Curtis Smith Interviews Tricia Crawford Coscia

image0Tricia Crawford Coscia recently graduated from Bluegrass Writers Studio’s MFA Program and writes mostly while commuting to and from her job with Witness to Innocence, where she supports exonerated death-row survivors in their action and advocacy to end the death penalty. Her first book, The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own was published in fall, 2019 by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in A & U: America’s AIDS Magazine, Connecticut River Review, Many Colored Brooms, Parting Gifts (March Street Press), the anthology 50/50: Poems & Translations by Women Over 50 (Quills Edge Press), Peregrine Journal, and The Chaffin Journal. Tricia was a finalist for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in Poetry in 2019, runner-up for Bucks County, PA Poet Laureate in 2017 and 2019. Tricia lives in Morrisville, PA with her husband Joe, their children and a menagerie.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own. I thought many of the poems were really wonderful. I’m always interested in hearing about a book—especially a first book’s—journey. How did you end up working with Finishing Line?

Tricia Crawford Coscia: The book emerged from my MFA thesis, and would not have gelled without the nurturing, influence and wise critique of teachers and fellow poets in the Bluegrass Writers Studio, a low residency program at Eastern Kentucky University. While the poems are not physically set in Kentucky, the collection was seeded there, fed and watered by a community of writers connected to land, loss, recovery and humanity. Kentucky seemed like an apropos home for the book, and the work felt compatible with some of Finishing Line’s other titles.

More practically, Finishing Line has a free reading period in November, and submission fees for a full manuscript were not in my budget. (Side note: I do not begrudge small presses charging submission fees, they need them to survive and they provide an important venue for work, poetry that may not otherwise get out in the world.)

CS: I first knew you as a visual artist. Were you also writing poetry at that time? Or was there an evolution from your visual work to writing poetry? If so, can you tell us about that? Do you see any ways in which the two art forms are related? In terms of sitting down and doing the work, how are the two processes alike? How are they different?

TCC:I always loved writing, and even more so, reading, and at the same time visual art influences in my life were strong. When I was young, before art school, I had ample access to museums and art materials. My mother, sister and brother-in-law were artists, and I understood art as an occupation. It was an exciting time for visual art, very tangible to me. I think I am a kinetic learner, so I loved, and still do, the tactile and physical creation of imagery—hands in clay, moving a brush through thick paint, knotted string, even the sting of photo chemicals in the darkroom. It fascinates me that all people draw, just naturally, even if only with a stick in dirt. I wonder if all people write, even if in secret.

I gravitated toward art that incorporates language – Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, the brief utterances in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. For my own work, I might have been intimidated by language. I could express myself in images more abstractly; stay inside a sort of protective cloud. There were things I wanted to remain hidden inside me. Over time, I wrote in scraps here and there, but never thought of it as poetry to be shared.

My day jobs involved supporting artists and helping other people access means to create. There wasn’t a lot of space for my own work—that is not a regret, just a fact. I think the first real poems grew out of starting a family- trying to find metaphor for the terror, ache and ecstasy of fierce love, being responsible for bringing other beings into the world and helping them navigate it. With four children, maybe I just needed something portable, that I can do in my head, jot down in the margin of a work document or speak a quick phrase into my phone now and then. The poetry has stayed—in the recesses of my brain, in how I think. There’s more there than I could ever write down. A lot of it gets forgotten.

When I sit down to capture a poem, it is not much different than working with paint or clay. There will be a line, an image or an idea, and I start with it and let the rest emerge. At times I already have much of it in my head before I write. As I write I feel it, and I have to let myself explore that. I still hide behind imagery. Metaphor can be great armor. Then there’s the crafting of it- once I understand what it is becoming, I get more technical- sound, line breaks, getting rid of the unnecessary. When I painted, I found it hard to know when a painting was finished. It’s like that with poems, as well. I once went through a manuscript with a teacher and took out almost all the end lines – because the poems had already ended. Some of those end lines became titles, because they really were just naming what I had already said.

CS: There’s a strong sense of narrative in these pieces—in fact, I felt like many read like short stories. Do you agree with this? When creating your poems, do you find yourself drawn to narrative and other elements we most readily identify with fiction?

TCC: I do agree that there is a strong sense of narrative, and many of the poems derive from specific events or stories, or elements within stories. I often work from a moment or an image that is part of a larger story, although maybe not enough to be a short story in itself without expansion. I am interested in the details and the underpinnings—they are not literal; often the pronouns refer to a collective “you”, for example, rather than one identified person. This collection has several narrative threads- different poems connect to a larger narrative, although not in the way of a specific story trajectory. There is a thread of personal loss, the loss of specific people; a thread of communal loss such as through war, racism and privileged disconnection; and a smaller thread of hope and recovery through resilience of the human spirit and natural world. 

