Soon After First Light: Deborah Paredez
BY Nicole Saldarriaga, April 8, 2021
Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors.
Here, we talk with Associate Professor Deborah Paredez about closing doors, eschewing capitalist ideals of productivity, and keeping a low overhead.
Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collections, This Side of Skin (Wings Press 2002) and Year of the Dog (BOA Editions 2020), and of the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (Duke 2009). Her poetry and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization dedicated to Latinx poets and poetry. She holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Theatre and Performance Studies from Northwestern University. Deborah is currently working on a book of essays about divas.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Deborah Paredez: When I'm in the middle of the project, I'm still ultimately someone who has a kid. So, like many parents, what that usually entails is finding whatever pocket of the day I might sort of dip into briefly. Even when there's time, even when I'm immersed, there's often not huge swaths of time. So, after parenting I really had to change my relationship to my process, which before was all about needing huge moments of uninterrupted time. Now what I'm finding is I can actually go in for a quick session and try to be as immersed as possible and then lift out of it.
What hasn't changed is I've never been a very early morning person, like my husband and many other writers. That has not ever worked for me. If it did, I'm sure I would be producing many more books (laughs), but I've never been someone who got up at four and worked from four to six before my kid got up, which I know a lot of parents do. I am someone who works late at night. That might be because I live in the house with my husband who's an early riser, so I feel like there's something about that time late at night when nobody else is awake. It’s a very quiet time for me. When I am in the midst of something, I generally tend to work in silence and I like to work at home; but when I'm revising, I found in pre-pandemic times I would get on the subway and just ride and work on the project in my head as a way of revising. So, now I'll just take walks. Moving my body is the way I often try to at least launch into the beginnings of revisions. There is something energetically about moving your body or being moved in the case of the train (laughs)—it's being transported. There is something about being in that kinesthetic space and letting the brain rest and be moved along on its own waves that I find is really crucial for me in that process of not just generation, but movement in the work itself.
So, did the pandemic lockdowns affect that process for you?
DP: There were a number of things that upended the process. One of them was absolutely not being able to be regularly on the train, which I find so generative. That halted a lot of the things I was doing. There are a number of things that happened for me in this past year that also disrupted it. One was having a kid at home all day, initially, in Zoom school. Even for my husband, he usually works at cafes. So now everybody was at home and I’m thinking, Oh no, I need silence. I need my space. I don't want to hear the refrigerator hum when I'm working, you know?
So that upended things. The other thing that upended things was just the sheer terror and grief that I think suspended a lot of us. Third, I had a book that came out in April of last year, which was pretty much one of the worst times to have a book come out (laughs). That meant that I was in the mode of promoting the book. I find that when you're in that phase of the production of things, it's not the most generative time. So, all of those things together made it difficult to do the work of revising the projects I’m working on now.
Do you have a routine that you follow? How does that routine help you "stick to" your work?
DP: I am definitely a person of ritual. I love rituals of all kinds. I like to use number one pencils. I remember reading when I was younger that Donald Hall used number one pencils, and thinking, What are number one pencils? I researched them and I love how they're soft, they’re smudgy, but they write dark. So, I do love to have my number one pencils sharpened and my yellow pad as clean as possible. I'm very tactile. I have a history in performance as well as in writing, so I'm very embodied in my relationship to work. I am also definitely someone who likes to have the ability to print out as I'm going and hand write, then type, kind of going back and forth.
I sometimes will do some breath and movement work before or during writing, just to ground myself. I'm not particularly adept at it or enlightened in any way, but it does help center me. Most importantly, I like to shut the door and feel that I've carved the space out.
That reminds me of a question a professor asked when Columbia went remote—"Do you have a door to close?"
DP: That's such a good question. Sometimes I would be working and my daughter would be working three feet away from me, even though we have doors to shut—I feel very grateful that we have doors to shut—but sometimes she'd want to be in the same room with me and I would have to metaphysically close the door. It’s important to think about what that means and how to close that door and to mark that space. To say, I’m not available.
In 2009, you co-founded CantoMundo, an advocacy and community-building organization for Latinx poets, and you worked as one of its co-directors for ten years. Was it difficult to also carve out space for your personal writing during this time?
DP: Thank you so much for that question. It's such an important question for so many folks who are doing important advocacy work. On the one hand, my work with CantoMundo really was incredibly generative for me as a person and as a writer invested in community formation and invested in really trying to change not just the landscape of American poetry, but also to change the sort of valuation system that we often put on it. It was deeply an act of service. But this happens with so many people—if you had told me at the outset how much work and how much time and how much of my life would be taken up by this…(laughs). It was great not knowing all that at the beginning, because then you just take it as it comes.
