Shannon Barbour Speaks with Poet Asia Calcagno
Photo by Aris Theotokatos                                                                                                        
WTR: So, do ideas of place affect how you work and does that come into play in your writing? 

AC:  Absolutely. I started writing from a place of memory. I think I still do write from a place of memory, but space and home and dislocation has been something that has truly affected my own trajectory. And so writing, I think, inherently makes me come back to space, homes in which I’ve lived, or an idea of longing or ... fleeing really. So I think inherently, a home or place or a city, or memory is all kinds of interwoven for me.  It’s not something I can truly break from, where I think many writers could. But for me, it’s always-- I’ve never been afraid to kind of jump into experience in my own writing and craft. I mean, I think it’s something I often encourage other writers or students to be able to, to also latch on to. I have always written from what I knew, and for me, grappling with home or space is something that um- I don’t want to take on, something that maybe I’m not done exploring, if that makes any sense. 

WTR: That does. And I’ve heard you say, in the Bennington Salon, that you are interested in ideas of going backwards, which I thought was really interesting. I’ve obviously not read all of your work, but there seems to be a recurring theme of like dying and death. Do you think these are connected somehow, this theme and "going backward?" Or do you think that they’re opposite, or not opposite and unconnected? 

AC:   Dying and death as being opposite?

WTR: No, the idea of going backwards.

AC:  Interesting. I like the way that you, you position that question. To explain a little bit further, the idea of going backwards for me, I did a lot of research at Bennington, on the idea of the maverick, and aspects of resilience, particularly black resilience, and how that shows up in black writer's works. So, I think in very, uh, a plain way for me, I think I discovered that the idea of resilience and the maverick, that research I think, was also not just a research of understanding writing or understanding how it's displayed in writing, or craft, but also a way to kind of understand my own experience. So, the maverick, the idea of horses and calves being branded, is something that I've spent a lot of time researching, and that process just in itself, the idea of, you know, physically blistering an animal to be able to leave a mark, and what does that really do? And so, but also, the maverick is also the act of moving backwards, right? The herd is going one way, and then there's, you know, a sphere going in the opposite direction. What is that kind of do metaphorically? Or what is that saying metaphorically about journey or trajectory, or even survival? And so I think for me, it was a way of understanding how to actually do that in craft. And so maybe it is attached to the idea of survival. What are we surviving from? Is it, you know, surviving the death that's around us? The scope of death or the unknown?  Hopefully that answers the question, but a little bit of ab understanding of my going backwards, personally, I feel that everything that I have done in life has been the opposite of what was kind of handed to me. And so I explore that in writing. But I also see how many writers see their own writing as a way of survival or documentation, right? There's so much of history that I share, my personal identities and the intersectionalities of them, that have not quite been documented, and so my own writing is a way of trying to document what my survival has looked like or making sense of it.

WTR: My next question was, how are they connected, if at all, to ideas of womanhood and motherhood? Because I also kept seeing that coming up in a lot of your poems. And if it’s not at all connected, I mean, we can leave it there. 

AC:  I'm not a mother, but I think there are ways that I've had to mother myself.  And so, I love that my writing may be projecting that. I don't think it's something that maybe I'm intentionally doing in terms of motherhood, maybe even making sense of how motherhood has shaped me, or lack thereof. I think for womanhood, it's a way that I navigate, I think that I navigate the world first, as a black woman. I can't quite separate the two, but I know that my own, my own womanhood, is also something that can be jarring. I'm very blunt, I'm a fighter, I think that I display aspects of womanhood in a way that I, I accept how I might differ from a norm, and I embrace that, and I love, you know, just women across the spectrum who embrace that. Um, so it's undeniable (laughs), I think that I wrote so much even too about how chopping all of my hair off was just a way of kind of opening up a new door for me, and rejecting what has been projected onto me, and I think, you know, I can't speak for all women. And again, like, the spectrum is, you know, I'm a queer woman as well. And so there are many aspects of that, that I think inherently right, like how hair might even shape, um, the cultural thing too, you know, how my hair, even the texture, you know, changed, after, you know, I cut it off, and so I think there's a lot of resilience in that too. And culturally, a lot of individuals say, if you cut your hair, it means that there's something good on the other side, or you cut your hair, and you're reckoning with death. And so there's so much, right. I think that's attached to that, and that aspect of Maverick identity or resilience if you will.

