Sunday, August 18, 2013

Interview with Yvette Neisser Moreno

“I glanced back for one last image of his face
that I could carry with me like a compass.”

                                                            ---Yvette Neisser Moreno

1 .     Reading Grip, I was interested in the narrative and, at times, cinematographic quality of the images. For instance, in the second half of “A Question of Friendship,” and “The Words of the Script” with the portrait of the immigrant father:

Now, we glean remnants of your life
from what you left behind:
a beige overcoat, collar partly turned up,
a felt hat stiffened by wind and sweat,
a framed Yiddish poster announcing
your starring role in King Lear.

The poem “First Glimpse of the Pyramids” read like a photographic snap in time, if you could hear its thoughts. This poem again made me think of different media/genres.

Do you consider yourself a poet that that incorporates aspects of other genres or mediums? What do you make of poetry that is multi-genre or that defies genre categories?

First, let me say that I am delighted that you found the images to have a “cinematographic” or “photographic” quality. I am a visual person, and thus, as both a writer and reader, I am drawn to images in poetry. Often my impetus for writing a poem is an image—something I’ve seen, whether in the real world or in my head, that I find compelling. And I want my readers to fully enter and experience the poems with me, so I try to convey the images clearly. While I never thought about replicating the art of cinema per se, I often think in terms of “sketching” an image with words.

So, getting back to your question—while I certainly am inspired by other genres (especially art and music), I am not a poet who does multi-genre work. I like to stay within the framework of lineated poetry on the page. Nonetheless, many poets (and other artists) are doing fabulous multimedia, genre-defying work, and I have great respect for them as artists.

2.     In “Shades of Dawn” you write a dedication to García Lorca. Can you tell us more about this dedication? Was he a kind of mentor, soul friend, or inspiration?

I like the expression “soul friend,” though I hadn’t thought of it before. I also like the expression “kindred spirit” (which expresses the same idea), which was used in one of my favorite book series from childhood, Anne of Green Gables.

The poem “Shades of Dawn” was inspired by reading Lorca’s Poet in New York, in a bilingual edition (translated by Greg Simon and Steven White), at the same time that I was learning Spanish. I was deeply moved by Lorca’s revulsion towards New York—it was new to me, and yet refreshing, because I had spent a lot of time in New York growing up, and there were aspects of it that I hated too. In the course of reading the book, I did feel a deep sense of camaraderie with Lorca, in terms of seeing and experiencing the world through a poet’s eyes.

But the inspiration for my poem was a much more specific element of Poet in New York. As I read through it, I was struck by the recurring images of dawn. And then I became intrigued, because as I moved back and forth between the English version and the Spanish, I noticed that there were many different words in Spanish that were rendered as “dawn.” And since I was a beginner in Spanish at that time, I didn’t understand the difference among these various “shades” of dawn. Hence the poem.

3. In this same poem we see beautiful nature scenes, followed at the end by eerie moments intermingled with the beauty of nature:

If it silvers wet sand like the inside
of a shell, and the ocean scoops out
uncolored spaces from the low tide

if a man floats in a bed of waves,
toes pointing up, hands folded,
has he achieved madrugada? Or amanecer?

Did you intend for these moments to be eerie, or are they an extension of this natural landscape and perhaps a different kind of beauty? Is nature a complex or indifferent mother?

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of these images as “eerie,” per se, but yes, I did want to capture a kind of ethereal quality that I experienced there at the beach, at dawn, one day, which I felt was created by that mysterious soft half-light just before and after sunrise.

As for whether nature is a “complex or indifferent mother”… I’ll just stick to talking about poetry and leave that question to the nature philosophers.

4. I had a few questions about certain references and people like “Moulid,” Ray Bradbury in “Radiance,” Sadako in “Gliding Through This Place,” and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the notes addressing these in the back of the book. I also noted that you cited the source to the line in King Lear. I am always interested in the intersection between creative writing and research and the poets who cite sources vs. those who don’t. Can you tell us more about the role research and citation plays in your poetics or how you see it functioning in poetry at large?

I often do research when I’m working on poems, especially when I am writing about something that I did not experience personally—such as the poem about Japanese peace heroine Sadako Sasaki (“Gliding Through This Place”) and the one about Luna, a lost orca (“The Life Edge”). As I mentioned before, I am a visual poet who relies heavily on images to drive a poem. So when I was writing these poems, I found that I didn’t have enough details to be able to fully develop the images. The only way I could do justice to the subject was to do research. I love this process, the interplay between the research (which often involves reading nonfiction books) and the creative writing. I am fascinated by so many things—history, the natural world, etc.—and I love the opportunity to learn something new through poem-related research. Once I have completed both the research and the poem, I feel a deep connection with the topic.

