with Ari Tison

The following interview was conducted in-person by Halee Kirkwood, faculty editor, and A.E. Goodman, Runestone editorial board member, in an intimate, classroom setting. Michael Horton served as transcriber.

Ari Tison is a Bribri (Indigenous Costa Rican) American poet, essayist, autoethnographer, and author of YA hybrid novel SAINTS OF THE HOUSEHOLD (2023) + Untitled YA (TBD) with FSG/BFYR. She is also forthcoming in a Latine YA anthology OUR SHADOWS HAVE CLAWS with Algonquin Young Readers (2022). Her poetry for children has been featured in POETRY’s first ever edition for young people, and her work for adults has been published in Rock & Sling, Yellow Medicine, and The Under Review. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University where she was the winner of the 2018 Vaunda Micheaux Nelson award for a BIPOC writer from Lerner Publishing.

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Ari Tison

with Ari Tison

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Ari Tison is a Bribri (Indigenous Costa Rican) American poet, essayist, autoethnographer, and author of YA hybrid novel SAINTS OF THE HOUSEHOLD (2023) + Untitled YA (TBD) with FSG/BFYR. She is also forthcoming in a Latine YA anthology OUR SHADOWS HAVE CLAWS with Algonquin Young Readers (2022). Her poetry for children has been featured in POETRY’s first ever edition for young people, and her work for adults has been published in Rock & Sling, Yellow Medicine, and The Under Review. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University where she was the winner of the 2018 Vaunda Micheaux Nelson award for a BIPOC writer from Lerner Publishing.

The following interview was conducted in-person by Halee Kirkwood, faculty editor, and A.E. Goodman, Runestone editorial board member, in an intimate, classroom setting. Michael Horton served as transcriber.

Halee Kirkwood: So, Let’s start at the beginning, if you could describe your journey as a writer? When did you first know this was going to be your path? And some struggles/successes you’ve had along the way.

Ari Tison: So my journey as a writer, I started pretty young, and I joke that I write like fanfiction about my sister’s dogs, (laughter). Because I don’t know why, I was really dog passionate. Those were kind of my first initial stories. But really, I was one of those kids that kinda knew I wanted to be a writer from pretty early on. After that, I think. just deciding to go to undergrad, studying English there, and then ultimately getting my Master’s degree at Hamline and writing for kids and young adults. In between, I took a lot of classes at the Loft. I was a scholarship kid so I took a lot of classes over the summer and that was really informational for me. So yeah, that was a really fast run through of my journey as a writer. 

Now I was lucky enough to sell a book or sell a couple of them, so that feels wild. It definitely feels weird to wake up in the morning and be like “Oh I get to work on a book and this is part of my job.” It’s not what I expected. I think I go into this journey with–and it sounds really depressing–with zero expectations. Everything is a bonus and a blessing. That’s how it’s felt, each step I get to be thankful for because I don’t expect a ton from the industry anyway.

Atticus Goodman: I was wondering, how you can speak to the experience of being an Indigenous woman in the publishing industry? From your perspective, what’s going well in the industry and where do you see room for growth? 

AT: That’s a great question! I was just on a panel last week with the School Library Journal and there were four of us who were Indigenous, and it was just a native panel, it was awesome. We were sharing how we were excited for the new boom of Native Lit. 

HK: Especially in the YA world, it’s blooming.

AT: Yes! It’s really amazing. I grew up with the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich, and that was really beautiful. It feels like there’s just so much more now and there are so many tribes getting represented and people groups showing up in books. It makes me really excited.

 On the flipside, I think there are opportunities for growth and respecting Indigenous knowledge. I think a lot of Native folks have shared something and then it gets shot down by Western science or something like that. I’m doing other kinds of work of proving something that my tribe has believed for thousands of years is a legit thing, which is interesting. It was a thing that I wasn’t expecting mostly because Braiding Sweetgrass came out 10 years ago. Sometimes my path or my journey is actually helping people to overcome some of those things that they didn’t realize they had, that was blocking them from experiencing some greater reality about the world. Indigenous people have been here before western science. That’s something that I’ve seen room for growth. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that, but sometimes it gets a little tiring. 

HK: One of the things that I really loved in the selection of Saints of the Household you shared with us is how you point out very specific stereotypes and subvert them. One example that comes to mind is the section ‘Counseling’, when the brothers share the expectation that because their people are from Costa Rica, that they are an ocean-based culture. And I also love the section, ‘At School’, when the mathematicians and mathematics are included with ancient discoveries and mythologies, as in this is also part of our history, and our current and our future.

