What a pleasure to introduce R. Flowers Rivera and her new collection Heathen. I love how she examines faith in this interview, as well as the day-to-day, multi-tasking, her perception of time and identity.
Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.
Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.
My obsessions are quite consistent: Reading, writing, travel, yoga, perennial flower gardening, silence, sun, warmth, and open-ended time. Opening my calendar each morning always seems to cause a brief moment of panic. Therefore, I’d have to say I am more obsessed with open-ended time, which allows me to pursue all the others.
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration—the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas—but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
Sometimes, the bolt of inspiration does strike me—but that was more my younger self—before children. However, now, usually it’s the concatenation of images and sounds that linger for days and weeks and months because my sons and their school administrators don’t look kindly upon parents who flake, so I attempt—to the best of my ability—to comply. Heathen started with the villanelle “A Siren Repents.” I liked the myth of the sirens as well as modern usage of the word. Then, poem-by-poem, I found other ways to re-enter the old myths, a means of re-interpreting them to reflect race, gender, class, orientation, and identity.
Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
Being raised Catholic, I find solace in some of the traditions and rituals of the Church, but I also find it quite easy to reject doctrine I regard as offensive to my inherent sense of the interconnectedness of humanity. So, I consider myself a heathen soul. If you name some aspect of my identity—Catholic, Southern, mother, daughter, sister, spouse, parent, Black, bisexual—I know that questioning of dogma will arise in my reading and writing life. Still, it’s rare that I will abandon areas of my life where I’ve happened upon any glimmer of faith; I, as a result, am apt to expose, subvert, reconstruct as a means of survival.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
Balance? What’s that and where can I get some? I am the worst multi-tasker ever. Everything must be entered in our synced, family calendar—with alerts—because I have a tendency to lose myself in most whatever I’m doing, especially when that involves being with my family or reading or writing, and when I was teaching, the same issue presented itself. I slip into almost everything I’m doing, becoming lost in that flow. But I like operating that way, that ease of existing outside of time. The only exceptions I can think of involve the public side of being a spouse or a parent, for example, attempting to engage in small talk with other parents or attending business dinners with my husband. Then, if I haven’t found a place to hide or some other diversion, I can multi-task quite well as means of diverting my attention from the almost glacial slowing of time.
What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)
My debut collection, Troubling Accents, felt organic. I’ve moved from the South to the northeast several times, in addition to living abroad in Singapore and traveling the Asia Pacific Rim. That moving back and forth has cemented my identity as an outsider, a perspective I find useful and alienating at once, yet it has solidified my identity as a Southerner who is willing to witness for as well as critique her homeplace. I’d have to say the flip-side would be the novel I’ve been sitting with and tinkering on for over a decade. At some point, I’m going to just have to slingshot that bear, not just excerpts, out into the world. And, no, I hadn’t a clue this beast would still be living with me all these years later.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
In terms of rejections, learn to embrace them—as much as you are able. Make literary journals and people, in general, tell you no, because each time you receive a rejection, each time someone says "not this time,” the no actually means you’ve taken a chance on your writing and, more importantly, on yourself.
R. Flowers Rivera is native of Mississippi, she completed a Ph.D. at Binghamton University and an M.A. at Hollins University. Xavier Review Press published her debut poetry collection, Troubling Accents (July 2013), which received a nomination from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and was selected by the Texas Authors Association as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. Rivera’s second collection, Heathen, has been selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2014 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press, March 2015). Her short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize, and she has been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, the Crab Orchard Series, and the Gival Poetry Prize as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently, she lives in McKinney, Texas.
View more of her work by visiting www.promethea.com.