can be found in Gnashing Teeth Publishing, The Dillydoun Review, Sledgehammer Lit, and Selcouth Station. I’ve also been doing some writing for Write or Die Tribe.
Q8: What is a favorite lines/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
From my poem “St. Ends, Patron Saint of Endings”: “Yesterday, I found the other half of a plastic “Best Friends” heart necklace, the one with the broken silver chain, that we gifted to each other all those years ago - the side I kept reads: st ends And I think how very fitting it is to be the patron saint of endings. Q9: Who has helped you most with writing? Erica: My parents and my fiancé Dan. They’re the ones who have read first drafts, told me if something in a poem doesn’t make sense, read (and re-read) my manuscript before it was published, shown up to every reading I’ve done. They’re my biggest supporters and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do any of it without them. Links: https://pondersavant.com/2020/11/20/cocoa-poetry-by-erica-abbott/ https://ericaabbott.wordpress.com/poetry/ https://thepoetryquestion.com/2021/02/08/tpq5-erica-abbott/ https://thepoetryquestion.com/2021/02/10/review-self-portrait-as-a-sinking-ship-erica-abbot-toho-publishing/
Mother-Poem It's Mother's Day again, because how lucky we are some of us, that when it reappears on the calendar there is someone to reach out to not that it's so simple a lot of therapy in the intervening years a lot of sifting through ashes for intact pieces of bone in order to pick up a phone and call home. we learn the art of water going over or around hard stone. we have written many new geologies of our mothers but those maps were drawn up years ago we've since found that forgiveness is what comes from acceptance and that acceptance is what comes from the way things are we would have wished for better, safer memories no matter how bad it was there was love, I think without trying to overdo it it's just that some things are always what they are and I can accept that or I can dig myself a hole trying to fix someone else's bad weather but today I called my mother and told her I loved her and I make mention of an old friend of hers who is in a lot of pain and very lost and then she goes on for awhile about an - old resentment between them and I think: how beautiful that I can't just let my mom - be this way and understand how hard it is for her to be otherwise and not drown in her litany of lamentations she has probably not long and I know that I will miss even this one day the simple song of a stone I could not reshape with my own water the sound of her voice haunted by time but she is mine and I can finally say this now with no hesitation in my body I love her and I just needed to call home to remind her of that. The Weight of What You Carry Let me fall I think & think so hard the moment gives way to mirror & where it hurts is somehow where it sings also this: I belong right where I am sometimes caught boulder to boulder and the sky is plenty deep and far away I think I know you, traveler have seen your face before be brave, someone say it, please be brave and here and wait for it because things come through the waiting blessed little hits of light there is always a thing left undone until you just do it just do it, traveler. Bio: James Diaz is the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and All Things Beautiful Are Bent (Alien Buddha Press, 2021) as well as the founding editor of Anti-Heroin Chic. Their work has appeared in Line Rider Press, Resurrection Mag, Negative Capability Press and As It Ought To Be. They have never believed in anything as strongly as they do the power of poetry to help heal a shattered life. An Interview with James Diaz of Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine.
- What are the origins of Anti-Heroin Chic? When did you first decide to create a literary magazine?
James: I think, in a lot of ways, the origins for Anti-Heroin Chic were born out of a yearning for community. I didn’t necessarily feel part of one at that time, and sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel that way, is to just be the thing you feel is missing, in your life and in the world. My initial vision was for a literary journal that shared a very common core with 12 step recovery meetings, where people from very different walks of life could all sit, side by side, in a circle of caring and sharing. A place where, as a friend of mine used to say; “our differences make no damn difference.” And on the heels of my time spent in Occupy Wall Street, I also wanted to be able to mirror some of the egalitarian ways of being together that I found there, which is why I likened it to the spirit of a commune. You know, honestly, some days it feels like group therapy. It’s amazing how I can be going through something really intense in my own life and then I’ll receive a submission from someone who opens their heart to me in their cover letter, a stranger going through the same damn thing, and in their poem is their heart speaking to my heart, and in some inexplicable way that encounter seems to make a difference in the lives of two people who’ve never even met before. I feel extraordinarily lucky in that way. But I also know we only ever get what we put out on the table. That’s what I was looking for around 2016, and I am very happy to say I found it. It is community, but it feels like there should be another word for it also.