Could talk about the craft of subverting stereotypes? Especially the way you wove it into these sections, it was so natural, funny, poignant, and specific. I feel like there is a craft to it and we’d love to hear you talk about it. 

AT: Thank you. I appreciate that you noticed that. I remember learning with one of my mentors, and we are very craft obsessed, as writers, we are very story-oriented. My mentor, he loves stories and he knows a lot of stories, but he’s very mathy. I remember he dropped the word ethnomathematics and my brain blew up. I started thinking about craft in a mathematical way.

I was starting to think about how our stories, instead of having a  freytag pyramid structure, are very even-balanced. Our structure is more of a mirror – the brothers in Saints are like a mirror to each other. One’s in one place and one’s in another place and it’s all about balancing until the last page. Literally, the last page–no spoilers! (laughter). So that’s the Saint’s journey of where I see it in the craft and I think that when I learned that word, ethnomathematics that my brain blew up. 

HK: I feel like ethnomathematics as a craft is blowing my mind!

AT: I remember once my mentor said something about this. So, the formation of our spiritual house has a certain number of planes that actually mirrors how many planets there are. It was fascinating and I wouldn’t have thought about that, but he was thinking about it because he’s wired that way. It shows that Indigenous people are more than just what the stereotypes are, we all have our different interests and our fascinations. We bring that to the table and it’s all about sharing that. Learning something new outside of my own craft and letting it influence craft was a big part of Saints for sure. 

AG: Speaking of ethnomathematics, you have mentioned to me before that you are an ethnographer. Could you speak a little bit about that? What does that look like, what that involves, and also how does that style of writing influence your prose and your fiction writing? 

AT: Yeah, yeah, so I remember we talked about that. There’s ethnography, which is the study of other people’s groups, and there are plenty of ethical ways to do that. Then there gets to be some unethical ways of doing that. There also is autoethnography, which is what Zora Neale Hurston did, where she went to her own people group, studied her own stories, grew her identity but also reflected her own identity to a greater audience. But it was all her own, she wasn’t researching other cultures, she was researching her own. 

There’s strength in that, I think especially as Indigenous people. There’s so much that’s been taken that it feels like there’s already a move to decolonization to be the ones to do the research. And also because even the sciences are sticky. There are no hard and fast rules of science. If you put two bodies next to each other they’re not gonna be the same, despite what our textbooks say. Realistically, science is more flexible than how we want it to be, in the western world. 

Similarly with culture, we are flexible, it’s fluid. Art forms are fluid. As someone who belongs to that people group studying your own people group, you get to really enter into a space with some knowledge already formed but also an ability to hold multiple truths at the same time. My own study of that is working with my mentor, who’s a couple years older. We call each other “brother” and “sister”, we are technically related with the way things go. We’re cousins. But it’s just the way it goes. 

What I do is, similarly to this interview, I have a recording. So, it’s all very oral storytelling-oriented, and I’m not necessarily taking notes super seriously. I’m trying to soak it up a bit and let it influence me and form me. Then I’m able to go back to the recording and listen to it that way as well. What I’m also doing is document translation. Bribri is two colonized steps back. I’ve been colonized by the US, Costa Rica has been colonized by Spain, and Bribri was an Indigenous language, some of the first eight languages that were in Costa Rica. We got a lot of steps to go back. What we’re doing is translation work at the same time, so that is where I’m entering my own people group and bringing it to a greater audience. Saints actually has a retelling of one of our stories that I learned from my mentor, which is actually built into the structure as well.

HK: What are some things you look for in a publisher? What is some advice for students, and what are some things you try to avoid?

AT: For me personally, I wanted the book to be in the hands of somebody who was familiar with poetry or weird forms of narratives. I had multiple editors and agents say,

‘I don’t know how to edit this. You’re gonna find someone who does, but I don’t know how and I’m excited to read the book when it comes out.’ Which was really great, I’m glad they were honest with me that they weren’t the right fit but it meant that I found people who knew poetry.

My editor has her MFA in poetry, so that helped a lot. We could be on the same wavelength and communicate. That was important to me, not that someone has to have an MFA, but just some familiarity with poetry. 