WTR: Wow. Now I feel like all my other questions are pointless because that’s amazing. Um. I didn’t know that cutting the hair could mean that, all those reckonings. Okay, so from an early age, did you know that you wanted to be a writer? 

AC:  Yeah, um, from an early age, I was a huge reader. Um, yeah, mom would take me to the bookstore, and it's funny, there's a story, and I haven't thought about this for a long time 'cause I think when people ask me this question about, when did you want to become a writer, I never quite lead with that I was a big reader first. So, It's just funny that this is the first time that this is coming up. Um, yeah, I remember I got a bad grade in my reading class in third grade, and my mom was like, well, we have to go get you books. So I'm like, okay, and it was like a punishment, but it was the best thing for me. So I was just an avid reader, I would just sit in my room and read.  My childhood was basically reading, and so in high school, it was the first time that I had put a hand up actually writing. And it was the first time that I was passionate about something. And it was the first time that I realized I was good at something. For me writing was a way of --it felt like I couldn't do it in a wrong way. You know, I think a lot of-- and  as an educator, just realizing that so much of education is evaluation. I wasn't quite being evaluated on my creative writing, it was more so celebrated, and it was a culture that was constructed in that classroom. Um, it was a poetry unit when I first started writing, but I also grew up or was introduced to creative writing in a way that also married it with performance. And so, there was a culture of poetry slams at my high school, and I got selected to participate. And I did pretty well; I didn’t win, but it was the best feeling in the world to be able to be a part of that community. And I never left that. And that shaped my entire high school experience, and my college experience, and my career, and it was the most beautiful choice. So.

WTR: Wow, that’s fantastic to have known in that moment like that was it. Okay, so as an educator, how does that affect, does it have an effect, on your life as a writer or are they completely separate? And can you talk about that, what do you do as an educator? 

AC:   Yeah, for sure, um, it's always interesting to be asked about my, I guess, my professional trajectory, because it's very eclectic. And I'm okay with it (laughs). Um, so I... my first job, I was a high school teacher, and I (laughs), I mean, it's, it's interesting in that it was amazing being a teacher, but, it was also, you're never quite prepared. And so for teaching, right, in the classroom, I loved it, but I think that there were years where I had to put aside my own writing, and it was tough, right? You know, how do we ever balance a profession or work in a creative side, um, or creative life rather, so for years, it was kind of a push and pull.  But essentially, there are many things that I've done professionally: teaching in the classroom; I was a teaching artist; I also worked in higher ed; I do consulting; so, there are many things. But currently, what I do, I'm a director of programs at a writing organization, and it's a writing and publishing organization here in Chicago. And I also do independent consulting. So for me, I have always balanced creative life in writing with equity in education work. So I do many things, and I wear many hats, but for me, it's very connected. I have never believed that for my own experience, I have been able to separate ideas of equity, and inclusion, and creativity. And so, the many sectors that I have worked, right, I was an English teacher, I coached, I coached high school poetry slam and performance. Worked at the higher education level, I was, you know, trying to support spaces to be more inclusive and equitable for educators and for students. Individual coaching, working directly with students and supporting them in their own navigation of spaces, which meant that I was holding space for narrative and storytelling. So for me, it's always been -- I'm actively listening, and this is informing my own experience. I think even those moments, or those years, to be honest, when I wasn't writing, where I wasn't on a stage, um performing-- because there were many years where I was working and going to this performance and hopping on a bus to another state, to be able to do, you know, to serve as a guest artist, and I was also taking conference calls . But I think that there are many years I was hard on myself and saying I wasn't holding space for my own art. But in reality, I truly do believe that there was a lot of work to put in, to be able to hold space and amplify a vision for what the creative process means. I was at a Patricia Smith talk at the Poetry Foundation, it’s phenomenal. I'm so glad that she shared that because someone had asked her about her creative process, and she said I believe that anything -- I might be butchering it, and this is not verbatim, but she shared essentially, if I'm doing research or if I'm reading, or if I'm taking a walk, or these practices of her own wellness and mindfulness, she truly believes informs her, her process.  It doesn't always have to be the act of writing, doesn't always have to be, you know, journaling, or typing or editing. There are these other meaningful aspects of living, and I think I've had to adapt to that. I'm in people work, and so the people that I encounter, I truly believe inform my own experience. There are people I speak to who remind me of poems I’ve read. There are poems I've read that remind me of people I've met. And so hopefully-- I might have veered off a little bit, but I think that was more for me to hear than there may have been an answer. 

