Get to Know SAL’s Interim Executive Director, Rebecca Hoogs
April 26, 2021
By Gabriela Denise Frank
“I’m a better person when I’m writing more because I’m paying attention,” poet Rebecca Hoogs told me. “I’m attuned to the world.”
For the past eight years, Rebecca has served as the Associate Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, though she’s been with the organization for the past seventeen years in a number of roles, from grant writer and WITS Program Coordinator to Program Director. Prior to that, Rebecca was a WITS Writer-in-Residence at Eckstein Middle School, which is to say, her history and engagement with SAL is deep and manifold. Her path will soon take another turn: on May 1, Rebecca will become SAL’s Interim Executive Director.
For Rebecca, who holds an MFA in poetry and a master’s in English Lit, the match with SAL’s mission and culture was a fit from the start. In 2004, she was a graduate student and teaching assistant when a position with Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) opened up. At the time, she was considering a PhD in English, but felt unsure about the topic of her thesis.
“I had been mulling whether academia was the right path,” she said, “and I thought this was a good opportunity to try doing what I love in a different format. I came to SAL and just loved the work. I loved organizing things. I loved administration. I loved getting to be involved with ideas and art and creativity. It’s so much of what I loved about academia, but for a public audience. When the year came due on my PhD, I let it go. I was entirely engaged in the work of SAL.”
Rebecca’s passion and talent for artistic curation can be seen across SAL’s programs: the Poetry Series, the Literary Arts Series, the Journalism Series, the Women You Need to Know (WYNK) Series, SAL Presents, and beyond. She developed her skills directing the Poetry Series; over time, her work expanded to programming for the organization at large.
To imagine what audiences will want a year in advance is a fascinating challenge; Rebecca approaches it through a combination of canvassing, research, observation, and intuition. She keeps a running list of writers she’s always wanted to book (“Is this the year I’m going to get that person to say yes?”) and a list of writers people tell her about. She notes upcoming releases and taps into a sense of the larger zeitgeist. What’s happening in the world? What will people want to hear and talk and read about? She thinks about this constantly.
“The best answer is, they’re going to want a bunch of different things,” Rebecca said. “I’m trying to provide entertainment, education, solace, connection, and community, whatever the genre. Something that’s going to be a little bit challenging, that’s going to have some laughs, some tears, that’s going to push and pull and entertain and educate—all those things. It’ll have range. We hear again and again that much of what subscribers love is the discovery process.”
Her work as a curator is also informed by her creative practice and inner life.
The author of two books of poetry, Grenade and Self-Storage, Rebecca’s work is keenly observed, wry, and adroit. Her poems pull off kinetic feats of self-reflection—I’ll point readers to the poem “Suck” in particular—which is, on one level, inspired by an octopus. On another, the poem skims iterations of the word suck: sucker, suck-up, suck-face, the phrase this sucks. The reader trips along—suckabob, succumb—with a growing sense of unease as the poem unfolds from hard-and-fast wordplay into vulnerability:
I wasn’t expecting;
or any derivation,
such as comfort or meaning
The speaker eventually concludes:
other option but
to be a sucker? So, it sucks
to be me. I suck.
Vulnerability is threaded, often between surprising or seemingly incongruent subjects, throughout Rebecca’s body of work. The cleverness and humor in her poems feel delightful and unsettling in turn. It’s a gamble to consider any foothold as stable or safe. Her poem “Another Plot Cliche” describes a relationship told in the language of looming disaster, which comes off as both harrowing (we brace for the crash) and entertaining in its reference to a Looney Tunes cartoon scenario:
My dear, you are the high-speed car chase, and I,
I am the sheet of glass being carefully carried
across the street by two employees of Acme Moving
The image and its inference are clear: we’re going to ruin each other—or, at least, you’ll ruin me. We know this, yet it’s impossible to stop the action or turn away, even for the speaker who admits:
I can smell the smoke already.
No matter, I’d rather shatter
than be looked through all day.
As we discussed the underpinnings of her work, Rebecca shared a key piece of counsel she received from the poet Heather McHugh. The advice felt like (forgive me) a sucker-punch.
