Welcome to an April Fools' Day special, an interview with me! This was a LOT of fun to write, so I hope you enjoy :D
1. Why do you interview writers?
"It was an excuse to learn more about my friends and promote their work. Interviewing writers started years ago while I was still an undergrad at Truman State. I wanted to beef up my resume so I became a Features writer for the school paper. Writers were often invited for readings and to lead workshops on campus. I desperately wanted to get their insight on writing, and interviewing them was the perfect way for me to get to know them better. Being a journalist has been a wonderful experience for me and definitely built my confidence as an interviewer.
While I was still a journalist in undergrad, I had the dream of publishing interviews where I could do things my way. I wanted a series that exclusively focused on writers. I did other stories for the paper (my favs including the Prairie dog expert and the flutist), but I wanted to focus on writers and writers only. While I worked for the school paper I was also limited in what I could ask and it all somehow had to tie to the school. It makes sense since it is their paper, but I didn’t like the confinement. I wanted the flexibility to let the interview take a different direction if it needed to, and we might focus on things that don’t relate to the school at all. I was still able to write some banger writer interviews that still somehow included the school, but I didn’t like the limitations. Still, being a journalist in college was an invaluable experience.
So, when I left school, I thought I was done with writer interviews since I no longer had a venue and nobody to interview. But when I made my author page, I thought maybe I could just interview the friends I made on Twitter and help promote their upcoming books or just talk about their writing. And that’s how my interview series came about. I’ve made a bunch of friends through interviews, and I love having full control over how my interviews are done, how my interviews are presented, having the flexibility to decide when my interviews are published, and who I want to talk to. I am grateful for everything I’ve learned while working for the college paper, but I am definitely loving the way things are now that I’m in charge."
2. Why did you start writing?
"I was a boring kid growing up. While I did some sports and music, I remember a lot of time was wasted watching TV. Then when I was in high school and assigned books to read (the classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye) I realized with horror that, not only have I never read those books, but there were many others that I had heard of but never bothered reading. So I made a book list of important books I should read, printed the list, and started reading all those books. I still rely on book lists to this day (I’ve got award-winning book lists like Pulitzer and National Book Awards, and NPR has a great series each year called Book Concierge).
But back to why I started writing. After spending years consuming books and media, I decided it was my turn to tell stories. I’d seen others do it, so what do I want to say? What do I want to explore? That’s why I started writing. It was a desire within to tell a story, and tell a story my way. With writing I could fulfill a deep need to create something that was mine to share with the world."
3. What got you into centos?
“I’ve always wanted to tell stories. That being said, writing fiction proved to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. To this day fiction is still one of my greatest fears and struggles with writing. I definitely had no idea that the first thing I would take up would be poetry, and a great source of joy would come from writing centos.
My journey with centos started way back in college. Fall 2017. I was a transfer student at Truman State University after getting an associate degree from St. Charles Community College. I had taken a bunch of workshops at SCC, but now I decided that in order to really pursue writing I needed a mentor - a teacher at school who would be willing to teach me. I had a kooky idea that, in order to kick up my undergrad education to grad school level, then I needed to work one-on-one with a teacher. I know there is something to be said for working with classmates and everyone is learning together, but I was arrogant, impatient, and I did not like making friends with anyone from my classes. I did not think they were serious enough about writing (like I’ve said, I was arrogant and impatient). I realized I didn’t want my peers, I wanted someone to teach me. That’s when I started looking for a writing mentor, so I went after my teachers. I thought maybe I could float a short story to them once every few weeks, and they could give me feedback and guidance. But I wasn’t so lucky with the fiction department, and I was left to my own devices.
