Sunday, June 16, 2013

Author Interview: Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

 It's all about Place

Learning Las Vegas,
Portrait of a Northern
New Mexican Place
By Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Publisher: Museum of NM Press

In her book, “Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History,” Elizabeth Barlow Rogers wrote, “Throughout the ages landscapes have reflected cosmological notions underlying one of humanity’s great imponderables: Where are we? How was the world created, and what is the place and fate of human beings within the context of space and time?” As the author of several works about the subject, Rogers is well prepared to delve into what makes a place distinctive.

Rogers, who has a background in art history and city planning is the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies. A native of San Antonio, Texas, she has lived since 1964 in New York City, N.Y. and has received many accolades for her work and dedication. Among her many accomplishments, she is a writer and photographer. For people from a small town in northern New Mexico how she writes about place tells a story about life, culture and history. Why did she choose the small town as the subject of her book, “Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern Mew Mexican Place?”

“I wanted to look at the subject of place in a unique and special place. In Las Vegas people have strong feelings about their town. As a part time resident of Santa Fe and a photographer and writer, it seemed ideal for what I wanted to do. It was an assignment I gave myself. I took photos of things that go on, and I began talking to people. I realized the best way to write the book was through their voices.”

Rogers began taking photos and collecting information in 2007. What she found was a town in transition, past its glory days, and living in the struggle that comes when a local economy can’t sustain the next generation.

“I learned about the glory days by researching historical documents. At one time Las Vegas, with its vibrant economy, was one of the most important cities in the West,” she said. “I learned about Las Vegas today by talking to people.”

Rogers said that discovering the layers of identity for Las Vegas are like peeling an onion. “One person led me to another person, and that person led me to someone else. It helped me build the story over time. It needed that multi-year perspective to get a sense of how this place became what it is today.”

She had no outline to work from at the beginning, letting the book shape itself as she went along.

The book is beautifully constructed, with evocative photos and elegant prose, lots of white space, fonts slightly suggestive of another era. Rogers said she was deeply involved in the design and selection of photographs.

“I brought the book to the Museum of New Mexico Press because I know they have great production values and I have a lot of respect for David Skolkin. I worked closely with the editor and David as the book developed.”

In her selection of content, Rogers said she wanted most to convey the notion of what makes a place unique historically, geographically, and culturally.

“I would say the book has an anthropological slant,” she said. Given her concentration on the origin, historical behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of the area, this is a fitting statement.

Rogers said that the principal theme of the book is the meaning of place. She sought long and hard to understand Las Vegas as a place whose identity has developed and changed over time. Focusing her discerning photographer’s eye on the local scene and the architecture and people of Las Vegas helped her determine the shape the book would take. The chapters are defined along thematic lines, but within each you learn a lot more than the headings would imply. The book’s narrative structure came only after Rogers had spent hundreds of hours talking to Las Vegans from all walks of life.

“After talking to Jesus (Lopez, local attorney), and listening to the things he told me, I have a degree of insight into the way the city runs itself, the way Hispanics have felt disenfranchised, and how that has informed later history and the way (some) people continue to think and behave.”

Rogers has a way of writing, allowing the subject of the chapter to speak for him or herself, or in the case of actual place, itself, without injecting her own spin. All of her books are written with detail and poetic imagery, enhanced by striking photos. I asked her if her writing is influenced by her photographic art.

“The writing has to stand on its own, but I love the image itself. I want the writing and the photos to complement each other. I didn’t actually need them, and I wanted the text to independently tell the story. But I love photography, and feel that words and images together capture the essence of place better than either would alone.”

She said her biggest challenge in the whole project, was cutting out so many pictures. Of the several thousand she took, Rogers, her editor, and the book designer selected photos that most closely conveyed the special aspects of her story about Las Vegas as place. Not surprisingly, many of these were shot in the plaza when she attended fiestas, motorcycle rallies, weddings, and Fridays al Fresco and spent hours watching all the impromptu things that go on at the bandstand gazebo.

“In lots of ways you can consider the plaza to be the soul of the town,” she said.
“Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern New Mexican Place,” is considered to be a regional book. Rogers said she hopes it provides a sense of place compelling enough to interest the general reader outside of New Mexico. She also hopes its sociological and anthropological slant will increase its audience beyond the confines of landscape history, the field with which she has traditionally been associated.

The cover photo is of Bridge Street, an iconic image of Las Vegas photographed by many. Why did that photo among the thousands she had available end up on the cover?