“Heather once said, Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness,” Rebecca told me. “She was talking about my level of wordplay and puns, that I needed to be careful because that wasn’t always going to work. I’ve held that piece of advice close to my heart. I’ve used it in every possible setting because it doesn’t just apply to poetry. It applies to life. The thing I’m most good at, it’s also the thing I need to use carefully.”
To know oneself is to understand how one’s strengths can be weaknesses, and how weaknesses can be gifts in that they make space for growth. To approach tasks we don’t excel at or new challenges through which we learn means moving with greater care and attention than we might otherwise employ. Wisdom arises not only from this awareness, but the ability to apply one’s gifts appropriately in changing conditions—to read the condition with sensitivity and measure the response.
Rebecca’s deeply felt sense of self not only informs her poetry but her service and commitment to the creative community of SAL.
When I asked what the transition in leadership would mean now and in the near future, Rebecca said, “Every change is an opportunity. This is a question I’m going to be asking of my colleagues and the board: what has been working well and what are the opportunities we should be seizing? Ruth has been such a champion, and we will keep doing this work. We’re on the verge of putting out our new strategic plan, and we have big plans and dreams for the next three to four years. Ruth has left us in such a good position to make those dreams come true.”
Though I’ve watched Rebecca for years and felt like I sort of knew her, I learned so much in the hour we spent together—and realized how much more there is to know. I’m excited to see her soar in this new role and to follow where she guides us over the coming months.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Gabriela Frank: You’ve been with SAL for seventeen years!
Rebecca Hoogs: That is true. I came to SAL in June of 2004.
Gabriela: What was your first job? Were you a WITS writer first?
Rebecca: That was before, actually! I was in the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we had a collaboration between SAL and UW to put MFA students into local schools. I won one of those spots, and I started my career of teaching at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle. Kip Robinson Greenthal was my first mentor, and it was my very first teaching experience. I learned so much through Kip’s mentorship.
Gabriela: I can imagine! What drove the shift to join SAL as an employee?
Rebecca: Well, I did my MFA in poetry, and I loved school so much. I’ve always been a sucker for learning. I would have stayed in school forever, I think, just getting degrees in different subjects. I got an MFA in poetry, then I stayed on and did an MA in English Lit, and I was working my way towards a PhD in English, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to specialize in. I didn’t have a clear sense of what my thesis should be. In the meantime, I worked off and on at the Simpson Center for the Humanities where I worked on their website and helped write and edit their newsletter. I worked for Margit Rankin, who was the Associate Director of the Simpson Center. After Matt Brogan left, Margit became the Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures.
Margit asked me to do a bit of contract writing work, and then they had a job open up that was a mix of a grant writer and Writers in the Schools (WITS) Program Coordinator. Margit encouraged me to apply for that job. That’s how it all began. I could put my PhD on hold for up to a year, and I could re-enter. I had this safety net. I had been mulling whether or not academia was the right path for me, and I thought this was good opportunity to try something else, try different ways of doing what I love in a different format. I came over to SAL and just loved the work. I loved organizing things. I loved administration. I loved getting to be involved with ideas and art and creativity. It’s so much of what I loved about academia, but for a public audience. I really never looked back.
When the year came due on my PhD work, I let it go. I was entirely engaged in the work of SAL. I loved teaching and I’ve been lucky to teach off and on in the Rome program—the creative writing program through UW—and that’s been such a delight to keep my toes in academia and in teaching over the years. I think that satisfied the part of me that loves being a professor and loves teaching and loves knowledge formation. I think of myself as getting to do that for different audiences at SAL.
Gabriela: I’ve heard that you’ve done almost every job at SAL. Is that true?
Rebecca: I started off as a grant writer and WITS Program Coordinator, then very quickly the job opened up to run the WITS program. Because I had been a WITS writer and because I’d worked with Margit before, she said, This is yours. Go for it. So I became the manager of the WITS program really early. I learned about public school and K-12 education and worked with our writer corps to make it the best fit for kids. Those were my early years.
We had two education programs that were in collaboration with the UW Simpson Center so I took on the oversight of those programs. One was called Teachers at Scholars, and one was called Wednesday University. Neither of those programs exist anymore, but it was really fun to work on education for adults.
