Month: April 2022

Rife with Ghosts: Curtis Smith Interviews Maya Workowski

Maya Workowski’s work has been published by Wingless Dreamer Press, Polaris, and New Voices, among others. She graduated cum laude from Franklin & Marshall College with Departmental Honors in Creative Writing. Her debut book is out now. You can find her on TikTok at @thatbipoet. To find out more, you can visit her website here

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Quiver. I really enjoyed it. This is your first collection, and many first collections come with their own backstories. Can you tell us about the journey from your desk to publication?

Maya Workowski: Thank you! I feel like the journey began when I first started going to Catholic church as a kid. It began again when I had a spiritual awakening after a long period as some cross between agnostic and atheist (about seven years). It began for the final time when I started writing these poems, about three years ago. It’s strange; I wouldn’t raise my own kids Catholic, but I’m happy I personally had that experience. Have that experience early on has allowed me to see growth in myself revolving around conceptions of divinity. Now I see divinity as a much more inclusive framework that includes Tarot, pendulums, spirits, reiki, psychics, witchcraft, the human body and disabling oppressive social systems.

CS: Your epigraph is from Anne Sexton. She’s one of my all-time favorites. When did you discover her? What about her work speaks to you? She’s been gone a long time—yet I find her poems still resonate with my students. What about her work feels relevant all these years later?  

MW: You actually introduced me to her! I didn’t know of her work or her friendship with Sylvia Plath until I read her anthology of life’s work. I feel like that quote of hers was perfect for what I wanted to convey in this book. It was a perfect starting point to get the reader in sync with me and the pages that followed. I even like how she weaves together love & prayer so simply; they really are one in the same and I loved seeing another person express that. So it was a moment of identification for me, and a chance to sync-in for the reader.  

I think that her work still feels relevant because she writes on classic conundrums of the human condition. Yet she does it in her own way. I feel she uses the personal to express the universal, and that by nature is appealing.

CS: I felt myself very grounded in these backdrops—and while setting might not be as elemental in poetry as in fiction, I still felt a strong pull of place. Can you discuss setting and its role in your work? 

MW: For me, places in real life are always rife with ghosts. I can’t look at a setting and not see, feel, hear memories—everywhere. So I wanted to really have the reader feel memories via place in this collection. So much of the collection is about loss and renewal. What better way to express that than through the amazing thing that is object permanence and personal attachment?

CS: The manuscript features a number of very cool photos. Can you discuss the relationship between the poems and these images and your decision to use these photos?

MW: Thank you! I’m always very interested in multimedia art. Stories can be told so many different ways, and I felt like the photographs enriched the story. Added a bit more whimsy and sparked more ways the poems fit together. I kind of wanted to make a film inside a book. I’m also really inspired by the ethereal nature & aesthetic of bedroom pop, so I wanted to include that in my own way.

CS:”The American” is based on “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman. I’m always interested in how a writer views this kind of structure. Is their work a kind of leaping off point? Do you view your piece as an homage? A companion piece? A kind of conversation?

MW: I personally view it as homage. That film was so meaningful to me, aesthetically and thematically. There’s one scene specifically that did such a great job of portraying the quickened pulse & softness of first queer loves; Elio & Oliver are sitting in Oliver’s room at midnight, not really talking but letting their energy communicate. I was thinking of that scene as aesthetic inspiration for lots of different poems in the book, especially “The American.” Another really meaningful scene is when Elio enters the bedroom that he and Oliver kind of shared for the first time since Oliver has left. He’s just standing in the doorway looking at all these “ghosts” before him: the sand that was shaken out of both their bathing suits, an askew chair that was touched by someone no longer present, the smell of Oliver, the memories. The nothingness and the everythingness all at once. It was the first time I saw a visual representation of ghosts that felt really right—because as a viewer, we get to see how much there was before there was nothing. In that sense, I really drew on the feelings of that movie as a permission slip for the kind of ghosts in my book. I think that art inspired by a different work then enters this larger conversation, both as products and with those who engage with the material.

CS: I loved the flow and images of “Cupid’s Orchestra,” and as I revisited it, I thought again of form, and I wondered when form comes to you? Do you start with it then bend your words to fit? Or do you just let things flow and then find form rising organically from the page? 

MW: I actually wrote that one in like 5 minutes! It’s funny, the poems of mine that I view as best-executed in their form are usually the ones that take the least time. I don’t really know why that is, but I know that that can’t be the process all the time. There are poems in the book that took me weeks to write, and they make up the majority of the content. That’s just the way it is.

Those quick ones are the gems of the collection, though. Their birth is quick and I feel like that carries over to the pace a lot of the time, and how the reader ends up physically breathing through the poem. In Cupid’s Orchestra, for example, it moves very quickly because the poem is quite vertically-oriented and you end up out of breath while reading it as a result. Usually form comes intuitively for freeform work, so it works in tandem with the words. I would say it usually leads the words and let it flow organically.   

CS:I often talk to my students about access points. Do you have a go-to access point–image, rhythm, tone? If so, how do the other elements fall into place?

MW: I love access points! It’s how we connect with our divine ability to experience art, and how interpretation is formed. Access points for me include meditation, visualization, songs, photography. I will also sing the praises of writing exercises until the day I die, which is another great access point—especially when they are guided by other people. They are different than writing prompts. Writing exercises are a nice glass of dry, red wine whereas writing prompts are a long island iced tea or something. Writing exercises will always be my favorite form of access point.

I would say the constant in my access points is that they change every time I sit down to write. And that’s what I love about poetry. It’s different every time, and it keeps me guessing. It becomes its own entity that can guide the creator.

CS: You wrestle with some weighty currents here—sex, religion—can I pose a similar question as I did about form and ask when theme comes to you? I work from the fiction/nonfiction end of things—and for me, theme is something that often hits later in the process—but I’m wondering if it’s different for poets?

MW: I do wrestle with some weighty topics here. Theme comes to me when I can’t stop thinking about something. When I have an obsession, I know that’s the theme to write about. One of my favorite mentors said to always write about your obsessions. It made me embrace a part of my mind I had always viewed critically before. But now, I see obsessions as something to investigate further, with curiosity. So, theme is the basis upon which everything else rests. Because poetry is such a short medium, you have to know exactly what you’re trying to say, and then say it the most elegant way you can. With this collection specifically, I didn’t know I was obsessed with Catholicism & my departure from it until I started writing and it poured out organically.

CS: What’s next?

MW: Sharing poetry on tiktok and hopefully another collection in a few years. 🙂