On the Books: Michelle Brittan Rosado

michelle-brittan-rosado
Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The third installment profiles Michelle Brittan Rosado. Her writing has appeared in Calyx, Los Angeles Review, Quarterly West and elsewhere.

In a May phone interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Michelle about finding a press that you love, finding “Fresno poetry,” and finding a dissertation topic in an unlikely place.

When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?

I started the program in Fall 2008 and finished in Spring 2011, in poetry.

What were your first thoughts when you learned that your chapbook, Theory on Falling into a Reef, would be published?

At first I was surprised. Then, a bit of disbelief, because I had just submitted in December and I think they got back to me in January. So, it seemed really quick! Then we had the chapbook ready for the AWP Conference at the end of March. So, it all happened really quickly, and that was wonderful.

Also, the realization that it was so different being published in literary journals or an anthology, you know. Your work there is going to be in conversation with other published work by other writers. Knowing that there would be a chapbook with just my work in it was a whole new experience, which was exciting but also made me nervous.

When I’ve had work appear in a literary magazine, there’s always the knowledge that someone’s going to read the work, but maybe they picked up the issue because somebody else was published in it, or they’re a subscriber and it shows up on their doorstep. And so, there’s never the sense that someone might pick it up just because my work is in that, you know. But with a chapbook, I knew that anyone who was reading it had intentionally picked it up to read my work, which was a little scary but also a great honor.

Did parts of your chapbook grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript? If yes, what was the process like, taking parts from your thesis and making it into something in a chapbook?

I would say probably two-thirds of the chapbook came from my MFA thesis in Fresno. And another one-third, I wrote after the fact while living in Los Angeles. But the vast majority of it, I realized, had been written in the MFA program.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on the individual poems, I would say. But I did think a lot about a narrative that they might make together, poems that I wrote while in Fresno but also together with some of my newer work that came later. I did a lot of cutting away, to try and have something surface out of these poems that felt like they held together in a chapbook length.

So, I’m holding your thesis manuscript in hands right now, in the Fresno State MFA office, The Numerology of Us. It says that this thesis collection “explores the intersection of divorce and biracial identity. What these two subjects share is the ability to divide as well as reconcile the relationships people have with each other, their cultures, and themselves.”

[Laughs]

How much of that is in the current book?

Wow, I haven’t revisited that statement since probably . . . since I wrote it, in like 2011.

[Both laugh]

It’s funny to hear that description again now. But at the same time, it does seem like I’m still orbiting around the same ideas and obsessions that I had then. And I have them now.

I would say with the chapbook, I couldn’t fit all of that in. This chapbook is about 25 pages. I think I focus more on a sense of place and relationships. Those seemed to be the subjects that I could focus in on, in the shorter length. In my full-length manuscript that I’m still working on, I think there’s a lot more investigation that I do into identity.

reef-coverHow did you decide on the chapbook’s title, Theory on Falling into a Reef?

It’s the title of a poem in the chapbook, the first poem. That poem came out of reading a newspaper article, maybe a year or two ago, that was about a new theory on Amelia Earhart, who, of course, was the famous female pilot who attempted to fly across the Pacific and was never seen again.

There was a theory that she had landed on an island in the South Pacific and had survived for some time and then perished on the island. I thought that was so interesting. I had always been interested in her as a historical figure. But I also realized, in hearing about that article, that it seemed to resonate for me, in thinking about what it means to be in between two places, what it means to maybe have a story that she didn’t get to tell. So, it’s a persona poem, written in the first person, and I try to take on her voice. That’s where the poem title came from, and it seemed to fit the chapbook as a whole.

How did you find about the Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize and Anhinga Press, and what about their work is a good fit for your chapbook?

I knew about Anhinga from working on the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest while at Fresno State. I own and love a handful of books that Anhinga has published, both from the Levine Prize and otherwise. So, I knew that I like the work that they publish, and they also publish really beautiful books. When I saw that they had a call for submissions for their chapbook prize, it just seemed natural to want to send there because I was already familiar with the wonderful work that they do.

Which books from Anhinga do you like the most?

The year that I was in the class as staff for the Philip Levine Prize, the winner was Shane Seely, The Snowbound House. There’s also Lory Bedikian’s The Book of Lamenting. Another book that wasn’t a Levine Prize winner but that I really enjoyed was Rhett Iseman Trull’s The Real Warnings.

It feels like Anhinga is a press that you’ve been enjoying and learning from for a while, and now you’re a part of their family. What’s that like?

It feels great. It does feel like a community that has connections, to Fresno and also the kind of poetry that I think we value in the Central Valley of California. So, it’s a great home for the chapbook.

How would you describe the poetry that is valued in Fresno and the Central Valley?

Oh wow, that’s hard to sum that up. I feel like the poetry of the Central Valley is diverse, but there is a thread that runs through it that I feel is recognizable. For me personally, I can say that the landscape is a huge influence, to me as a writer. And I think that I see that sensibility in a lot of other Central Valley poets, in the sense of these wide landscapes that can feel unchanging driving through, down the 99.

But at the same time, the seasonal changes, like with the harvest and the idea of work that goes into the changes in the landscape just feel like a presence that’s always in the background of my work. Maybe I read that into a lot of Fresno poets’ work. But the appreciation for the physical surroundings and the work that people do is present.

