Blanket Sea

Magazine & Press

An Interview with MT Vallarta, Author of The Science of Flowers

MT Vallarta’s hybrid poetry and creative nonfiction microchapbook, The Science of Flowers, was released on December 8, 2021 from Blanket Sea Press. It was selected as part of our inaugural Awareness & Advocacy series.  We asked MT to tell us more about the book, what inspires their writing, and mental health advocacy.

What inspired you to write The Science of Flowers?

The Science of Flowers was largely written for my former partner, Alex Ratanapratum, who passed away from suicide this past year. Survival, particularly under multiple mental illnesses, is a protracted struggle, and this small collection of poems chronicles how I bore witness to their struggle. In addition, I’ve also been thinking about how my own ideas and strategies for survival are largely informed by the conditions in the Philippines under Spanish, U.S., and Japanese colonialisms.

How long have you been a writer, and what drew you to writing?

Generally, I have been a writer since elementary school. Professionally, I did not embrace my identity as a poet/writer until the middle of graduate school, when I was burnt out by the demands of academia. Then, I turned to poetry as a refuge. To this day, I write because it literally saves my life. When I begin to feel that sinking feeling, I turn to my computer or journal and just write, write, write. I will probably write for however long I stay alive.

Your book is a hybrid work of poetry and creative nonfiction. Why did you choose a hybrid of forms to tell this story? What impact do you think that might have?

I think I’m a hybrid writer because, in addition to creative writing, I also write literary criticism and conduct research in Filipinx Studies. I began to develop a hybrid writing process in an attempt to meld these genres and to also make sense of my positionality to politics. In Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe describes “hybridity” as the history of survival within relationships of unequal power and domination” (67). My hybrid writing explores this multiplicity—what it means to be a queer, non-binary, disabled, and diasporic Filipinx, and how we can continue to write and live under these realities.

Blanket Sea is donating 10% of press proceeds from your book to an advocacy organization. You selected the Institute for the Development of Human Arts. Can you talk a little about why you chose IDHA?

I chose IDHA because they approach mental health and care work through a holistic and abolitionist lens. I love their dedication to mutual aid, peer-to-peer education, and their emphasis on how we cannot fix the mental health industrial complex unless we address structural oppressions.

What do you wish that people understood better when it comes to mental illness and trauma? Where could there be improvements in awareness, treatments, activism, etc.?

I hope folks can work toward understanding how mental illness is exacerbated under conditions of premature death such as food insecurity, homelessness, health inequity, policing, incarceration, racial capitalism, (neo)colonialism, militarism, and other modalities of risk, harm, and injustice. Working toward this understanding, I believe, is how we can better address the root causes of mental illness and conduct more effective healing work.

Your book goes into themes around intergenerational trauma and colonialism. Can you say more about that?

Trauma is intergenerational/inherited because we have yet to address the root causes of trauma. However, this trauma can be healed, and I believe we must do this healing work in the present so we can strive for more equitable, just, and healthy futures. In order to do this work, I believe we must also connect mental health advocacy and trauma-informed healing under an anti-imperialists lens. Mental health awareness is part of anti-colonial work and working through trauma can also be a decolonizing tactic.

Who are some of your favorite poets and authors?

I am largely inspired by Black feminist poets and authors, such as Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. My favorite Filipinx poets and writers are Kimberly Alidio, Merlinda Bobis, Lysley Tenorio, and Gina Apostol. I also love Muriel Leung, Esme Weijun Wang, and Monique Truong.

Tell us more about who you are. Hobbies, interests, fun facts? What would you like readers to know about you?

I have recently started reading for pleasure again since starting grad school, and some books I recently finished are Aristotle and Dante Diver Into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saenz and Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. Both are great YA books written my QTPOC! I also started playing Animal Hot Springs on my phone. Watch out—it’s cute and addicting.

What are you hoping that readers will take away from your work?

That I hope one day we can fully live and no longer have to be resilient—I wish for an abundant future of rest, happiness, and abundance for us all. Also, anything that brings you joy and helps you see the next day is worth it, so do it!

Find out more about The Science of Flowers and download your copy here. You can set your own price or get it for free. A portion of proceeds goes to the Institute for the Development of Human Arts, an organization working to advance anti-oppressive and transformative mental health practices.

An Interview with Beth O’Brien, Author of Catching Sight

Beth O’Brien’s creative nonfiction microchapbook, Catching Sight, was released on November 3, 2021 from Blanket Sea Press. It was selected as part of our inaugural Awareness & Advocacy microchapbook series.  We asked Beth to tell us more about the book, her journey as a writer, and how we can improve awareness and advocacy for visually impaired people.

What inspired you to write Catching Sight?

A few things, I think. I was doing my Creative Writing MA at the time, and it was the first time I was having my writing properly critiqued by other people. I got feedback about how I describe things without saying what they are. It was described as “interesting” but “not always very clear.”