I had resigned myself to the reality that I was on my own, and the best I could get would be taking workshops. That’s when Jamie came into the picture. I had a meeting with him to become a creative writing major (you had to apply to be a part of the program, you couldn’t just declare that you are a creative writing major) and we talked about what I was interested in with writing and what I was up to in classes. It’s funny, looking back on it now, because I told him that fiction is the genre to write because fiction explores humanity, unlike poetry. Fiction deals with complex ideas and everybody wants to read fiction. And poets? They just write about leaves and feelings, big deal. I asked him what he wrote, and he said after a long pause, poetry. I was embarrassed by what I said about poetry, and I said at some point I should take a closer look at poetry, and Jamie told me that I was welcome to see him during office hours if I ever wanted to talk about poetry. Several weeks later I appeared in his office with drafts of poems for my first poetry workshop, and ever since that day, I had been bringing poems to his office hours for the rest of my time at Truman.
I wrote terrible poems for a year, but Jamie was patient. At this time I was also working with another teacher named Brad. Though I had all this help, I still felt stuck. I was getting more frustrated because it was obvious that I just wasn’t getting it. Spinning my wheels and just writing whatever wasn’t going to cut it anymore, not if I wanted to write better poems. One day Jamie told me, my senior year at Truman, to bring a poem that I wanted my poems to be like. That’s how I stumbled into prose poetry, since it was similar to prose. That’s how I found How to Dismantle a Heart by Rodney Gomez and from that I wrote my first prose poem. After a year of writing garbage poems something finally clicked for me, and for the rest of the semester I wrote prose poems. Most of these prose poems appeared later in my micro chap, my first published poetry collection.
Now this brings us to centos. Spring semester 2019, my final semester at Truman. I had written several prose poems that I liked, but I found myself burned out by the spring. I told Jamie that I had run out of material to write. He laughed and said that I didn’t run out of material to write, just that I didn’t know what to write. Jamie said that I had a unique way of titling prose poems, so I ought to reverse the process and take only titles and make a poem out of that.
I have to break away for a second and add this necessary sidenote to understand how centos came about. Back when I was writing prose poems, the one thing I despised was titling poems. I asked Brad how to resolve this, and he suggested taking phrases from books. After I finished writing a poem, a poem that I felt was really close to being done, take a book from my bookshelf and write down phrases that catch my eye. Because the poem is in the back of my mind as I’m looking for phrases, something will jump out and it would add new meaning to the poem. I’ve used this method for all my prose poems and I’m very happy with the result. (Though I did step it up later and specifically looked for books I knew matched the theme for the poem. My Chamber of Venus, a prose poem I had written about my first pap smear and my irratation/guilt for still being a virgin at 25, that title was taken from The Wife of Bath's Tale from The Canterbury Tales because I knew there would be some saucy phrases there and would match perfectly with the poem. Sure enough, WHAM, My Chamber of Venus). Jamie knew I wasn’t creative enough to come up with those titles (and this is not insulting to me, it’s a fact. I am a simplistic writer), so when he saw the interesting titles for my poems, he asked about them, and I told him about Brad’s method. Jamie liked it and remembered it. So when I was dealing with burnout that semester, Jamie introduced me to centos. He said I should reverse the process and write a poem from the phrases I found in books since I have a talent for finding and matching phrases as titles for my prose poems. He said I ought to try it out.
And so, I did. The very first cento I wrote was dost thou know me? from Station Eleven. I remember holding the library book, writing down all the phrases and then reordering the sentences. I looked at it and, thought, my god, what is this? I had no idea what would happen, if a poem or tangible piece of writing was possible but there it was right in front me. It was something new, something exciting. For the rest of the semester I grabbed more books, from my bookshelf and from the school library, and I wrote centos and loved every minute of it. After I graduated writing centos was something I kept up now and then in bursts. And usually whenever I need a confidence boost for writing, I’ll turn back to centos.
