Interview with Marlena Robbins: On Process, Painting and Spirituality


Photo provided by artist

Arizona-raised artist Marlena Robbins is known for her tactile, self-reflexive painting style and use of color and symbolism. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to ask her a few questions on her work, style and process.

Regan Henley: You’ve said you haven’t been painting for very long, but you seem to spend a lot of time dedicated to it. Is painting your primary medium? Why or why not?

Marlena Robbins: Yes, painting is my primary medium. I use it more so as a therapeutic expressive outlet. I think the brush strokes and colors help me feel my reality. The simple act of the brush strokes help settle my mind, focus and zone into my present. The colors are psychological; reds are passionate; blues and greens are calming; white is pure, black is powerful; etc. I started painting about 3 years ago; it evolved from there and became my own form of therapy. It became a way for me make sense of my reality, my experiences and what I was going through in order to bring me back to the present.

RH: You’ve collected a very interesting group of pieces. What would you say is the overarching theme in this body of work?

MR: I don’t know that there is a theme to it all; I think each piece that I do reflects what I am experiencing at that particular time in my life. If I’m learning something new. For example, a lot of my earlier pieces were political because I was taking an American Indian Studies course; so whatever I was taking in through my course was being reflected through my paintings. Other paintings were an extension of my feelings, thoughts and circumstances of the moment. What I am trying to understand about my reality. My paintings are growing right along with me; they are a reflection of me and the times that I am in right now.

RH: What is your process for creating these works? Do you begin with concepts or images?

MR: I have the concept first; for example when I say that I am painting what I am experiencing and what I am trying to understand about my life, that’s the concept. That’s me thinking about what I am going through right now in order to create. For instance, we recently had a lot of loss in our family and to try to make sense of that all the only way I could was to paint about it and try to bring closure in order to move forward.

Another important concept to me is balance: balancing myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and how I represent that in my art. Making sense of balance is a lifelong journey; to sustain, nurture and accept that it is a part of who we are as individuals, as human beings. It is very much a part of our purpose.

The concepts definitely do come first, but I take images from my surroundings, the environment and my creative environment. I am very blessed to know and work with amazing artists and have great mentors who put it all out there to be respected and to inspire the people to create.

Some paintings I do start out with a plan, I sketch it first. However, lately, I’ve been mostly experimenting with the mixtures of colors; being intuitive with it and going with the flow. Not really having a plan but giving the canvas my all and the paints their own direction and free will. It’s intimidating to not know what is going to happen or how it’s going to come out because I have this canvas in front of me and I don’t want to mess it up, but at the same time there’s beauty in the unknown. I believe that is parallel with life.

RH: You’ve mentioned that many people are drawn to the three-dimensional quality of your work. Do you ever work with collage or 3D materials when creating these paintings? Your paintings have a kind of texture and warmth that makes them read like textile and fiber arts. How are you influenced by textile arts when creating these pieces?

MR: My very first collage piece was done to pay homage to the women, grandmothers and mothers who came before us. It was pictures of Indigenous women and their children from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. It shows the love that we have for our children as mothers and how that is gifted from generation to generation; the connection we must maintain and nourish with our children. There is no perfect parent; we do our best with what we have.

When I was finished with it I felt as though something was missing. I saw the beads next to me and started beading the outfits in the pictures. My very first collage was my very first beaded painting. The beads add to it, they are unique, different, offer a new texture/effect and are beautiful because it’s like painting with beads. There are very few artists that I’ve seen who bead their paintings. I haven’t seen much on it or read much about it; I know that it is out there, it’s just very unique. I first started beading about 7 years ago; my auntie taught me a very simple stitch. I stopped beading for a long time and it came to back to me when it was supposed to.

RH: Many of these paintings reference spirituality in an abstract way, from the use of patterns, stained glass and geometry; they definitely evoke these thoughts to me, personally. Can you speak a little bit more to that (Are you directly interested in these ideas or are they themes that come up naturally? Are you a very spiritual person? Etc.)?

MR: Spirituality, to me, is an intricate and delicate thought process but very simple to appreciate. It’s not overruled by any written agenda or book. It’s not confined entirely to a religion. It’s how we cope with our reality, how we understand and see ourselves, see the people around us and the world we are in.

I grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Our family didn’t lean towards any religion. There were a lot of traditional Navajo families and Catholic/Mormon families around us. Our mother chose not to excessively influence any one form of religion, she let us understand it for ourselves, and I really appreciated that because it was less confusing. I am not too traditional but I am not religious either. I understand both because I witnessed both. It’s hard for me to respect any Christian religion as a legitimate source of spirituality based on colonialism and the fact that it wasn’t a part of our Indigenous beliefs before colonization.

