Take Five: Q & A with Rosebud Ben-Oni on Verse & the Multiverse
Rosebud Ben-Oni’s six-week workshop at Poets House, Lyric Technologies: Generating Poetry in the Age of Social Media, begins Saturday, February 23, 2019. We asked her a few questions about teaching poetry and her own path to becoming a poet.
1) What’s your favorite aspect of teaching poetry?
I can’t name just one. Witnessing students create new work, for sure. But the journey there—reading and discussing the assigned poems for class, sharing prompts that speak to those themes and subjects meant to inspire and enliven the imagination, and close readings of those fresh, just-written poems—it’s all part of a longer conversation of evolving language itself. I really like to challenge students to do new things they haven’t tried before, to play with space on the page, line lengths, transitions.
2) Who was your favorite writing teacher and why?
Lorna Dee Cervantes, who led workshops at CantoMundo in 2014. We connected instantly. I was very blocked at that time, and struggling with how to free myself on the page. Her workshop was about getting it all out first, and not editing before you write. She used some interesting prompts, but her teaching style was also very candid and genuine; she wanted us to write from the music we had inside us. It was incredibly freeing.
3) What was the first poem you read that made you want to become a poet?
Apollinaire’s “Zone.” I’d always loved poetry before, but hearing it for the first time read aloud by Mark Rudman in an undergrad workshop changed my whole outlook on poetry, on faith, on the world. I had no idea how long fragments could sing together and against each other at the same time. It remains, hands-down, my favorite poem, next to Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living.”
4) What’s one piece of advice that you’ve been given as a poet that has really stuck with you?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and experiment. It’s okay to just write: meaning, write something without the intention of publishing it. It’s necessary for growth, for transformation, for getting to the next poem.
5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity/helps you stay sane?
I’ve been reading the Minhat Yehuda, a book on Jewish mysticism by the late Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya, and Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder, a wonderful book that asks us to rethink the idea of “beauty” (i.e., our elegant equations) and unprovable (but accepted) ideas in physics, particularly those of string theory. When I was younger, I wanted to study theoretical physics, but found the field unwelcoming to someone like me, a young Latina. So, naturally, I went from physics to poetry, and you can imagine my parents were thrilled—I’m being facetious here. I still carry a torch for string theory, and have been following it all these years, quietly, until recently when I began to write about it, I suppose, in part, because the field is now falling apart—again, I’m being facetious here. Sort of. There hasn’t been major progress or discoveries made in the field because, according to those like Hossenfelder, we are stuck in an endless loop of dead ends and unsolvable equations. As a poet, I’m both at odds and in love with this quandary—for instance, I want the multiverse to be a real thing that we’ll one day see ourselves, but also I wonder if there are limits to what we can understand as the humans we are right now. I also wonder why those limits are there to begin with. Who or what lives beyond them? I look at the beautiful, brutal, faulty, and temporal worlds we’ve created on this planet, and I can only hope for more time. I remain hopeful because of what poetry has done for language, for our evolution, and how it has made this world more real in ways that science has not yet done.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. Her newest collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ Editors’ Choice, and will be published in 2019. Her poetry also appears in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, Guernica, The Poetry Review (UK), Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, and other journals. She teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program and The Speakeasy Project. Register here for her upcoming workshop, Lyric Technologies: Generating Poetry in the Age of Social Media.