As for the citations and background on poems included in the Notes section—first and foremost, it is very important to me that my readers understand the poems. In this day and age, particularly in the US, there is such a limited readership for poetry already—and the huge obstacle posed by the widely held myth that poetry is “difficult”—that I do not want to create any more obstacles for the reader. I want the poems to be fully accessible. I don’t want there to be any secrets about the poem that I'm keeping from the reader. I believe that clarifying some basic information, such as historical references or the meaning of foreign words, often helps readers to appreciate the poem more deeply. At least, such information helps me when I read poetry books.

The inclusion of actual source citations for a few poems was sometimes my decision and sometimes my editor’s. For the poems about Sadako and the orca mentioned above, I had relied so heavily on a particular source that I wanted to give the author credit. For King Lear, Ray Bradbury, and Elie Wiesel, my editor asked me to include the citations.

5. In poems like “Birds in Flight,” and “Between Farewell and Departure” we see this struggle with the persistence of memory and the keen attention to detail in descriptions of Opa and Oma, such as

When Opa died, heirlooms migrated
to our living room: the plaster bust of Oma,
some keys to unlock the scrolling desk,
a wooden carving of birds in flight,
the old piano, a flutter of teabags,
Oma’s silks folded inside the piano bench
with sheet music of Brahms and Mozart.

Can you tell us more about these characters? Are they autobiographically inspired? I didn’t realize that Opa and Oma were Dutch or German names for Grandparent.

Yes, in fact, this poem (“Birds in Flight”) is perhaps the most autobiographical poem I’ve ever written—I consider it my signature poem, because it tells my family history (on my father’s side) and, to some extent, how that shaped me. Opa and Oma were my paternal grandparents, both of whom were immigrants from Germany. (They and their siblings were lucky enough to leave Germany in the 1930s, before the Holocaust started.)

6. Can you tell us more about the poem “Nocturnal Life”? I was particularly interested in the stanza:

Remember, you were always speaking
or on the cusp of another word.
I’d begin an utterance
and your voice would break in.

This poem also comes from my personal life—it is one of many poems about grieving for my father, which are included in the final section of the book, titled “My Father’s Shadow.” In this stanza, I am speaking directly to my father, making a comment about one aspect of his personality that, honestly, drove me nuts—he was a fast talker and frequently interrupted me when I was talking to him. His voice was such a presence in our relationship that for me, one of the biggest shocks after he died was the absence of this voice—the profound silence that replaced the constant talking. This poem is, in part, about the huge contrast between how we communicated when he was alive (constant conversation, hard for me to get a word in edgewise) and how we communicated after he died (a one-sided conversation where I tried to talk to him and got only silence in response). The poem “Grief” also touches on this aspect of our relationship and its impact on my grieving.

7. Your poems are set in various locations across the globe, from Egypt to North Carolina to Japan. Are these places you have visited, resided in, or researched about? If yes, what role has traveling played in your poetry and your poetics?

Ah yes, well, I suppose North Carolina is an exotic country. Seriously, though, with the exception of maybe 5 or 10 poems that are researched, most of the poems in the book come from my personal experiences. I lived in North Carolina for 3 years and spent one wonderful summer studying in Egypt. The poem about Japan, as I mentioned earlier, is researched—I’ve never been there. The same is true for the poem about Luna the orca, who lived in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Canada.

In the first section of the book, there are also two poems about the Holocaust—one is set in Germany (“Juliek’s Violin”) and the other in Holland (“The Words of the Script”), though neither one says so. I’ve never been to Germany, but I did visit Holland once, and that was where I got the image of “a countryside radiant with tulips.” But in either case, I was not alive during that time period. Nonetheless, I feel that the Holocaust is “my history” because my father’s stepmother—the grandmother I grew up with on my father’s side—was a survivor, and I often heard her stories growing up. So when writing about the Holocaust, even though I didn’t personally experience either the time or the place, I feel that I am writing about “what I know.”

Getting back to your question… I don’t know to what extent traveling has played a role in my poetics. Certainly, visiting a new place often inspires a poem; there is a spark sometimes when I see something new that is particularly beautiful or that moves me in some way. I think it’s partly because when we travel to a new place or a foreign place, we are more attuned to the surroundings, whereas when we’re in our own neighborhoods, all the images are familiar, so we tend to tune out—at least I do sometimes. But on the other hand, traveling is just one way that a poem comes about in the natural flow of life. I believe it was Muriel Rukeyser who said, “Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” This is how most of my poems come about. Whatever I experience may become material for poetry.

Yvette Neisser Moreno’s first book of poetry, Grip, won the Gival Press Poetry Award and was named an honorable mention in the New England Book Festival and a Split This Rock Recommended Book of 2012. Moreno is co-translator of South Pole/Polo Sur by María Teresa Ogliastri and editor of Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio. Her poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in such publications as Foreign Policy in Focus, Literal, Virginia Quarterly Review, and International Poetry Review. Moreno has taught writing, literature, and cultural studies at various institutions, including The George Washington University and Catholic University, and currently works as a freelance writer, editor, and Spanish translator/interpreter. She also coordinates the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT) and serves on the Program Committee of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Her website is

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