The flower of life painting, for example, is a reminder to mellow out. That while we strive for perfection, nothing is ever perfect, and while we try to control every situation in our lives, sometimes that choice is not ours to make. We may think that we are making it but in the grand scheme of things we are not; by going with the flow and letting it all evolve the way it’s supposed to, we let it unfold as we go. I can plan my life out 10 years from now but still need to be happy with who I am this very moment by taking care of myself before I go overanalyzing my future. Understanding my present and being grateful for it is a part of spirituality; forgiving my past, accepting my present for what it is and acknowledging my future for what it might become.

RH: What are your biggest influences right now, artistically or otherwise (Artists, movements, styles, book, philosophies, ideas, things you’ve seen or heard, etc.)?

MR: I’ve been very blessed to be able to surround myself with very artistic and influential people in the community and throughout the nation. My mentors Carmen and Zarco Guerrero, my sister Zarina Guerrero, my good friends and accomplished artists in their own mediums: Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes, and Samuel La Fountain. These very genuine people are true to themselves, their art and the world we live in. They have been inspirations to everyone they meet. I draw from their work and ideas. It helps motivate me and drive myself.

RH: What have been the biggest challenges for you in making this work?

MR: Time is the biggest challenge for me. I am the mother to a very energetic three year old. I work for two incredible organizations. I am the Assistant Director of Cultural Coalition, Inc. and am the assistant to the COO and Directors of Community Bridges, Inc. I will be attending graduate school in the fall, pursuing my Master’s in American Indian Studies–Indigenous Rights and Social Justice. I am preparing for my upcoming solo-debut show “777” this May. I am building up my collection and portfolio for the Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe this August. I’m starting a therapeutic art program at Community Bridges for our clients. And most importantly, giving my son the attention he needs and deserves to make sure he is growing in a good way.

RH: I want to ask you about your art site name, “Mello out Mella.” What’s the story behind that?

MR: Mello out Mella is a reminder for me to “Mello Out.” My nickname growing up is Mella. At times I am a control freak, I want everything to go my way. I have assumptions and expectations of how I want things to play out it and if it doesn’t it can be almost shattering for me. I had to have everything in order, organized to the T, this is how it’s supposed to go, this is how it is going to go, if it doesn’t go this way then what was the point of it all? It took a very long time to let go of that control and understand that things are not always going to go the way I want them to and I have to go with the flow and let it evolve the way it’s supposed to. Mello Out Mella is a reminder for myself and every other control freak out there, that it is ok and there are worse things that could happen, but right now we are safe, strong, happy, healthy, living, breathing and are in the present, grateful for that breathe we are taking in.

RH: So I noticed you also screen print your pieces on shirts and the like, but you’re also showing your work in galleries. Some people would consider those things as conflicting, or even find it difficult to live in both those worlds (fine art and commercial), so to speak. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist doing both?

MR: That never occurred to me. I love these paintings and wanted to share them because know I am not going to recreate them. I wanted to build a design out of it and share via t-shirts and posters. That way the design and painting stay alive. The shirts and posters help relay a message that was embedded in the painting. A lot of symbolism goes into my work; there are stories behind every painting which is a big part of my art. There is always meaning behind them, it’s never just a painting; they have feelings, energy, thoughts, prayers, etc. that go into it. I pray before, during and after I complete a painting. While these paintings are helping to heal me, after I am finished with them they are meant to heal the viewer as well. As the viewer, take in what it is offering. I hope my paintings/designs offer good energy, good thoughts, good words, good feelings and good health. They helped heal me and my intention is for them to help heal others.

RH: These pieces mark a significant period of work. Have you learned anything new about yourself during this period of time?

MR: Yes I have, painting has definitely helped me understand my reality for what it is. And accept and acknowledge parts of myself that I could never really grasp or deal with. Before I started creating, I went through a very difficult time in my life, and I am grateful for how it has helped me move forward. I see a lot of myself in what I paint and a lot of my intuition that goes into it.

RH: If you had to explain your art in 5 words or less what would you say?

MR: Healing, evolving, spiritual, embracing, balanced.

RH: Where can we see more of your work and keep up with you?

MR: You can find more of my work at and my upcoming solo-debut show, “777” at One Spot Gallery in Downtown Phoenix, the first and third Fridays of May and June 2016. 

You can also reach me at

Interview with Molly Soda: Internet Fame, Magic and New Adolescence

Photo provided by Molly Soda

Photo provided by Molly Soda

Under her pseudonym, internet artist and social media star Molly Soda has made her portfolio off the pitfalls of social media and the new generation of Internetisms. She set aside some time to talk to our Art Editor, Regan Henley about some of her work and her perspective as a web artist in the spotlight.

Regan Henley: One of the things I find most interesting about your work is your examination of internet fame, which of course, is a relatively new invention. I particularly like “Inbox Full.” Did you set out to examine these concepts, or do you think they are more just a product of your situation?

Molly Soda: I never put myself or my work online with the intention of becoming “famous” or with any attempts to amass a large following. I’m interested as to why certain personalities gain such followings–why do I choose to follow who I follow online? What makes someone appealing?

