her breath became my breath — Alicia Elkort and Jennifer Givhan in conversation

The authors discuss their writing practice and the poems featured in our Winter 2017 issue:

On collaboration:

We met in an online class at UCLA. Our differing poems about girlhood wounds spoke deeply to one another. We kept in touch by email as we lived in different states. Over time we developed a bond, inspired from our understanding of each other’s poetry, and deeper conversations about trauma and spirituality. We became friends as well, and at times each has acted as a mentor/guide to the other in terms of our poetry lives and the underlying deeper truths held therein. When we met for the first time, there was an ease and understanding between us, and we continued the conversation we began on email, as if we had always known one another. And in a stroke of incredible synchronicity, Alicia was with Jenn when she found out she had received an NEA Fellowship. Lots of tears all around. Individually, we write about very different lives, but we are simpatico when it comes to truth, beauty, justice, love, and spiritual healing. We’ve been giving each other feedback for years, so when the idea came forward to write together, we found a great synergy between us. We even have plans to write novels together. 

On process and revision:

We’ve written in a few different ways so far. The first way is to take a poem of one or the other that isn’t working and start working with it—either writing from it or creating a voice in answer to what is already on the page. Then we send back and forth until complete. The second way is to email each other back and forth one line at a time until we determine the poem is done. It doesn’t always equate to one line each; we edit as we go along and as the poem begins to take shape in its meaning and direction. Since we’ve given feedback to each other’s individual poetry over so many years, we’ve gained an intuitive understanding of each other’s thematic concerns, lexicons, and processes. The transition to writing together was therefore a natural extension of the creation and revision process we’d already established as poetry friends. Our collaborative revision is similar, and we’ll each feel free to make edits with a back and forth dialogue until we reach the perfect word or the perfect phrase, syntax, or title for us.

On who found the bottle at the bottom of the ocean:

We are both finding bottles at the bottom of the ocean. All the time. We mean to say that there are parts of ourselves buried so far away from ourselves that they are hidden. But there comes a time when the heart must speak, the heart must open and the earlier parts of ourselves, the child inside of us, must be released, must stand at the edge of the ocean and have her say. She must be born. It’s the act of healing: to incorporate all the wounded parts of ourselves, to love them. But this process can be painful, revisiting old wounds. Obsidian is from lava, created when the mountain must give forward its internal rage. Red Beryl is an extremely rare stone and is known for imparting strength and courage. One of the joys of writing together is that while we are very different people, our cores—the obsidian and red beryl—we’re derived from are nearly one and the same. We come from the same bottle. We’ve both had to learn to break it.   

On writing “A Cornflower Paloma”:

This is a really interesting poem in terms of collaboration because even though we wrote it together and we share in its formation, the meaning is double sided, layered. We wrote/formed this poem just after Alicia’s mother passed away. We mean to capture the ways one sees and remembers the dead after they have passed—mystical, magical, tiny details taking on enormous significance. After Alicia’s mother passed, Alicia kept seeing yellow butterflies, the color of butter, outside her home. Perhaps they were the spirit of her mother. Perhaps they were the significance she endowed them with. When someone is dying, her breathing becomes a focus. Until it stops. The poem is breathing life into these photo-like memories the way they pass through the mind. But dying can also mean rebirth. For Jenn, motherhood has long been a source of heat, a creative nuclei, and the mama flying means not only the passing from this life to the next, but also the mama coming to her own realization of “self” as a fully developed individual, taking into herself the environment around her, and becoming both empowered and autonomous as a result. She is strong enough to fly—fly away if necessary.

On writing these responses:

Anytime there is a relationship between two people, there develops an ongoing conversation. In the case of two writers who collaborate together, that conversation then becomes the fodder for the writing—in our case, the poems. And when a question is asked of the writers, say in response to a query about process, that conversation develops further and gives each writer a chance to reflect on the process and the poetry, but it remains part of the conversation between two people, about their art and the intersection of their poetic and spiritual lives. So for us, writing about process is just another opportunity to deepen the conversation and to learn more about the magic that happens when two people share a love of writing. Just as how the Muse often comes to an individual after that writer has engaged with other conversations ongoing in art and literature, in her family or home life, in the political and current events, and the likewise—so the Muse comes to us after shared conversations about experiences that can then coalesce into fluid poems that merge the lessons learned from each and thereby discover/create a deeper wisdom, a shared truth. This conversation on process has us itching to write more.

 

Alicia Elkort’s poetry has been published in AGNI, Arsenic Lobster, Elsewhere Lit, Heron Tree, Menacing Hedge, Rogue Agent, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and many others. She was named a finalist for the Two Sylvias Press Wilder Series Book Prize in 2015. She lives in California and will go to great lengths for an honest cup of black tea and a cool breeze.

Jennifer Givhan is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the southwestern desert and the author of three prize-winning poetry collections: Girl with Death Mask (Indiana University Press/Indiana Review’s Blue Light Books, 2017), Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press, 2016), and Landscape with Headless Mama (Pleiades Press, 2015). Her honors include an NEA fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, and the Frost Place Latin@ scholarship, among others, and her work has appeared in publications including Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Poetry, Boston Review, AGNI, and Kenyon Review. She is editor-in-chief of Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and teaches at The Poetry Barn and Western New Mexico University.