- How long have you been writing poetry? When did you become serious with writing and interest in helping in other writers?
James: I began writing poems when I was around 13. I remember I had come across some poems in a Rolling Stone Magazine, written by death row inmates, who had turned to poetry as a way to cope and make sense of their impossible situation. My household, and my neighborhood, were both very chaotic and violent, and I remember thinking; “if this thing could help them, maybe it could help me too.” And it has. Who can say for sure what saves us in the end, but my bet is that I would not have made it without poetry in my life. As to when I became serious about writing, well, I was institutionalized for two years when I was sixteen, it was a serious moment in my life, where I had little else but the poems, and I think that moment was do or die for me, really. The urge to help other writers began around 2016. But the urge to help people in general, that began in a jail cell at age 16, when I wrote a poem called “The turning of the tables,” and my cellmate cried reading it and copied it down so that he could carry it with him. Sadly, he didn’t make it, and ended up taking his own life. In so many ways I often feel like I’m still writing all of my poems to him. A little light, in a lot of darkness. But that was the moment I realized that I (or the poems, really) had the ability to touch lives, to help those in great pain feel understood and held in it.
- What do you find most rewarding when putting an issue together, what do you find most frustrating?
James: I put together a very special issue on grief and loss a couple of years ago, after my Grandmother died, (I had cared for her in hospice during her final days,) and was completely undone in my grief. Unanchored and adrift, I really didn’t know day from night then. All I knew was I didn’t want to be alone in it. My thought was that a lot of people probably yearned, just like I did, to share their grief as well in a community space. That issue was the most rewarding and meaningful issue I’ve ever curated. That was a real turning point for me as an editor. I realized then that what I was aiming for was a shared and collective healing process over all else. When that’s your focus, the frustrating parts kind of just roll off of you like water. Each issue feels very therapeutic to me, to our contributors, and to our readers. It’s hard work to put the issues together, of course, and before each launch, I am quite literally spent, but the joy, healing, and hope that gets spread around from it, my God, makes it all worth it.
- How often do you put issues out, and do you change thematically between issues?
James: We currently put out 6 issues a year, in the months of February, April, June, August, October and December. The themes are always guided by the contributors, but tend to be about addiction, mental illness, poverty, working class issues, trauma, abuse, recovery, and hope. My co-editors have a big hand in helping to shape each issue also, my main contribution is our poetry category, as I want my co-editors to feel they have complete autonomy in selecting what resonates with them. It’s really astounding, organically the issues seem to always be what they need to be. Often, I just have to get out of the way of whatever force brings all of that together.
- Tell us more about your own work? How often do you write, and tell us about your book/books.
James: Most of my work centers around many of the same themes explored in Anti-Heroin Chic. My first book, This Someone I Call Stranger, was a loosely autobiographical book of poems that delved into my childhood experiences around poverty, abuse, parental addiction, institutionalization, and the ways in which we find our “homes at the edge of the world,” how often our families of choice, much as we would have wanted them to be, are not always our families of origin. My second book, All Things Beautiful Are Bent, forthcoming from Alien Buddha Press soon, is a themed book of love poems which imagines two lovers with deep trauma in their lives, trying to sort out ways to love each other that unburden the past from the present, and go forward in new and more vulnerable ways. I imagine it as a book where two people’s inner children speak to the goodness we all once were, irregardless of all that may have gone wrong along the way. Another collection that I am still sending around to publishers, called Motel Prayers, is a very character driven work that tries to tell the slightly fictionalized stories, in poem form, of the people I have known, who, as Carson McCullers’ puts it; “found it hard to live and therefore had to live a little harder.” Most of my recent poems are centered around addiction, as my little brother battles an intense meth addiction and bouts of homelessness, the only thing that I have in my tool box that helps me move through the ‘living loss’ of that are poems that speak to the fact that, where there is life, there is hope.
- What authors, poets, musicians, artists have helped shape your mind & work?