“Inbox Full” was definitely a product of my situation. At the height of my Tumblr “fame,” I began to notice major changes in the way people would interact with me online. The Tumblr “Ask” button sort of allowed this influx of anonymous communication–anyone can contact you, and anyone can tell you what they think of you. And all anyone wants to see–when they send someone a message, especially something negative–is a public reaction or response. I had thousands of messages in my inbox, both positive and negative. It was a way to acknowledge everyone as well as a way to purge and sort of wipe that digital slate clean.

RH: A lot of your press and presence in the art world seems intrinsically tied to your social media persona. Did you find that to be a help or a hindrance?

MS: The Internet has gotten me further than going to art school ever has.

RH: Ha. You’ve addressed the unique aspect of tween girl friendships in the context of new technology, like your “Tween Dreams” and sleepover videos. How do these stack up to your own adolescent experiences?

MS: “Tween Dreams” is very much based off of my actual adolescent experiences. I set out to make something more realistic with that series–something that reflected the reality of being a tween more so than the stuff I watched (and hoped for) when I was a tween. Also, something that actually looks like it would be made by a tween. It was important to me to put less focus on crushes, boys, not liking other girls and more focus on female friendships.

RH: How do you think these tween experiences changed/are changing with technology?

MS: I’m sure the tween experience is completely different from when I was growing up. What’s the equivalent to AIM now? That’s how I communicated with everyone after school… how I got my first boyfriends, etc. Does everyone just text?

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram didn’t exist… I don’t even think MySpace was a thing yet? Smart phones weren’t a thing. I got my first cell phone at 14. The list goes on. I only used to the Internet to take online quizzes, talk to my friends on AIM and play Neopets.

It’s vastly different! I’m sure the social codes for how to interact online with each other have changed as well because there is such an influx of new technology and rapid communication. [It] would be interesting to dig deeper–[I] feel like now that I’m not a tween, I’ll never fully comprehend it.

RH: You’ve incorporated a lot of occult elements in your work, particularly with the creation of your colorful and idyllic digital spell book. How do these practices fit into your work?

MS: I’m not a witch by any means. The Spell Book was sort of a way for me to try and incorporate our digital lives into our spiritual lives. Because the digital is so present and so fluid, it makes sense to want to reach some sort of clarity through our screens. I’m always thinking of ways to virtually cleanse myself–there’s a lot of clutter and stress that happens online that isn’t really talked about–perhaps because it doesn’t feel as palpable.

RH: Your work has a very early Internet, 2000s vibe to it at times, can you speak a bit more to that?

MS: This is mostly a product of what I grew up with. There’s something comforting in the glitter graphic. There’s something mildly liberating and chaotic about design sensibilities from the early 2000s. Everything now is a bit streamlined, you can only customize your user profiles so much–it can feel stifling, and I like to get away from that in my work.

RH: A lot of your work directly confronts social media sharing, and you’ve gone out of your way to post images of yourself that many may be more hesitant to share online. For example, your “Should I send this” nudes or any “less than flattering” images of yourself. Would you say your work comments more on a new culture of over-sharing or more on over-produced, highly-selective sharing?

MS: Just because I’m “over-sharing” and posting unflattering photos of myself does not mean I’m not curating my image to a certain degree. We all are. There’s no shame in that. For every selfie I take, there are at least 10 that didn’t “work” for me. I’m no more “real” than anyone who retouches their photos.

RH: When making these pieces, do you ever delete something you’ve put up?

MS: I generally don’t delete anything I post. It’s all up there, as embarrassing as some things may be. Owning up to embarrassment or shame is the best way to work past it.

RH: What’s your big dream for your art as of late? If someone gave you a huge grant what would you do with it?

MS: There are a lot of pieces I want to make that can’t be realized because of financial limitations. My dream is to ultimately be able to make the work I want to make and live comfortably off of it. It’s not a “big” dream, but it often feels impossible because of how money is displaced in this world–artists put so much work in and are expected to do it for free constantly.

If I were to receive a huge sum of money, I’d put it into public spaces. I want to make work that can be inhabited IRL as well as online outside of a gallery. I’m interested in parks and would like to eventually do a piece where I create my own fantasy park that people can visit.

RH: What have you read, recently or not so recently, that has inspired your work?

MS: I misread a sign that said “no cycling,” and I thought it said “no crying.” That one’s stuck with me for the past few months.

RH: Where can we find you these days?

MS: You can find me online:




Instagram: bloatedandalone4evr1993


Interview with Artist Shiloh Ashley: On Constructing Language, Relationships, & Identity

Shiloh AshleyIntermedia Grad Student Shiloh Ashley has been hard at work preparing for their thesis show, including the arduous task of constructing their own language. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to get some time with Shiloh to talk about this process and see what exactly this whole project entails.

Regan Henley: So, my understanding is that you are creating your own language as part of your thesis. Can you speak a little about that?

Shiloh Ashley: I am very interested in languages, codes, puzzles, and games, and the ways in which these things intersect during play. I wanted to deepen my knowledge and expand my understanding of the how language, codes, puzzles, and games influence communication and interpersonal relationships. I felt that the best way to investigate the dynamics between the intersections of those elements and how they lead to transformation would be to create my own language.