“I thought the cover should be a West Las Vegas streetscape. In this particular photo the light was right, the composition was good, and to me it says a lot about Las Vegas as a place. So that’s the one
we all agreed on.

When asked if there was anything she would like to have included but didn’t have room for, Rogers laughed.

 “Oh, yes, a lot of interesting things have happened since the book was finished. You might call me an Optic addict. Every time I read an interesting story and meet another interesting individual in its pages, I think to myself, “Darn! Why didn’t I get that in the book? But you have to stop somewhere.”

Rogers will be featured in upcoming events at which she will talk about “Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern New Mexican Place.” Look for her on Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m. at the New Mexico History Museum Auditorium where she will be participating in a panel discussion and book signing along with Elmo Baca, Frances Levine and Christopher Wilson. On Sunday, June 23 at 2 p.m., she will be at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque, N.M. On Saturday, June 29 at 2 p.m. Rogers is scheduled to be at Tome on the Range, 158 Bridge Street, Las Vegas, N.M., immediately followed by a reception sponsored by the Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation, at 116 Bridge Street.


This article also appears in Happenstance Magazine, published by Happenstance Publishing. For more information go to

Monday, June 3, 2013

Author Interview: Susan Gardner

Q&A With Poet, Artist and Creative Spirit

To Inhabit the Felt World
By Susan Gardner
Publisher: Red Mountain Press

On Sunday, June 9 at 3:30 p.m., Susan Gardner will be at op.cit. bookstore, Sanbusco Center in Santa Fe, to read from and sign her book of poetry, To Inhabit the Felt World. The book received an Eric Hoffer honorable mention for poetry award, and is a finalist for the Da Vinci Eye Prize for cover art and design. Gardner is a poet, painter, photographer and literary editor. Elizabeth Raby, author of Ink on Snow, said of Susan’s work, “I don’t believe I have ever read lines of such ferocity, honesty and pain. Yet Gardner continues, observes, listens... she opens herself to passion.”

I would agree. The work is painfully honest and joyously expressive. You can almost hear the voice of the poet in the structure of the poems and in the powerful cadence of the words. Susan’s work speaks of honest emotion, introspection, and heart. In her Q&A she talks about To Inhabit the Felt World, and her writing journey.

H.Talk about the title, “To Inhabit the Felt World” and what it means to you.

SG. The poem “Sticks and Stones” is about the process of calligraphy — crafting the ink from carbon and glue, fabricating brushes, making the paper and allowing the ink to settle into the paper as a poem or painting. Calligraphy is a joy to me. I wrote my first poems in Japanese calligraphy and experimented with all the phases of the process described in the poem.
The paper is made from a slurry of fibers and then “felts” into the paper sheet. I used this physical process to suggest the felt world of the poem, the felt world of the poet — the observation, experience and emotions we feel and understand through poetry and art.

H. How did you select pieces from your body of work for this collection?
SG. The poems for this book were written during several months in 2012. A few of the poems reconsider earlier themes, but all are new and written specifically for this book.

H. “Trilogy for My Daughter” is heartbreakingly beautiful. What does it take from you to put into words such a deeply personal and life-changing loss?

SG. My daughter's illness and death were a soul-shaking event. For years I had no words for it, spoken or written. Much later, as I started to write about it, my husband urged me to speak  clearly and fully. The third section of the trilogy was written just after the death of my much-loved mother-in-law and it was the final reconciliation I needed. The trilogy unites my philosophical persuasions with my emotional sensibility. Although the whole poem was composed almost complete in just a few days, I had a vivid sense of growth and transformation as I wrote it.

H. You are an artist and photographer. How does that inform your poetry?

SG. I have been a painter and photographer for a long time and I see the world through that field of reference. Many descriptions in the poems are influenced by the wonderful names of colors and the vocabulary of the art studio. My practice as a visual artist encourages, even forces, scrupulous attention to fine detail, the particularity that reveals the essence of the whole. It is just the same with poetry.

H. Your work has been described as being a “…landscape of experiences and perceptions not our own, but hauntingly familiar.” What does that mean to you as a writer?

SG. Art-making in all its forms is a universal human need and characteristic. We are related by our human-ness and our place in nature. My job as an artist is to look carefully, point directly, try to shape experience so that we, poet and reader, can apprehend its meaning. We make use of this particular moment, here and now. I hope that through my work the reader will recognize the value of our shared experience.

Art – regardless of form or genre – has the potential to awaken us to our own humanity and to our place in the world. More than joy and beauty, more than sensory pleasure and satisfaction, the practice and presence of art can offer redemption in the face of almost irredeemable sorrow.