I wasn’t aware of doing it, but I realized I was describing how I see, how I have to build up enough of an idea before I can make a good guess. At the same time, I was doing my best to find books that had visually impaired characters or authors. I found a few books with blind characters, but I realized that I’ve never read something where the main character has partial sight. So, this is a long-winded answer to say I wanted there to be better wide-ranging representation of visual impairments, and I was enjoying noticing how I described things in my writing. And then came Catching Sight.

How long have you been a writer, and what drew you to writing?

I have to give the cliché answer and say I’ve written since I was a child! I wrote through primary school and secondary school, sixth form and university. However, at some point I stopped telling people and only began sharing work in the latter half of my degree. And my other cliché answer to that second part of the question is that I just love it! I can either use it as escapism or as a way of getting some of what I am feeling out. And most of the time I find writing easier than talking.

Why did you choose a series of short essays for this microchapbook? Can you say more about the “audio described” sections of each piece?

I chose short essays because everything I wrote is nonfiction, but I wanted space to get creative with how I wrote about it. It felt like a good way to cover a variety of places and scenarios. As for the audio described parts, I wanted to highlight that most of what I do to navigate the world happens in all the guesses I make as I go along. No one sees that. I’ve had a few rude people snap at me before, asking me to hurry up, or telling me to learn to read when I’ve asked for help reading something. I think that’s why I wanted to show the gap between all the effort it takes and what the external view of that effort is.

You’ve published a few other books: Light Perception (Wild Pressed Books, 2019), I Left the Room Burning (Wild Pressed Books, 2021), and The Earth is a Bookcase (Black Pear Press, 2021). How does Catching Sight compare to your other books, and how is it different?

Catching Sight is my first work of creative nonfiction. All my previous books have been poetry and all quite different from each other. However, Light Perception is a short pamphlet of poems that centers on the theme of disability, visual impairment, and dealing with how people react to one with a disability. But Light Perception is about how other people react, and Catching Sight is more focused on the lived experience of visual impairment. I think they sit nicely together.

I Left the Room Burning is a poetry collection that tells a fictional narrative about a woman who is left to raise her niece, a strange child that wants to disappear. And The Earth is a Bookcase is different again. It’s a pamphlet of poems inspired by the earth’s history, objects and people I learned about while working with a geology museum.

Blanket Sea is donating 10% of the press proceeds from your book to an advocacy organization. You chose Calibre Audio to be that organization. Can you talk a little about why this organization is important to you?

I love reading so, so much! As a child, audio tapes, then CDs, were my favorite things. Large print books are not widely available, and where they are, they come out much later and for a lot more money. Calibre Audio provide free audio books for anyone with a disability that affects their ability to read print books—whether that’s a visual impairment, dyslexia, or a chronic illness. Finding this site was great because I can’t just go to the library and pick up any book for free like a sighted person could if they wanted to. I think it’s really important that everyone has the opportunity to read (and yes, I am one of those people that still call listening to an audiobook “reading”). I was really lucky that my family bought me audiobooks when I was small and even ordered the ridiculously expensive and heavy large print books for me too once they were available. But not everyone has this privilege and Calibre is a wonderful resource to be aware of.

What do you wish that people understood better when it comes to visual impairment? Where could there be improvements in awareness, advocacy, etc.?

I think lots of people are unaware how broad a category visual impairment is. There is a whole spectrum between sighted and totally blind but that is not often spoken of. The rude strangers I’ve encountered have been rude because, “‘You don’t look blind.”

There is a huge misrepresentation of disability in the media, literature, film and TV, etc. I don’t think having a disability is tragic or means my life is inevitably less happy than someone else’s, but it is made difficult by society depicting it in this way. I want to see more nuanced, empowering representation of disability that isn’t a plot device, or cured by the end, or supplemented by a different superhuman ability. In summary, I think there needs to be an increased awareness of the lived experience of a disabled life as a whole human life. Disability is a part of my life, but so is the fact that I’m short and that I can’t sing. It wouldn’t be right to only talk about the fact that I have blonde hair—so it’s not enough to see disability as a sole defining characteristic.

In terms of improvements, I think a key thing to advocate for is designing and planning with disability in mind, rather than as an afterthought or not at all. As I write this, I’m psyching myself up to go food shopping. Reading packets, finding what I need, checking prices, allergy/nutritional information; all this means I walk around the shop with my phone magnifier to hand. It takes ages. A solution is to have QR codes that can be scanned in order to bring up a plain text version of packet’s information, but this is still rare practice. This is just one example, but there are day-to-day activities that are designed for sighted people only, still under the assumption that anyone who is not sighted would have someone with them to help. This assumption is exclusionary, the set-up is exclusionary, not the disability itself.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

This question always gets me! I have always loved Margaret Atwood—her fiction, poetry, and essays. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve read every single Hercule Poirot book by Agatha Christie, and she is definitely one of my favorites, too. And my go-to comfort read is the entire Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Tell us more about who you are. Hobbies, interests, fun facts? What would you like readers to know about you?