When Margit left, Linda Bowers came on as the next Executive Director. Linda said, I don’t know anything about poetry, and you know about poetry. You should curate and host the Poetry Series. Previously, the Executive Director curated everything and hosted everything, did all of the introductions and all of the interviews and all the curation. So I started to have this hybrid role where I was the Director of Education, and I took on the curation and hosting of the Poetry Series. I started to learn about curation and that whole world—how do you put together a season, how do you make invitations, how do you host events and interview on stage—I learned by doing it, which was invaluable.
Gabriela: That could be a whole conversation. I’d love to know how you do that.
Rebecca: I have a lot of thoughts. I’ve learned so much about doing it.
Gabriela: When you put together a season, what is the process?
Rebecca: It’s complex. I always begin with what happened last year, and I keep a running list in my notes app of people who are mentioned to me that I’m hearing about, that are winning prizes, that are on the bestseller list, that you, Gabriela, are telling me, Oh, my gosh, I read the best book by this author, please check them out.
I also have a list of the ones I came very close on, maybe people I’ve invited year after year that have said, No, not this time, but maybe another year. A kind of dream list. I normally start by going back to that list and saying, Okay, is this their year? Is this the year that I’m going to get the person to say yes to me? I also look at what’s happening in the world. What will audiences need or want to hear a year from now? I’m trying to think forward to what’s going to be happening in our world. Are there any big anniversaries coming? What do I think people are going to need after this year, in this particular year what are people going to need and want from SAL?
The best answer is, they’re going to want different things. I’m trying to provide entertainment, education, solace, connection, and community, whatever the genre. Something that’s going to be maybe a little bit challenging, that’s going to have some laughs, it’s gonna have some tears, it’s going to push and pull and entertain and educate—it’s going do all those things. It’ll have range. Above all, speaking just for the Literary Arts Series, there are going to be six amazing writers who are great speakers in their own way, who are going to offer audiences a compelling look into their lives as writers. Across the range of the series, the audience will come away with insights into people that were already their favorite authors and they will also discover new favorite authors.
We hear again and again that much of what subscribers love is the discovery process. Maybe they bought the series because they knew X author, but they came away being so delighted by the discovery of this other author. There’s always a couple of discoveries. I’m thinking about that, too. I don’t want to hit the same note twice.
Gabriela: I’ll admit, I like all the genres: Women You Need to Know (WYNK), Literary Arts, Poetry, the journalists you bring… sign me up for all of it.
Rebecca: [Laughs] You’re the dream audience, the person who is up for adventure. I love it. When I talk to people, I’m excited to hear who that person has loved for a long time, but I’m really excited to hear who they discovered this year. That’s what I want to inspire in people: cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world, a curious mindset. To go into an event space, whether it’s physical or digital, and say, It’s going to be an adventure! I’m going to learn something, and it’s going to be interesting. I may not love everything that happens, or I may not love every author, but I’m going to be challenged. I’m going to be interested.
Ultimately, that’s the spirit I want to cultivate. When I’m teaching writing, when I’m curating a series, it’s really about being more alive, paying attention to our world, and noticing our lives. It comes down to cultivating a sense of attention in our lives. Everything we do at SAL is about cultivating a sense of engagement with the world.
Gabriela: At what point was the Associate Director role created?
Rebecca: So, back to the trajectory: I was a Poetry Series curator. I was Director of Education. I never directly did the fundraising roles, and I never did the box office roles, but I learned a ton about fundraising along the way. Linda left and Ruth came and I had my son Archer a month later. We headed into this major transition, and I was a new mom. I wasn’t sure what my future would be at the organization; I thought I might take some time off to be home full-time with my kiddo. My first book was published when my son was four months old, so this was a time of a lot of transition and new work and new people and change.
After Linda left, Mary Ingraham, who was the board president, stepped in as Interim Executive Director. We led a search, we hired Ruth, and Ruth joined in the summer when my son was six months old. Before Ruth joined, Mary said to me, You have to create a season. You are the one that knows how to do this. I knew how to do the Poetry Series, and I had observed a lot—I mean, I had been to events for eight years, and I knew a lot—but I was working part-time with a new kiddo and delirious with new motherhood. I honestly don’t know how I did it, but we put together a season and then Ruth came in the summer.