I heard another Fresno State MFA alumni, Steven Sanchez, say recently that going out into the world, outside of the Central Valley, people know what a “Fresno poet” is. But people here don’t necessarily know, when you say “Fresno poet,” what that means. Why is that, do you think?

It’s funny, but that whole idea of Fresno poetry being recognizable outside of the Valley, is a big part of what brought me to Fresno in the first place, to do my MFA. I’d been studying poetry in undergrad, and I was really fortunate to have a professor, Hans Ostrom at the University of Puget Sound, who had taught us several Fresno poets — but I didn’t know they were Fresno poets at the time.

I think Brian Turner’s first book Here, Bullet had just come out, and we read some poems xeroxed out of his book. And I remember, out of our big anthology, loving Phil Levine’s poem “Snow.” And also Gary Soto’s poem “The Elements of San Joaquin.” I recognized that there’s the landscape in Soto’s poem that felt so familiar to me, growing up in the town of Vacaville, which kind of straddles the Bay Area and the northern Central Valley. It’s sort of in-between.

I loved the work by those poets. When I was thinking about applying to an MFA program, I asked Professor Ostrom where I should apply and he said, you should apply to Fresno. Why Fresno? [Laughs] I think I said I’d only been to Fresno once for a band trip in high school. And he said, but you love all the Fresno poets, then he named them off and I had no idea that they were all connected. But it made sense, so that’s why I applied.

Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?

Right now, I am a doctoral student in the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Southern California. Our program involves both a critical and a creative component to the dissertation. So, I’m at work on my full-length poetry collection, my manuscript, as well as a critical project.

My project is on the poetic form the pantoum, which has its roots in the Malay Peninsula, what is modern day Malaysia, and throughout Southeast Asia. So, my project attempts to historicize that form through colonialism, its use in Europe, and its adaptations in the United States, as well as contemporary manifestations of that form in American poetry. It’s trying to trace those historical movements.

While here at USC, I’ll be teaching this fall. I just finished a fellowship year that was provided. So, I’ve had the great opportunity to focus on both parts of my dissertation the past year, which was my fourth year.

What led you to that dissertation topic, studying the pantoum and its roots in Malaysia?

I didn’t know this was going to be the topic of my dissertation, initially. I first encountered the form in a class at Fresno State taught by Connie Hales, her 21st Century poetry topics course. It was a form used by Natasha Trethewey in her Pulitzer-winning collection Native Guard. Then when I found out about the origins of the form, I was surprised. I also have family in Malaysia on my mother’s side. So, knowing that there was a poetic tradition there that had also made its way into American poetry, I found really fascinating. That was where my obsession began as a creative writer.

When I came to USC, it became the topic of a paper in a critical theory class. The more that I investigated it, the more it felt like it couldn’t fit in just one essay. Then, I got an opportunity through the Center for Transpacific Studies at USC to research the topic in Malaysia. I had a travel grant two years ago, to visit the archives at several sites in Malaysia. It then became clear to me that I could write a whole dissertation on this topic. It was a great opportunity.

Since this is part of your cultural identity, how has it felt to you personally, as a writer, to discover these historical elements about the pantoum? How has it influenced your writing?

I do have a sense of identifying with the topic, so I feel really invested. I want to do it justice. It also feels like a lot of work. I don’t want to overlook any important contributions to this form, or writings that others have done on this topic as scholars. At times, it can feel a little bit overwhelming. But at the same time, I feel invested in seeing it through. That also makes it feel like a worthwhile topic that I wouldn’t tire of over the course of researching and writing a dissertation. I want to stay dedicated to it, to complete it.

That’s really inspiring.

Thank you.

In addition to indirectly discovering your eventual dissertation topic, what else about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you?

I feel like a lot of the writers who’ve gone through the MFA program in Fresno that I’ve talked to, or those who otherwise have ties to Fresno, who grew up there and are writers, is that there is a wonderful sense of community. I definitely felt it there in my three years, both on campus and off campus. The volume and richness of all the readings to attend as well as participate in was really amazing. It felt like poetry was a never-ending conversation amongst people.

I think paired with that sense of community in Fresno, there was also a lot of support and encouragement to have our work read outside of the Central Valley. In the program, we were really encouraged to publish, to attend conferences like AWP, external workshops like the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, which I attended in the summer one year. And also to apply to Ph.D. programs and other opportunities that weren’t just limited to Fresno and the surrounding areas. These two aspects really reinforced a strong environment for shaping a beginning writer.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your MFA?

It’s hard to say because it was such a rich and formative time for me that I’m very grateful for. I don’t know that I’d really do anything much differently.

Sometimes I do wish that I had taken a form and theory course in creative nonfiction, in addition to the ones I took in poetry and fiction, which were my two genre choices. I kind of wish I had just completed the triumvirate and done the creative nonfiction, because I can imagine that it would have helped me with my scholarly prose writing, now that I’m trying to combine, you know, the research that I’m doing with writing in a way that can be aesthetically pleasing or moving or meaningful.

On the other hand, it was an important time for me to really focus on becoming a poet. So I guess I don’t know if I actually would’ve had the ability to know this then.

Are there any other things you’d like to add about your time in Fresno or your work?

I’m so grateful that I was able to attend Fresno State for my MFA. I think it was absolutely the right place for me to go, and I’m grateful to have worked with Connie Hales and Tim Skeen as poets, and also the whole faculty. They are, I think, really supportive and invested in students across genres.

Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.

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