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Spring 2016 Issue: Meet Armin Tolentino

With the Spring 2016 Issue fast approaching its release date of May 1st, the editors at BACKWORDS Press sat down with each of our three new writers to talk about the upcoming issue, their work, and to let them reveal a little bit of their unique voices. Over the next three weeks. Interview-style.

Today, BACKWORDS Press would like to introduce you to Armin Tolentino, the first of our new featured writers, and author of the poem, “Pilot to the Photo on the Dashboard Before Crashing.”

First, a little bit of background. Armin received his MFA at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Literary Laundry, Blue Earth Review, and New Millennium Writings. He was also a 2014 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship recipient. According to his bio, Armin “lets the New York Knickerbockers break his heart every year between October and March.” He lives in Portland.

The interview follows below…


BACKWORDS PRESS: How do you begin a poem?

AT: Any number of things could seed a poem for me, but generally it starts with an image (often something fantastical or strange that warrants exploration) or a phrase that just sounds cool (for example, the term "ghost fishing" has been on my mind a lot).

If I'm in a boring meeting (it happens), I'll write lists of noun/verb or adjective/noun combinations, which can lead to these images or phrases that are stem cells for poems.

Definitely the more I'm writing--the more I'm in rhythm--the more likely I'll notice words, images, emblems, or connections that could trigger possible poems.

BACKWORDS PRESS: How long have you been writing?

AT: Easily since middle school, but likely earlier than that. Didn't really commit myself to it until I attended an MFA in my late 20s. Writing degrees are not necessary--or even helpful--for every writer, but I wasn't going to learn enough about writing on my own. I thought I knew how to write because I was literate. I had no understanding of structure in poetry, that a great poem is built with intention and purpose. I thought writing was a seance, that I could divine a poem from the ether. The MFA didn't give me a skeleton key for writing poems, but it gave me confidence I had the tools and know-how to keep building and fixing.

BACKWORDS PRESS: Which poets do you continually go back to?

AT: This is like the restaurant conundrum: do you go to the same restaurant every time because you know it's great or do you try someplace new? I'm a terribly slow reader and have to accept I'll never get to every book on my queue before my time is through. So I try not to re-read too much for fear I'm missing out on something else I should try, but some poets I return to, especially when I'm stuck in my own writing:

Thomas Lux for imagery, humor, and the ability to shift from the absurd to the universally human

Lucie Brock Broido for line breaks and language with the richest mouth-feel.

Li-Young Lee for the power of a single line, for the interplay between syntax and line.

Jean Monahan for something that just makes me happy to read poetry.

BACKWORDS PRESS: Why Backwords Press? What made you want to submit?

AT: Can you think of a more novel (yet completely logical) way to share poetry? Don't get me wrong, I love books. But books don't accidentally fall into your line of sight. Wouldn't we all prefer our day-to-day if we had more opportunity to encounter poetry unexpectedly? Doesn't that surprise delight? They put quotes in fancy chocolate wrappers now for the same reason.

And just take a look at the shirts and blog Backwords produces. This is clearly a press that cares about what [it] creates and how that adds to the literary discourse.

BACKWORDS PRESS: Are you on Facebook or Twitter? How does this affect your writing, community?

AT: Love Twitter. (@ArminTolentino) What other medium will give me snapshot information about poetry, boxing, fishing, and the Knicks on one screen? Outside of academia, it's hard to keep up with poetic current events (for example, I was invited to two Oscar parties this year and zero National Book Critics Circle parties). Twitter keeps me in the loop on controversies, victories, forces me to at least be cognizant that my writing doesn't exist in a vacuum, that, whether I like it or not, my poems by the mere fact of when they were written communicate with everything else that's happening in the world concurrently.

BACKWORDS PRESS: Anything else significant we should know about you or your work?

AT: I'd love to think that if you hate poetry, you could read something I've written and still at least find it interesting. Or worth wearing on a t-shirt. More interesting than reading "Juicy" on your sweats, right?


Armin’s poem, “Pilot to the Photo on the Dashboard Before Crashing,” is his first poem published with BACKWORDS Press. Along with two more poems by writers we’re excited about, each poem a new and original work for our Spring 2016 Issue, Armin’s poem will be available in our store on May 1st, 2016.

Come back next week, on Wednesday, April 13th, for another feature introducing you to one of our Spring Issue writers. Thanks for reading!

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