By that point, I was Program Director. In my new role, I was focusing on the curation of public programs and Jeanine Walker, who had worked with me on the WITS program, really took on all leadership of WITS. So, really, we divided and conquered: Jeanine handled WITS and I shifted to public programs. Soon after Ruth came, she promoted me to Associate Director. Since that transition, my job has been to curate all of the public programs and oversee marketing and communications for the entire organization. That was not something I did before in my first era of SAL. For the last eight years I’ve been learning about marketing and communications.
Gabriela: Which is a full-time job of its own…
Rebecca: It could be. I’ve always loved telling stories and telling the story of SAL through both writing and visuals. I studied visual theory in graduate school, and I’ve always loved the world and language of design and marketing and visual storytelling. I have no formal training or background, I just love thinking conceptually about how to tell a story and how to be engaging through both word and image. It’s been a really fun learning journey over the last eight years.
Gabriela: It’s interesting how the marketing world grabbed onto storytelling to describe how they were relating to audiences. Rather than sales and customers it became about story and audience.
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s right—the power of story—which is what writers and storytellers have been doing all along. And you’re right, it could be its own job. One of the nice things about the artistic director being combined with the marketing communications director is that, when I’m thinking about booking someone, I’m always thinking about how to tell the story of why that person’s work matters. Why this writer? Why now? I’m always thinking about how we tell the story of who we’re bringing to SAL. I’ve heard that in some organizations there can be tension between artistic curation and marketing. At SAL, that literally lives within me.
I went to a conference at one point where they were advocating for a move to bring artistic and marketing communications together, and I was like, well, perfect. We’re already doing it because we’re so small. It wasn’t by design, but it does mean we don’t have those tensions or battles that bigger places might have.
Gabriela: True. And now you’re shifting again with this move into the Interim Executive Director role. How do you see your work changing in preparation for the next six months of the executive director search?
Rebecca: That’s a good question. I will have to step back from the day-to-day work of the Public Programs team and the day-to-day production of events and ads and communications. It will be hard for me because I love being down in the weeds with my team on things like that. I will be learning how to step back, how to delegate, and how to empower my team to soar without me. I will also be learning how to shift my work to supporting Leanne [Skooglund, Development Director] and our fundraising teams and supporting Amanda [Carrubba, Finance & Operations Director] and our operations team, supporting Alicia [Craven, Director of Education] and the Education team, and of course still supporting the Public Programs team, but in a different way.
I’m so excited to be getting more hands-on time with fundraising and our donors and our board and really helping our board through this transition. I’ve learned so much from Ruth over the past eight years. I call it my eight-year mentorship program. She’s been a model and an amazing mentor, friend, and colleague. There’s also a lot of work she does that I’ve been peripheral to, and now I’m going to get to do that work. I’m excited about the challenge. In the meantime, we’ll be finishing up curating the season for next year. I’m trying my darnedest to get that mostly done by May, but it always leaks into early June.
Gabriela: That announcement is coming up soon…
Rebecca: June 7. We’ll announce the highlights for next season, and we may have a few more things as we get into the early summer. But, yes, we are racing towards announcing a new season.
Gabriela: Over seventeen years, you’ve seen change and evolution at SAL; what opportunities do you see in this moment of transition?
Rebecca: I think every change is an opportunity. Actually, this is a question I’m going to be asking my colleagues and the board to get their insights on: what has been working really well, and what are the opportunities we should be seizing? I think any kind of transition is a moment to be in touch with supporters and subscribers, and to remind ourselves that this work is bigger than any one person. Ruth has done an amazing job, and so have our WITS writers and our authors do, and the board and subscribers and volunteers like you, Gabriela. The work is bigger than one person. We have a greater mission to accomplish, and Ruth has been such a champion of that mission.
Now, we will keep doing this work. We’re on the verge of unveiling our new strategic plan—COVID paused that work as we pivoted and stabilized—but we’re really excited that we have big plans and dreams for the next three to four years. Ruth has left us in such a good position to make those dreams come true.
Gabriela: On the topic of dreams, can you share a couple of memorable moments from the years leading up to this one?
