Beatriz Fitzgerald Fernandez is a Latina poet and a university Reference Librarian in Miami. She grew up in Puerto Rico, the daughter of Peruvian and Puerto Rican parents. She began to write for publication after she won Writer’s Digest’s 2nd annual poetry contest; since then, she’s read her poetry on WLRN, South Florida’s NPR news station and received a Pushcart prize nomination. Recent poetry appears in Minerva Rising Literary Journal, When Women Waken and Words Dance. Her first chapbook, Shining from a Different Firmament, (Finishing Line Press) was accepted for presentation at the Miami Book Fair International last year. She will be serving as a judge for Poetry Press Week during the O, Miami poetry festival in 2016.
Fem: Tell us about your chapbooks.
Beatriz Fernandez: My first chapbook, Shining from a Different Firmament, (Finishing Line Press, 2015) begins with a ghazal in the voice of Hypatia, who has long been a symbol of feminism after being martyred by religious fanatics for being who she was—brilliant, beautiful, educated, an inspiring teacher, an accomplished mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, and an independent unmarried woman. The poems attempt to capture the voices of historical, fictional and legendary women, some famous, some forgotten or overlooked. It ends with a poem about an unknown homeless woman on the streets of Miami who symbolizes all women whose stories will never be told.
Voices Incandescent, my second unpublished chapbook, also consists of many persona poems, both formal and free verse, some ekphrastic; it’s more formally divided into three sections of poems featuring literary, legendary and historical figures, not all women. I also include two response poems in male voices to poems from the first book: Abelard responds to Heloise, Sherlock to Irene Adler.
F: What was the research process like for the first book?
BF: Even though I had some knowledge of all of these women, (which is why I wanted to write about them!) in order to make the poems as truthful as possible (while taking some poetic license) and incorporate authentic details, I drew inspiration from biographies, letters (in order to keep some of the original person’s language, as in the case of Heloise and Cassandra Austen) novelizations, television shows and films (which often make the spirit of the person come alive even more than biographies).
For some poems, such as the one about Doc Holliday’s cousin Mattie, Her Last Cotillion, I read many books about the Holliday family, visited gravesites and researched on the internet. The novel Doc by Mary Doria Russell was my main inspiration for that poem, and her research was extensive, so I was borrowing it by proxy! The final detail of his effects which were delivered to the family came from another book which included pictures of the actual items.
For the legendary women or anonymous women, such as the Amazon in “The Amazon Warrior Champion” or the homeless woman in “Red Light”, I just used my imagination!
F: Are there any legendary or historical women from your chapbook who surprised you?
BF: The poem about Hypatia was inspired by an episode in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series where he walks through a computerized recreation of the library of Alexandria and speaks of her fate.
I went on to read everything I could find about her. The film Agora starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia was also helpful in capturing her spirit. She was surprising on many levels; a feminist ahead of her time, a woman who refused to compromise her beliefs and knowledge, or to kowtow to religious extremism and politics.
In the case of Cassandra Austen, I had always tried to understand why she destroyed Jane’s letters from a specific period, (the time during which scholars speculate she met a love interest whose name has been lost to history) so I made up a rather macabre alternate explanation, just for fun!
I was very surprised what I learned about Constance Wilde. I had studied Oscar Wilde’s works in college, naturally, and I had read many biographies about him but the information about Constance was sketchy or at least not very memorable. I found out she was a very talented writer in her own right and edited a magazine in the early years of their marriage. Oscar tended to be a sun that blinded many to Constance’s star, it seems. There has been a revival of interest in her in recent years, and a new biography by Franny Moyle just came out which I wasn’t able to get a copy of—maybe there’s another poem there!
F: What were some of the challenges of writing from a male’s perspective for your second chapbook?
BF: I felt I owed the males of the famous pairs I wrote about their own say, so I made an effort to represent them equally. I don’t feel like it was a challenge to speak as them, necessarily, but I did try to maintain an awareness of my language and tone. Once you have struck a note with one voice, the answering voice is not too difficult to deliver. I have experimented with using a male narrator in my non-persona poems as well.
F: How do you tap into a speaker/character whose identity is different from your own?
BF: This is a weird process. I think it must be similar to an actor preparing for a part. After all the research, I sit and think of that person and try to “feel” my way into their heads. In essence I am synthesizing all the impressions gained from everything I’ve ever read or heard or seen about this person and from that trying to spark an emotional fire! When a phrase pops into my head which rings true, I go with it; I follow it like you would catch the end of a rope and pull yourself up. I try to keep hold of the rope, if it breaks, then I stop and try again later, or another day. When I’m doing it right, I feel like I’m channeling that person and the words just flow!
F: What is your definition of feminism?
BF: To actively promote and support, by thought, word and action, the safety, choices, rights and freedom of females everywhere. As Virginia Woolf said, “As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
F: How have you seen the conversation surrounding feminism change over the years?
BF: When I was growing up we were already beginning to take the rights the feminist movement had won for us for granted, as collective memory fades fast, but forgetfulness has turned into outright ignorance and even hostility in more recent years. I am saddened to see young women who have no idea of their rights or in any case refuse to demand them, both in their public and especially their private lives. It’s also infuriating to see the word “feminist” become anathema to many women, even highly educated ones, and rejected as “extremist.” Especially when the very same women who renounce the label would not be able to own property, have credit, keep their children after divorce, attend college, have a job, etc., if it weren’t for the very same movement from which they now disassociate themselves! This is at the very least ungrateful, and at the other extreme, dangerous.
Those gains which we take for granted are too easily lost again. I can never forget Margaret Atwood’s cautionary novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which becomes more relevant as time passes, not less so. I am all too aware that the life I have been privileged to live in this country has only been made possible by laws passed within my brief 50 year lifespan. Had I been born a mere decade or two earlier….