Ashley Warren's Tender Painbirds

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Ashley Warren is a Minnesota native and currently lives in Long Beach, CA. Her work has appeared in many print and online journals including Hiram Poetry Review, Red River Review, Old Red Kimono, Convergence Magazine and Sparkle + Blink. Her poems, Painbirds II and Painbirds IVappear in the 2015 edition of the Roanoke Review. Steph Spector speaks with Ashley below.

Talk about your “Painbirds” collection. 

Painbirds came about on a wintery night in Minneapolis. It was one of those nights when I wanted to write, but nothing seemed to come. That night I grabbed Ginsberg’s Kaddish from my poetry shelf, and it was the poem for his mother Naomi that enlightened me to start writing about my own.

I was living in San Francisco when my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It was pretty unnerving and overwhelming. Painbirds has much more to do with how I am coping with her sickness, but for the first time I’m also exploring my relationship with her. On a deeper level, it’s a meditation on our difficult and complex relationship and the struggle with feeling this new sadness and loss. Strangely, my mother seems to be amused by this series.

Your other poem “Animals” on Eye on Life Magazine features a distinct voice that narrates and considers the world with tenderness, similar to “Painbirds.” Who or what has helped you develop your writing voice?

I have a handful of influential poets that I go to for inspiration. Joy Harjo, the Native American poet, wildlife or nature-driven works—pieces close to Mary Oliver’s—Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver. In all of these works lies a tenderness that I admire.

If you could set your writing to music, which songs would you set it to?

That would easily be Cinematic Orchestra’s To Build a Home. Wolf Larsen’s Kitchen and any song by Explosions in the Sky, too. I should probably homage here to Sparklehorse since their song Painbirds inspired the title.

How is the experience of writing fiction and poetry different for you? Do you write in other genres?

I have tried my hand in different genres. Poetry was first and continues to be my first love. A few years ago, I started writing in satire, which was sort of an easier way to write about my family, as any memories or absurd behaviors were now comical and easier to digest. 

A couple of years ago, I finished my first novel called Nowhere Man and Whiskey Girl based on true events. I had wanted to write it for years. I had the opportunity to travel to Central America for six weeks where I wanted to at least try to get through the bones of it—but it turned out that book just flowed out of me vigorously. 

A year ago, I was really inspired to write a screenplay inspired by the south called Taming Rebel Lorraine. Once I attempted to actually write it, though, the ease with which I write poetry was entirely lost. Screenplays have this really informative, directional, and technical style and I didn’t exactly know how to use my voice in them. I enjoy writing prose, but felt I could never get the similar emotional effect across in this new genre.

You are given unlimited time and resources. Describe your ideal writing project. 

I would first go to Spain, rent out a little room to write, and take Painbirds with me. To finally see that ending play out. Then, I’d go to Amsterdam and rent out a houseboat to write Whiskey as a screenplay. And, finally, if there were any emotion left, I’d go to New Orleans and try to write Taming Rebel Lorraine as a novel. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception about poetry?

I think it’s that a poet reads and loves all poetry, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Typically, if I enjoy a poem, it’s right away—I don’t study it or break it apart. I have yet to read a poem by Frank O’Hara, and I can’t recite you a Shakespearean sonnet. 

I started reading Charles Bukowski for his no-nonsense abrupt style. Since then, the poets that speak to me have voices that are either similar to mine or inspire voices inside of me that I haven’t heard yet. 

What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?

Welk, I think at this point in my career, I’d love to hear: How’s it going? What have you been working on? Can I read your latest piece?

The people closest to me have been really supportive and helpful, but I want to find a community of writers whose fervent passion for writing matches mine. It’s still something that I’m searching for.