An Interview with Cathleen Chambless
by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Anyone who’s met Cathleen Chambless knows she’s a force of nature. A vocal feminist, passionate advocate for social justice and LGTBQ rights, poet, and musician, Chambless bears her soul and stands up for the broken-hearted fearlessly.
As a poet, she’s unapologetic, sweet as brown sugar, she goes straight for the neck with cutting lines and unforgettable images. Blood, witchery, power, pain and love all populate the poems of Nec(Romantic). Her writing is as sensitively wrought as it is searing, and in person she’s funny, loving, and strong.
Albert Einstein appreciated honeybees
their hexagons and dances of isosceles.
He knew if they died, so do we,
and in the crops I see the Cropsey, the Boogie
Man, Monsanto, Agent Orange’s dad,
maker of mechanical vegetable inseminators,
barotrauma barbaric, air pressure presses
puny bat hearts pitter patter pinch explode!
Cell phone radiation echolocation clutter,
wings flutter echolocation jam
band, Phish, in the river eating
genetically modified chicken litter–
5 legged, 7 eyed Dolly sheep
eating Peeps. Here critter critter. Little
Miss America, baking cake
batter from a bukake bowl
all alone, poor thing.
Blighted by the society that jacked off to her
Our journal is interested in your "origins," i.e. where you’ve come from and where you want to go as a writer and individual. Would you talk a bit about how you became invested in creative writing, and poetry in particular?
I started writing poetry when I was about eight. I have experienced a lot of trauma in life, and have always used poems to work out my feelings. I started relying on poetry as a coping mechanism in middle school. In high school, I kept writing and was part of a poetry club. In college, I originally started as a Studio Art major, then took creative writing courses and switched my major to English and Womxn, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. I knew that I could either go to law school, social work school, or focus on creative writing. My last semester at FIU, I took one last creative writing course just in case I decided to go that route. Denise Duhamel, my current mentor, is the one who encouraged me to go for it. I took a leap of faith, and went for my MFA in poetry at FIU. Since then, I have been living in poetry land.
The world of Nec(Romantic) is starkly visceral, stirring and dream-like. In your collection, love is messy and sloppy and sweetly aggressive. Alien necks are “noosed with pearls…” there are spells, blood, birds, spiders, incantations, “emerald scales” and “frosting swirls, kisses, spit, lick…” You capture, beautifully, the vulnerability and pain of love, loss and addiction with acrobatic language. When you were assembling this collection, did you know what you wanted to address thematically? Did you have a particular vision?
First of all, Thank you for the kind words! Not at first. I was just writing what I was experiencing. When I was taking a class with Campbell McGrath in my second year at FIU is when it started to click. He started talking about how poems are like spells because of their repetition, and they are often invocations of sorts, and it just clicked. I live in a rad queer anarchist house, where I meet many queer witches, so it all just kind of fell together that way.
On that note, how did your vision of the book change/evolve after you assembled/wrote it?
My vision took a shift from the grounded to the ethereal. I also started writing more extended metaphors and fairy tale poems to explain human behavior I otherwise did not understand. I wanted to really examine aspects of human behavior and uncomfortable emotions most look away from or attempt to shut out.
In your poems, you refuse to shy away from the uncomfortable and painful. Do you have any advice for writers who are still a bit nervous about sharing sensitive material with the world?
The professor I had who taught me how to do this was Brandy Wilson. She called this process "coming out of the artist closet." Also, I share sensitive material with people in hopes that someone can identify with it and not feel so alone. If I cannot turn my suffering into something tangible and beautiful, something healing, then it was all for naught. My main suggestion is to write fearlessly and to let your freak flag fly!
While reading Nec(Romantic), I found myself admiring how thrilling your poems are on the sentence level. How do you find the perfect word?
How do you find the right language for a poem? By driving myself mad in the process. But seriously, I look at the thesaurus a lot. I am also inspired by other poets and hip-hop artists. When I am having a hard time, I read another poet or listen to some music and analyze their flow. I take my time. I read it out loud. I enjoy the sounds.
Nec(Romantic) is also accompanied by visual art. Why did you choose to include visual art in your collection?
It was always my dream to release a collection of my visual art and poetry. In this case, the art is a collaboration with Erin Money. She made most of the tarot cards (I made the three of swords and drew some of the outlines for a couple of them). She did the ink illustrations, I did the photography, and she collaged some of my photographs as well. I am also a visual artist, so it's just something I have always wanted to do. When the Gorilla Press actually requested that I include this in the collection, it was kind of fate.
You're involved in social justice and activism, an essential voice for POC and LGTBQ rights. Could you talk a bit about why, especially in these divided times, it's important to you to stand up and speak out?
Artists have more power and influence than they realize. Art is also important in terms of forming community and maintaining sanity. Solidarity is a beautiful thing, and it is lifesaving. As much as this regime wants to deny our existence and stifle our words, we cannot let them do this. We must be heard.
If you were to give advice to a younger writer who has been discriminated against, hurt, or is looking to you as a role model, what would you say?
I would say that the grief and trauma related to discrimination is very real. There are studies showing proof of PTSD related to discrimination. For me, this is very validating because white/straight society attempts to gaslight us and tell us that everything is fine. They say we have no reason to be upset or complain. You have every right to be upset, allow yourself to feel that. Sublimate that energy into the arts. Find your community and seek refuge in it. Also, activism has helped me cope. Read work by authors that you can relate to, read work that seeks to simultaneously analyze and tear down these structures of power. In those words, you will find hope.
Are there any other projects you’re working on?
Erin Money and I are currently making a queer feminist tarot deck. I am also working on my second book.
Cathleen Chambless is from Miami, Florida. She graduated with her MFA in poetry from FIU. She is also a visual artist and activist. Her work has appeared in Storm Cycle 2014 & 2015, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, Jai-Alai, Fjords Review, Grief Diaries, and Wussy Mag. Her debut collection of poetry, Nec(Romantic), was a finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards of 2017.