This week, we welcome guest author, Andrés Cerpa, whose debut poetry collection Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy was published on January 8th by Alice James Books. Praised by Publishers Weekly for its”stunning, dark observations and sparked chilling lines,” Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy is a stormy, transporting read, and perfect company for a long, winter night. Weeks after reading, these poems continue to haunt me, and I’m so pleased I was able to have a lovely conversation with Cerpa about his writing process, the places that inspire him, and why and how we fall in love with language.
We’re also giving away a copy of the book! We’ll have more details about how you can enter at the bottom of this interview. And make sure to follow Andrés on Twitter.
Stephanie Jimenez: At the Debutante Ball, we often talk about the twists and turns in publishing our first novels, but I imagine the process of publishing a book of poetry is quite different. Can you tell us a little about your process of writing and publishing Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy?
Andrés Cerpa: The poems in Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy were written between 2014 and 2016, but in a much deeper sense it is the book that I’ve always been trying to write, and there are many secret poems and lines from my earlier work inside of its pages. The most difficult work was to develop the vision, a style that felt cohesive and true, while also developing variation and nuance from poem to poem. The first time that I sent out the manuscript it was titled Without Spring and as it was being read I began writing what I believed to be a second book. Without Spring was not picked up and in the Fall of 2016 I started to see how my new writing might compliment the manuscript, add new threads and provide stylistic variation. I then replaced the poems that I felt were not as strong or repeated themes without developing a forward motion with a series of ten new poems, obliterating that second book to create Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy.
In poetry, many first books are published through contests in which a press takes submissions and has a guest judge select the winner. Alice James Books is unique because each year its editorial board, a cooperative of authors, chooses the Alice James Award Winner and Editors’ Choice Award. This, in my opinion, has led to an incredible amount of diversity in the work that they publish and I could see my book there. Now, as an “Alice” I have the great honor of being on the Editorial Board which selects books to be published by the press from the contest submissions. Submitting a manuscript is scary, but now I’ve seen, at least at AJB, that the board is spending an immense amount of time thinking about the books it receives, that they are taking notes, rereading, loving poems and making difficult decisions. There is a lot of love inside the process but when I was getting form rejections from contest after contest I wasn’t able to see that.
SJ: One of my favorite lines comes early in the collection: “When I began to love what is held in books more than the world, / I was nourished. A door closed.” I think, as writers, we romanticize reading over almost all other activities, so it seems surprising to think of books as having the capacity to close us off from other, perhaps more important things. In your poems, there are “illegible papers,” “language reaches its end,” and there is the woman who avoids acknowledging her “frail & fleeting” life by staring into her book. I really enjoyed this depiction of the written word as something that can both protect and isolate us, and I’m curious to know about how you first came to reading and writing poetry, and how your relationship to language has grown since childhood.
AC: I am constantly in pursuit of creation. I feel completely alive when I am chasing an idea in my writing, which is part of why I work in book length projects. I am trying to articulate a system of associations and continually fail and wake to try again. Something quite similar happens in my reading. When I fall in love with a book I want to read everything that author has published, I want to understand their trajectory, find things in their interviews, chase down their bibliography and the conversations surrounding the work. When I become immersed in a writer in this way there is an undertow that I need to understand. It is a hunger. A hunger that nourishes and keeps me reading, that holds my attention at a heightened level. As a child I was most excited about reading when a book was part of a series – Animorphs or Goosebumps – the fact that there was more when an individual book was finished propelled me.
When I write I need to be alone. I wish it wasn’t the case but it’s true. I don’t write well in coffee shops or libraries, which is a curse of sorts because I live in a decently small room. I started writing with a deep sense of community in Delaware as an undergraduate, and then in the M.F.A. program at Rutgers University Newark, but now I mostly keep to myself. At this point in my writing life I like it that way, it helps me build a world, to keep myself safe in the secret, and my companions on the journey are the dead.
Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, in my view, and as you pointed out, is quite literary. When I think of that door closing, I think of all that I have said inside of the book that I have never quite articulated outside of poetry. The book often contemplates hiding and it is possible to hide the inner life, in both nourishing and destructive ways.
Writing is always with me. It can sometimes feel like I should always be writing, but I know that isn’t true. When I think about life and reading, which are not separate, but we sometimes refer to them as so, I think of Peter Gizzi saying, “that my reading, my bibliography, is a large part of my “autobiography.” I hold those words close.
SJ: I was struck by the strong sense of place in your poems and the way your narrator seamlessly floats around the world–from Newark, New Jersey to Newark, Delaware–from Barcelona to Berlin. Can you talk about how you approach place in your writing?
AC: Each place that enters the book contains a system of associations that I have taken from my life and literature. They are important because they are representative of ideas, moments, and people. Therefore, when I transition in a lyric poem between places I feel as though I am not necessarily moving from one place to the other. Instead, I see that all of these places are with me at once. To feel more complete, to fully articulate a personhood, I enter these cities in the poem or in the creation of the poem the way one enters a memory. Each city is both metaphor and actuality.
SJ: Let’s end with a fun question. You’re clearly a gifted poet. What other talent do you wish you had?
AC: I would love to be an actor. The idea of embodying a character completely, particularly the physical aspect of changing the nuances of your own ways of moving through the world to create something fully new and alive sounds brutally difficult and interesting to me.
Time for our giveaway! To enter, please follow @DebutanteBall and tag us when you share this interview on Twitter or Facebook. Extra entries are earned by commenting on this post. We’ll pick a winner next week and will be in touch shortly afterwards.
ABOUT: Andrés Cerpa is the author of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, forthcoming from Alice James Books (January 2019). A recipient of fellowships from the McDowell Colony and Canto Mundo, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, The Kenyon Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, Frontier Poetry, West Branch, Foundry Journal, Wildness + elsewhere. He is the Assistant Poetry Editor of Epiphany Magazine.