WTR: No I think I completely believe that. Um, I haven't heard it put quite like that. But I always, I always tell people, because sometimes, I don't spend quite as much time like behind the desk. And they say, Oh, I thought you had to work today. And I might be, you know, in the garden or something. And I say, Well, I am working. Um, it doesn't, you know, look like I'm working because I'm not at the computer, but I actually am doing the work that I need to do. Because this is like I'm actively writing even though I'm not actively writing. I've not heard it put as eloquently as that. But that was, that was great. And I like how you said that like you've met people who remind you of poems and vice versa. So what are you reading or what have you read? Do you read mostly poetry? Or do you read other stuff? 

AC:  Yeah, this is such a hard question, because this year has been hard for reading. I'll be honest. So there were years I think all I read, all I read, was poetry. And I'm glad going to Bennington I was pushed to read things that weren't just poetry. Um, I’ve been drawn to poetry because I am a poet, but I do, I do believe, that there's a voice in me that also plays with nonfiction since a lot of my work is memory. Um, who do I read? I read everyone.  I'm more so drawn to black writers, women-identified writers. If I were to say poet--, poems, poets, or writers who I am drawn to, I always lead with Yusef Komunyakaa, and it's actually the quote that's in my email.  I love Terrance Hayes, love Patricia Smith. I love bell hooks. I love--Lucille Clifton is a favorite. I think there are writers that I've returned back to, Zadie Smith, I love Zadie Smith. And I also just have many tattoos and a lot of my tattoos are writers who I love. I feel like I'm always collecting words, not just in my experience or on a bookshelf, but I'm my own person. And so, for me, those writers that I named, I have mantras that I return back to, but it has been hard this year. I can't quite identify a book that I-- the last book, All About Love by bell hooks is a book that I read this year, and I think it was a necessary book to read in quarantine. Zadie Smith's recent book, the title is . . .

WTR: Intimations?

AC:  Yes, Intimations.

WTR: I read it also.

AC:  Quarantine appropriate, and yeah, it's hard to to name-- I've been, I've been trying to expand outside of poetry just in that I know, there's a lot that's necessary where--. There are a lot of articles, and also just trying to expand to who is publishing online in this moment, right, who is publishing necessary work? That is in response to the times.

WTR: And that leads me to the next question: how has this year affected  your creative process?

AC:  Yeah. Because um, because I'm so deeply interested in the idea of resilience, I think a lot of my experience has been just thinking about how to recover. I personally have not lost anyone, but I do know people who have been affected, or, you know, lost individuals that they love, some one, or two, or three people, and it feels too close.  I think everything feels too close. And to also be in the work that I am in, working with schools and working with communities, it's way too close. And so, I think for me, I can't force myself to write or respond. I think I can only force myself to care. Writers are often the first responders.  They're often the ones who are here to put language to experience, and I know, as a woman, as a black woman, as a queer woman, I know too many folks who share my experience and identity, though very different, right? But still shared, who have to carry, and I'm tired of carrying, and I want to care for self. So a lot of this year has been shaped by overworking in a profession, but not overworking in my creative, and so I know many folks are saying, if you're tired at the end of the day, it's because you're not doing the thing that you love. And, I love the work I do. I also love creating, but I am a little bit lost for words and language because my mind is occupied with what survival and caring for myself looks like. So, I poured a lot of my time into therapy. I feel like my therapy sessions are also creative brainstorms, and it feels like I'm writing out loud when I speak in therapy. And I think for me, that is my practice. If anything, it might not be a space that I'm documenting, but it's a space where I'm sharing out loud, so I feel that it's as close as I can get to a page or a journal, even though it might not be quite the same. 