Rebecca: It’s hard to pick, but Summer Book Bingo comes to mind. That’s a program Ruth dreamed up. We launched it with Seattle Public Library six years ago. It’s been so heartwarming to see people engage with that program, especially last summer during COVID. We launched it a little early because people said they needed something to look forward to. At the end of the summer, one person commented that reading books was the only safe way to travel this year. I appreciate it so much the way that people found solace in books and connection in an online community by sharing and talking about books. It’s also really cool to see how people come to SAL through Book Bingo. It’s great to know that, during a time when people can’t physically be together, we can offer a way for people to connect through reading. It’s been really special. I love that program.
Gabriela: To your point about curiosity, Book Bingo stirs us to check out authors and books we wouldn’t otherwise have read. You always give us some familiar options, and you do a good job of thinking up categories that encourage us to step outside our habits.
Rebecca: I love that! It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, a process of discovery to read things we would not read otherwise. We’ve seen people say, Gosh, I never would have read a graphic novel—and people have said multiple times, Now I love them and I’m checking out graphic novels all the time from the library. People have discovered whole new genres that they would have discounted before because they had some sort of notion that it wasn’t for them. Same thing with sci-fi or fantasy. Last summer, we had Afrofuturism as a category and people discovered Octavia Butler. It opened up whole worlds for people. That’s so fun to see happen. We think about what categories can we come up with to help people in their own growth.
For events, the one with Pete Souza comes to mind. He was Obama’s photographer and we had him here for one of his books of photographs. We had a packed Benaroya Hall, and it was such a sentimental, moving night. People were in tears. It felt like we were all walking down memory lane with the Obama years and kids and amazing photographs. Brandi Carlile and the twins played a few songs at the beginning and the end because Brandi is friends with Pete. It was a night of music, memory, nostalgia, and wishing for a better time. Feeling those feelings in a collective space was powerful and moving.
Patti Smith was great—her idiosyncratic approach to life, her poetic approach to life, and just the way she was fully, unabashedly, unapologetically herself. I love her presence. Getting to hear her play a few songs was amazing, too. I have loved those moments where it feels like the art is transcending the moment. That feeling of being in a packed hall and hearing a pin drop because we’re all holding our breath, listening to an author. Knowing that many people care about what you care about is affirming—it’s a human communal experience, being together and having our bodies talk to each other. Even though we don’t say a thing to each other, there’s an exchange of energy that happens. It’s really amazing.
Gabriela: The exchange of energy is the perfect segue: I’ve been reading your poems, and I’d love to know what brought you into this exchange of ideas and energy—have you always written poems?
Rebecca: I have not always written poems. When I was younger, I wanted to be a novelist very badly. I’ve always been a reader, and I romanticized being a novelist and a writer. When I went to college I was on the creative writing track. I did study abroad and, when I came back, there wasn’t a class I could take that would have advanced my fiction credits, but there was a poetry class. I was, like, Well, I’ll take poetry to keep my skills sharp. I just fell in love with it. I loved reading poetry and I loved exercises and writing poetry. I kept studying both poetry and fiction for the rest of my time in college. When I got out of college, I took a few years and worked at a publishing company, and then it was time to apply to graduate programs. I admit, the first year I applied in fiction I didn’t get in anywhere. The next year, I said, Well, I’ve been writing more poetry than fiction so maybe I’ll apply in both. I got into a few poetry programs and the universe led me to the University of Washington. That’s how I ended up in Seattle.
Gabriela: Which begs the question: where did you grow up?
Rebecca: I grew up in Massachusetts, lived and went to school in Maine, lived in Colorado for a little bit after college, and then I moved here. Of course, I didn’t move thinking I was going to be here forever, but really quickly I found an amazing community of writers and friends and this felt like home. I decided to do more school and, before I knew it, five years had passed. Other people floated away and got jobs elsewhere, but I really loved this place. Nothing has ever been compelling enough to persuade me to leave it.
Gabriela: Was your first chapbook, “Grenade,” the result of your poetry program at UW or did it come later?