And then in terms of publishing, I wanted to work with the editorial team who was doing good work on multiple fronts. Were they publishing underrepresented voices? How was their staffing doing? What does the staff look like? Do they have the associate editors? A lot of associate editors, in a good way, need support and mentorships. The downfall of publishing is that a lot of people don’t get it. And if you’re a person of color, that’s a really big bummer. So, I wanted to see if they were doing movement that way. With my editor, I’ve seen multiple of her assistants go on to get hired as full time editors elsewhere. That was huge to me.

So avoiding, I think for me, I didn’t necessarily want to go with the flashiest publisher. I jive with the editor more at the quieter, smaller, but still big 5 press. That was important to me because I wanted the heart of the book to be right and that connected with my editor. I got to choose between three editors, and I felt like Grace had it all. 

HK: Juggling the hats of the creative writer and the business side of things, being your own self manager is a lot!

AT: Yeah absolutely, and it’s good to connect with your network. There’s not a secret that there’s a whisper system in the YA world. So if you know some people in that vein, it’s helpful because you can say, ‘oh I’m sending my book out. Here’s 10 editors, have any of you worked with them? Any feedback? Any things I should be concerned about?’ And you don’t spread that information everywhere, but it’s helpful to know because you want your journey to be the best it can be, the most healthy. It’s not that you’re bashing people, but you’re finding what’s best for you and passing that onto the next person. Because what you’re doing is thinking about who’s coming after you, at least for me anyway. Thinking about who’s coming after me and paving that way for them. 

AG: Last spring you were an adjunct professor here at Hamline, were you trying to write at the time? More specifically, how do you balance being a busy person and also writing at the same time without burning yourself out?

AT: Great question, I think I’m still trying to figure it out!

 For me, it helps to block out time, so there are multiple days a week that I don’t do any creative writing. Some people are write-everyday people, I am not. I block out two or three days, two or three hours and I write. And if a poem slips its way in at some point in the early morning, I’ll say yes to that, of course. It’s not that I resist other writing, but that tends to be the way that I work. It helps to switch the hats on and off. 

I do work three different jobs, I work at Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and their organizer for mentorships. I occasionally teach, and then write. Even in the writing sphere, I’m working on multiple projects. I think I’m working on two new short stories for anthologies and working on my second novel, which is due in February. There are a lot of rhythms and some of them you don’t get to decide because somebody will give you a date and say, ‘you have to do this by then.’ For the most part, that’s how I do things, I block out chunks of time. Which I did when I was a full time student too. I would say ‘on Thursday nights or Friday nights for three hours I’m not gonna do any homework, I’m just gonna write.’ Sounds scary, but we need to remember, ‘wait why am I in school?’ So that I can do this. We gotta figure out. Why are you in school? What’s the reason? Always remember that, it’s super important, and that has been useful for me outside of school.

HK: Going back to Saints of the Household, what inspired you to write in that form? Where the body of the text is verse, it feels very prose form as well. It’s dense with imagery, but also airy and I’m just obsessed with the way you’ve written it. Where did the idea of the form come from?

AT: First, I was obsessed with The House on Mango Street and I loved it. I also got introduced to the first novel in grad school. So, Saint’s is from two points of view. There’s the vignette, prose, poem-y part, which is for Jay’s character, and then switches to full on poems for Max’s character. And they flip back and forth. The idea came from inspiration from mentor text, what I was seeing out in books that I really loved and connected with. 

Love on your obsessions and let it formulate your craft!

I was also jazzed about the idea of thinking I could do both, vignette and poetry. The reason why those came out that way is because Jay is an observer, the writer type, and Max is a painter, so he needed space and space on the page. He needed movement, and some of the poems are shaped like paintings later in the book. It’s very much him, he needed to be in poetry, that’s just the way he is. Then Jay is a sit and think, ponder-type of human. Both of their forms hopefully follow the function of who they are as people.

HK: Let’s open it up now to the rest of the class for a Q&A. 

Audience Member: In the Poetry Magazine issue for Young Adults you were published in, is there difference between general poetry and poetry for YA? How do you go about reading your works in terms of YA?

AT: A great question, I think there are a couple different camps. There’s a poem that I published in a poetry magazine, it’s a single poem that doesn’t have a specific voice, it’s me. For that one I remember struggling with it, because it wasn’t a poem for adults necessarily, it needs to be accessible. And that doesn’t mean it needs to be less than, if you read Lucille Clifton, a lot of children could read this. In fact, I’ve taught a lot of Lucille Clifton to kids and they’ve loved her! There’s someone who called Clifton’s writing simple and complex, and  I think about that as a heartbeat for writing for young readers.

