Featured Writer: CONVERSATION WITH HOLLY IGLESIAS
I thought I knew how fortunate I was to hold Holly Iglesias’ Souvenirs of a Shrunken World in my hands, to hear her read from her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café,… Friday, April 10, 2009
I thought I knew how fortunate I was to hold Holly Iglesias’ Souvenirs of a Shrunken World in my hands, to hear her read from her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, and to carry my own copy home to read, savor, learn from, re-read; but I didn’t actually know just how fortunate I was, or how unlikely it had repeatedly seemed to Holly that anyone other than herself would hold her collection of prose poems in hand and in heart. That seemingly unlikely occurrence was one topic of our conversation as we drank coffee together this sunny morning in April.
Holly began by telling me how much she loves paper objects, spiral notebooks with tabs, vintage images, and other paper memorabilia. Her love of paper objects has, among other things, led her to create and find poems, engaged her attention as an historian, drawn her to specific research projects and well-stocked archives, and awakened in her the spirit of an entrepreneurial artist. She had no experience of arts or crafts as a child, yet as an adult, Holly invented an artistic way of moving through times when she was not writing. One of her activities was cutting along the outlines of original vintage illustrations (for example, of women in ecstasy over a new floor polish or a gleaming stove) and removing those images from what Holly calls their original creepy context. Then she created a new context for the illustrations, in poetry and small handmade books. Those creations became a kind of writing without writing. They were paper art objects she could and did sell. Her favorite raw materials for those poems and handmade books were junior high school home economics manuals, how to be popular handbooks, cleanliness and hygiene books, from the 1910s through the 1960s — and nothing seemed more fun to her than destroying [the original] contexts! Her handmade thematic chapbooks included such titles as Conversion of the Barbarians (about her experience in Catholic school), Saints in a Drift (about living in Vermont), and On Becoming (about adolescence).
In addition to her handmade books, Holly made craft [sic] singles (yes, singles analogous to a well-known brand name of individual portions of processed cheese). Holly’s version of a single was one poem on a handmade bookmark. For her singles production, she says she was always looking for found poems. An example is the index of icings in The Joy of Cooking. In Holly’s singles period, fellow poet Chuck Czerby observed that as writers, they would probably never earn much money, but with the small books and singles, they could at least be poets making a bit of money on art objects!
More than paper objects, vintage illustrations and photos, and even poetry, Holly loves history. For her, Poetry is a portal to history, and for Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, she undertook extensive research in the library and archives of the Missouri History Museum. The poetry manuscript she originally submitted for publication included an introduction and notes, which the publisher and book designer recommended she remove from the published book, to let the poems stand as poems — as they certainly do. Nevertheless, the full notes for Souvenirs of a Shrunken World remain available online at click here.
I like to read notes, and after hearing Holly present and read from her book, I wanted to learn more. For me, as a native Californian who encountered only brief and passing mention of the 1904 World’s Fair in school textbooks, the Fair had never before seemed a compelling historic event. Now it does. I also wanted to know more about Holly’s background as an historian and about her stated goal to convince academia and the museum world that creative writing and historical archives are natural partners and mutually beneficial . (Voices Online Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society,Splendors of a Transitory Paradise, Fall/Winter 2008-09)
At age 30, Holly Iglesias was awarded a scholarship to complete a master’s degree in history, and she has taught history for many years. (She currently teaches in the master of liberal arts program at the University of North Carolina – Asheville.) Just as important as her formal education in history is that, according to Holly, her whole family is steeped in history, especially local history, and in stories. She easily retells family stories and elaborates on details and larger themes of local history — in so compelling a way that her listeners inevitably tell her, You should write about this. Yet according to Holly, The narrative thing doesn’t work for me. In contrast, Poetry is an experience in itself; empathy lives in poetry. She began writing poems that come out of history and found that history led to a poetry full of life. Conversely, because in poetry each word is doing a lot of work, readers participate in the meaning of the poem, and poetry becomes a powerful way in to history. Holly has also found that primary historical materials are a rich source of “‘found poems’ [that] offer access to a sensibility and immediate experience of another time.
Still, Holly’s journey from historian to poet was not direct. She did a lot of writing as a ‘hobby’ when she was young. Later, she worked as a reporter and feature writer. Not incidentally, she spent many years as a wife and mother, and only much later did she participate in a writing group in which she was encouraged to take your writing seriously, Holly. This is poetry! Eventually, she returned to graduate school, intending to write creative nonfiction. She took a poetry writing course, too, but found poetry too precious. She noticed, though, that her writing became shorter and shorter.