RH: This project is obviously a huge undertaking. What has been your process throughout this work? Have you been following some outline for creating language or is it more of an intuitive task?

SA: I am working intuitively with a plan of action, which means that I set aside time to focus on only writing, only music, only building, etc., and the work develops from there. It helps me to corral my thoughts but not limit them too much to a set of expectations as I find art has a way of making itself regardless of what, I, as the artist think it should be.

RH: Has language always had an important element in your work, or is this a more recent fascination of yours?

SA: Language has been a constant in my work.

Language is important to me because I believe languages are adventurous journeys to new worlds, not just verbal or gestural languages, but also languages like mathematics, coding, and the use of acronyms in cyberspace. There are many different ways to say the same thing, there are similar ways to say different things, and too many ways to say the wrong thing.

RH: Do you think language plays an important role in defining personal identity to you? And if so, what are you saying in creating your own?

SA: I grew up in a multilingual setting. My family is Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and so I grew up around English and Lakota. I got in trouble in first grade for coloring out of the lines on a picture of a pig that we were going to cut out and put on a wall. In protest of getting reprimanded by the teacher, I called her a name in Lakota and was sent to the principal’s office. I learned that there was a lot of power in terms of what is said, who is saying it, and who what is being said is being said to.

Also around that time, my parents worked at a summer camp along the Missouri River, and the majority of the counselors were international coming from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Australia, Jordan, and Japan. It exposed me to the world in a way that still informs my curiosity about people and how lives are lived across the globe.

Outside of those experiences, I took a couple years of Spanish, learned to read music, became interested in technology, and am learning to code.

I have in the last year started to learn Lakota. The extent of my knowledge comes from language used in ceremony and things I remember from my aunts and uncles. My parents spoke mostly English. It is important for me to reconnect with the language of my people because it connects me to who I am, where I come from, and the values of my people. All of these languages are important to me because they help me understand and process the world. I am creating my own language because I feel a responsibility to communicate sincerely with the world in an attempt to join in on the conversations that address issues related to our planet and the future of humanity.

RH: The idea of ceremony definitely seems present in how you construct language. Last semester I got to see you do a performance art piece at a live art platform in which you used audience participation and line dancing to teach participants your new language. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

SA: Line dances and dance crazes interest me because they facilitate space for temporary communities to come together for about five minutes to just have a good time. Momentarily, race, sex, class, gender, politics, and prejudice are suspended, and people just dance. There are other ways of looking at it, but I am focusing on work that brings people together, and I felt like the line dance was a good way to integrate learning, performance, and participation into the work.

RH: Will you be following this line of thought (doing any more line dancing/performative elements) in your thesis show?

SA: I sure hope so! Bring your dancing shoes just in case.

RH: This work has definitely been a long time coming for you, given your background and experiences it seems. What have you learned throughout this process?

SA: The most helpful thing I’ve learned is about having the patience to allow space for the work to evolve and to trust that it will eventually come to make some sort of sense. It is new territory, and I am very excited about the process moving toward thesis show as I am approaching the work in a more focused manner now that the foundations of the language have been established.

RH: Last but not least, where can we see you and your work?

SA: You can find my work in progress website from 2010 at, updates coming soon. I post images of my process on Instagram (@shilohmfa) and if you are into music you can check out my band, Ashley at

Shiloh’s Thesis Show with open at ASU Step Gallery in Grant Street Studios on April 1st.



Interview with Artist Ashley Czajkowski: Birds, Births and Life after Grad School

Photo by Ashley Cajowski

Photo by Ashley Czajkowski

Our Art Editor, Regan Henley, conducted an interview with Artist Ashley Czajkowski, whose work appears in Issue 15. They discuss Ashley’s post-grad work, her artistic process, and her involvement with the Creative Push project.

Regan Henley: Last time we saw you you were finishing up your MFA within the School of Art, and completing your thesis show. Now that you’ve graduated, what are you up to?

Ashley Czajkowski: I’m adjunct teaching, I teach Photo II Darkroom at ASU which I absolutely love. The amount of energy I can put into teaching now as opposed to when I was in grad school is so much more that I’m giving a lot more to the students, and because of that I’m getting much more back. I’m also adjunct teaching at Scottsdale Community College which is a totally different and amazing experience teaching one large 5-hour studio class with Photo I, Photo II, Photo III, Photo IV, advanced projects and alternative process in one five hour block. I’m working on the Creative Push project with Forrest Sollis interviewing and editing women’s labor and delivery stories. It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve honed a lot of skills with that, but I’m also meeting people and talking to other other women and artists. It’s almost like a curatorial thing as well. I’m also an event coordinator for eye lounge now.

RH: Your thesis show “Unbecoming” was about animalistic instincts, and the human connection with “wildness.” You made a whole installation of found birds and exposed them on light-sensitive paper. Are you continuing the series?

