Angie Trudell Vasquez – an interview with the Poet Laureate of Madison, WI

Angie Trudell Vasquez is a Mexican-American writer and the current poet laureate of Madison. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Finishing Line Press published the first half of her MFA thesis, In Light, Always Light, in 2019, and will publish the second half, My People Redux, in 2022. She became a Macondista in 2021.

Below is an excerpt from Angie’s interview for the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. Listen to the full interview to hear Angie recite a selection from her upcoming chapbook My People Redux.

Angie Trudell Vasquez – an interview with the Poet Laureate of Madison, WI Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

James Morehead: In preparing for our discussion, I read some of your prior interviews. You mentioned that your interest in writing started young, around age seven. As you were growing up, what poets, and styles of poetry, fueled your dream of becoming a writer?

Angie Trudell Vasquez: “Allen Ginsberg because his poetry was so electric and moving to me as a young poet. Stanley Kunitz has some very beautiful poetry. For years, I kept one of his poems above my desk as inspiration. I was introduced to Carolyn Forché as an undergrad and “The Country Between Us” is still one of the most important books of poetry I’ve ever read. That book taught me that it’s okay to take the things I was feeling inside and bring them to the page. When you’re a young poet, you’re kind of floundering and you read a lot of the older poets, but you also want to read something contemporary that feels real and alive. And then you take off from there and you’re introduced to African American poets and Latinx poets. The poetry world is ever expanding.”

James: What is it about writing poetry that you most enjoy? What do you find most frustrating?

Angie: “I always begin writing longhand, so what I enjoy most is that automatic feeling of pen to paper. It’s just the pen ahead of me and I’m not even there yet. It’s like there’s another person in my body who’s operating the pen, and I love that. The thing I struggle with is editing, the real writing for me is editing.

“I love inspiration, but what can I use? Probably not a lot, it’s just the ramblings of my mind on the page, but I like that kind of automatic writing. But the idea of turning something into a real poem that I’m ready to release into the world is the hardest thing for me. I edit my pieces many times, trying to find the balance.” 

James: In your chapbook “In Light, Always Light” your poem “Dark Knight” is a wonderful example of the poetic form, where the rules of prose are broken intentionally, lines like “My man of sideways talking soft shoe / grooving liquid arms elbows waving”. How do you find the form your words should take? 

Angie: “The poem has to dictate the form. I always practice my pieces aloud, so I’ve trained my ear. For “Dark Knight”, I tried to get rid of anything that was not serving the poem. I get rid of all the dead sounds and work with the nouns, verbs, and rhythm of the piece. I know what’s behind that piece, but I like to think poems take on a life of their own. “Dark night” is a dark piece, what it is like to live in the United States. We have history that we don’t always recognize or grapple with, but it’s all there.

“I feel like living in this time, being a citizen of the United States, it’s important to embrace all the things that we don’t really want to talk about. But there’s also beauty in the resilience of us – we’re still here. I don’t want to place blame in my poetry; this is our world, I’m just trying to call it how I see it.”

James: Congratulations on being the current Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin. What have been your priorities during your first term, and what are you hoping to achieve in 2022?

Angie: I became the Poet Laureate in January 2020 and then the pandemic hit. I remember one of my first readings, where I brought people in this virtual space, and it was still poetry and they were still my friends. We were having a great conversation. I just took a lot of it online and we made it happen.

“I judge the Bus Lines Poetry Contest every year and we did it online. It was a beautiful release for the student artists at Edgewood College. I also campaigned for a Youth Poet Laureateship, and on December 7th the city council agreed to not only extending my term to 2024, but also approved the Youth Poet Laureate for Madison. This is a huge thing for the children and the teens of Madison as it gives them something to aspire to. Then Amanda Gorman came and it was much easier.

“I met with the Madison Art Council, which is the body that governs me, and shared my vision. They signed on because they agreed that we desperately need moments of positivity and celebration. I see this Youth Poet Laureateship being a wonderful thing and it will be my legacy to the city of Madison.”

James: Take me beyond the Wikipedia definition of “Macondista” and share what it means to be part of this group of writers.

Angie: “I am a Macondo Fellow. It’s not just about poetry, but it’s also about social justice, and not just within the United States, but globally. In the summer of 2021, I went to the Macondo Writers Workshop and I got to study with Allison Adele Hedge Coke, who I adore. Now I’m a Macondista, but the person who started this all was Sandra Cisneros, and it’s named after the village Macondo in “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

“I am also an alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts. I get to work with poets and writers who I can learn from, and who can maybe learn a little from me.”

James: What responsibility do you feel to go beyond creating beautiful poetry, and through that poetry address important social issues? How do you balance that responsibility while staying true to the poetry?

Angie: “Well, it’s not too hard because I think of poetry like science, you can only add to poetry, not subtract. I write about nonpolitical things as well, like nature, my wonderful husband, and my dear family members, but I can’t help being a political woman in the time and space we exist in. So politics does filter in. There has to be balance in everything.

“I try to create something that’s beautiful, even if it is a hard subject. When I am crafting a poem, I know the rules, but I am also willing to break the rules when it feels right.”

James: Your title poem, “My people, redux”, includes this moving line “My people, forgot they rose from the earth.” What unique role do you see for poetry in preserving and amplifying history, and voices?

Angie: “I think it’s a beautiful thing, because poetry can time travel. In one poem, you can be young or old, and you can go back and pull in your ancestors, or any meaningful person to you. I think that poets have to be truth tellers. So, however you approach the page, whether you are someone with strong religious beliefs, or someone who is agnostic, or someone passionate about social justice, you must be telling the truth. I work with a lot of youth because I want them to tell their own stories. We are our own history, and history is constantly moving. I like to think we are the sum of our literary ancestors.”

James: Your bio includes an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts; for aspiring poets, what did you learn in the MFA program that was most impactful to your writing?

Angie: I was an organic poet and studied as an undergrad and was a Ruth Lilly Fellow in my 20s. But, what I learned in IAIA was how to ruthlessly edit my work and to be a really good editor of others. I studied English a long time ago, so I had to catch up with the terms and how we talk about poetry now. The IAIA made me a really good student. I spent about eight hours working on my galleys yesterday and I loved it. I remember getting my books together. You’re pouring over every detail, every comma, every space, and every word choice. I learned stamina because I was working full-time, so I’d have to fit editing between work. For a couple of years, I would think of nothing but editing, writing, and reading.”

James: What is your strategy for dealing with the inevitable feeling of writer’s block? Of getting unstuck creatively?

Angie: “I don’t feel stuck because my full-time job takes up a lot of time. So when I get the opportunity, Sundays are my art days. I’m never stuck because you can always go to a dictionary and pull something out. I was researching the [Mexican] state of Zacatecas as I was writing a poem essay and it took me on a whole other tangent. So when I’m stuck, it’s also okay. I can clean or cook or take a walk which helps me. Doing chores and tasks like that helps me work things out in my head. 

James: You’ve successfully had your poetry published. What have you learned through the often painful process of submitting your poetry, only to wait months and be rejected more often than selected?

Angie: “I have a special story about this because I wrote my first two chapbooks and I tried to get them published but they weren’t being picked up. So I self-published and I got my MFA. I got a little snooty with my work and I discounted my earlier work. Then the Poetry Foundation bought four pieces from those two books. That’s when I questioned why I was discounting my earlier work. Whether I wrote it when I was 20 or now, we are still the same person. My concerns are always the same, it just appears differently on the page. Don’t discount your early work as a poet, rather honor that work.

The complete interview including Angie reciting a selection from her chapbook is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Angie Trudell Vasquez

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