Inseam: Rosebud Ben-Oni
This February I had the chance to attend the Association of Writers and Publishers Conference in Washington D.C. . During the conference myself and some friends, including Lauren Cross our communications director and Levi Todd former artist and poetry reader, learned so much and talked to so many wonderful people. One who stood out in the sea of people with her kindness and gentle spirit, was poet and essayist Rosebud Ben-Oni. The following is an enlightening combination of understanding the graceful intention behind one's work, a fierce commitment to true vulnerability and, to put it simply, a look into the mind of a brilliant poet.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013), a contributor to The Conversant and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Arts & Letters, among others; recently, her poem "Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark" was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review blog, and teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension's Writers' Program. Find her at 7TrainLove.org
As a poet, I want to first ask you what is most important to you about your work?
Lately, for a number of reasons, I’ve been contemplating mortality and how we really don’t get that long on earth, even if we live to a relatively old age. It’s become increasingly important to me to drown out the noise and listen to the music. I’ve been asked to describe just what “the music” is, but I think it’s different for everyone. It’s that pull in your sides and at the center of your ribcage when you are walking down the street, the words you hear in verse-- which aren’t necessarily always spoken verse, sometimes they are images, or even just a feeling-- that moment that you are connecting with something that wants to be heard and you hear it, and how you hear it, how you interpret in poetry or prose, becomes your way of speaking back to it and to others reading it. We aren’t here for very long. The music knows this. It doesn’t follow schedules. It isn’t polite. It wakes me up in the middle of the night and sometimes keeps speaking long after I’ve written it down, even after I’ve committed it to a page. It bears many names, voices, appearances, holdings. The listening is important as the writing.
2.) You’ve got quite the resume and it ranges a far and wide. [For readers that don’t know you are a faculty member for the UCLA writers program, you edit or contribute to publications like Kenyon Review, VIDAlit, a CantoMundo fellow as well as the author of a collection of poetry entitled, “Solecism”. ] How have you navigated your career as both an academic, a professional as well as an artist? Are they different?
For me, they are not. Whether it’s a lit class or a writing workshop in an academic or other setting, I go in with the same feelings and bearings, more or less. I will say that it’s only after being a CantoMundo fellow, and partaking in 3 consecutive fellowship retreats that I’ve felt this...well, freedom to get the conversations going on challenging the canon with contemporary poetry and poetics. The only difference is when I teach a poetry or writing workshop to children-- I’ve found that I speak a lot less, and listen more than I usually do. One of my favorite workshops was at the DreamYard Project up in the Bronx at the invitation of Vincent Toro and Ellen Hagan-- the young poets there inspired me with their work and then reading afterward. The whole room was electrified that late afternoon with poetry, with performance, with singing. I didn’t want it to end.
3.) As far as your writing process goes, where does a poem begin for you? What was it like to write a collection?
It changes every time. I’ve learn to let it. Lately, titles come to me first, and then the poem follows from ideas about the title. Sometimes, though, the poem changes completely. And then I have to give it a new title, which means the old title still needs a poem. I enjoy the puckish, cheeky nature of this process.
The collection took me 10 years to write. I didn’t know if I’d ever finish it. It spanned a lot of places and experiences, different times in my life a lot of which were difficult.
4.) Your work is simultaneously political and yearning, poignant and insistent. thread’s core mission is to blend activism and art in order to showcase how one can be an activist, feminist, and an artist in tandem with our myriad of shifting identities. What about your activism and beliefs influence your work?
My family. I’m not sure where to start, so I’ll say my parents. I’m in awe of their love for each other, how my mother converted from Catholicism to Judaism via her own choice, and how my father simultaneously raised my brother and me observant while allowing for the non-Jewish world to hold a presence. My mother’s Mexican, and her family had a great deal to do with raising us too. We might not have had a lot of money, but I owe so much to my family, a cosmic debt. I’ve written quite a lot about this in my essays for The Kenyon Review.
"It’s an infinite knotty, twisted combination of large truths that exists as a single dot, and then another, and another."
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5.) We are in incredibly turbulent and terrifying times. Recently, you tweeted something that calmed and inspired me,
“All living things are capable of poetry.”
Can you speak on this?
