Felicia Zamora is the author of the books Of Form & Gather, winner of the 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press), & in Open, Marvel (Parlor Press), and Instrument of Gaps (Slope Editions). Of Form & Gather was listed as one of the “9 Outstanding Latino Books Recently Published by Independent and University Presses” by NBC News. She won the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize from Verse, and authored two chapbooks. Her published works may be found or forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, jubilat, Meridian, Notre Dame Review, North American Review, OmniVerse, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House Review, Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, The Cincinnati Review, The Georgia Review, TriQuarterly Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Verse Daily, Witness Magazine, West Branch, and others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Colorado Review and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. She lives in Colorado with her partner, Chris, and their three dogs.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Poetry is a part of my being, a part of who I am. An internal need drives my writing. My MFA advisor and mentor had prepared me, saying many times a first manuscript written is not always the first manuscript published. What sound advice! I graduated from the MFA program in 2012, with a goal to write a poetry manuscript a year. Of Form & Gather was just released from University of Notre Dame Press, winner of the 2016 Andrès Montoya Prize, on February 2017 and is my first full-length book publication. This is my first book publication, but my fourth manuscript written since I completed the MFA.
Winning the prize certainly feels surreal, still. It’s definitely made the small community of poetry feel even more intimate and tangible to me. I’ve been very privileged to feel the generosity and openness from poets and editors around the country whom I’ve never met in person. I felt this the moment that Edwin Torres selected my book. There’s nothing like picking up a book with your name on the cover. For me, it’s also a continued motivation to push my goals. In March, I finished my sixth manuscript. These poems are different because I am different and because the political climate of the country I live in is different. I’ll take a quick breather and then begin a new project in a few weeks. For me, the process of writing propels everything.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
An over obsession with details, I think, and what poetry requires of the reader. I enjoy the challenge of poetry, the exquisite sparseness of poetry, the rhythm and ebbs of poetry, the way poetry asks the reader to leap with the language and lines and stanzas. Poetry’s ability to accomplish so much with so little draws me in, lulls me as both reader and writer. I enjoy fiction and nonfiction as well, but find myself utterly lost in poetry, in the most extraordinary ways.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I mentioned my goal of writing a manuscript a year, so I start there. From the time I end my last manuscript, I give myself one to two months of reading and regeneration, then I dive back into a project. I write when inspired, and I write when uninspired, to ensure the practice doesn’t get lost in all the other aspects of life. I constantly ask myself, how can I be a writer if I am not writing? Therefore projects emerge fairly quickly for me. Thus far, my manuscripts evolve very organically. Research happens in all my writing, from the etymology of a single word, to an entire research thread on certain theories, species, or histories. The more I learn, the more I know I need to learn. A lot of situating and organizing goes into the final product, but no stacks of notes yet. That’s not to say that this won’t happen, depending of on the project.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems begin for me very simply, through either an image, word, sensory spark, or creative thought. Typically, something I’ve witnessed or read about gets me spinning, but even a smell tempts the poem to the page. I always start in the poem. For me, a singular poem must hold its own weight as an artistic expression, but also be willing to be in dialogue with a larger body of work…even if this macro work has not yet shown itself to me. I guess you could call me a poem as a potential for book kind of writer.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
In writing a poem, I read it aloud over and over again in the drafting phase. How I hear it determines punctuation changes, line breaks, breaths, rhythms, and the entire flow of the poem. The auditory dimension of poetry remains forefront with my editing phase. Many times, I’ll start a poem aloud to myself before it ever gets to the page. Readings are a way for writers to share their words and their interpretation of how the poem could be read; they are a form of community. I enjoy readings as shared artistic expression.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think almost everything I write has a theoretical concern underlying it. My poetry asks many, many questions. Recently my poems concern themselves with equity, social justice, existentialism, humanity as nature, instinctual-ism, mind-body connection, social construction, nationalism, and many others. I am not sure my question seek answers as much as they seek more questions.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can only speak for myself, but in my mind a writer’s responsibility is to pay attention, to witness. Writers question society at large, question the ways in which we operate as systems and cultures and humans. Writer’s hold a mirror up to ourselves, both in the singular and collective, and bring into light the things we as humans are trying to hide, cover, and ignore. As a poet, I write to comprehend, to understand, to yearn, to be an activist, to think through, to engage, to mend, to help others mend, to question, and to wonder.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