Sometimes I really miss the days when I would spend weekends preparing centos, sliding the printed centos under Brad’s office door, reviewing Brad’s edits (he always used a blue pen to provide comments), talking ot him, and then just across Brad’s office I would walk to Jamie’s office where I would read the poems aloud and Jamie would provide comments. Jamie’s gift was being able to identify what projects I needed to work on, and Brad would walk me through edits, line-by-line if needed. It was Jamie who said one day I would have a full-length of centos. I didn’t believe him, so you can imagine how weird it is for me to say how proud and gobsmacked I am that my debut full-length will be coming out this summer from ELJ. Wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have Jamie and Brad, for they got me on this path. I still don’t know how I will feel when I hold the full-length in my hands, that, by the time it’s published, will be the culmination of three years work. Anyway, that’s the whole (and long!) tale of how I got into centos."
4. How has your writing changed since graduating college?
"I had no idea what my life would be like after college, and how exactly that would affect my writing. I knew that I would get a full-time job and write whenever I could, but I didn’t really seriously consider that essentially now I have two jobs. For the rest of my life, so long as I wish to write that is, I have to straddle my working life and my writing life. One feeds the belly, and the other feeds the soul.
How has my writing changed since I graduated? I have to set my own deadlines since I don’t have any more poetry sessions or workshops. The hardest thing that hit me was that I lost access to my teachers since I could no longer see them weekly to review my work. It certainly didn’t help that I didn't have a new group of people to work with. I didn’t get into grad school, since I was under the impression that the only way I could succeed with writing was attend grad school, join an MFA cohort, and continue swapping work and encouragement long after I get the degree. I was so deeply affected by graduating school and moving home that the first summer after I graduated I didn’t write that summer at all. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It scared me, facing the fact that for the first time in my life I was completely on my own. I didn’t write until writing finally found me again. Then I got a full-time job and battled exhaustion for months. I’ve finally learned to not be so harsh on myself and I’ve since realized that I write when I can. My life is stressful enough as it is and writing is the one place where I should be myself and let myself have fun and be creative.
A major influence and help in my life has been the friends I made on Twitter. Watching how they balance work, school, life, and their own writing projects has been tremendously inspiring to me. When I’m with my buds I feel so incredibly motivated to work and contribute to the lit community. I never thought my cohort would be online and it would be a large group of people of varying ages and experiences. I love supporting my friends and they cheer me up greatly.
It’s definitely been a long process to go from writing while in college to writing with a full-time job, but I’m in a much better place now. I had to come to terms that this is the rest of my life, fighting to write. Balancing writing with all my other obligations and responsibilities. This is the life I wanted, and I’ll keep re-calibrating as needed. It is messy, but I’m pursuing my dream of writing. How great is that?"
5. How did Butterflies Over Flame come about? When did you realize you had material for a poetry book?
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would write a full-length collection of centos, let alone publish one. I just kept writing centos and when I thought I had written enough, I submitted chapbook manuscripts for presses to consider. I kept writing more centos since I really enjoyed writing them. I kept swapping out centos in the manuscripts, sending different chap manuscripts and at one point even micro chap manuscripts. But I never thought I could do a full-length. Then I heard the call for ELJ, heard back from Ariana, and the rest is history, as they say.
Building the full-length was spread out over time, and it took a little over two years to complete. I didn’t have a full-length manuscript in mind, all I did was pursue my latest idea for a cento project and worked on that until I wore myself out. Here are some of my mini cento projects that are included in the full-length, with examples of centos in each section. Some centos have been published, and some of them are making their debut in the full-length:
6. Playlist for your full-length?
"Ha, nope! While working on this manuscript, I would choose a classical composer (I played oboe growing up and my brother is a musician so orchestral music and piano hold a very special place in my heart) and listen to them while I harvested and then reassembled phrases. I don’t have names of all the composers I listened for every single cento since I only started doing that recently but some examples in the full-length: Love Letter - Chopin, Of Becoming before Becoming - Rachmaninoff, and Mosaic - Debussy. Some of them were video game soundtracks, and some of them were jazz or piano albums. Sometimes I put a lot consideration into what I listen to in the background while I work, and sometimes I just find something that fits the mood I’m in and start working.