Rebecca: It came a little bit later. It was more an output of the years after my MFA, after I went to Rome for the first time as a graduate student. I went to Rome with Richard Kenney in 2002 when I was in the master’s program for literature; I had finished the MFA and was working on the master’s. I was writing as much as I could and still taking as many creative writing classes as I could. I totally fell in love with Rome and the process of writing that Rick had us explore, which was very generative and based on walking, looking, and tons of writing. I just loved the city. It was a place I connected with on a cellular level. Most of the poems in the book come from that time and the years after. That was the turning point in my writing in the sense of finding my voice and finding my subject.
Gabriela: One of your poems called “Suck” has the most lovely rock-and-roll quality to it. Danger at the edges and roughness and toughness, but also vulnerability. Can you talk about how you approached that poem?
Rebecca: That’s a good question. I really love the tension between vulnerability and self-protection. That poem is about cephalopods, sort of, but it’s also about the self and self-protection, about being vulnerable and exposing the self. I think you could say that’s something I am interested in or that comes out in my work—self-awareness—looking inward or looking at the self with criticism and love and balancing the tension in my relationship with myself.
Gabriela: You’re a keen observer of the human condition. It feels like the conversation you were having with yourself around vulnerability shifted from the poems in “Grenade” to the ones in Self-Storage, venturing further into brokenness and injury.
Rebecca: That’s an interesting observation. As a writer, sometimes these things are only visible in retrospect or by other people. Sometimes, I ask myself, like, What am I writing about? What are my themes? It’s hard to know. I’m too close to it. I only write a poem and try to make it a good poem. Sometimes, I look back at earlier poems and I wish I could write that poem again. I’m a different writer now, a different person. Sometimes I try to write a poem again, but I have to write a different kind of poem. I do want to give a shout out to Sierra Nelson [who teaches in the WITS program], who made me write Suck. She is the president and founder of the Cephalopod Appreciation Society and, several times over the years, she has commissioned, pushed, or forced me to write poems about cephalopods. [Laughs] Which of course I’m all for! She’s actually working on a collection of cephalopod poems, so “Suck” may pop up in that collection.
Gabriela: I love that poem’s wordplay.
Rebecca: Wordplay and etymology are my magic, my kryptonite. It’s, like, both my superpower and my kryptonite, right? Heather McHugh once said to me, Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. She was talking about my level of wordplay and puns, that I needed to be careful because that wasn’t always going to work. I’ve held that piece of advice close to my heart, and I’ve used it in every possible setting because it doesn’t just apply to poetry. It applies to life. The thing I’m most good at, it’s also the thing that I need to be careful of and use carefully because it’s not going to work in every setting,
Gabriela: That’s world-class advice.
Rebecca: And that’s coming from Heather McHugh who is a world-class etymologist and punster herself. She knows my love of wordplay and digging deep into etymology; sometimes it was going to work out and sometimes it wasn’t.
Gabriela: I hear you’re working on a collection now… is there anything you can share about it?
Rebecca: I’ve been working on a collection for a really long time. Archer was born, then Ruth came to SAL, and my book was published—these things all happened within six months of each other—and I took a few years off of working on the book during those early years of motherhood. A couple of years ago, I said, Okay, I have to get serious about another collection. I’ve been writing poems for years but not trying to figure out what to make of them. It’s hard because it’s unwieldy. I have years of poems, which means hundreds and hundreds of them. I’ve been trying to cull, to organize, to figure out what the story is or what the themes are, and what’s the title of the book. I don’t have a title yet, but I do have a manuscript. In the early days of quarantine, my writing group and I spent a month on Zoom reading through the manuscript, so that was helpful feedback. Now, I’m trying to compress it and find the beating heart.
Gabriela: It’s nice to have things to pick from rather than a blank page to draft.
Rebecca: That’s right. The hard part is having a sense of perspective about whether or not something is good or whether it fits. I think it’s gotten harder for me as I’ve gotten older. I have less of a sense whether something is quantifiably good or not. I think I felt more sure when I was younger. Now, the more you know, the less you know. Actually it’s a good place to be, I think: unknowing and unlearning and relearning. I feel more open, yet it makes it harder to figure out how to put together a book.
Gabriela: What catches your curiosity? What do you like to write about?