AC: I am, but I started changing them. So, I’m exposing them on fabric with liquid light and putting them into these [embroidery hoops]. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of domesticity, and domestic acts. I think it’s interesting, the idea of taking something wild and making it tame. It’s that idea of domesticity as it relates to femininity, but also in the act or making them, and collecting the birds. Using the fabric, they become more abstract, which I like. They start to look like celestial bodies, or moons.

RH: Was it natural to just continue this work? Was there a struggle to decide to move on or forward with it?

AC: It was actually the easiest thing to continue doing what I was before, I think there’s a lot of pressure as artists to reinvent the wheel every time we make something. I was thinking about having a new show, and I definitely want it to be different than the way it was before, but there will be some overlap because I’m still thinking about a lot of the same things. Just because I’ve finished a thesis show doesn’t mean that work has been fully explored. There is a common thing though that happens after grad school, and I’ve talked to a lot of other people about this, but there is this weird lull that happens. But it didn’t take me long to pick it back up. I just have to be making, but I’m trying to push it further.

RH: What about your process now? You’re not in school, your schedule is very different and no one is making you create. What’s it like working with less structure?

AC: In some ways it helps to be home a lot more. I’ve found the video-making to be a lot more difficult, but the object-making has been a lot easier. It’s a weird sort of balance. The pressure to make in school is much different. But part of what grad school is, and I’ve had lots of professors tell me this, is that before you leave you should understand your studio practice and being able to perpetuate that without “goals.”

RH: Without that structure, how has the critique process changed for you now that you’re out of school? Now that you don’t have structured spaces to refine your work?

AC: That was the thing I realized I was going to miss right away, that community and those conversations. Luckily, my partner is also an artist so that makes it nice to bounce ideas off of. But that’s one of the reasons I’ve joined the eye lounge. We’re actually working on setting up some 17th century style salons, where people come and put up a bunch of work and have conversations. It will be early spring, it’s a cooperation between the art grads group and eye lounge. So I’m forcing that critique space to happen.

RH: Does your art making feel less intense now? Or, I should say, do you feel less pressure to create?

AC: In grad school you feel like you never have enough time, I always felt like I always have to be more prolific than I was. I think that kind of external pressure is gone, but I don’t want to say that it’s less intense because I feel like that implies it’s conceptually less intense which isn’t the case. I have more time to really investigate more. I’m making stuff, but really I’m feeding myself more, reading theory and external things but also reading into my own work more. Which I think is really beneficial.

RH: What have you been reading?

AC: It’s been a combination of lots of things. I’ve been reading some psychoanalytical theory about pregnancy and childbirth as I’m working on the Creative Push project. I’m also constantly referring to this book, “The Book of Symbols” by the archive for research in archetypal symbolism which I jokingly call my bible. It’s basically an anthology of archetypal symbols and imagery. Every time there’s something that comes up in my work, I look it up in this book. I’ve also been reading a lot of photography theory which I got in my last year of school, which goes into poststructuralist theory, which gets into some pretty heavy stuff.

RH: The Creative Push project seems to be particularly close to your heart at the moment. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

AC: Forrest Sollis started this project called the Creative Push after she had her first child, and she was going to make a body of work about the experience, and she was having a hard time finding artwork out there that was about the genuine labor and delivery experience from a woman’s first-hand perspective. So, there are some stories out there and recent critique about it, but she wanted to create a platform where women could share their stories and artists could make work in response to those stories. The platform really is the website, which is, but we will eventually has some physical exhibitions in the spring. It’s been an amazing experience. The stories are incredible. I feel like this whole pool of knowledge used to be an oral tradition that women would pass on to each other, but it became really taboo in history, so it’s kind of something that you don’t really talk about. It’s just supposed to be this magical experience – which it is in many ways – but it’s also traumatic and transformative.

RH: Are you still looking for participants?

AC: Yes! That is a great question. We are still looking for participants as storytellers and artists, there is a participate form you can fill out on the website.

RH: Fantastic. Last question here: Where else can we see you these days?

AC: You can always see my work online on my website. Now that I’m a member of eye lounge, I will be participating in a group show in December, I will have my solo show at eye lounge in Phoenix in February, another group show in March. Definitely check it out.

Ask the ASU Author Interview: Lori Eshleman

This montlorih’s installment of “Ask the ASU Author” introduces us to the work of Lori Eshleman, who is currently an instructor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and Communication for ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences at the Polytechnic campus. Eshleman’s novel, “Pachacuti: World Overturned,” began during her travels in South America, and the work has taken a circuitous path to publication.  Read her interview with ASU Magazine.

An Interview with Kamilah Aisha Moon

Kamilah Aisha Moon 2Recently Nadine Lockhart caught up with Kamilah Aisha Moon, whose poetry and prose appear in Superstition Review Issue 10.

Nadine Lockhart: The relationship your sister has with you, you with her, the entire family dynamic, and her interactions with the rest of the world (her impact on those around her, and how she is affected by them) are central to—but “slantly” told in—She Has a Name. What was the impetus, emotional or otherwise, for choosing to write about your sister? Was to educate others part of your decision as the title of the book seems to indicate?