There is one song that I always associate with centos, and that song is What’s This from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It matches exactly how I felt when I first discovered centos. I was a frustrated writer who found something magical that reignited my love of the craft and made me look at poems from a new, exciting perspective.
This empty place inside of me is filling up
I simply cannot get enough
I want it, oh, I want it
Oh, I want it for my own
I've got to know
I've got to know
What is this place that I have found?
Yes, all that exactly. And writing centos has been my happy place ever since."
7. Analyze a cento.
“Clearly for this interview I’ve leaned hardcore into my undergrad days, so I’m going to analyze a cento built specifically with my teachers and Kirksville (the northeastern town where Truman State is) in mind. I do have a cento built from the works of my cento teachers Brad and Jamie but it’s unpublished and written for the full-length, so you’ll have to wait till that comes out to see it :^). But this cento I’m about to analyze also appears in the full-length.
Anyway, here’s Summer to Squander. This cento pulls from Prairie Architecture by Monica Barron & Weathermanic by James D'Agostino.
One Friday evening we were sipping beer at a table by the window watching the sky. When Larry died, I bought this farm cheap, and moved here alone. A sunset at the edge of town where sometimes the distant clouds look like mountains. The puckered hills. Houses without addresses, mailboxes clustered elsewhere. The power is still on.
Camille played cello. So many years later the ways of an old love persist. Say what you want about memory, it can be so clean, as if it were enough to go around. Cold unintelligible tongues lash me awake. Absence is not the dark thing I imagined.
"The knotted thirsting tangleways of self. Anyone who tells stories like that," he said, rocking back on his chair, rocking forward, "probably ten years too late. Camille and the cello come and go. It’s your life you’re going to have to live it. Still your story arcs."
I had no idea who we were. The luck of those with a bit of sense and grace. Maybe it’s time. Holler my truths to the blue, blue distant hills.
The lights went out.
Written in summer 2020 when the pandemic broke out. It had been a year since I graduated Truman, and was feeling nostalgic. Jamie you’ve heard a lot about, so now let me introduce you to Monica. Monica was another one of my teachers at Truman, and a gifted poet. Jamie and Monica also happen to be friends. I wanted to write a cento to honor their friendship, and I had both their books on my bookshelf. I knew right away they would be a good match. Monica writes narrative poetry, so she would provide the foundation I like to have with my centos. Since her work is more prosaic, it will ground the cento. She has characters, voices, and scenic details of her home in Missouri. Then I would pull in Jamie, a writer who would provide quirky phrases and would say things that would jolt the reader. So I got to work. When writing centos, I have no idea how a cento might turn out and usually I hope for the best when I start assembling it. This cento turned out so well and I am really proud of this one.
This whole cento is a story. Here we have two old friends drinking beer and watching the sunset. They are older, probably past middle age. The first speaker, whose words are primarily drawn from Monica’s poetry, laments a lost lover. Living alone on a farm. The second speaker, whose words are primarily pulled from Jamie’s work, counters the first speaker. I knew I wanted the second speaker (knowing Jamie’s work as well as I do) to say something ridiculous that would make the first speaker roll her eyes at him, as if to say, will you please take what I’m saying seriously? Then the second speaker continues with imparting knowledge, while rocking on his rocking chair. The second speaker reminds her that though the love of her life (or a love of her life) is gone, her story still continues. It is her choice how she should proceed with what is left of her life. The first speaker wonders if it is time to let go.
I approached this cento with the intent to honor my teachers and friends, but as so often happens with my centos, they reveal something about me and what I was going through at the time I wrote the cento. For this cento, written in summer 2020 I was going through heartbreak. I had trouble letting go of my ex. And my god those words came through. So many years later the ways of an old love persist. Absence is not the dark thing I imagined. But then the second speaker coming through with the words I needed to hear. It’s your life you’re going to have to live it. Still your story arcs. Arranging those words on the page, and watching this story unfold, it felt like I was on the porch steps listening in on this conversation and applying what I overheard to my own life. So, not only can centos surprise me, but sometimes I can learn something from them too."
