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April 9 2017

Reintroducing Our Fit List: Meet Cristina Baptista

Since she was just 4-years old, Cristina Baptista has always been a writer. Whether it was short stories or scribbled rhymes across a page in an elementary school notebook, Cristina was always writing. She even wrote her first novel in fifth grade, another when in college. Now, with a Ph.D in English from Fordham University, Dr. Cristina Baptista is an American Literature high school teacher, literary scholar, and author of her first and recently published poetry collection, “The Drowning Book”. Comprised of 29 free verse poems, the collection focuses on the female experience and attempts to “help silenced women reclaim their voices.” Cristina hopes to inspire women to become more confident and proactive in their convictions. Read on to find out more about this inspirational author and her published work, The Drowning Book: 

What is The Drowning Book, and what inspired you to write it?

Anchored in contemporary issues that could be anywhere, any time, The Drowning Book examines the dissociation between action and feeling (particularly as it pertains to women) and how we can reclaim human dignity both for ourselves and others. It is rooted in sundry inspirations—from nostalgia for my own childhood or a longing for pasts not my own; to newspaper headlines from the past several years; to pop culture and family stories; to faith and superstition; and to works of artwork.

The collection actually grew out of a series of automatic writing exercises I assigned to my American Literature students at Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, Connecticut. At the time, I was teaching all 77 members of the Class of 2016. We were studying the Modern period and talking about Gertrude Stein’s method of writing, as influenced by William James (the American philosopher and psychologist whose brother was the writer Henry James). Perhaps most people who have encountered Stein will agree with one anonymous, early commenter who, after reading Tender Buttons (1914), exclaimed, “[a]fter a hundred lines of this I wish to scream, I wish to burn the book, I am in agony…. Some one has applied an egg-beater to my brain.” Stein wrote automatically, in what she called a “continuous present,” and in order to help my students better-appreciate what can be a rather difficult and mystifying collection to read, I had them write automatically, too.

In the writing exercises, I asked students to find a newspaper headline from that week that caught their attention. They were not to read the article—just the headline. Then, for 15 uninterrupted minutes, they had to write anything and everything that came to mind when they thought about the words in the headline. Next, I had them find an image from the year they were born. Again, they had 15 minutes to write whatever came into their mind when they looked at that image. Finally, I distributed slips of paper, each with a different line from a work that we had read in American Literature class that year. For a final 15 minutes, they wrote whatever came to mind, building from that line.

In this exercise, they had what they felt were three stream-of-consciousness ramblings but then I had them go back and find connections among the disparate “scribblings.” Before long, they realized that despite the three different catalysts, because they were writing about each back-to-back-to-back, thoughts from one word, image, or line from one part of the assignment was bleeding into their subsequent responses. In the end, and after much sharing, editing, and workshopping, students finalized a single poem, which grew out of this workshop exercise.

But this wasn’t just an exercise for students. I practice what I teach, and I did the assignment along with all five sections of American Literature. By the end of the week, I had five different, new poems. My students wanted me to read them aloud, so I did. And when I read them together, I realized that I wrote a lot about six main things: women, water, family, nostalgia, language, and foreignness.

Later, I went through some of the non-automatic-writing poems I’d written that year (this was in 2015), and I was a bit shocked that, once again, women, water, family, nostalgia, language, and foreignness were in those poems. Soon, I was assembling a collection of poems that felt connected to me. It was in a single long-weekend (about 3 days) that The Drowning Book was born. I organize instinctively—by what feels right. I can’t explain anything specific about why certain poems come first or are at the end of The Drowning Book. I guess that is my version to the “automatic writing” instinct that propelled Stein through her Modern works. 

Can you describe what the writing and publishing process was like?  What was the most challenging part for you?

The writing process is described a bit above, but I will add that, in a nutshell, I was inspired to write by teaching, learning, and reading. I was inspired to write simply by living and looking around, taking any scrap that caught my attention—whether a photograph in someone’s Facebook feed or a headline that felt deceptive or confusing—and spinning it into a poem. Poetry has always been my first-reaction to anything: it’s where I organize ideas and make sense of reality. I’m a very cautious person and don’t rush into things, so instead of reacting aloud, I always turn to writing as a way of working-through. Even though I am also a prose-writer, a lot of the first drafts of ideas come out in poetry-looking stanzas. I suppose I like fragments when it comes to writing. I like puzzling through and piecing things together as a write. To me, juxtaposition is everything.

