In the Spotlight
Hélène Cardona & Laura J. Braverman
About: Hélène Cardona is a poet, editor, and literary translator. Her recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux), Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. The recipient of over 20 honors & awards, she holds an MA in American Literature from the Sorbonne and taught at Hamilton College and LMU. She is Cultural Editor of Levure Littéraire and Contributing Editor to Cervena Barva Press. Hélène has also served as a mentor for children in the schools in Los Angeles and for AWP's Writer to Writer mentorship program and co-wrote the screenplay Primate with John FitzGerald, based on his novel. Hélène has been a member of AWP since 2005. Find Hélène in the Directory of Members.
About: Laura J. Braverman’s debut poetry collection, Salt Water, came out in 2019. Her poetry has also appeared in Levure Litteraire, Live Encounters, and Sky Island Journal, among other journals, and in the anthology Awake in the World, Volume II by Riverfeet Press. She received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and studied poetry and essay at Stanford University, Bennington College, and the New School. She lives in Lebanon with her family and has been a member of AWP since 2013. Find Laura in the Directory of Members.
Our March Spotlight is a dual interview between members and former Writer to Writer mentor and mentee partners Hélène Cardona and Laura Braverman.
Laura J. Braverman: When you mentored me in the spring of 2016, it was your first time participating in the program, if I’m not mistaken. What was the experience like for you?
Hélène Cardona: Yes, it was my first time participating, and one of the best experiences I could ever dream of. The program is very well run, and they make sure mentors and mentees are well matched. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with you, Laura. You’re such a beautiful poet and I found us to be mirrors of each other in many ways.
Mentorships create bridges between writers. I think it's essential to support one another. It was an enriching and transformative experience.
Braverman: Did you have a mentor when the writing world was still new to you?
Cardona: I didn’t have a mentor when I was a beginning writer and I sure wish I did. It would have given me a sense of support and would have helped me enter the writing community sooner. That said, I adored my high school English teacher, Mrs. Burton. She played an important role in developing my love for the English language. Even though I was a math and science major, I had an affinity for languages and studied Spanish, German, and Latin. After graduating high school with a scientific baccalaureate, I attended medical school for two years, but it did not suit me at all. So I decided to focus on what I love: languages and theatre. I studied literature and philology in Cambridge (England), Santander and Baeza (Spain), Bremen (Germany), and Hamilton College. Though I received my MA in American literature from the Sorbonne, I was never in a creative writing program and none of my professors helped me enter the writing community. It took me a very long time to think of myself as a writer. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky with my partner John FitzGerald, who is an extraordinary poet with a keen eye for editing. I’ve learned a lot from him.
Braverman: You have a wonderfully diverse background in terms of your education and your professional involvements—language, literature, translation, acting, and not least poetry writing. Can you say something about the relationship between your creative writing and these other disciplines?
Cardona: I’ve worn many hats over the years: teacher, writer, actor, translator, dancer, dream analyst. I have multiple selves. To be an actor one has to be a chameleon. The search for fulfillment is a recurrent theme in my life. It’s the title of the thesis I wrote about Henry James. Jean-Claude Renard writes that “I” by essence becomes “Other,” that is to say “someone who not only holds the power to fulfill his or her intimate self more and more intensely, but also at the same time, can turn a singular into a plural by creating a work that causes, in its strictest individuality, a charge emotionally alive and glowing with intensity.” In that sense the work’s artistry affects others and helps their own transformation. This applies to any art. I’m happy as long as I can express myself through art, and I love to work. Whether writing or acting, I find myself in an exalted state of concentration and consciousness, like a meditation or trance. It’s as if time stops or expands, and I’m able to touch other worlds and keep a sense of connection with what is bigger than me.
Acting and writing are two creative outlets, two ways of expressing who I am. It helped me a lot when I was in drama school studying Shakespeare from a performer’s perspective that I had already read most of the plays and knew the language. The fact that I had studied so much literature made it easy for me to analyze the texts. But then you want to get out of your head as an actor. And studying the Meisner technique was very useful for that. It helps you be in the moment and react to what’s going on in the room, to be acutely aware of your surroundings, of others. It shifts the attention from you to whoever is with you. Which in turn is helpful when you read poetry. I like to hear what I write, the sounds and rhythms.
Braverman: There are so many different ways that writers get their creative energies flowing, and also how they structure their writing time. Both creativity and structure are, of course, essential for getting work done. Could you describe your own process a bit?
Cardona: Speaking different languages stimulates the mind in different ways. I’m naturally curious about other cultures. Having been raised in a very international environment makes me a citizen of the world. Both my parents were immigrants. My mother left Greece to move to France. My father escaped Franco’s dictatorship so as not to be jailed for his writing. I am an immigrant too. So I’m keenly aware about not fitting into molds. At home, all my parents’ friends were foreigners. My dad worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Paris, among other places, and his colleagues were mostly from South America or Spain, but also from Iran and other countries. I literally grew up in the U.N., which is a microcosm of the world. So very early on I would transition between languages and countries.
The different languages inform my writing, consciously and unconsciously. All kinds of associations come to mind when I read or write. Translation is a form of creation too. Through translation, we bring cultures together, we create bridges. Becoming familiar with another culture transcends otherness.
There are always things one language can do and another can’t. And so the process is a bit like that of a detective searching for clues or of a mathematician looking to solve a problem.