It goes back to hearing the music. Poetry is a way to evolve traditions in one’s culture without losing them completely, though you also might leave them behind-- which is different than “losing” them. For me, if you allow people their contradictions and frustrations and mistakes, if you can accept even a little how ungentle and chaotic this world, if you step outside the ideas of white supremacy and the patriarchy and “sticking with one’s own,” that’s when you start to hear the music. The answer is not one thing. The answer is not only empathy or compassion. It’s an infinite knotty, twisted combination of large truths that exists as a single dot, and then another, and another. All living things are capable of heightened listening.
6.) One of the primary reasons we have reached out to interview you is because you value community and posit a great amount of uplifting energy into the writing community. What is your take on community? What about it has helped you? Any advice on how other artists can uplift their own communities no matter the genre?
There’s more than one community of course, although we are all part of something larger. CantoMundo, as I’ve spoken before, gave me the kind of support and trust I needed, and not only as a poet. Writing is a very solitary act, one that I rather enjoy. As I wrote before in a poem, I really don’t get lonely. I like being alone as I like being social. One of the reasons I’ve become rather vocal has to do with an experience I had teaching an “American” Literature course at a college here in NYC. This was six years ago now. I was adjuncting there, and the chair liked me a lot, and gave me a course that usually went to Full Timers because she wanted to see what I can do.
So I did what I could do.
And she had problems with it.
There are certain code words used in certain academic settings that I’ve know learned. When she sat me down a few days before classes started, she said to me, very calmly, that my syllabus was “great”. She said this many times. The only problem was that it seemed to “recent” and “specific.” In all candor, I had no idea what she meant. I asked her to explain and then she got uncomfortable. She said, “Well, where is, um, excerpt of of the Classics? Or Hemmingway? Faulkner? Fitzgerald?”
I then realized what she was where all The Dead White Men. To be honest, I do like some of Hemmingway, in small doses, but it never dawned on me to put him on a syllabus she was asking to revitalize and revamp. My syllabus was entirely composed of WOC, women/women-identifying and queer writers and poets, many of whom did not have books out yet. I wanted to move away from the idea of the canon altogether, that we needed a focal point in something as complex as literature.
In the end, after many conversations, I got my way, but at a cost. She had my class observed three times by three different full timers, under the guise that they were there to see what I was doing. But it wasn’t for that reason, and I knew it. In the end, I was made so uncomfortable by the department-- remember I was an adjunct, plus my book hadn’t come out and I didn’t have the NYFA, those qualifiers that certain academics don’t acknowledge anyway-- that I didn’t go back the next semester. From what I heard the class itself reverted back to the old standard syllabi.
7.) What do you think is important for other artists or activists to keep in mind when it comes to intersectionality?
Recently someone told me that he only likes “good poetry,” and that’s why doesn’t pay attention to intersectionality. This is baffling to me (see my previous answer to question 6) because although things are changing, what is being taught is not necessarily in keeping with the times. It’s really important to think about who you are reading, teaching or writing about because this shapes not only future critical theory and poetics but culture itself.
8.) And finally, a sort of fun question, What is most important to you about self care? What do you do for self care?
I suffer chronic insomnia so…
But seriously. Self care is important, and I’m still figuring that out. I have a hard time saying no to people.
When I was younger, I was always surrounded by parrots. Down in the Rio Grande Valley, there were wild amazons that would cross back and forth over the border, and sometimes they would suffer injuries, and my abuelo would take them in. My parents would take in foster birds no one wanted, often because their previous owners had no idea some parrots can and do live as long as humans. I don’t know if this is self care, but every time I visit my family, we visit a bird sanctuary, and I can spend hours there, with my husband, just being. When I met Brian, he’d taken in a cat with a broken paw, so I guess we are kind of cat people now, but I grew up with parrots and birds and will always have a connection with them that centers me. Crows too. Even pigeons here.
There’s a mourning dove that sun and then shades herself on our fire escape for the last two years in the spring and summer. I think it’s same bird. I become incredibly still at times at my desk watching her. I know she knows I am there. She is a hard, little city bird that I’ve seen trust enough to fall asleep as I go back to the screen and finish this answer to you.
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I wanted to move away from the idea of the canon altogether, that we needed a focal point in something as complex as literature.