Kamilah Aisha Moon: The idea of telling, and thus owning, one’s story has always been present through music, the books lining my mother’s shelves and the literature introduced in church and school from a very young age. And I wrote about everything but that relationship and how it shaped our family because it was too close, like trying to read a book pushed up against my nose. My attempts were trite and inadequate for a long time.  I still don’t feel like they are all that they could be.  I needed time and distance as a woman in order to circle back with enough perspective to go there in a meaningful way.  But I felt like I had to because there was a long silence and a subtle yet pervasive shame around difference in the communities we grew up in.  I think this often happened inadvertently—just not having the information or language on a wide scale at the time to facilitate conversation and interaction. I needed to make sense of what I’d seen and heard, intuited but hadn’t discussed with others.  Visibility and pride, as well as promoting understanding definitely brought me back to this subject.  And to not write about her and this condition would have been to ignore a significant part of my own journey.

NL: The book begins with “Borderless Country,” possibly akin to a reader’s introduction to autism as the poem oscillates between cold statistics and a mother’s inner dialogue. How did you decide on this work as the first poem of your first book? How did you come to the title—which is a very apt description of what it must be like to navigate life for those with autism.

KAM: “Borderless Country” is an acknowledgement of how many families in this country are affected by this condition across all backgrounds and walks of life.  Since writing that poem, that statistic has increased to 1 in 88.  The perimeters of the autism spectrum and its criteria continue to evolve and shift, and the poem is a brief litany of questions, possible causes and the initial grappling after diagnosis. It felt right to start broad and then zoom into a specific story.

NL: Embedded, among the titled poems throughout the book, are what appear to be theatrical asides spoken by different members of the family. They are untitled, but for the speaker’s name in parentheses; however, when your autistic sister speaks, you do not name her, which seems to echo the book’s title. What was the initial idea behind these “rests” inserted into the main musical score of the manuscript? What do you feel they do for the reader, or what did you hope they would do?

KAM: The only name that appears in the book at all is my nickname, Ish.  These are characters based on real people.  I want the reader to always be aware of this fact. The sister’s “voice” is left- justified, the title character needs no modifier.  But the whole point as well is similar to the impetus behind the poem “Borderless Country.” This is any of us, all of us. Unsure of how to handle something we don’t understand, perhaps misplacing anger or shutting down for awhile. Or simply taking your sister or daughter to the park, or sitting in a meeting with an apathetic teacher, etc. Most people have found themselves frustrated by their own limitations, as the autistic sister mentions. As children when we met new people, sometimes they wouldn’t acknowledge my youngest sister, so we often would do it for them—“and her name is…”  She is able to express herself, and has become more eloquent as the years go by.  No matter what our individual struggles, we are self-determining and wrestle with our desires and needs.  We are all here.  We each and all have a name.

NL: The poem, “Frequency: An Ultimatum,” is one of my favorites; it is very different in sound and form from the others in the book. Was it written earlier? Later? What were the circumstances of its creation?

KAM: I wanted to “talk back” to the voices that my sister sometimes responds to out loud. I wanted to somehow capture the way she seems haunted and how we all resent their unwelcome intrusions. And express the helplessness of not being able to do anything but be there, try to soothe her when she gets upset.

NL: Another poem, “Blues Bop for Sonny,” includes a refrain and I could almost hear it as a song—as the title suggests. I’ve heard you say how much music has been an influence on you and your work. Did you have something like that in mind, ie, setting this poem to music or hearing it as a melody or even writing it as a song, initially? What role did Sonny Kenner play in your life, artistic or otherwise?

KAM: The Bop is a poetic form created by poet Afaa Michael Weaver born directly out of the blues tradition of storytelling with a refrain.  I didn’t originally write this poem as a bop, but found it to be a natural fit since Sonny Kenner played both blues and jazz for years with several renowned musicians in Kansas City, MO.  Also, the circumstances at the end of his life were a blues of its own, and unfortunately that is a common irony. I love live music sets and I used to go to his shows when I lived there, and was dismayed at how his passing was handled by the local news.  The poem was a way of “seeing” him in a dignified way and remembering his gift.

NL: Of course, I resisted and resisted, but by the end of the book, I was sobbing. Have others mentioned this? Did you realize your poetry would have this effect? Was it intended? Would you elaborate on this kind of emotional release for the reader?

KAM: There have been strong emotional reactions from readers. I tried to write with empathy and as much of the original emotion felt as possible. William Stafford said, “Dig deep enough into your own story until you reach everyone’s story,” and this has been a guiding concept for my writing.  I also kept in mind the idea that if there is no surprise or discovery for the writer in process, there won’t be any for the reader. Lucille Clifton often said “Something in me knows how to write poetry better than I do.”  I wanted to get out of the way of the part of me that ‘knows’ better; to listen and receive rather than dictate.  So I allowed myself to excavate places that weren’t comfortable and to write what came—especially when it didn’t match what I may have planned to write about. It is special to be told that you’ve increased someone’s awareness or sensitivity, or affirmed someone else’s experience in a way he or she hadn’t been able to articulate before. In a world that has a great deal of isolation and ignorance, moments of connection and clarity are godsends, I think.