The most fun thing about me is my dog called Neville. My hobbies involve hanging out with him, mostly. I love reading/audiobooking. Pre-pandemic, I loved travelling, too! Unsurprisingly, writing is also a hobby of mine. I love musicals. I almost exclusively only watch children’s movies. When I struggle to remember any interesting facts about myself, I generally tell people about the time I met Dame Judi Dench and she wished me luck in my exams. This was about nine years ago, so I really should have something new to share by this point, but I don’t!

What are you hoping that readers will take away from your work?

I really hope it gives readers an (no pun intended) insight into how I see. I get asked to explain it a lot and it is such a difficult thing to articulate. I hope it can help people understand what it is like to navigate a world that expects everyone can see. And I also hope it can begin to show that there a whole host of visual experiences in between being sighted and totally blind.

The cover for Catching Sight by Beth O'Brien. A street at night with blurred, multi-colored lights. The text in blue says Catching Sight at the top left at an angle, and Beth O'Brien toward the bottom right

Find out more about Catching Sight and download your copy here. You can set your own price or get it for free. A portion of proceeds goes to Calibre Audio, an international charity that provides free audiobooks for people with any disability that affects their ability to read print books.

An Interview with Kelsey Bryan-Zwick, Author of Bone Water

Kelsey Bryan-Zwick’s Bone Water was released on September 22, 2021 from Blanket Sea Press. It was selected as part of our inaugural Awareness & Advocacy microchapbook series.  We asked Kelsey to tell us more about the book, their writing workshops, and their disability advocacy.

What inspired you to write Bone Water?

I am often met with shock over my everyday experiences.  And when I look around to see why, I believe there is a vast difference in how those of us with disabilities and long-term illness are treated when compared to those who are able-bodied.  Then when I consider that 1 in 5 Americans will be disabled at some point in their lives, I realize that this sense of shock was something I, as a writer, could help to ease.  To bridge the gap between our experiences a few words at a time.  I wanted to show both the harshness of this reality but also the humanity, the love of body and all its realness.

How long have you been a poet, and what drew you to writing poetry?

Well, I was almost born in a library, so I kind of believe it was the smell of books that drew me out into this world.  My family also immigrated back-and-forth from California to Spain, so before the age of five I was bilingual, and this gave me a deep respect for language and the ability to communicate.  But I think what really hooked me onto poetry was the sound of my Grandma Zwick’s voice; she had memorized over 30 children’s rhymes and would recite them to me and my siblings as we drifted to sleep.  I started writing poems independently at age nine, mostly in the lyric style.

You utilize a variety of formatting techniques throughout this book. They give each poem a unique feel and appearance. Do you have a process for deciding how a particular poem will be formatted? Do you think formatting can contribute to the impact or meaning of the poem?

I consider format to be almost like a character itself, or how a character is dressed in a particular scene.  I tend to try out new forms in poetry workshops, or when I am trying out a prompt, which can turn into successful poems.  But I also feel like I gather tools and tricks from this kind of practice that are then available to me when I am attempting to write and draft my own poem ideas.  I love learning new forms because, for me, they can often help express a poem that I have attempted to write but failed to capture in the past.  It’s like the idea-poem is just waiting for the right pair of shoes to step into, to become clear and walk into itself.  Maybe also because scoliosis is considered a deformity, an illness of shape, and so this question of how things are formed is always at the forefront of my understanding.

You’re a Lead Collaborating Fellow at The Poetry Lab, a community learning space. Have your experiences as a workshop instructor informed your writing? If so, how?

Yes.  For me, facilitating workshops is a wonderful way to appreciate all that I have gotten to learn about craft.  I tend to pick topics that I have been researching in my own quest for learning and then presenting this knowledge and the questions I still have about a topic to a group.  I learn so much from all the various interpretations and insights offered during these class discussions.  Also, learning the organizational structure behind The Poetry Lab has taught me new ways to connect my poetry and writing to the world, as well as new ways to engage with readers and writers in my community.

Blanket Sea is donating 10% of the press’s first share of proceeds from your book to an advocacy organization. You chose The Breonna Taylor Memorial Scholarship to be that organization. Can you talk a little about the scholarship and why you started it?

I think a lot about bodies.  How different categories of bodies are treated and interpreted by people and systems.  I think about the violence and trauma that my body has had to endure in order to survive and it breaks my heart to know that violence is being perpetrated against fellow humans simply for being born black.  I dream of an equitable society where we are all empowered to seek our full potentials, as ourselves.