What that meant was it did have consequences for my own work, and it meant that there were many years of not producing—at least not as quickly as I wanted to, whatever capitalist ideals that idea comes from. So, yes, there were times when my own personal advancement in my career—at least in my writing, even in just producing the poems—it didn't happen as abundantly perhaps as I might have wanted. However, I also feel that doing that work with CantoMundo was such an important reminder about, well, What is the work we want to do as writers in the profession? It can't always be quantified by the number of publications, nor should it be. For me, sometimes there just wasn't a balance. It meant that one thing took over for a while.
Were you ever hard on yourself for not producing more of your own work during that time?
DP: I was on a call yesterday with a number of literary organizations for an organizing work I do, and someone brought up the kind of ableist thinking and language that we often have toward, “getting back to things” or “working on our work.” It's both ableist and capitalist in all the worst kinds of ways. So I think it’s important to try to interrogate that kind of thing or to understand that sometimes these ideas are things that are being imposed on us. But I will say this about my own career: I was trained as a performance scholar. So, in the first phase of my career, I was very much in a scholarly mode of producing scholarship and doing that work within theater programs and ethnic studies. For many years, between the publication of my first book in 2002, until the publication of my scholarly book in 2009, I was in an academic scholarly mode and really neglecting my poetry. I remember when my book about Selena came out, I was really full of grief because I thought Oh my God, I'm no longer a poet. I haven't done this in so long.
And I remember taking a workshop taught by a friend and she said, “You're writing poetry. You're a poet.” Once you're the writer, you're always the writer. Writers, write, so you need to write; but publishing is its own other thing. Still, even the idea that you have to be writing all the time, I think that can be ableist. It’s not acknowledging all the various components to our process of creation. In the years when I was doing CantoMundo, there was a similar kind of feeling sometimes—the thoughts that all the work I was doing wasn’t my writing. I wasn’t producing much, so I felt like a sham, or I felt like folks were going to figure out that I'm not really worthy of whatever—fill in the blanks. Part of being a writer is feeling those things, holding those feelings of being an impostor or not producing enough. It's our responsibility and our task—which is extremely difficult—to understand that those feelings are really just capitalist ideology. It’s all very much like saying that you need to be productive on certain terms in order to be a valuable human being, a valuable writer.
A lot of this has also coincided with an era, in the last 20 years, of the professionalization of the field and the vast proliferation of MFA programs and PhD programs for creative writing. Now there's this pressure to produce this to get to this stage and then this stage and that stage. I was fortunate, being in generation X, to grow up with models like Grace Paley and Audre Lorde—folks that may not have had, for better or worse, that same relationship to institutions or institutionalization. What that meant is it didn't matter if you had a degree. If you were writing, you were a writer. There are pluses and minuses to that because it meant that a lot of folks didn't actually make a living in ways that would help their health or their livelihood. But I think all of these factors do bear upon us and we have to understand them as these forces that are bearing down on us, then ask, What can I put in place as a barrier between myself and those things? Because the one thing capitalism can't take from us is the joy in the writing. The pleasure and the exhilaration we get when we finally get the line right or when we finally figure out how this character is going to work or whatever. If you're feeling that occasionally (laughs), then you're good!
Your most recent book, Year of the Dog, is such an amazing combination of poems—many of them about mythical female figures—and your father's Vietnam photography. What was the process of creating the book like?
DP: The book came together very quickly once I surrendered to it. On the other hand, it's a book I feel that I've been writing my whole life. When I was young in the seventies and early eighties, I remember feeling like the legacy of Vietnam was living on in our household, but not being spoken about. So, intuitively, the poet in me kind of knew that perhaps the key to unlocking some of this was to sneak into my dad's office and pour over his Vietnam photographs—thinking that maybe in them, I might find an answer.
Many, many years later, I felt like I had to go back to that originary moment to also sort through what I feel has been a preoccupation of mine, which is women bearing witness to disaster. In this case, it was me as the daughter bearing witness to the legacies of the disasters of war. So, I think that that book, as much as it's about my father, it's also about being a daughter and the witnessing of that—and therefore putting myself in this legacy of many women who have borne witness to disaster, especially women who are often seen as outsiders or racial others.
What was interesting for me with that book was I kept thinking, Oh, I'm done with this topic of Vietnam and my dad, I already wrote about that. I'm done with it. All those years of saying I was done with it meant that I actually wasn't. Ultimately, I surrendered to the topic and said, I may be done with it, but it's not done with me. So I'm going to just lean into that. That is part of how it came together.
What was the drafting and editing process like for a book like Year of the Dog?