NL: Even though semi-autobiographical, She Has a Name is not running exactly alongside the lives of the people we discover within the text. For example, your father was artistic, and so his emotions were probably not as blunted as those portrayed in the father in the book. And aren’t both he and your sister still living, so “Eulogy” is fictitious, yet one of the more heartbreaking, and at the same time, more hopeful poems in the book. Could you elaborate on your process of where to draw that semi-autobiographical line?

KAM: This collection is based on a shared experience in several lives full of innumerable experiences. So while it explores the truth of real emotions and events, it could never represent the whole of any person or experience. Elizabeth Alexander said “many things are true at once.” Truth also has many faces.  These poems are sketches of very rich, textured, full lives filtered through the colander of one person’s memory.  Tiny windows into a mansion of realities. I wanted to honor the challenges and beauty of what is unquestionably a deep, abiding love among all members of the family.

“Eulogy” is for my Aunt Joy, who passed away at the age of 28.  Her untimely passing had a deep impact on our family.

Nadine Lockhart received both her MA and MFA from Arizona State University; she is currently enrolled in their PhD program. She is co-host/co-founder of the Phoenix Poetry Series, a monthly featured reading in central city; it’s in its sixth year. Her interests, in addition to poetry, include the visual arts, theatre, and Badger, her orange cat.

Kamilah Aisha Moon’s poetry collection, She Has A Name, is now available from Four Way Books. A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, the Vermont Studio Center and Cave Canem, her work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard ReviewjubilatSou’westerOxford American, and Lumina and Villanelles. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College, Drew University, and Adelphi University. She has also led workshops for various arts-in-education organizations in diverse settings. Moon received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

An Interview with Neal Lester

Neal LesterProject Humanities is a university-wide initiative at Arizona State University that strives to connect people through talking, listening, and connecting about the humanities. Every semester, Project Humanities chooses a theme that will guide their kick-off week and subsequent semester. Kick-off week for the Fall 2013 semester will run from September 16-21 with the focus of “Humor… Seriously.” Advertising intern April Hanks had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University and Director of Project Humanities.

April Hanks: How would you explain project humanities to someone?

Neal Lester: Project Humanities is a university-wide effort to demystify and to promote the relevance of humanities research and public programs across all campuses and into the surrounding communities. And we do that through a number of strategies that are research-specific as well as public programs that engage diverse communities. It’s all year round and it has been in place for about three years.

AH: How did Project Humanities begin?

NL: The germ of the idea began in fall 2010 and that’s when we assembled. I served as Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the time and one of my charges was to make humanities more robust. It was at a time when a lot of humanities programs across the country were being cut because of budget and… around the country they seemed to be chopping at humanities courses first. So what I figured I needed to do in terms of making humanities more robust was to first sort of take humanities out of this notion that humanities happens within a classroom. [I needed to show] that humanities were bigger than discipline and that we could actually talk about humanities across all disciplines. And so that became sort of the focus. How do we talk across disciplines, how do we talk within disciplines so it’s not as if literary scholars are always talking with historians or historians are always talking to religious studies scholar? So there was an effort both to talk within disciplines, but also to talk beyond and across disciplines about those kinds of questions that humanities ask. And they’re not formulas. They’re not always black and white. But it’s to find meaning in those sort of grey spaces between, say, STEM disciplines and look at humanities as a way of basically helping us better understand what is going on in our lives and the world.

AH: You mentioned that Project Humanities reaches out to the community…

NL: Communities. I get a little bothered when we sort of make community monolithic, because I don’t know what that means when we talk about the community. Because what Project Humanities tries to do is reach out to multiple communities and my personal sense is that each individual is a member of multiple communities simultaneously. We can certainly talk about communities within ASU, we can also talk about communities outside and beyond ASU.

AH: How does Project Humanities engage with communities outside of ASU?

NL: First of all, we have about 100 programs a year that we either sponsor or cosponsor. We’ve done Project Humanities events at churches that were not necessarily faith-based programs, we’ve had film screenings at one of the churches downtown, we had another public program at one of the cafes, the Fair Trade Café, we did another at Sunnyside Diner in Ahwatukee, we do things at the library, we had a program that was actually at The Lot, which is downtown Phoenix outside, we had one of our first programs that engaged the community at the Phoenix Youth Hostel, in addition to having programs on campuses across all four campuses. So that’s one way.

