Ava C. Cipri


Chad Frame Interviews Ava C. Cipri for the Spotlight!

Ava C. Cipri

I sat down with the extremely talented Ava C. Cipri, our Spotlight Author for Issue Two, and marveled at not only how relatable and clever she is, but how much we curiously have in common without having ever—until now—crossed paths!

So, you’re based in Pittsburgh. What’s the literary scene like in the Steel City?

The best! There is room and support for every writer. There are so many readings, often several in one night across the city. We have venues like Carnegie Library Readings, Mad Fridays, Red Dog Reading Series, Hemingway’s Reading Series, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review Roadshow, Versify, Steel City Slam, the Bridge Series, and City of Asylum who provides a platform and resources for endangered writers seeking asylum. Oh, and the presses from Autumn House to university presses, to our Indies like Stranded Oak Press.

A slew of independent bookstores; Barnes & Noble’s, Borders and Joseph-Beth Bookstore couldn’t survive here, but we support our independent bookstores and they support writers by providing venues for readings and selling their books.

Close to my heart are the Madwomen Workshops I take. Created by Patricia Dobler, now led and nurtured under the discerning eye of Jan Beatty through Carlow University. I’m surrounded by these fierce women with a single desire to write.

Lastly, how many cities can say they have Drag Queen Story Hour through their local library for children five and under in an effort to challenge gender stereotypes?

Wow! That’s a lot of lit! And I never knew how much I needed Drag Queen Story Hour in my life until now.

Your first chapbook, Queen of Swords, is coming very soon from Dancing Girl Press. Congratulations! What can you tell us about it?

Thank you, Chad! It lands in late November. Queen of Swords is a woven narrative of sexual awakening, love, loss, and fate. I claim my non-binary bisexuality and deliberate on the wreckage of these intimate encounters. The poems include free verse and Eastern forms. I couldn’t let the experiences die with the end of those relationships; I needed a witness. I collect tarot decks and I enjoy a meditating on the cards to aid in deciphering situations. In particular, I find the Queen of Swords a force to be reckoned with—no time for bullshit, and often known for her direct honesty. She is quick-witted, a protector of her space, and fierce individualism. Her head is crowned with butterflies, symbols of transformation. And at the heart of the book it is all about transformation.

I love it already! And I’m guessing the wonderful “Ace of Wands: Birth & Death” over at Rust + Moth is in the collection? Are the use of white space and unique use of slashes in that poem representative of other poems in the book?

Yes, absolutely. In an effort to break down and dismantle a definitive definition of gender I use it in my poem “Pathology.” Additionally, I utilize it throughout the book, particularly the use of white space as a way to allow me to say what I need to say, which is often fragmented and associative. It stems from my desire for more space; I’m always craving more in an effort to create. It can be the blank page or a dance studio before I switch the lights on.

That’s such a beautiful connection. I also found the poem “Queen of Swords” in Redux. Is this the titular poem of the collection? How do its themes of travel and seasons connect to the rest of your work?

Yes, it delves into some of the most intimate exchanges I had with a former lover. And like the tarot card, Queen of Swords, the poem spares no feelings to obtain absolution. Likewise, throughout the collection the themes of travel and seasons continue: Time. The relevance of stages. Sequential events. Cyclical passages. Rumination. And how some truths are best revealed through a great deal of distance, either figuratively or literally.

These are like relatable abstractions. Universal absolutes filtered through a personal lens. I’m totally on board with this.

I’ve also noticed a fair amount of Japanese forms in your list of published work, particularly haiku and tanka. What was it that drew you to the forms? Is the brevity appealing, or the simplicity, or something else?

Yes, and the haibun, too. It is the sheer difficulty it takes meditating in finding the exact phrase. It’s as if I’m connected to something greater: a Zen-like quality. There’s nowhere to hide with three or five lines on the page. The challenge is to convey something you feel there’ll never be a container large enough to hold. And, a big part is letting go of the ego. I picked up these forms after a dry spell of not writing for about a year. I read and studied them, then submitted to journals, entering a community dedicated to those forms. The paralysis ceased once I dropped my expectations and became a beginner, again.

It’s wonderful to hear about your process with these! Like everything you do, they come across as measured, philosophical, yet still vulnerable. It’s a tough balance to strike, yet you hit it. Hard.

 Also, I found your excellent poem, “Cannibalism,” in the David Bowie issue (“Bowietry”) of Uppagus. Oh, Labyrinth. That film is so dear to me! And this begs a bevy of questions: What’s your favorite Bowie song? How did losing him recently affect you? And how do you feel about Tracy K. Smith, famous for her Bowie-centric collection Life on Mars, becoming our new Poet Laureate of the United States?

