Ariana D. Den Bleyker interviewed Nicole Oquendo about creative writing, visual poetry, and “They Does Not Fit Like A Thundershirt Should“, a poem published on Likely Red in December.
Interview with Nicole Oquendo
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
This depends entirely on the project in front of me. Often, I’m crafting work around navigating trauma, and that is especially draining, but sometimes, I latch on to a premise someone might consider “fun,” and this kind of writing I look forward to.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Some writers (me included, when I was very young) have a very romanticized notion of what life post-publication is going to look like. Maybe it’s making enough money selling that memoir or novel or poetry collection to live doing just that, etc. Maybe it’s cracking that bestseller list, or any list. There weren’t any discussions in my graduate programs or beyond about what happens when your first book doesn’t sell. I had to do a lot of introspective work—”do I keep doing this if I’m just shouting into the void?” But the answer is yes, yes. There are people in this world that love the work I make, but more importantly, I need the act of making. So I keep writing, without worrying too much about where I am going to “place” a work, and remain as honest as I can be.
What does literary success look like to you?
If I compare myself to another writer, I am in for a world of hurt. As long as I am breathing life into work, I’m successful. And even when I’m not writing regularly, I count that as its own kind of success, because in those quiet moments when I’m reading and researching and living, I’m contextualizing the next thing.
How many hours a day do you write?
I work in different ways depending on the project, but I don’t write for very long all at once. If I’m trying to crack open a particularly difficult essay, I’ll work for a few hours at a time, but for the most part, I work in flash/microflash and “brief” poetry, so spending a couple of hours or less on a thing to get a first draft on paper is about right. However, this doesn’t account for revision, where I spend the most time. I might only draft a day out of the week, but I’m spending the other days researching and revising.
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever written?
Any time I’m writing anything, even fiction, I’m getting personal. Writing is always varying shades of difficult because of this, but sometimes it is more intense than other times. When you’re writing about things like disability, mental illness, gender, sexuality, and trauma in the many forms it manifests, it’s all the hardest thing.
Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?
I have a few friends and a partner I love with my whole heart, and days I spend alone don’t have the same magic. At the same time, I also have debilitating anxiety that prevents me from socializing much, as well as physical disabilities that flare badly. Because of this, whether or not I want to be outside isn’t a choice I always get to make.
Could you take us through how “They Does Not Fit Like A Thundershirt Should” came to be?
I like the feel of a heavy blanket. They help me feel safe. The pronoun “they,” however, did not until very recently. I’m not out as a nonbinary person in every environment I enter, especially academic spaces, and for me, the pain of hearing the pronoun “she” hurt less than the idea of telling people what I wanted and having them ignore that, which so frequently happens when you’re dealing with the outside world.
Tell us about your writing style, how it differs from other writers?
I didn’t do this with “They Does Not Fit Like A Thundershirt Should,” but most of my creative work contains a visual component I draw or paint myself that’s tied directly to the work. Visual poetry is my wheelhouse, but I’ll be the first to tell you how hard it is to find print publications that are willing to spend the money investing in collections containing this type of work. It’s much easier with digital publishing. But I love it, and because my brain doesn’t work in a way that’s at all linear, and I need visuals to help sharpen things in my memory, this type of creative process fits me best.
How do you feel when people recognize you in public and appreciate your work?
Sometimes people reach out to me in a “digital” public space after reading something I’ve written, and it is the warmest feeling. I love connecting with people when I can. I don’t think I’ll ever craft something so marketable people would recognize me on the street, but truly, linking up with readers online is the coolest thing.
Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?
I don’t want to spoil the ending of my favorite book series for anyone that hasn’t had the pleasure of reading it, but I can say this character is doomed to repeat a journey he makes over and over, with his memory wiped every time he reaches the end, just as he reaches the goal he’s been feverishly obsessing over.
Nicole Oquendo serves as an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications and has most recently volunteered as a special features editor for The Florida Review. They are also the editor of the forthcoming Manticore: Hybrid Writing from Hybrid Identities anthology. Their essays and poetry can be found in CutBank, DIAGRAM, fillingStation, Gulf Stream, and The Southeast Review, among others. They are also the author of five chapbooks, including the most recent, Space Baby: Episodes I-III, as well as the hybrid memoir Telomeres.