Not only do we have programs at these other places, but we also invite people from these communities into ASU to sit on panels or into ASU to give a lecture or to participate in a conversation. For “Humor… Seriously” we actually have a representative from Tempe Improv as well as the National Comedy Theater, I believe, who are coming in to talk in the business school about the business of humor. So it’s not as much about being funny or talking about humor and how humor is done, we have other workshops about that, but this is how do you market humor. How do comedy clubs survive? How do improv groups survive? What is the entrepreneurial aspect of humor? So these are not people who are ASU people, they are coming from the outside. We also engage with national communities. So we don’t just deal with the local but we try to make sure that the local expertise interfaces with the national. So we have national speakers coming in, we have people leading workshops who are national experts. We also talk about the international communities and we have a visiting scholar now from Norway. And our Hand campaign, which is the t-shirts: people wearing the t-shirts and then sending us pictures from all over the world. So there are multiple ways we engage with communities outside of ASU but also communities inside of ASU.

AH: You’ve mentioned several times that the focus for this semester is humor, so how did Project Humanities decide to focus on humor this semester?

NL: We have a signature event: biannual kick-offs. And rather than doing what some universities have done, which is to just sort of throw anything and everything that has to do with humanities into a segment of the semester, we decided, this was a steering committee and I three years ago, that we would try to have some kind of thematic focus. But a thematic focus that would allow anybody doing anything across disciplines, communities, and professions.

So the first one we did, which launched it in spring of 2011, was “Perspectives on Place.” And that theme is interesting because when we started Project Humanities, it was to address a number of things, not only about the place of humanities in higher education when parents and students are asking where you’ll get a job when you major in English or French or Spanish or even art history. So it was the place of humanities in that conversation. The other part had to do specifically with the southwest. At the time, Arizona was going through some really difficult political and social conversation about racial profiling, about immigration, about attacks on ethnic studies. SB 1070 was high on everybody’s list and there was this narrative circulating that Arizona was not very hospitable to difference, and cultural difference at that. So Project Humanities was a conscious effort to try to address some of those issues, to say “here’s a different narrative about what’s going on in the southwest, in Arizona, and at Arizona State University.” So in many ways the idea of the project was focused around a particular need to address a number of things that were specific…

So then we did one on American music, and we had a number of performances. We had Blues at the MU, we had conversations about blues and memory, we had performances. I remember one in particular where we had a sold out audience in Old Main, where we had performances of gospel, of barber shop, and of poetry and rock. But punctuating each of those performances, and they were actually diverse, were music historians’ views of how these different genres connected. So it wasn’t just a series of performances as if you’ve been to a concert.

Then we had another one on truth, and a lot of these come out of what’s happening in the world, so at the time it was about whether or not truth is overrated. People are always saying “tell the truth and nothing but the whole truth,” so we sort of explored that. What does it mean to do truth in art? The students had something about white lies: what does it mean when you’re just telling a little white lie? So there’s all these efforts to talk about truth.

Then we did one on “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” And that one has been the one that has resonated in more far-reaching ways. And I say that because we built a summer film series around it, which is a film per month at one of the public libraries in Phoenix, not always at the same place. And that led to a number of public lectures that I did and continue to do because people are actually trying to give meaning to some of the stuff that doesn’t make sense, whether it be a Tucson tragedy, or Aurora, Colorado shootings, or Newtown, Connecticut, or any number of things that are happening in our own neighborhoods.

So from “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” we moved into for the spring, “Heroes, Superheroes, and Superhumans.” And that seemed a natural fit because often times wherever there’s great tragedy we also hear these stories of great heroism. And we were also able to move not only into comic books, but also in terms of veterans as heroes, teachers as heroes, everyday heroism. And we created a number of activities around the theme.

From that, the humor felt like everybody could bring something to the table on humor. And it was not just comedy, so we deliberately didn’t name it comedy, but we tried to look at humor not only from a scholarly perspective, but also from a performance perspective. So we’ve  got a couple of open mics, we’ve got workshops, we’ve got film screenings, we’ve got lectures, we’ve got a funniest teacher contest that’s coming up. So the idea is to try to find something that everyone can potentially participate in so that it’s not something that excludes people.

AH: What is your future vision for Project Humanities?

NL: Well, I want Project Humanities to first of all be more nationally visible. I want it to be one of the leaders when people talk about humanities nationally. Somebody will say, “What is Project Humanities doing?” or “What would they say about this?” And I also want it to be a center for collaboration across disciplines and across professions and communities. We’re writing a number of grants now, so we can expand the reach of Project Humanities. We don’t have a very large staff, but we have a growing staff of students who are both volunteers and also student workers. And I think more people are knowing about Project Humanities. I mean, I’m so excited that three years ago we started with about 200 Facebook likes. This summer, we had about 600 and of right now we have 936 likes. And our announcement about Bill Nye went viral immediately because Bill Nye is going to be one of our guest speakers this semester, talking about humor science and science humor through the lens of humanities. So that’s one indication, I’d like for that to be more robust. I’d like for us to be more nationally visible and I’d like for people to know when they’re going to an event, “Wow. I get humanities. Humanities really is important.”

For more information on Project Humanities or their fall kick-off events, check out the Project Humanities website ( or Facebook (