Thank you, for the compliment and highlighting Bowie. I know! The Goblin King—who hasn’t fantasized about him? Oh, and, that ballroom scene, swoon. Favorite song: Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (yes, 80s and pop); it was the song I played when I found out my chapbook was accepted. 2016 was a cruel year. Losing Bowie affected me deeply; there was the music, then the man and his androgynous legacy of unconventional gender presentations. My grief was compounded with another loss of equal caliber, Prince. It was a year of morning the two most significant idols in my life who broke gender norms and refused categorization. Still, what helped was the outpouring of stories regarding their influence; how many lives they literally saved through their visibility.

Tracy K. Smith’s appointment is one of the best things that happened this year! Her book opened up possibilities I never even imagined. I followed her cartwheeling poetics through space travel under Bowie’s spell, which further underscored the intimacy of her poems, and her response to grief.

So well-put. And, for what it’s worth I absolutely think Bowie (and Prince! And Tracy!) would love your poems. 

While we’re on the subject of inspiration, how do you feel your Italian-American heritage informs your work?

It’s inseparable from my identity. I spent my childhood years in a predominantly Italian neighborhood from Stanford’s West Side. Although some people might consider food or religion as central influences in their heritage, that wasn’t the case for me. Alright, we did have those weekly Italian Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house. You see, my father, Mario, was one of eleven children, making for quite an extensive family. And, yes, I was raised as an Italian Catholic, but I was defiant in religion class, asking questions that often got me into trouble. Still, the main influence came from my father’s work as a tree surgeon; a trade passed on to him by his father from Calabria, Italy. A job not only my father held, but my uncles and great uncles, my brothers and sister (at one point), and now my third-generation nephew, Shaun, has his own business. I’ve grown up with a deep appreciation for nature, particularly trees. My father is also an artist, as are a number of his siblings, not to mention my grandmother. Many of my uncles took to carving wood, even totem poles. Art was a necessity; it was inseparable from the work they did.

You’re a Poetry Editor for The Deaf Poets Society. How did you come to be involved with them? What can you tell us about the publication and its mission?

The founder, Sarah Katz, put a call out into the universe and I seized the opportunity to help shape an online journal that is staffed by disabled individuals, seeking work by disabled writers and artists. It is a platform to expand narratives about the experience of disability that complicate or altogether undo the dominant and typically marginalizing rhetoric about disability. Before our first issue, our manifesto was published by Drunken Boat (now Anomaly); it underscored how intersectional diversity is imperative to our mission. I’m honored to be among staff that makes that a priority. I even recently served on a panel, “Searching for the Mountain Top: Championing Diverse and Minoritized Voices in Publishing,” with Marcos L. Martinez and Steven Leyva, organized by Robert Stapleton at Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections Conference. It was invigorating!

That’s such a worthy cause, and such an underserved market! 

Finally, I’ve been reading your stuff all over the place—it’s wonderful, by the way!—and I noticed we appear in a lot of the same places: decomP, Menacing Hedge, Rust + Moth. We even sent those places the same kind of work. We’ve published centos, flash fiction, and series poems about mythological creatures, except we switched which journals we sent them to. And we both went to Penn State and won the Katey Lehman award. I guess my question, after all this marvelment, is multiple choice. Do great minds just think alike? Are we twins separated at birth? Are we picking up strange, cross-Pennsylvania wavelengths out of the ether? Are you stalking me? Or am I stalking you?

Chad, clearly, you’re stalking me! And, I’m going to go with “great minds think alike.” Oh, hell, I always felt a part of me was missing, so perhaps we were separated at birth, too. It’s uncanny that we have so many commonalities, particularly, both of us PSU undergrads winning the Katey Lehman award. Go Penn State! Let’s continue stalking each other by appearing in the same journals at the same time, as personal goals. Instead of figuring out where I’ll submit next, I’ll simply ask where you’re submitting! Now, let’s see if some of these synchronicities continue: First childhood dream profession; archaeologist? I was all about excavation, collecting rocks, claiming significant burial sites in my backyard. Also, although I’m living in Western PA, I feel a strong calling to the Northwest. And, you? Lastly, I regret missing John Cameron play Hedwig in his and Mitchell Stephen Trask’s Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Did you see it? Commencing this interview I’ll put-on some makeup and turn on the tape deck . . .

So close! Paleontologist. I was all about the dinosaurs. But still down with the dig.

 And RE: Synchronous Submissions, you probably don’t want to leave it up to me! I just click around randomly on Duotrope until I find something cool. 

I did see it—Hedwig is my favorite! What a fitting note to end on. You had a way so familiar / but I could not recognize…