We are pleased to present an interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni.
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 most recent collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions' EDITORS' CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review blog and is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Poetry Review (UK), Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Arts & Letters, Underblong, among others; recently, her poem "Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark" was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. She teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension's Writers' Program and here, at The Speakeasy Project.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a reoccurring mentor for The Speakeasy Project’s All Ages Workshop. If you’d like the opportunity to work with and learn from her, apply for our winter workshop here: https://www.thespeakeasyproject.net/apps
A former blog interviewer of ours, Tiffani Ren, had the opportunity to interview her. Here is what she had to say:
Q: What are you working on now? Could you elaborate on how you developed your writing and developed your narrative voice?
I’m wrapping up what will be my third collection, which centers my “Poet Wrestling with…” series. In these poems I explore different things I’ve wrestled with— God, doubt, love, demons, the unknown, this earthly world. The speaker’s guiding star— who is also, at times, her adversary, her executioner, her difficult love— is a horse, based on an Icelandic horse I met in 2016 who changed my life. It seems I can’t stop writing about him. I went on a horseback riding trail for less than a week, and I can’t stop thinking about those intense days and nights we spent together.
I’ve always loved horses, but this is the first time I felt the greatest sense of adventure with a horse that went beyond the present moment we shared. The trip also came at a critical time in which I was wrestling with coming to terms with having a chronic illness. I’m blessed in that the love of my life, my husband Brian, takes very good care of me, but also understands that as a poet, I have to figure out for myself to navigate previously “everyday” channels made perilous by illness.
This book, like all the books I’ll write, are for my B. I could only hear the horses within my horse because of that greater love, that love that lets me as a poet search for what will probably, in the end, never be found: The Book. The Complete One. The Original Book. The First Book. While that’s an idea deeply rooted in my Jewish upbringing, it’s through poetry that I could experiment not only with narrative voice, but also how the speaker chooses to present each phase of her adventure in the manuscript. At first I thought I gave her the horse so she shouldn’t be alone during those moments she had to be alone for self-reflection and imposed solitude. But… I don’t want to give too much away for now. Let’s just say the horse becomes something far greater.
Q: Can you also tell me about the process you undertook to become a published writer? Who has been your biggest mentor through your writing career?
I wouldn’t say I was discouraged as a child to write, but my parents had serious concerns about what I would do for money. Because we never had money and I was good in science and math as I was in my language arts classes. Because I was a scholarship kid in undergrad and grad, but even before I received these awards, my parents were already asking, “What will you do after? How will you make money?”
As it turns out, it was a struggle. I jumped around from one fellowship to another, from New York City to Michigan to Jerusalem. When I came back to New York City, I taught at one time at four different colleges and rented one room after another. I starved— that’s not a hyperbole. I remember walking into a Key Food and staring at the ramen noodles I couldn’t afford to buy. Meanwhile I hid this all from my family. Because pride. Because they couldn’t have helped me anyway. When you don’t come from money, it’s really, really tough. But I just never gave up. Looking back on those years, when I finally did tell my mother, she didn’t cry. She went through far worse. I just never gave up. My life experience, my struggles— that really was my process, far more than anything I learned inside an MFA workshop. It wasn’t until I got into CantoMundo, a fellowship organization for Latinx poetry and poetics, that my sense of voice really took off. I was energized by those three annual retreats. I was liberated in a sense from the shame I’d harbored about my failures, my setbacks. My mentors were the founders, such as Norma Cantu, Deborah Paredez and Celeste Mendoza, but really too it’s other CantoMundo fellows and their energy and support that lifted, that lifts, me up.
Q: What other writers are you loving right now? Who are some you have always loved or go back to all the time?
Too many to name. All my fellow CantoMundo poets. Also: Emilia Phillips, sam sax, Nabila Lovelace, Erika Meitner, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jason Schneiderman, Danielle Pafunda, Chen Chen, Robin Beth Schaer, Joy Katz, Loma (Christopher Soto), Justin Boening and Chris Santiago (both of whom I just read with recently in New York). And my Speakeasy students from last session: Corinne Contreras, Hannah Berk, Leonora Simonovis, Patrick Mullen-Coyoy and Yamini Pathak— they are writing some fantastic work. Truly.
Q: Do you have any tips for overcoming writer’s block or other challenges to your writing process?
I have weekly deadlines, writing for The Kenyon Review’s blog, and I get asked this a lot. I wrote an essay once that although I do write frequently now, I didn’t always. I had to go through a period where I was still writing somewhat, but wasn’t publishing— that is, I wasn’t “visible” through my writing. I needed to go through this period. Life was very chaotic in Jerusalem. A lot happened, and I’m still unpacking that era in my life, but only now, in and through writing, while trying to remain very present in the moment today. I don’t know if this is a tip, but I frequently return to poems I love. I think reading as much as you can is very important.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would tell your past self, that could potentially aid young writers now?
Don’t do it for awards or fame or, of course, money. Don’t get distracted by petty feuds or invest your time in people who don’t have your best interests at heart. Read living poets. Help to create the communities you’d truly want to be part of. Trust there will come a time in which you will be your own best reader of your work, and trust that there will still be times when you will need one more pair of eyes on a poem or manuscript. Trust some poems will become other poems, or part of other poems. Trust some weren’t meant to be published at all, but part of a larger process of writing the poems you were meant to write. It’s okay to make mistakes. Don’t be too hard on yourself, although I know being hard on yourself is also inevitable. Waking up the next day from your darkest day is the ultimate triumph. It’s why we evolved to create poetry. It’s how poems are created. It’s how we create both the bridge and the fire, the harvest and the fire, the ashes we scatter in barren plains. I’m not being completely metaphorical. I still remember the taste of a particular sandstorm. I’ve learned to savor the lostness, the bitterness, all that my younger self thought so pointless, when she thought herself so trivial and stranded.