8. Would you like to share what current writing project(s) you are working on?
"Yes! On the horizon is the long-awaited dream and nightmares anthology. The idea for this collection came from something I tweeted. I thought it would be cool if there was a collaborative chapbook where writers contributed a poem/piece from their dreams or nightmares. My friends really liked the idea, so I opened the door and asked people if they would want to partake in this project. I was definitely knocked over by the enthusiasm and I’m happy (stunned, humbled, thrilled, etc.) to say that 36 writers are included in the anthology. It’s taking so long to finally get this published since a bunch of things happened in my life that prevented this book from being published sooner, but I am hopeful that it will be later this spring when the book is finally released. It’s weird because I basically became temporary editor-in-chief of what I would consider a pop-up issue. It’s weird being in charge of a project like this, especially since I’ve never done anything like this before. I was unbelievably lucky that the friends I made on Twitter have been super helpful and eager to help launch this project (shout-out to Kate, Rachael, K., and Aleah!). This project has been a labor of love and I can’t wait to finally publish this and show off my friends and their incredible work.
As far as my own writing projects are concerned, right now I’m working on my second novel. I’m really trying to push myself to write fiction even though it scares me. And I’ve got an idea for another full-length collection of centos, but at the moment I’m leaving the next cento project on the back burner."
9. What’s your favorite writing advice you’ve been told?
"Just write the damn thing. That’s what my fiction writing professor Prajwal Parajuly said. I get trapped by my own anxiety about writing and finishing a project and his advice of just writing the damn thing is the best writing advice I’ve ever heard. You can’t work with a draft if you don’t have anything written, so get over yourself and just write it."
10. And finally, what do you enjoy doing that you don’t talk about enough? Tell me all about it!
"Road trips! I love taking road trips to coffee shops. This was something that started way back in Truman like centos and interviewing writers. During the week I’d be trapped at school, and on Saturday I wanted to get away from it all. One day I thought it would be fun to travel south to Columbia and hang out at a coffee shop for the morning just to see something different. I knew the route since I had to take Hwy 63 to get back home to St. Louis. I passed Columbia many times but I never actually stayed there before. And wouldn’t there be a lot of coffee shops since Columbia is a much bigger college town than Kirksville? When I got to Columbia and settled in a coffee shop, I thought, what if I went to other towns and tried out their coffee shops? And that’s how I got into road tripping during college. I would look up towns, find good coffee shops, and first thing Saturday morning I was on the move.
Taking road trips was something I kept up with for the rest of my time at Truman. I’ve been to a lot of towns, usually within a two hour radius of Kirksville. And some of the places I went to was Quincy, Illinois. Keokuk, Iowa. Hannibal, Missouri. Jefferson City, Missouri. Burlington, Iowa. The farthest I’ve gone was Kansas City, Missouri, and Iowa City, Iowa.
Though I graduated college almost three years ago now, I still take road trips periodically, especially when I feel the need to get away. I’ll always love my road trips. By taking road trips and exploring I’ve discovered towns that have provided (or will provide) settings for the novels I’m working on. One day I promise I’ll talk all about that :D"
Hear Aura read her cento in my dreams.
Aura Martin is a writer from Missouri. She is the author of two poetry books, with a third forthcoming from ELJ Editions in 2022. Aura’s work has appeared in EX/POST, Kissing Dynamite, perhappened mag, and elsewhere. In her free time, she likes to run, read submissions at Flypaper, and take road trips to local coffee shops. Find Aura on Twitter @instamartin17.
Amy Cipolla Barnes
Cristina A. Bejan
Elizabeth M Castillo
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
Emily M. Goldsmith
Lukas Ray Hall
B. Tyler Lee
June Lin (mini)
Calia Jane Mayfield
Maria S. Picone
Charlie D’Aniello Trigueros
Heath Joseph Wooten