All the editing professionals I have worked with in journals and at presses have been fabulous. My voice is heard and it feels like we are both working toward the collective goal of making the piece or book the strongest it can be. As an associate poetry editor myself for the Colorado Review, I understand the work that goes into a journal and respect all those in the industry. My mentor is an editor (hi, Stephanie)! For me, it’s an essential piece in the process, one that I continue to learn and grow from.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Just write. You can make up every excuse under the sun as to why you can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t be writing, but if you are a writer, write. And read. How can you be a writer if you don’t read?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Currently, my focus is poetry. When entrenched in a book project, I tend to write mostly poetry and read poetry. My work requires a lot of technical, professional writing, so between that and poetry, I don’t add other genres to the mix much.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine for writing, and not much for my existence either. I like change and possibility. I worked fulltime at Colorado State University while pursing my MFA, so this taught me to write during breaks, while waiting for meetings, while walking across campus, at lunch, before dinner, after dinner, before bed, in the middle if the night, and in the morning. Basically, I taught myself to write in awkward bursts or at what one might consider inconvenient, or uninspiring times, which allows me to stave away the excuses.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I return to books I love, and start new poetry books from presses I admire. I also go out into the natural world for rejuvenation. My mind and body get very stale from being in human-made spaces too much. As a natural being, I feel more at home in a field, in woods, places where pavement isn’t under my feet. Another tactic I use is quieting myself and looking around, paying attention. Wonder always finds me when I am open to it.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of soil. Mulberries. I spent my childhood climbing mulberry trees and in a dirt fort carved in the belly of a steep hill in the woods behind where I grew up. I am happiest when in nature as my natural self. Also, the smell of wind on my partner’s hands.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. I am open to all sorts of influence when writing…nothing’s off the table. Things family members say, looks strangers give, comments in the media, falling seed pods from a cottonwood outside…all are fair game.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love reading contemporary poetry, new voices and pioneers. It’s important to me to feel connected with the voices and moment of time I am a part of. As a woman of color, I look to other women of color as guides and the voices of underrepresented populations who literature and poetry did not always welcome with open arms. Our voices as a collective humanity are important now, more than ever. My mentors as writers and friends are important to me, as well.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Wow, a lot. I’d love to live in another country and be fully immersed in another culture.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Photographer or a visual artist, for sure. I definitely think of myself as an artist, not just a writer. I think if I didn’t write, I’d need to pursue another form of creative expression. You can’t just shut that creative need off.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My mom wrote children’s books when I was young. As a kid, she’d read her stories to me and my siblings; I remember making my own little stories and books as early as age five. I admired my mom’s creativity; I still do. My mom never got a book published, well, because it was the eighties, she was a single parent working in a factory, and children’s books have always been a tough genre. However, she planted the seed in me early. Even when I tried to deny writing in my life, some circumstance or opportunity dropped me right back in writing’s lap. Writing makes me whole. I’ve finally figured that one out.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read great books all the time. Recently, though, House A by Jennifer S. Cheng from Omnidawn. Wow. How Cheng constructs home in body, mind, memory, and family is extraordinary. I knew I fell in love with this book when I thought, “Wow, wish I wrote this.” My jealousy is a sure fire sign that I admire the shit out of a book.
As for movies, I love horror movies. I know, I know, judge me if you must. My siblings and I grew up with horror as a genre that connected us as kids. Even now, we are all grown-ass-adults going to see horror movies as a family (since we have the privilege of living in the same city again). Wow, I feel like I just admitted something in therapy. Any who, Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, was an outstanding horror movie; right up there with The Shining. I can’t wait to see more from Peele. And yes, my King books sit right next to Dickinson’s on the shelf.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Since I just finished my sixth manuscript, I am currently in my one to two month rejuvenation period. Reading some new poetry books that just hit my mailbox, engaged in a few interviews, working with two great presses on my second and third book publications, and enjoying the budding and greening of spring.