For a single poem that’s not in a novel,  I need to make sure that they’re gonna get something from the first read and if they keep reading they’ll get more. I think we talk about that a lot in the contemporary poetry space too. Different poets do different things. It’s not that adult poetry doesn’t do this, but for kids you have to be particular about it. Most people who write for kids think about their audience as being for children. 

When it comes to a novel, it is more like persona poetry. It’s like I’m putting on this other character. With Max I had to listen to a bunch of painters and artists talk. I took down their diction and language, and from that I grew Max’s language, his rhetoric, his statements about life. They weren’t all mine, but they were coming from a space wanting to mine that character. Just really interesting, because I don’t think I would’ve come up with this a particular line myself, but because I put Max’s voice on, I really like what he’s saying. If you give someone a prompt to write a character, you conjure somebody. That’s the difference I think for a novel. Poetry naturally becomes, like, a different person. 

It can seem kinda gooey, but it’s how I do it in terms of craft. I definitely had to ask myself those questions when I was asked to write for Poetry Magazine. 

AG: So you mentioned with Max vs Jay that Max is more persona poem and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Is Jay closer to you as a person? Or is that still a persona? How does that work out for you?

AT: I feel like Jay is closer to me as a person and Jay’s voice came first and I still remember I was sitting in my bedroom and I just started writing. It came out in vignettes cause I had been reading vignettes and i was like ‘wow, he’s here.’ He came a lot more naturally for me. For Max, I had to fight for him, and once he showed up I was like ‘cool, we’re with each other now.’

Audience Member: Why YA? Have you always gravitated towards YA? Why is that your genre? 

AT: I think it’s weird that I like YA cause I hated high school, and I hated being a teenager. Maybe it’s because of the angst. I don’t remember who said this but they say If you survived childhood you have something to write about. And I think my childhood and teen-ness was very painful and there were a lot of things I didn’t understand that was going on. Writing has been my throughline through it all. And I think there’s a lot of people who say ‘wound to art’ and there’s a lot of wounds there. That’s where I gravitated towards because I think there’s a lot of healing and I need to go to that space.

Now, I’m thinking my next novel will be more adult because there’s a lot more I need to navigate through. But I think that’s why I initially gravitated toward YA. There’s a lot more stuff I needed to work through as an artist. It’s no secret that you go through stuff and it shows up in your fiction, I think Saints is definitely an example of that for me. 

Audience Member: How did you get involved with Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop?

AT:  At the time, I was organizing the Hamline MFA for kids and young adults so I wasn’t really familiar with the other things going on. Cathryn Savage was one of my first writing teachers and she used to do the Broadside Program for MPWW. They would create these beautiful broadsides of prose and poem writers that were incarcerated. And then she was leaving and she asked, ‘hey Ari, do you wanna do that?’ And I said sure. They actually dropped the Broadside program, created a new position, and asked if I wanted it. It’s very administrative –I put PDFs together and email them to staff, but it’s also very sacred, organizing someone else’s work. It’s very humbling. 

HK: You mentioned not wanting to go into publishing, and we have a lot of folks in the room who are thinking about a career in publishing. We have these big questions of how do you sustain a career in publishing? Do you go for a small press, DIY, or Big 5?  I think it’s appropriate to talk about why you decided to not go that route.

AT: For me at the time, it was realizing that publishing might be a full time job. That means less time to write for me. That might not be true for others, there are plenty of people who have a full time job and write in their evening times, and that’s awesome. I wanted to acquire a little more time for myself, as the kind of person I was. I really jived with having a part time job and getting to write, it was a good balance for me. I think that’s ultimately why I said no to publishing. This is going to take a lot of time and this is a different journey than what I want. I think the great thing about publishing is that there are new and interesting avenues of doing things. 

People in publishing are interested in writing, but for me, I wanted to be writing-forward. It’s tricky in the YA world cause sometimes you can get an advance to write for a while, which I didn’t expect, but it ended up being part of my journey. I think it’s figuring out your own pathway. Sometimes part of me wants to go back to publishing though. But now I get to do that on the author’s side. I get to write and do research andI get to work with people in publishing, which is fascinating to see those people at work.