In the Fall of 2015, Finishing Line Press announced an “open reading” period, which they do each November. Most poetry collection competitions charge reading fees (which can be in the $25-40 range per manuscript), but this was a month of free submissions. So, rather on a whim, I submitted The Drowning Book. I also submitted it to a handful of contests, more curious to see if anyone would respond than actually believing someone would. By Spring of 2016, Finishing Line Press reached out via a call and a very nice card in the mail, saying that they wanted to publish my book!

The hardest part of the publishing process is the fact that what we’re publishing is poetry! As my brother reminded me the other day, “poetry is a tough-sell.” I don’t think he was saying anything we haven’t heard before. Very few people can name a living poet, or even a Poet Laureate. Also, since Finishing Line is a small, family-run press, authors like myself have to do a lot of the planning, promoting, and preparation. The Press is very supportive of its writers and sent advertising postcards for The Drowning Book out on my behalf, during the pre-order period (I simply supplied them with 100 address labels as to where to send the postcards). They use social media and writers conferences to also promote their authors’ works. Right now, I’ve just sent back to them corrections for the first set of galleys, which was a little frustrating, as several poems had glaring issues (such as missing stanzas, repeated stanzas, or flipped lines). These are likely copy-and-paste issues, which I’m sure, will be edited and perfected for the final book, but it is still disheartening to see a manuscript you’re really eager to get to press riddled with so many errors. I highly doubt this is anything new, though—other writer friends have told me similar stories about being mortified by mistakes caught in early copies of their books, or how manuscripts had to be re-set after pages or sections went mysteriously missing.

Stay Fit and Healthy

What’s significantly challenging, therefore, is the waiting game. I finished this collection two years ago and it’s only now going to press. The disappointment that the proposed February 3, 2017 release date is now impossible, with Finishing Line reportedly eight weeks behind schedule, is palpable, but I expected it because I know writing and editing, publishing and marketing all take time. I’d rather be patient and wait for the most polished-looking copy of my collection is out than rush through the process. Unfortunately, I have never been a very patient person!

I’m also very, very aware at how fortunate I am that The Drowning Book was accepted by a publisher so quickly. I have written five poetry collections and this is the first to be accepted—and it’s also the one that took me only a few months to create. In contrast, the other collections have taken me about 2-10 years to craft. So, I’ll take a few delays, disappointments, and setbacks if it means the book will come out eventually!

Who is your target audience?   

When I go to poetry readings or poetry release parties, the other people in the room are, more often than not, other poets. I do hope, though, that The Drowning Book is a collection that is “reader-friendly,” one that does not require anyone to be a poet or writer in order to feel something by reading the words. I think it is a collection about mature topics, but readers of high school and adult age should be able to engage with it. Their world is in those pages.

What is the message you want to convey to readers?

I don’t think poetry is supposed to offer answers. It should offer more questions, more considerations. Emily Dickinson’s suggestion, “I dwell in possibility,” has always resonated with me because I am much more invested in options than in final solutions. Convent of the Sacred Heart’s English Department Chair (and my boss), Dr. Bill Mottolese, often tells his students that writing is about making decisions rather than plugging in portions of it like an equation, and I really like this. Writing is like life: you have options, you have possibilities, and it is up to you to make decisions. Writing, then, is risk-taking. Which means that the reader, too, is going to be open to seeing and being influenced by these risks. Isn’t that an excellent way to prepare anyone for greater decisions beyond?

I also want readers to understand that poetry is always about risk-taking. As intimated above, just choosing to write and publish the genre is uncertain: will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? I often name as my favorite poet T. S. Eliot. My favorite poem is his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And my favorite portion of that 1917 poem are “Do I dare/Disturb the universe.” I tell my students that, each day, they should wake up and ask themselves this and the answer should always be “yes.” It is up to them to figure out how, however, and to what extent the disturbance will cause an effect. Again–there are always risks, but no rewards come without risks. No progress ever comes without proactivity.

In short, poetry is proactivity. I want The Drowning Book to be perceived in this way. There is a call here to take a strong look at the world and to be better people. Poetry in general is passion poured into art and action all at once. It is a way to express and empathize, a way to live.

