I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it.
Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas. She attended The University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Psychology and Honors English. She received an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, winning the William Mitchell Award for Best Graduate Creative Thesis. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from VillaNova University, and her Ph.D. in English is from The University of Texas at Austin with concentrations in Poetry and Poetics, American Literature, and a certificate in European Studies. She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for the study of Czech and Yiddish. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (Finishing Line Press). Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Guernica, The Black Warrior Review, The Cimarron Review, The Notre Dame Review, Fence, The Indiana Review, The Cortland Review, Quarterly West, Third Coast and No Tell Motel, among others.
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1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I am not sure I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a reader. I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of 250 or so (the town was not incorporated), so I read a lot. All the time, in fact. And when my siblings and I were outside, our immediate world was mediated through the stories my father and my maternal grandparents told about it—we grew up a mile from where my father did, and ten miles from where my mother was raised. I grew up with the expectation that everything around me contained a story. I suppose I began to write in order to have a dialogue, to add to the family conversation with the land and with one another, and with the books I read.
The world portrayed in books never matched the world of our rice farm, though; we did not have snow or really much of a change in seasons. We had no highrise buildings or elevators—I must have been in high school before I saw either an elevator or an escalator. And since this was the end of the twentieth century, not the end of the nineteenth century, I realized later, my experience was unusual. At any rate, after I left the farm, I found the world a pretty exotic place. It gave me the sense of a foreigner everywhere I went. Somehow, this feeling seems to be conducive to writing.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I read a lot, everything in the public library and school library. I began to keep a journal when I was twelve and have kept it ever since. I try to free write in the journal for at least 30 minutes a day—everything from new words to recipes to names of birds to things that happened to me or things I saw. I also studied literature at university and creative writing in graduate school. But what really helped me become a writer was simply the practice of reading and writing.
Also, I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it. They certainly forced me to renegotiate my relationship to the world. This can be exhausting, but there is nothing like the perspective it gives you.
I did my MFA straight out of undergraduate, but that was really too early for me. I needed to expand my horizons first. I worked as an English teacher, free lance writer and university adjunct instructor for ten years, then went back to graduate school, and that’s when I started publishing poems in journals. I also translated poetry, and my first book-length translation of poetry was published before my first book of poems. As for my poems, I just kept writing them, editing them (by which I mean throwing most of them away and cutting the others quite a bit) until one day I had enough that weren’t completely awful to start thinking about a book.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
In sixth grade my teacher introduced me to her friend, Mrs. Mickey Huffstutler, who was a “real poet.” I think she even drove me to meet her at her house in another town the first time. Mrs. Huffstutler introduced me to prosody and received forms, and told me I needed to frame my highly subjective impressions of the world, and to write more concretely—to use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives. Also, I needed to give the reader a frame or a place to enter the poem, thereby introducing me to the idea that my poem might have a reader apart from me. She also introduced me to the concept of a writing community, by introducing me to the Poetry Society of Texas.
At the University of Notre Dame, where I received my M.F.A., I was greatly aided by John Matthias, Sonia Gernes and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, and later, at the University of Texas, where I received a Ph.D. I was aided by studying prosody with Tom Cable, and poetry with Tom Whitbread, David Wevil and Khaled Mattawa. They were all exceedingly generous and helpful. When I was an undergraduate, Joseph Malof and Kate Frost both at the University of Texas, taught me to close read modernist poetry and Shakespeare, and that has been life-changing. Today I am helped a lot by the writers with whom I’ve studied, and with whom I remain close, and writers whose work I’ve admired.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I am inspired by Veronica Franco (1546-1591) a Venetian courtesan who was one of the most eloquent writers of her period; she also was a prolific writer in many genres. By her eloquence (and perhaps her connections) she defended herself against accusations of witchcraft before the Inquisition and was acquitted. She allied herself with the most distinguished families of Venice, and all who traveled there, yet she publicly defended her fellow courtesans and spoke out against their mistreatment by men. I love how she lived by her wits; indeed, she often wrote for her life.
Veronica Franco (Image from wikimedia)
I admire those who look beyond their own difficult lives and give voice to those whom no one else defends. To do this well, you have to use new forms in fresh and energetic ways, so as to give the reader a stake in the story. Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Lola Ridge write the kind of documentary poetry that puts the reader in a sort of jury box. And perhaps most of all I an inspired by Nazim Hikmet and Taha Muhammad Ali, whose writing reaffirms their deepest humanity despite the fact they were placed in the most dehumanizing of circumstances—imprisoned and evicted from their home, respectively.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Read as widely as you can the best books, poems, stories and essays you can. Try to be as compassionate as possible. And write every day. I learned a lot by imitating the poets I admired in order to learn their tricks. Also, only send your work to journals you yourself enjoy reading.