Finally, she left the creative writing emphasis behind and stepped into a doctoral program in interdisciplinary studies. She completed a dissertation that became a published book of literary criticism, Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry. Holly deeply appreciated the work of the women writers she cited in her book. They wrote visceral poems about real things and experience. Their poems reminded Holly of her parents’ insistence on family history, on the history of St. Louis, on the physical locations of historical events in St. Louis, and on the importance of place, place, place, throughout the city. She recalled her father’s refrain as they visited each place: This is history! This is history! Holly had inherited the belief that the small things make history real. She determined to write her own prose poems fed by those historical small things. At the time, prose poems weren’t commonly published in this country.
It remains difficult to publish a first book of any kind of poetry, because, as I learned from Holly, First books of poetry are primarily published through the contest system. Repeated submissions to contests require a substantial commitment of time and also of financial resources. With contest fees, postage, and printing costs, a poet may easily spend $1,000 and still not have a manuscript published. Holly submitted Souvenirs of a Shrunken World to 36 different contests (each requiring fees) before her book earned the 2008 Kore Press First Book Award. Along the way, she received encouraging notes in letters of congratulations that [her] manuscript was a finalist in some of the earlier contests. Most importantly, she herself believed in her book.
One happy consequence of winning a poetry prize and having a first book published by a recognized press is that an author may find it easier to publish a subsequent book or books. In the cover letter she sent to publishers with her second poetry manuscript, Holly was able to mention the Kore Press publication of Souvenirs of a Shrunken World. Her second book was taken in a mere six weeks, at one of the first four presses to which she had sent it. Watch for that book, Angles of Approach (White Pine Press), at your favorite independent bookstore in 2011!
Recalling her years as a wife and mother, Holly notes that she became a parent young and that her own intellectual life was redirected to support [her] husband’s career. She undertook useful paid work outside the home, but that work was neither intellectually stimulating nor intellectually demanding. Of her current work and life in poetry, she says, These poems have been developing for 40 years, and the tension has built. They are ready to come out. When I sit down to write, I write! Hers is not at present the often romanticized story of the poet in anguish, suffering over each word, despairing of ever capturing the luminous moments. She is steadfast in her belief, in her practice, and in the primary commitment that informs her writing and teaching. For instance, she has developed a course called The Luminous Moment, that examines major themes in U.S. history through seven collections by contemporary poets (Rita Dove, Frank X Walker, Thylias Moss, Diane Gilliam, Ellen Bryant Voigt, A. Van Jordan, Martha Collins).
Moreover, she has joined the ranks of academia and the museum world gathered together and published together on at least one relatively recent occasion. One of the 2004 issues of Gateway (a quarterly publication of the Missouri Historical Society) was dedicated to the 1904 World’s Fair. Primarily a collection of scholarly articles by historians, that issue of Gateway includes an archival photograph next to the title page for each article, and (in a first-time Gateway publication of poetry) a Holly Iglesias poem is superimposed on each photograph. At a reading hosted by the Missouri Historical Society on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the 1904 World’s Fair, Holly saw writing and history come full circle and back to the world we live in now. Holly told me the story of that circling back; briefly, it is this:
A middle school is now built on the site of the former Philippine Reservation at the 1904 World’s Fair. A teacher at that middle school, in a unit on place, led her students in an investigation of their school’s location and history. As part of their investigation, the students corresponded with current leaders of the Igorot tribe in the Philippines. The students wanted to know, do the Igorots recall when members of their tribe were taken to the Philippine Reservation at the Fair? The Igorots’ reply: yes, and the tribe holds an annual memorial service to honor its members who died at the Fair. — At the same centennial event at which Holly read her poetry, members of the Igorot tribe were present as invited guests. They offered a traditional dance of forgiveness for the harm to and deaths of Igorots at the 1904 Fair. One hundred years after the Fair, leaders of the City of St. Louis reciprocated with, in Holly’s words, a ceremony of healing, reconciliation and long-overdue celebration.
Many of those who experienced the 1904 Exposition as observers and tourists would finally be Reconciled to the end of the Fair. / Passed into history, vanished like a thing of air. Others grieved its loss, were not easily reconciled, and knew, It cannot even be hinted at by words (Attempting the Impossible, Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, p.87). But Holly Iglesias, herself attempting the impossible in a different way, leaves behind the use of superlatives (ibid.) and demonstrates, over and over again, that the compact souvenirs embodied in poetry can expand and illuminate, possibly more than we ever imagined, our sense of history, our sense of the world, our sense of wonder — and also our awareness of our own ignorance, blindness, heedless cruelty, the dangers of our grandiose assumptions, how little we know of others beyond our own dangerously shrunken worlds.
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