WTR: Well I hate to end on that note, so let’s move on to somewhere else.   Do you have a process for revision? Is it individual for each poem? Is there a typical thing that you go through?

AC:  I also had to think about that, too, I feel that this is something I need to create a process-- you know, actually I take that away, I take that back rather. Every poem is different for me. I think every poem will require something completely different. Considering I write so much about memory, or experience, or space, I think I tried to get those poems to the most accurate representations of that memory or space that I'm trying to construct, but there are  mentors who have also told me don't be too honest. So I've grappled with that. 

WTR: Really?

AC: I think my, my, yeah, I think my process is grappling with being accurate and honest, but not being too hung up on truth. It's a really interesting space, and this is actually recent. A recent mentor of mine just told me that in the past few years, but I will say that it has truly helped my writing. For me, I think I entered into poetry being told to write from what I know. And for me, my process has always been about the knowing, and then mentors I want to listen to, mentors I trust, are encouraging me not to worry about that. And that's a new space for me, and I think for me, I've never quite thought about my revision process. Yes, it's the line edits. Yes, it's the punctuation. Yes, it's about the structure on the page. Yes, it's about language and amplifying, and elevating and making my work sophisticated. But, I think I always forgot, sometimes when there is too much truth, you know, what can I take out? That maybe is, maybe it's too stuck in that house. And I think that's true. For me, I think my process is trying to understand how to get it to a place where it's not so constrained. But then for me, I think constraint-- I am putting pressure on my work. But maybe the truth is, it's making it feel too tight. Hopefully that makes sense.

TWR: That makes a ton of sense. So is the speaker always, always you?

AC: Hmm, no.

WTR: Okay.

AC:  The speaker is usually a version of me. 

WTR: A version of you.

AC:  But I do love playing around with persona, and there are voices that I think who are, um--  Voices I know, voices I'm trying to get to understand.   Voices, um --I've played around a lot with celebrity voice, which has been fun. I made a Kanye West series of poems. It was tough, but I did a series of R Kelly poems. So I mean, there are voices that I think are so layered that I need to get out of my own head and play around with--the voices with the people or the things that might scare me. But um, yeah, it's not always me, and it's interesting that so many folks do think poems, poets, are always speaking from a place of self. But it's maybe an exploration, maybe it is my voice and a space I've never been, or a place I've never been, but it's not always me. And I don't want it to always be me, but that took many years to kind of get out of. 

Shannon Barbour is a MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars and writes essays and poems. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and daughter. 

©2020 West Trade Review
Asia Calcagno is an awarded writer and equity and inclusion educator from Chicago. She has utilized writing as a tool for liberation and dialogue for the past 10 years. Her work has been featured in POETRYThe Golden Shovel Anthology, Smartish Pace, riverSedgeHartskill ReviewHeart JournalLearn Then Burn 2, and various other journals and has been recognized by the Academy of American Poets. Over the years, she has founded youth poetry education programs in Connecticut and Chicago and performed locally and abroad in spaces such as the Brave New Voices poetry festival, the Poetry Foundation of Chicago, the Taste of Chicago, and Queen Elizabeth Hall. She was featured in The Limited’s national New Look of Leadership campaign which features women-identified leaders in the Chicago area. Asia holds an MFA from Bennington College and leads professional developments centering storytelling as a tool for cross-cultural dialogue to create more effective educational spaces.   Her poems, "Antumbra," "The Passage of the Cow," and "The Sound of Stone" are forthcoming in the spring 2021 edition of West Trade Review.
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