James: Joyce Carol Oates was probably the first to impact me as a writer, along with the poet Jorie Graham. But long before I was a reader of books I was a reader of song lyrics. I was very lucky to come of age in a time when singer-songwriters ruled the air waves. I learned to write from them, really. Songwriters like Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, Cheryl Wheeler, Julie Miller, John Gorka, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole and so many more. Folk music is definitely the closest thing to poetry, I think, and having it in my life at such an early age really helped me to fall deeply in love with what words could do. In my early to mid 20’s, outlaw literature was my steady diet. Authors like Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, kathe Koja, Jack Micheline, Miguel Pinero, Samuel R. Delaney, Doug Rice, Lydia Lunch, Pierre Guyotat. My anger probably very much needed these authors to help find ways to ‘scream it out’ onto the page. Suffice it to say though I have mellowed out quite a bit in my late 30’s. I am back to where I started these days, reading mostly Joyce Carol Oates and Jorie Graham.
- What are some of your hobbies, what keeps you creative & interested in putting together poetry & mags?
James: Music and films are my biggest hobbies. I used to love going to live music shows back when the world was somewhat normal. I enjoy photography, though I am by no means a photographer, I do like to capture things that most people might ignore around the city. I began making art collages a few years ago, which I really enjoyed and allowed me to tap back into some of my early and darker influences. It helped me to deal with my depression in ways the poems couldn’t and they reflect just how dark my head was becoming. I’ve also enjoyed putting together interviews for Anti-Heroin Chic, which allowed me to learn a lot about things I didn’t really know beforehand, like the world of comedy and visual art. I was also able to find that I had a real knack for live conversation that I didn’t really know was there. I tend to be pretty introverted, but interviewing people, at least by phone, forced me to improvise and take risks. I learn a lot about myself through others. The interviews have been sort of therapeutic for me in that way as well. They keep me curious, which is probably the main ingredient in staying creative.
- What styles of writing do you prefer engaging in?
James: Confessional, I guess. I used to be much more experimental and Language poetry oriented, but it didn’t allow me to go deep enough really, or to the heart of the matter. Something Jorie Graham says about knowing when a poem is ready is that one should test it against one’s own pulse, and when it matches, there you go. Part of it is that I feel a lot more grounded in my own life today, thanks to a lot of therapy, and so I feel like I’m in this season of my life where I kind of know what I want to say in ways that weren’t always possible for me. I’m still learning what this strange expression known as poetry is. It’s like a conveyor belt of despair and hope. Most days you’re working with both. How do you make room for it? Well, I’m learning to invite it all in. Style is probably just listening to where we’ve been and telling that story.
- Have hometowns, vacations, people influenced your work?
James: Hometowns, definitely. I grew up in the south, in not so happy places. I try to tell the stories of the people I’ve known and been. The people that have influenced me the most though are less poets than they are the one’s in healing professions. Case workers, respite providers, therapists, psych ward staff, art therapists, special ed teachers and guidance counselors; I am a legacy of these people who held me up when I could not walk emotionally or psychically. They were the first people to take real, genuine interest in my writing and encourage me to not give up on it. The biggest debt in my heart goes out to them.
- How has the pandemic and lockdown effected your work?
James: Well, I got Covid last April and the long haul effects of the virus took a toll on me. I’m getting better, but I still have days of brain fog and weakness, and I have some other health issues that have stemmed from Covid that I’m still getting treatment for (but not much answers.) It can be hard to write when all these weird things are happening to your body that no one can seem to explain, but I’ve managed to write some things I’m proud of, despite it all. I just have to know there are days when I can’t function at full capacity.
- Please leave any promotions for your work, social media, blogs, etc.
James: I have a new book, All Things Beautiful Are Bent, coming out soon from Alien Buddha Press, you can follow them on Twitter @thealienbuddha. My first book, This Someone I Call Stranger, is available from Indolent Books and Amazon. You can follow me on Twitter @diaz_james and you can follow Anti-Heroin Chic @Heroin_Chic_Mag. Visit our website for the work that we do there, and my own personal website for more on my work.
Thank you so much David!
photo by James Diaz on his website https://jamesjdiaz.weebly.com
Bio: James Diaz is the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and All Things Beautiful Are Bent (Alien Buddha Press, 2021) as well as the founding editor of Anti-Heroin Chic. Their work has appeared in Line Rider Press, Resurrection Mag, Negative Capability Press and As It Ought To Be. They have never believed in anything as strongly as they do the power of poetry to help heal a shattered life.