Rebecca: It’s very much about language. I’m often sparked by the etymology of a word and the story behind it. I’ll look up a word and it’ll spin me down some etymological rabbit hole that I think is interesting, usually when a base word is connected to my life, like the poem “Suck.” That came from the phrase you suck and looking at every possible variation of what suck means and just having fun with language. Then finding that connection or the play, thinking about cliches of language or cliches of life and trying to make those not cliches again, like, breathe life back into them—I think that’s really fun.
The word cliché literally means “stamped.” It was the metal form in the ancient Roman empire for stamping coins, something that was reproduced as the same thing everywhere. I love that we have forgotten what the word cliché means, that it actually has a physical etymological meaning that has been lost. Cliché is itself now a cliché. That’s what I love doing, bringing clichés back to life, bringing language back to life.
I’m often sparked by memory, too. In my high school there was a couple who would walk down the hallway together, but not side-by-side. They would walk sandwiched together through the middle of the hallway in this coordinated way—it’s hard to even describe—and it was terrible and frightening but also weird. In retrospect, so weird. But I’m thinking of that little memory, and there’s something in there for me, like telling the story of that memory and figuring out how to make meaning now. I haven’t written that poem yet, but I want to write that poem. What else can I say about that? What does that mean? Why does that memory pop up? Why do I think it’s funny and also so weird? I really like to laugh, and I also like to cry. My favorite poems are ones that—I think Frost said this—begin in light and end in wisdom. I like being in laughter and tears. I think that’s my poetic M.O.
Gabriela: In terms of creative practice, how do you refill your well?
Rebecca: I am really lucky that I have a group that I have been meeting with for about ten years. We’ve been steadily meeting through quarantine. Based on Richard Kenney, we have a prompt-based generative time together. After we connect as humans, one of us will have brought a prompt and we’ll write for fifteen or twenty minutes, then everybody reads what they wrote. It’s very a quick, fast and furious, down and dirty, way of getting something out. It’s helped me to keep connecting and generating over these years. Sometimes there’s nothing much; sometimes there’s a seed of something interesting.
We’ve done that on and off every week or two for the past ten years. That’s been really important over the last eight years of adjusting to being a mom. I had Archer when I was thirty-seven, almost thirty-eight, so I had a lot of life before that to be an adult and do whatever I wanted. It was a big adjustment, and one I totally wanted, but it was a big adjustment to figure out how to do all the things I wanted to do, which I can’t, so I’m really lucky to have that group. Three or four times a year, we do a poem a day. April is National Poetry Month, so we have a private blog where we post something by midnight every day for the month. That has been the source of many hundreds of the poems over the last eight years. We try to do April, October, and January. I find when we do this, the more I write, the more I notice, the more I think, the more I feel, the more I’m present in the world, the more I’m present in my own life. Honestly, I feel like I’m a better person when I’m writing more because I’m paying attention. I’m noticing and I’m looking for the poem all day long. Knowing I have to write a poem at nine o’clock at night means I’m looking for it all day. I’m attuned to the world.
At home, I’ll have a document open on my computer, and I’ll have a thought and type it in. Put a little thing—a quote, a word—in. You know, read something in the paper, write a quote down, try to be collecting all the time. When I first came to SAL, I was so lucky: I got to go to MacDowell Colony for two months, and I had a backlog of poems I wanted to write. That’s where I worked on putting together the first draft of Self-Storage. I had just published “Grenade.” The first week, I had a backlog of poems in my head that I wanted to write, got through those, was very happy with myself, and then I was, like, Okay, now, what are we going to do for the next couple of weeks? This is not rocket science, but I started reading. If I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about. I would read a book, take notes, type up notes, put down quotes, then go to sleep. The next day, I would wake up and—like a miracle—there would be a poem in my head. I love the way that sleep does that. The brain is, like, I got you: You go to sleep and I’ll work on this one. I would wake up and have a poem.
It’s like a bank. You have to make deposits in order to make withdrawals. I think about that when writing is hard. I want to write, but I don’t know what to write, so I start reading and taking notes. I have to write it down, I mean, I have to do that transcription process. For me, it’s getting the language into my fingers, then onto a page, and then my brain works on it.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.