CS: I’m always fascinated by structure and form—and after reading your collection, I’m guessing you are as well. Can you talk a little about this—how you determine which forms work best for a certain piece—and what form and structure can, if used wisely, bring to a poem?

TCC: A lot of the choice of form is kinetic- what feels like the right way for these particular words to move for the reader, or for the reader to move through the poem. Sometimes that requires steady, even, consistent couplets and at other times white space and indentation to create disruption, a forced halting or breath. I’ve learned to always read the poems out loud and that helps me to determine the form. I usually try a poem in a number of different forms before I arrive at the final version, relying a lot on instinct as to what feels right.

Sometimes that means making order out of something vague or chaotic, as in “She Imagines Herself Breathing”. I allowed the form to twist and shift a bit in “The Soft Spot” in the way of the malleability of memory. “Rules of Engagement for Combat Robots” gives weight to the left-justified commands, the imperatives that begin each stanza. Then indenting the subsequent lines allows a pause, a slowing down for the thoughts that follow. “Secret Weapons” takes a more literal visual form. It is a poem about (in short) young adult women choosing IUDs for birth control out of fear for their rights after the 2016 election. Playing with the form, I centered it, not something I’d usually do. The stanzas formed feminine shapes like hips or uteruses, but it was when I noticed they also looked like shields that I decided to go with it- it felt like it gave the words some power, like amulets.

CS: Then there’s a larger question of structure. The book is broken into twelve sections. Can you share how this came to you? Was this part of the plan from the start—or did it arise later as you were putting the book together? What was your goal in utilizing this kind of framework?

TCC: The book went through many iterations of structure, including a more chronological version and a thematically ordered version. Young Smith, my thesis mentor and poetry professor (and a wonderful poet) helped me see the threads, and then benefit of stretching out and interweaving them rather than compartmentalizing. There is an obscure narrative in the text of the section breaks, which was originally a longer, narrative poem. In grappling with that I realized it had a trajectory that connected with the larger collection and decided to break it up in that way to help tie the poems together and create a larger narrative thread. It was written about the loss of a specific friend, but the central feeling applies to the loss of others. Through that, I was able to coalesce the different people addressed as “you” into a kind of collective “you” of lost ones.

CS: There’s a lot of the natural world in these pieces. Can I assume you take inspiration there? If so, can you explore/explain?

TCC: Growing up, at first, we were close to the ocean, then we moved a few times, but my mother always made sure we were adjacent to woods. I am one of eight siblings, so solitude was rare, but I could always wander off in the woods. In a big family it is easy to go unnoticed for a while. A lot of my childhood memories are of the natural world—things on the ground, leaves, sticks and shells, paths through the woods, tumbling in the breakers. I learned to swim in the Long Island Sound, rather than a chlorinated pool. I’ve had the privilege of access to mountains, streams and oceans, and a fearless mother who held snakes and fed raccoons by hand off our back porch. Spiders were rescued in cups and put outside. My father had a terrible fear of dogs but could imitate bird calls and would converse with them. We always understood that we are part of, not apart from, the natural world, so I guess it is inseparable from my work. At the same time, I’ve watched familiar landscapes eroded by suburban encroachment, wider highways and ridiculously large houses. I think a lot about all the little things underfoot – like the tiny frogs in the Poconos you can’t avoid, honeybees in the clover (there used to be so many more of them).

CS: What’s next?

TCC: The previous question is an appropriate segue for this one, as the current collection I’m working on is rooted in the natural world, especially in the current threat we face in climate change and its intersections with social injustice. The work takes form in both poetry and prose and is kind of pre and post-apocalyptic, written from several perspectives – a reminiscing “me”, a present me, and a great grandmother me.  It deals with the direct, detailed human impact on specific places and ecosystems, survival (not always human) and resilience.

Part of the process for the new collection is a running conversation in imagery and text between my husband and I. Joe is a photographer and he documents the landscape along the Northeast Corridor train line, an eco-system I became familiar with as a child traveling between Long Island and the Philadelphia suburbs. He sends photos on his way to NY while I am commuting to Philadelphia and I respond to an image with poetry in the form of texts. The photos, (great on their own), for me spark memories of that same landscape from earlier times, awareness that much of the New Jersey coastline and long Island will likely be going under. (For a look at the photos that have inspired some of my work, check out his Instagram @joseph.coscia)

Poems in The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own that grew from this conversation and are precursors to the new work are Branches in the Swamp/Roots in the Sky, The Clay will be Our Salvation, Ignore the Expiration Date. It is very much a work in progress, but the environment, seas and different species seem to be developing as characters in themselves. Tucked within poems are “recipes” from the natural world, for surviving things like floods and Neo-Nazi invasions. It has taken me to some strange places, listing everyday objects that can be weapons, perusing survivalist websites, understanding the effects of poisonous and medicinal herbs. I think a lot of what came out in The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own has liberated me for this next adventure.

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