 

Will there be a sequel, or another poetry collection? Have you considered writing a novel? 

Yes, I do hope to write and publish a novel one day—once I can work beyond the roughness of some ideas, and get my mind out of the “poetic sphere” long enough. Right now, though, every time I go to write prose, it comes out as poetry!

What do you believe it means for a woman to be “Fit to Lead”?

To be “Fit to Lead,” a woman simply has to cling tenaciously to her own convictions. In writing, I claim my motto is “write now, apologize later.” I think a woman “Fit to Lead” borrows from this same sense: act now, apologize later. Or, don’t apologize at all. Have faith in your convictions. To lead is to do, to proactively be self-led before taking on the challenge of guiding others. I do believe, though, that no one is “fit” enough to lead others until he or she has a clear morality, mentality, and mindfulness about the greater world. Being fit to lead, in other words, means being responsible.

Who is your female role model?

The women in my family—the Portuguese women born in Europe and in American alike—are my role models. I am the only daughter of an only daughter of an only daughter: we navigate the male-dominated spheres well. Women were always the ones putting books into my hands, encouraging me to read and write.

The women on my father’s side of the family come from Moitas-Venda, Portugal, a small town in a small country.  It is a civil parish tucked beside Cabeço de Santa Marta, a humble mountain (really a hill) that is nevertheless one of the central lookouts in the region so known for its wildfires.  On Cabeço de Santa Marta is a chapel dedicated to, of course, Santa Marta (Saint Martha); the chapel was constructed during the Middle Ages, and contains several azulejo tiles, including one of the figure of Santa Marta defeating a dragon.

What can be more empowering? I come from a place where we celebrate women who slay dragons.

What is your advice to aspiring writers, poets, and artists?

Listen more than you speak, read often, and carry notebooks and pens everywhere. It’s okay to eavesdrop, ask more questions than you answer, or to write the truth, even if you think someone will misconstrue it. Always find reasons to create. And, to quote Zadie Smith, whose words I have hanging on my desk: “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” Does this sound selfish? Yes, it is; all artists are selfish. I give you permission to be selfish. Without putting the self first when it comes to your craft, you will never be an artist. It can be lonely, yes. Put that into your art. Writing and the act of creating anything is a ravenous beast when it comes to tearing through time, but I promise you that it is, without doubt, absolutely worth it. 

How can we purchase The Drowning Book?

 The Drowning Book can be purchased directly from the publisher, Finishing Line Press. Here’s the link for ordering: https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-drowning-book-by-cristina-j-baptista/. It is small and family-run, but the Press does much to support poets and artists. The Drowning Book should be available sometime in April. So, anyone can preorder his or her copy at the link above. After it is officially published, The Drowning Book will also be available to order from other book retailers, including Amazon.com.

Anything else you’d like to share?

 The Drowning Book may have begun as an exercise in automatic writing. It may have felt meditative, nostalgic, and personally-reflective at first. But as water cannot be contained when it continues to overflow a vessel, the collection has become a larger prayer. It is a baptismal ritual, a beckoning to others to be cleansed and drowned alike. I hope The Drowning Book balances action and feeling and blends them together in a way that my personal reflections become felt by strangers in any place in the world. In particular, I hope the voices of women are echoed here, resolutely and hauntingly, as if bubbling up from some sea-chamber like tempting sirens. Maybe, in writing this collection, I am a sea-witch, and I hope my spell touches readers, flows back into me, and becomes electricity. This is how I will continue to write. This is how I hope I will continue to inspire others to write. In continuing this process, we will all find our voices: not one is more essential than the other.

Cristina Baptista’s poetry collection has just been released and has started shipping from both Finishing Line Press and Amazon. Through her collection, Cristina hopes to inspire others to write, and in the process, find our voices. We are proud to welcome Cristina to the Fit List!

Marissa Licursi

About Marissa Licursi

Hey, I’m Marissa!  I am from Rye, New York and am a junior at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in Economics with a double minor in Entrepreneurship & Management and Financial Economics. Greek Yogurt addict, organizational guru, fitness fanatic. I love traveling, music and spoken-word poetry.  Fun Facts?  I've kissed 3 stingrays, published a children's book, and can ride a motorcycle. Life mantra to live by? Confidence is your absolute best outfit. Wear it. Own it.

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