Audience Member: Could you talk about your early days of submitting? How did you handle rejection?

AT: I think because I was leaning toward a novel in grad and post-grad, I really wasn’t submitting much because I was working on a big project. I remember talking to some folks outside of grad school and they were like ‘I’m not sending out works to submit.’ And I said you’re in a novel writing mode right now and you should honor that. You’re not submitting smaller works, you’re at different a stage in your career and that’s okay. And that’s where I was. I was working on the novel post-grad for a couple years and then I started to send it out. I found a big love of contemporary poetry and I should’ve sent more but I didn’t. I tried to research where things could land. 

I think I`m such a bad example of submitting because I don’t submit. There are a couple other places that have been rejected. It’s part of the industry. With the way I go about things, I’m totally fine with rejection. When you send a book out, most of the books that you see on your bookshelves did not have multiple publishers interested in it. It was one person who convinced their team it deserved to be on the self. Part of the career is being able to balance that. I hold my art out with open hands. So I don’t have a lot of poetry publications. I have five. I’m more oriented toward the book.

Audience Member: When it comes to sending your novel to places to see if it’ll be picked up, how much of the novel needs to be completed? How much revising did you do? With your next book, you’ve carved out space to work on the book, and it needs to be done by a certain deadline. Do you just send out a chunk? 

AT: Initially with novels, usually they need to be completed to the best of your ability to get an agent. The book needs to be done, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change or grow. 

Right now with Saints, I have a due date today for some pages with all these little edits, like we have an extra A here or is this period supposed to be here? Otherwise, it’s pretty much all done. Before that, I do major developmental edits with my editor, then copy edits which are like, ‘You can’t have a bumblebee in the winter Ari.’ 

It usually goes from developmental edits to copy edits to line edits, and for that it went a little faster. My editor was like “We don’t have much for line edits” And then pass pages, which is like art and design of the book, which is when you make sure everything looks right.

My pass pages have been a pain in the butt because it’s about getting the poems right on the page. They’re no longer in a Word document and books have different margins. So, some of my poems had to change shape a bit. And it’s kinda sad. Maybe I let go of things too easily but that tends to be the process with a novel, it gets smaller and smaller and gets easier. Right now I’m in the creation process with my second novel. It’s due in February to my editor but it’s due so we can go back to do all the editing. So right now Saints is out in advanced reader copies, but it’s not fully out. 

HK: How much agency did you have in the cover design?

AT: I had a good amount of agency thankfully. I wanted someone from the midwest and who was Indigenous. They sent me four different artists, I picked my top three, then they picked who they wanted to create it. The artist works with a designer in the publishing house and they co-create something to make sure that it’ll work. 

Audience Member: You’ve recently moved from the Twin Cities to rural Wisconsin. Has your change in location affected your writing at all?

AT: I miss my old sunroom office, I loved having so much light. But now I have great views, we don’t see our neighbors and I see the sunrise.  

Sometimes it was really helpful to visualize that I’m writing with my business right next to me, my editor is right there and not just a random space.If you think about your writing space as something sacred, it’s hard to uproot that. 

My child loves to watch me write. His happiest place is watching me write. It’s very cute but it’s not what I’m used to, I have new eyes on me. I have a video of my child, he’s typing, he looks up at the screen and starts typing, moving the mouse. It was wild. That’s my new reality. 

Audience Member: What are your biggest obstacles when it comes to what you do?

AT: Getting yourself ramped up to write the next thing is terrifying to be honest. I’ve been working on my second book concept for like 2 years and it feels like everytime I sit down I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. The biggest thing is reminding myself that this is new, it’s okay to be struggling a bit. It’s like life. There are good days and hard days. But you’ve got your community, your editor, agent, writing friends. But I think that’s the biggest obstacle. I don’t know if anyone has a good answer for that to be honest. 

I didn’t really have that struggle with Saints because it came really naturally, I just sat down and it was there. The second book is not that way. I’m fighting my way through that novel and that’s just the way it is. And I’ve talked to other authors and they said something really wise, ‘sometimes you have to accept your second book, to you, won’t be as good as your first one.’ It’s fair and realistic to me, part of the journey. It’s a different book and it does different things. 

The things I try to teach are things I’m trying to actively do in my own practice, because this is a job it can get frightening. I have to remind myself it’s okay to go to a coffee shop and fall in love again.

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