Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jacob Saenz: Interview with the Letras Latinas Residency Fellow

Chicago-based poet Jacob Saenz, the fourth recipient of the Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship--a joint project with the Anderson Center--recently returned from his month-long stay in Red Wing, MN. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Letras Latinas Blog.

Did you have any particular expectations going into this residency and if so, how did they play out?

Since I have never participated in a residency before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I simply had expectations of writing, reading and rewriting every day.  While I did write and read, it wasn't necessarily an every day happening.  The writing and rewriting came in phases and on those days the words didn't come, I fought against it, sometimes forcing myself to write. However, as the month went on, I learned to accept those days as part of the process.  While it would've been great to produce every day, I also did not want to burn out early into my residency.  The residency met and even exceeded my expections but in a different, wonderful manner than I had envisioned.

What were your creative/writing aims for this one-month writing time and how did it go?

Considering the purpose of the fellowship, my aim was to simply build on a chapbook manuscript I had in tow; build upon it the beginnings of a full-length manuscript.  I brought many unfinished drafts of poems that I wanted to edit and be done with.  I would edit these older poems early on in my residency and add them to the manuscript pile. Near the end of my residency, I went up into the tower at the Anderson Center and laid out all the poems I felt were ready to go into a book. I began envisioning sections of the book and which poems belong where.  It's a process that I still am working but I feel that much closer to the end. I feel that in the coming weeks I will have the organization process done and will be ready to enter some contests in the fall.

In addition to working on older poems, I also wanted to write new ones while there.  I was really inspired by the beauty of the Anderson Center and the land that surrounds it.  Many of the poems I wrote while there are full of the bluffs, the birds, the lush greens of Red Wing.  It was refreshing to be writing about trees, grass and rivers than the urban landscape that often appear in my poetry.  Initially, I was unsure these new poems were ready to be included in the book or would even fit in it. However, I was fortunate it enough to have Robert Hedin look at some of my new work.  After he gave some helpful advice, I feel more confident that at least some of these new poems are ready to be a part of the book.

Also, I must confess, I wrote a fair amount of "broetry" while there. What is "broetry"? I'm not entirely sure.  It's a term I heard tossed around recently and it stuck in my head.  My concept of it is poetry with a heavy dose of the word "bro" in it.  I had planned to write a few "broems" for some guys I play basketball with in Chicago. While I did that, I also wrote "broems" to other male friends of mine.  I view them more as notes to friends with a "broetic" bent to them. I'm not quite sure what will become of them; I wrote them in a half-silly, half-sincere manner so I don't want to completely abandon them. I know they won't fit into my current manuscript but perhaps, in the future, they will appear in some book form.

Aside from time to write, one of the reasons to do an artists' residency is to meet and interact with other artists, including from other disciplines. Would you mind telling us a bit about some of the other artists you shared time with.

I feel very fortunate to have had the housemates I had. They all made my time at the Anderson Center more enriching and rewarding. There were a total of 7 artists whom I met while at the Anderson Center, though not everyone stayed the entire month. We all bonded very quickly and were interested in each other's work as well as personal lives.  In fact, there were a couple of nights where we all shared work with each other, no matter how rough or unfinished it was.  There was genuine concern and appreciation for all the work we were doing.

The poet Sarah Fox and I had many conversations about our work and ongoing projects. She was there working on a current manuscript project called Mother Substance, which seeks to document the experiences of women exposed in utero to the synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol (DES).  It was fascinating to learn about the history of this synthetic drug and its tragic consequences.  In addition to our conversations, we exchanged index cards on a daily basis, where one of us wrote on one side of the card with the other replying to it on the back. It was an interesting process and one I benefitted from, as I found the things I wrote on the card (sometimes in a hastily manner) would appear in poems I produced later. 

There were two visual artists there: Martina Stock, a painter from Austria, and Tom Virgin, a printmaker from Miami.  They both are very talented artists and always had their studio doors open for visitations.  In addition to being a painter, Martina is also a harpist who had a concert lined up in Austria when her residency was done. She showed us a video of her practicing with her partner--it was quite lovely to hear her play.  Meanwhile, Tom seemed to be working on many projects all at once.  He was busy working on a chapbook with a poet from Miami as well broadsides for another project based in Miami. In addition, he utilized the glass-blowing studio on-site and worked on a glass-book project, which turned out beautifully.  In the future, I feel there is a good chance for us to collaborate on a broadside or a similar project.

There were also two musicians at the Center, a married couple: Michael Tsalka, a concert pianist, and Angelica Minero Escobar, a musicologist and mezzo-soprano.  They are very lovely and warm people who showed great interest in all the resident's work. In fact, it was Michael who brought up the idea that we share work with one another, which consisted of readings, a concert as well as visits to the artists studios.  There were times when I would read and write outside of the gallery in which Michael practiced. It was quite lovely and refreshing to hear him play. In addition to being a great singer, Angelica also makes delicious green enchiladas, which she made twice while we were there.

In the last two weeks, two fiction writers joined us as Sarah and Martina left: Chris Keimig and Nick Healy.  Both were working on novels while there. We spent a couple of nights in the sun room drinking beers and smoking cheap cigars. On the last Friday night of our residency, we went into town and checked out a few of the local bars. They're great guys and very talented writers.

All in all, I couldn't have asked for better artists to share my time with at the Anderson Center.

Now that you have a one-month writing residency under your belt, what advice would you give a fellow writer who was about to experience one for the first time?

Be prepared for days when the words don't come and learn to accept them.  During those times, get out of the house and tour the grounds, go for a bike ride, let the sun wash over you. I found that the times I struggled to write, getting out of my writing space and taking in the surrounding scenery really helped the process.  It reenergized my mind and made the writing flow much more easier the next day.

I also would like to share what Robert Hedin told me when I was there.  One morning, after a day of not really writing, I told him how I was struggling and how I felt bad about it, considering the gift that allowed me to be there. He told me he once had a residency that was also a month long. During that time, he only wrote four poems but he said it was the best residency of his life. Once he said, I approached my process in a different manner and relieved myself of the pressure I was feeling. I would say don't burn out early on in your residency.  Let the words come as they may and the times they don't, relieve yourself of your writing and enjoy the land that surrounds you.

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