H. Your bio also says you are a literary editor. Talk a little about your experience in that arena.
SG. I love the poets and their work. A poet brings me what seems to be a finished manuscript and that is the starting point for creating a book. We look at every line, every poem, trying to see how each element supports every other. Formatting the words on the page is graphic as well as literary. We consider the sequencing within each poem and through the book. We are after clarity, beautiful sound, natural language pacing, each word inevitable.
Most important of all: how do we let the reader hear the voice of the poet on the page? Within the lines, we want to leave room for the reader to breathe with the poem, to come closer to its heart, to the poet’s intention.

The collaboration is intense, creative and for most books, very satisfying.

H. You’ve traveled extensively. Talk about some of the places you’ve been and how those experiences are reflected in your poetry.
SG. Away from the familiar, jolted from the expected and taken-for-granted context, we can see ourselves new, make an opportunity of an unimagined and perplexing puzzle. My early adult years in East Asia were the introduction and context for my exploration of Buddhist philosophy and calligraphy.

I have learned Korean, Japanese, French and Spanish well enough to live in them, sometimes teach in them, for Japanese and Spanish, write in them. Language embodies the values of the culture and contains a point of view. Using a new language, participating in a new culture, shakes me out of old assumptions, forces me out of the ruts of old habits.
In Drawing the Line I wrote:

“I think that Heraclites had it right: it is not possible to step in the same stream twice. Even the Rocky Mountains seen from my window are in flux, uplifting themselves, eroding away, their shadows and colors changing every minute under the high altitude light. I find myself astonished every day by the sights on this expedition, the new, unruly landscape to be negotiated.”

H. You’ve written other books. Talk about them and the inspiration that motivates you to write about a particular subject.

SG. When I began Drawing the Line ~ A Passionate Life I intended to write about the nature of making art. Artist and poet are not a label or description; being an artist is in the context of my whole life. It is not a job but as much my identity as woman, mother, wife, house-builder, garden-planter, teacher. My initial essay speculating about the nature of art inevitably became a memoir.

Part of the artist’s task is to cast what light we can on the human condition. It has been fashionable to say that beauty and harmony have no meaning, that all we need is some adrenaline-pumping, eye-popping hugeness to be satisfied. I believe that humans are hard-wired to desire and recognize beauty in all its forms. It is the human mind that transforms facts into truth, stone into sculpture, empty sounds into poetry and music. Each of us is alone, an anonymous, separate being. Art lets us see who we are; it is the bridge from one mind to another. It lets us hold a transforming mirror to our human qualities and remember who we can be. It is the ultimate freedom.

Box of Light ~ Caja de Luz is Spanish and English poems, about half originally in each language. Moving between languages is moving between cultures. It was interesting to try and capture both sense and music of the original language in the second. The poems are cousins rather than twins. It was a joy to explore these possibilities and I learned so much about language and making poetry.

My first book, Intimate Landscapes, was a chapbook published by St. Johns College. I had a photography exhibition at the St. Johns College Gallery and instead of standard wall text (that almost no one reads) I wrote poems for the walls. The gallery director immediately asked to publish them as a chapbook and made the edition in time for the opening reception. Almost all 300 copies left with the visitors to the gallery and I was left with the pleasure of having my poems in print.

H. Whom do you write your poetry for and what do you hope readers of your work get out of it?

SG. In all my work, as in my life generally, I try to realize the idea of direct pointing, to look carefully, with attention. I try to put aside expectations, fear, preconceptions and acknowledge what I am seeing right here, right now. I hope the readers will recognize what they may have overlooked or forgotten or will re-examine it with renewed attention. Most of all, I hope the work has lasting value and will bring pleasure to readers many years from now.

H. In what ways has writing changed you?
SG. Writing and photography as well as painting are investigative processes.

I accept change as a central quality of life. Each new poem suggests another step in my evolving understanding of the world around us and our place in it.

Writing Drawing the Line was very illuminating. Looking at my parents through a new perspective I found a deeper understanding of them and came to accept the cruelties and anomalies of their lives with more equanimity. I now see some of the ongoing themes of my own life with more clarity and fuller appreciation. The tragedies, achievements and serendipitous good fortune seem to be more in balance.

H. Where is To Inhabit the Felt World available?

SG. The publisher’s website is; also the distributor, independent bookstores, and, of course, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

This article appears in Happenstance Magazine, a digital publication available by subscription. For details go to