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With ‘Alchemy for Cells,’ Spokane poet Maya Jewell Zeller finds magic in collaboration

It’s not unusual for books to be illustrated.

But it’s a new collaborative experience for Spokane poet Maya Jewell Zeller.

In her latest poetry collection, “Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts,” Zeller teamed with Seattle artist Carrie DeBacker. The book, from Entre Rios Press ($17) is being launched this week in high style, with music and poetry at the Bartlett in downtown Spokane.

We caught up with Zeller, and assistant professor of creative writing and poetics for Central Washington University, for an email interview to ask about the collaborative spirit, how her writing has evolved and how she never wants to be seen as bossy when it comes to readers.

Q. Where did the poems in “Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts” have their genesis?

A. The poems in this collection began during my (then 7-year-old) daughter’s piano lesson – I don’t remember who she was playing, but I was sitting on her piano teacher’s couch, listening. I had already begun to collaborate with Carrie (the artist), so I had brought her paintings with me (some of which were based on poems I’d sent to her already, though none of those early poems made the final cut). The first five “spells” that ended up in the book arrived in quick succession during the 30 minute lesson. I think it was the intersection of so many forms of art that spilled this collection into being.

Q. How did your collaboration with Carrie begin?

A. Carrie and I were introduced through our publisher, Knox Gardner of Entre Rios Books. The backstory goes like this: Knox and I met at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference in summer 2015. A few months later, Knox’s neighbor stopped by with some new chapbooks from his press; one of them was my (then new) collection “Yesterday, the Bees.” Knox said, “Hey! I know this woman! I met her this summer …” He read my book and contacted me, asking if I might like to work on a collaboration with a visual artist. I perused Carrie’s art and accepted. I had no idea what I was doing, but I liked the idea of collaborating with such a talented artist, and I found immediate resonance in Carrie’s alchemous images.

Q. The publisher’s notes refer to “Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts” as a “troubling work of eco-feminism.” What do you hope readers take away from these poems?

A. Honestly, I feel a bit bossy telling readers what to take away from my poems. I hope they glean whatever they need, whether that be balm for their ailments or honey for their tea, or some bitter herb meant to expel something from their bodies. I also hope they see how the spells and beasts are having a conversation – so many of each were ushered into being by each other. For example, the side profile with gaping neck hole full of stars, or the poem “little spell with a ship on its back.”

Q. This is your third collection. How has your writing evolved in recent years?

A. Oh, I love this question. Though I’ve always been interested in surrealism and disruption, I still think “Rust Fish” (2011) has more of a traditional narrative arc and contemporary-traditional-looking poems. I used to describe my work as lyric narrative with some surrealist influence. I still write in a variety of styles (and I love them all), but the poems in “Alchemy” in particular, partially because of the interdisciplinary influence, play with space and line and syntactical disruption and fragment in ways that a lot of other contemporary poets are also playing – this deconstructivist approach resulting, I think many of us would say, from a fractured political and social climate, and from the sense of disorder and stress that so many of us feel. I think poetics in general are veering political right now, as artists tend to intuit the pressures and callings of justice and anxiety in, and from, and to, and out of their work. Of course, we’re not revolutionary – art has always been political. We’re just the newest iteration of this tradition. Alice Fulton: “It will be new/ whether you make it new/ or not.”

Q. Your launch party is at The Bartlett. What was the reason for going that route rather than the more traditional bookstore route?

A. Liz Rognes, a phenomenal local musician, and I are sharing the stage. In Liz’s own words, some of the spells in the book “fell into songs,” and she’ll perform them that night. The Bartlett has such a stellar energy for music shows as well as literary events, and when my publisher said he wanted to have a “book launch party” with libations, it seemed like the perfect venue. It’s one of my favorite establishments in town, and I’m honored to be performing there. I’m also stoked to read at Auntie’s with two other local poets on Nov. 11, for the debut of Kathryn Smith’s “Book of Exodus” and Ben Cartwright’s “The Meanest Things Pick Clean.”


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