DP: There's that famous line, right? You put a comma in in the morning and then you take it out at night and that's a good day. But I do think that it varies not only from poet to poet, but certainly from project to project. For this book, the process of revision could be about first figuring out what form this poem is seeking to take. For example, the first poem in the book is a villanelle—a form of a poem that has a lot of repetition in it and a lot of rhyme in it. That poem is from a feminist perspective of Lot's wife. What if we think about Lot’s wife not as someone who turned back to look at the burning city because she was so full of avarice and she just was missing all her material goods, but what if she turned back to bear witness to the burning city? So in the poem, she's instructing us how to do that, how to stand still and look into the horror. And so, because it's an imperative poem, a poem that's insisting on giving you directions, I figured out in the revision process that it needed to be a villanelle. Because a villanelle, like instructions, is all about Do this, and don't forget to do this, and do this again.
So sometimes it's about finding the form. Sometimes it's about how line breaks might open up the syntax of the poem, or what the relationship between a line break is. In the case of Year of the Dog, because there's so many images and so many interactions between poetry and the words, the language and the images, sometimes it was about thinking, How can these images themselves maybe produce a visual rhyme? How might they echo? Do I want echo in these two pages, or do I want resonance? Do I want juxtaposition? Those were some of the things I worked with, certainly.
Do you typically write your way into discovering the right form? If so, do you ever find yourself frustrated about having to start a poem "from scratch" in a new form?
DP: It is true that sometimes I find my way to the form. Sometimes I just start with the form as a vessel, just because I need the boundaries to give myself a parameter and see what happens. Sometimes the form absolutely generates what we might not know is there for us to mine. But I do think that it is 100% frustrating when we write something and then we realize it isn’t in the vessel that it needs to be in, or it’s the right vessel, but we can't figure out how to fill it.
It’s absolutely frustrating, but I think about treating it in the way that scientists treat experiments. Failure is not an illegitimate outcome, it's information. There's so much to be said for the resonances between scientific inquiry and the creative process. If I discover that something I’m working on isn’t in the right form, I think, Okay, well, what are the things that work for that form? As I do this over time, I develop a reservoir of knowledge about what particular topics might work in particular forms or whether I work in a particular form at all. Maybe that's just a form that doesn't serve me, but it was important for me to experiment in it enough to know that it’s not my thing.
To use a totally different metaphor, sometimes all that stuff is really scaffolding for the building. That scaffolding has to happen for us to build who we are as a writer or build our body of work or our style or our voice or whatever that is. It sounds cliché, but I do feel like that is very important to remember, especially for those of you who are younger now, where there does seem to be higher stakes put on levels of productivity that I think are unfortunate and don't serve your development.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
DP: As someone who has spent a lot of time studying performance and who's written about performance, I think live performance is exhilarating. It really is. Even though I don’t write about dancing per say, I love watching a dancer move through space. The other thing more recently is swimming in the sea. I'm a terrible swimmer and I'm kind of afraid of the ocean, but I love doing it and what it reminds me of in relation to writing. I learned how to swim as an adult, so I'm really not good at it. What that means is I have to really focus on it while I'm doing it. That's its own kind of meditative practice in relationship to writing, right? It is not easy, but I enjoy it. That has been an important practice or model for me in approaching the writing. It doesn't have to be easy for me to like it. I don't have to be even good at it or be efficient at it for me to do it. I can just love it.
What are you working on now and what's next?
DP: The thing I'm working on most immediately is a book of literary nonfiction about divas. The book is really about the effect that divas have had on my life and larger American culture in the last 50 years, as well as the changes that we've seen in our collective relationships to them. We love them. We hate them. We want them, we want to be them. We don't want anything to do with them. For me, seeing how they've influenced my own relationship to my work, how they've influenced my relationship to virtuosity, to relationships with women, has been an exciting thing to think about. So, it's kind of part elegy, part ode, part memoir, part analysis—it's its own kind of form (laughs).
What is your best piece of advice to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
DP: When I was young, I was in a workshop with Grace Paley and she was asked that question. She said “Keep a low overhead.” And I thought, What the hell does she mean? What she was trying to say—and I really would pass along the wisdom of Grace to the next generation—was to arrange your life so that you can serve your writing. So that might mean doing what I did when I was in my twenties, and taking a shitty receptionist job that is totally brainless, but pays the bills and doesn't ever have to go home with you. A job that allows you time, even during your work hours to write. It meant all my nights were free. It meant that even parts of my day were free because I could get the mail out of the way in the morning and then still have time to steal during capitalist hours. Or maybe that means you become a teacher because teaching and writing might be the thing for you—but it’s really about figuring out for yourself, How can I arrange my life so that I can serve my writing? That means figuring out your relationship to making a living or the kinds of relationships you want to have with people or the kind of relationship you want to have with the profession or any number of things; but How can I arrange my life to serve my writing? is the question I think we should always be asking ourselves.