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Take Five: J. Mae Barizo on Self, Authenticity & Identity

J. Mae Barizo’s six-week workshop, Our Poetry, Our Selves, begins Thursday, April 11 at Poets House. We asked her a few questions about her class, her writing process and her path as a poet. 


1) What inspired you to want to teach this particular writing workshop exploring self, authenticity, and identity? How do these issues inform your writing and views of poetry?

I like to think of Linda Gregg’s quote: “Poetry at its best is found rather than written.” Writing poetry is about finding the ways in which language and the self evolve; many times, writing a poem helps me come to terms with experiences where self-reflection falls short. I want to look beneath the surface. Gregg writes that too often in workshops “there is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood.” I want students to look beneath the garments; I want to feel the rawness of sensation, its blood.


2) What are some of the strategies—of form or procedure—that you use to interrogate private and public histories in your own writing practice?

An important part of writing practice is reading other poets’ work. I see the bravery in poems written by other queer poets and POC poets whose work displays a fierce, unrelenting quality that makes me believe in the power of poetry to cross borders, provoke, instigate, transform the world into a better place. It inspires me to write more, challenges me to be authentic in my work when so much of the world around us is steeped in inauthenticity.

In my own practice, I keep scores and scores of notebooks, post-it notes, love letters, texts, concert programs, and dream journals on hand where I keep track of the rhythm of my days. It’s important to catalog our own private histories; it’s a way of keeping in touch with our lives. When the time comes, these pieces may end up in poems or pieces of music or other cross-genre projects. Sometimes I don’t see their significance until many years later, but what we keep and what we record becomes an archive of our encounters with the world.


3) Can you point to one or two poems that hit home for you right now as grappling with multiple selves and intersectional identities?

These are all very different poets, but I’ve been thinking about their work lately as I navigate through seasons, time zones, geographies.

  • Work by Nathanaël


4) Who has been your favorite teacher—in the classroom or otherwise—and why?

The poets who have helped me along the way have taught me so much about the art of poetry and, more importantly, the art of survival: Major Jackson, Timothy Liu, Kyle Dacuyan, Jean Valentine, Askold Melnyczuk, Marie Howe.


5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity?

Music is one of my first loves and I turn to it often. I read textbooks on subjects like acoustics, waveform analysis, the science of sound. Music works invisibly in my mind as an energy source, catalyst, healing force. To be immersed in poetry and music is to be surrounded by frequencies and words that twist and swerve, like memory or time.

J. Mae Barizo is the author of The Cumulus Effect (Four Way Books). Born in Toronto to Filipino immigrants, she is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Bennington College, the Jerome Foundation, and Poets House. A prizewinning poet, critic, and performer, Barizo has recent work appearing in AGNIBookforumBoston Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books. A classically trained musician and a champion of cross-genre work, J. Mae has performed sound/text collaborations with Salman Rushdie, film composer Paul Cantelon, and many more. She teaches writing at Poets House, the New School, and Pratt School of Architecture. She lives in New York City.

Posted In: Interviews