When Breonna Taylor was killed, my heart, like so many broke, for her and those that loved her.  Knowing what caregivers were going through already at the onset of this pandemic and being unable to protest in other ways, I decided to found a memorial scholarship in Breonna’s name, in support of other black women like her, dreaming of becoming a nurses.  I put a call out to my local community and I reached out to Golden West College, which has an excellent nursing program.  In May 2021, we were able to award two $500 scholarships to black women studying to be nurses, and now anyone can donate directly to this memorial.

I know many in the disabled community will understand the importance of good nurses and caregivers.  As we wait for or dream of our next procedures, plan and reschedule doctors appointments, heal from or reject our latest treatments, it is nurses and caregivers that often are the reason we survive the day, the week, the year.  But this memorial is also an acknowledgement that this relationship can be impacted by our personal biases, and this as much as anything, can cost us our lives. I dream of better; I dream of equity.

Why is disability advocacy meaningful to you?

I used to feel like I had to hide all the time.  That if I didn’t talk about my scoliosis that it wouldn’t take over my life.  I felt like I was disappearing though, that nobody knew who I was.  My depression worsened, and I had a hard time socializing or even taking basic care of myself.  My life always felt like “bad news,” and “gross,” and “impolite.”  I finally realized it was killing me in a way, to never be myself, to have no relationships formed based on my need and my boundaries.  And scoliosis is a developmental disorder, so my community of particular spoonies is mostly kids and teenagers, and I hated how alone I had felt those years especially.  I want to shift the narrative, so that this experience can be different to those just getting their diagnosis.

Plus, well, the healthcare system here in the US is a tragedy.  I advocate to survive.

What do you wish that people understood better when it comes to chronic pain, illness, and disability? Where could there be improvements in awareness, medical treatment, etc.?

I wish there was a more general understanding that my experience is a human one.  That I continue to feel no matter how much I’ve felt.  That I continue to bleed, no matter how much I have bled.  Like many of us with disabilities, I work hard to keep this body going.  That this is a respectful and responsible way to live my life, and that there is no shame in being disabled.  It is not a choice, it is my fate, but I’ve agreed to the bargain as I believe there is still more beauty to be had.

Our whole disability system here in the US (the wealthiest nation on the planet) needs an overhaul.  Many disability benefits haven’t been updated since the 90s.  For me, this was a nine-year process that took two lawyers to help navigate.  These benefits change depending on what state a person lives in.  Here in California, because I am an adult with a childhood disability, I would have to give up the small protection I have been granted if I ever wanted to get married (to a non-disabled person, that is…).  It is policies like these that codify bigotry in deeming people with disabilities “less than” or “nothing but a burden.”  Though really, we are not the ones that have made this such an expensive healthcare system that continues to deliver sub-par care.

As far as treatment for those with chronic pain, I think destigmatizing and legalizing cannabis is so key for pain patients.  There are so many benefits to be had for those suffering.  It is not the only resource, nor will it be a solution for everyone, but it is one we need to mainstream, especially for long-term sufferers like myself.

Who are some of your favorite poets and authors?

Patricia Smith for the fire, Jane Hirshfield for poems on being, Langston Hughes for perspective, Mary Oliver for nature and dogs, Shira Erlichman for Odes to Lithium, Lynne Thompson for language, Tamara Hattis for her palate, Diane Di Prima for her letters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the Beats, Joy Harjo for her horses, bridgette bianca for the nowness, Brendan Constantine for depth and sparkle, Natalie Diaz for her honey and the Colorado river… I just finished my version of #thesealeychallenge so I caught up with a few books that had been waiting patiently on the night stand.

Tell us more about who you are. Hobbies, interests, fun facts? What would you like readers to know about you?

I can probably identify about 50 kinds of birds, 50 kinds of plants, 50 kinds of insects, and 50 kinds of marine life that are common here in Southern California.  My gardening policy is let it grow at least until I can name it.  I really love nature words and words that are fun to say.  I love being out in the wilderness, and even though my hikes have gotten shorter and shorter, I love being on the trail and near the ocean.  My desk-mate, Ruth Betta Ginsberg, is very pleased to have made the cover.   I am obsessed with bubbly water and bubbles.  My hair has been red, black, purple, brown, blonde, blue, aqua, and oh yeah, and a few greys.  I prefer pie to cake, crunchy to smooth, and the Mexican Coke in a glass bottle to Pepsi.  Though bubbly water above all of these. The most recent thing I submitted was a horror-noir short story, so you just never know.

What are you hoping that readers will take away from your work?

That we can survive the pain of our times.  That we can ask for what we need.  That we can live broken if we need to.  That there is beauty outside of a cure.  That mangled is a shape.  That I am so thankful to have readers.  That together there is a world to change.

Find out more about Bone Water and download your copy here. You can set your own price or get it for free. A portion of proceeds goes to The Breonna Taylor Memorial Scholarship.

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