Author Q & A with Patricia Aya Williams
by Christine Nessler
May 31, 2023
This week’s Author Q & A is with Patricia Aya Williams. Patricia is a Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize recipient and Steve Kowit Poetry Prize finalist. Her work has appeared or will soon appear in Santa Clara Review, San Diego Poetry Annual, Writers Resist, Origami Poems Project, and The Closed Eye Open. She is a graduate of the Poetry Certificate Program at San Diego Writers, Ink, and a 2022 Pushcart nominee.
Williams’ poem, Love Poem for My Mother, is featured in Issue #11 of The Good Life Review.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in the Bay Area and received both my BA and MLIS degrees from San Jose State University. I’ve been lucky to have had two wildly diverse and satisfying careers: first as a flight attendant, second as a public librarian. From an early age I kept journals and notebooks, although it’s only since I retired from being a librarian that I’ve had time to pursue writing more seriously. I live in San Diego with my husband and our French bulldog; they keep life fun and interesting. And I enjoy Soul Line Dancing!
What inspired you to write Love Poem for My Mother?
Once over the phone I told my mother about a dead rat I found in the backyard. It must have made an impression because the next time we talked she asked me about it. Her question became the first line of the poem.
What message do you hope reaches your audience through Love Poem for My Mother?
I hope this poem speaks across generations and cultures to anyone who seeks deeper connection with a parent, especially a parent born and raised in another country for whom emigrating to the U.S. represents The American Dream. I also hope that it gets people thinking about how their own identity may have been influenced by generational trauma.
What impacted you most when writing it? How was the process therapeutic?
My mother died about a year before I started writing this poem, so I was missing her, still am.
We had a close yet complicated relationship, and it wasn’t always easy to find things to talk about. Writing and revising this poem through its various versions—more than a dozen over two years—gave me a chance to feel her presence with me, to hear her voice again, and maybe more importantly, to find my own voice.
Tell us about the work you have done or do that makes you most proud.
As far as writing, I am proud of the semi-autobiographical chapbook I wrote called On a Train Both Waving, about my parents and growing up during the 1970s in East San Jose. It’s a coming of age narrative and also a coming to terms with the deaths of both of my parents. I started sending it out at the beginning of this year; fingers crossed that it gets published. In my previous career as a librarian, I was most proud of creating and coordinating an annual Japan Festival celebrating the sister city relationship between Encinitas and Amakusa, Japan. It ran for ten years, with the last year being 2019, the year I retired.
What is your writing process? How do you make it a part of your daily life?
I attend a weekly writing workshop, so I aim to have a fairly solid draft of at least one poem a week. Throughout the day and when I wake up at night I try to have a notebook handy to jot down words or ideas, and sometimes I text things to myself. I like to see things on paper, get a working draft going, then start typing on my laptop and revising from there. When I’m at home I like to work in a quiet room, although I recently attended a generative workshop where we wrote while listening to the album Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis, and I loved it! Lately I’ve started writing at a couple of coffee shops close to home and have been productive that way. I just pop in my AirPods and go!
How have your life experiences impacted the way you write?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started keeping journals around the age of eleven, soon after my father died. As an only child, writing was the only way I could begin to express the tumultuous emotions I was experiencing. Actually, I repressed a lot, because in those days (1977) no one talked to children about death and grief and what it feels like to lose a parent at such a young age. I had been Daddy’s little girl, and suddenly I was left alone with an inconsolable grief. My mother, being Japanese, came from a country and culture where emotions were even more repressed than in the U.S.
My father’s death traumatized us both, and my mother had already suffered many previous traumas that stemmed from being orphaned at nine years old in Japan during the second world war. Although our circumstances were quite different, my mother and I were both lucky to have found a way to survive parental loss as children. So I’m interested in that legacy of loss, how it persists and plays out in conscious and unconscious ways, how it carries on between generations, and how we learn to live with it.
What is your favorite type of poetry to write? Do you write in other forms as well?
I don’t know that I have a favorite type of poetry to write. I like to write free verse, and I also like writing within certain boundaries of form. Lately I have been writing a series of compressed quatorzaines in couplets with lots of wordplay and allusions to proverbs, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and pop culture.
How has writing poetry impacted your life?
I’m attracted to the ineffable quality of poetry, how we can use it to “say the unsayable”. For me, poetry is an artistic vehicle for imagination, self-expression, meaning-making, and social connection. By social connection, I mean the connection between a reader and a writer on the page, and I also mean connection in the wider world. For example, attending poetry-related events gives me the opportunity to meet some really cool people–I was excited to meet
TGLR editor Shyla Shehan at this year’s AWP conference in Seattle! I’ve made friendships through poetry and worked with some incredible teachers and poets, such as Ron Salisbury and Allison Pitinii Davis. Poetry has enriched my life in so many ways!
How does poetry compare to visual arts? What form of expression do you prefer?
I think of poetry as visual art in a way, working with image and metaphor. I like to work with photographs, too. A teacher named Meri Aaron Walker introduced me to mobile digital photography, using my iPhone to both capture and edit images with a variety of apps. The immediacy and portability of that way of working really appeals to me. I like working with both poetry and photography and being creative with the ways they intersect.
What advice can you give to beginning writers or visual artists?
In many ways I am at the beginning of this journey myself, so I will just share a few things that have helped me up to this point. I try to read as much as I can, poetry and otherwise, and I also read articles and craft books about poetry. I look for opportunities to study: whether it’s a one-shot ZOOM lecture or more intensive ongoing courses. I attend a weekly workshop with the goal of writing and/or revising at least one poem a week. I send my work into the world and see where it leads. And I’m delighted this poem has led me to The Good Life Review!
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
Your literary journal, of course! Also, there is a British sitcom from the 1970s called The Good Life that my husband introduced me to (he’s from England), so I think of that.
And just living “the good life” I have now with my husband and dog, trying to include as many things as possible that make me happy.
Thank you, Patricia, for sending us your poetry and allowing us to share it with more people. Thanks also for participating in this Q&A and coming to visit with us at AWP this year! It was wonderful to meet you in person!!