I use music a lot as inspiration. I’ll open a book at a random page and use the first thing I read as a trigger. Or I’ll take a walk in the park or along the ocean or do yoga to clear my head. I also revisit notes that I’ve taken on notepads or little pieces of paper. I write to bring forth treasures hidden within. I create to expand my consciousness and extend time. I create to reinvent myself.
Braverman: What are you working on at the moment?
Cardona: With my partner John, we have co-written a screenplay, based on his novel Primate, and we’re looking into getting it produced. I’ve also been translating the wonderful Franco-Syrian poet Maram al-Masri. Several journals, such as TAB, Agenda Poetry, Anomaly, Anastamos, Hayden’s Ferry Review, National Translation Month, and Plume, have published poems from three of her books.
Cardona: Laura, what surprised you the most about the Writer to Writer mentorship? Did it meet your expectations? What were your goals?
Braverman: It was a wonderful surprise to be chosen at all. The fact that my work resonated with another poet meant a great deal to me—and at that point I did not yet know what a wonderful person this poet actually was. However, I would have to say the biggest surprise was how much you supported me in the process of getting my work out to literary journals. My goal for the mentorship program was mainly to work with and learn from an established poet. It was as simple as that. I really had no ideas about publishing in mind. So in this way, my expectations were greatly exceeded.
I had been submitting for a while already and was used to many rejections. I was overwhelmed by your encouragement, by your willingness to help me, and not least by the fact that you felt my work should be “out there.” It was a much-needed form of validation. As writers, we are all familiar with the many solitary hours that go into producing work. The feeling of having my work reach another soul, and the idea that this other soul embraced what I was trying to do, really was a turning point for me in my writing life. Until then, I had for the most part been writing for myself—sharing my writing only within the framework of workshops, classes, and submissions.
Cardona: You are both a poet and an artist. Do the writing and painting inform one another? And if so, how?
Braverman: My writing and painting do indeed inform one another. At times the relationship is quite subtle, at others less so. For one, the disciplines balance each other very well. They both deal with language—one of words and sounds, the other of color and form. I can go from one practice to the other as my body-mind guides me. There is intensity and “headiness” that can come about when writing, the experience of which is very satisfying but also sometimes draining. Painting helps to bring me back to my body, and to the nonverbal.
If I am working on an idea in my writing/reading, I will often think about how I can capture this same idea in a visual way. Approaching a feeling state through both mediums can also be very interesting—different ways of exploring objective correlatives. In writing I use settings, situations, memories, etc., to convey a particular idea or feeling state. I am an abstract painter, so my visual work is based on relationships between color and form. An interesting challenge might be to bring more abstraction into my writing work; I’m not sure what that would look like.
Cardona: Your debut poetry collection, Salt Water (Cosmographia Books), came out last year. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Can you share how it came to be?
Braverman: Thank you, first of all. I appreciate that a lot. You were really an essential part of it coming to life. Having my writing really “seen” by you during the mentorship program was the first step. And there were many steps that followed, such as when I decided to see if the pieces I had written over the years worked as a collection. In deciding to create a manuscript and submit it for a chapbook consultation, I was able to view these separate poems as belonging to a whole. Approaching the work in this way had a deep impact on me. I submitted the manuscript in answer to various chapbook calls. At the same time, I continued to add pieces to the collection and also to work on the structure as a whole. Eventually, Cosmographia Books accepted the manuscript. It was a wonderful moment.
Cardona: Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? For how long? Do you listen to music? Do you type at a computer or write in longhand?
Braverman: Often the very first draft of a new piece will be written by hand, either with pencil or with fountain pen. Writing in longhand can be a powerful way to free up inhibitions and inner judgments. After the first draft is down, however, I enjoy the process of turning the written words into black letters on the screen—and then revising and revising and revising from there. I don’t generally listen to music while I write; I find it can be distracting for me. But there are exceptions.
The practice of writing, of being a writer, seems to me to be ongoing. In my experience, it is a decision to observe with focused attention, to be a witness. And this can happen at any time of the day, so there is a constant gathering of information, of taking notes, etc. The more concentrated writing sessions happen from there.
Barring any unusual circumstances (such as right now: we are in the process of moving our home and surrounded by a sea of boxes!), I am at my work desk every day while the kids are at school. And when I cannot be there, I feel it. Time spent at my desk can range from 30 minutes to five hours depending on the day, with the average somewhere between those amounts. I guess I could say that I place importance on simply coming to the work as is possible, even if it’s only 10 minutes on a given day. Experiencing chronic illness has taught me to be deeply grateful even for those 10 minutes. And also, of course, we all know that sometimes life can make changes to our ideal schedule.
Cardona: Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
Braverman: Well, this answer would relate back to your question on writing and painting above. I am slowly working on a project that will combine my painting and writing work. The idea is to create a poem cycle that will work in parallel to a collection of paintings.
My paintings are often motivated by philosophical or metaphysical notions, which I attempt to convey through geometric and color field abstraction. As I see it at this moment, the challenge in the written work is to make these ideas accessible—to couch them in daily life, in narrative and images so the reader has a way in. Perhaps this will change as the project develops. Perhaps also the poems will tend towards the abstract. As always, the work itself will guide me. My hope is that all will ultimately come together as a cohesive whole.