I’ve been following Judy Dykstra-Brown’s lifelessons blog for more than five years, and I have found her to be incredibly creative and funny and intellectually stimulating. I’m so pleased that she agreed to be interviewed for ARHtistic License.
ARHtistic License: In 2001 you made the decision to move from California to Mexico. Why there?
Judy Dykstra-Brown: Many years before, I had met a man in China who told me that I should be living in San Miguel, Mexico. He had been there and knew lots about it and we had talked many times as we were travelling together. I kept this in the back of my mind as a place it would be good to retire to once I’d traveled to more far-flung places. My husband was 16 years older than me and we operated on a frantic pace, driving all over the U.S. to do shows and putting in long days at home creating. His sculptures got bigger and bigger—some of them weighing over a ton, and our setup for our shows was 12 hours long, our teardown 4 hours. We were always the first ones at shows for setup and the last ones there for teardown. I could tell Bob was wearing out and had tried for a few years to convince him to retire, but he was convinced we would starve if we didn’t do shows. I, on the other hand, knew that every penny we made ended up being spent on new tools, supplies and art studios. (We had 7 on our property, with Bob building a new one every two years, not to mention buying or building new tools for the new mediums he ventured into, pulling me along after him. So, I finally said I was moving to Mexico for a year and he could move down to the first level of the house where my jewelry studio was and rent out the top story and send me half the money. In the end, he came with me, protesting all the way. The first week, driving down and driving around San Miguel, he hated it. By the eighth day, he was proposing we buy a house there! This was after he was offered a job teaching sculpture at a new art center in a hacienda outside the town. So, that was our plan until after 8 weeks in San Miguel, we took a little side trip to Ajijic and Bob fell in love with it.
AL: Unfortunately, Bob was unable to move to Mexico with you, because he passed away suddenly. Your book Lessons from a Grief Diary, which you co-wrote with Dr. Anthony Moriarity, details your journey through your husband’s cancer diagnosis, death, and its aftermath. It draws from your journaling during that time, with additional insights from Moriarity, a clinical psychologist. What made you decide to share your pain? What was it like to have a co-author?
JD-B: After 8 years mourning my husband, I ventured out into the world via Match.com but after a number of months, realized I was not going to find a match there, so switched to OkCupid. It was a very different site back then and drew many creative people. It has since been purchased by Match.Com and so has dropped all the features I loved, but the real point is that this marked a change in me and I actually met a number of very interesting men, some of whom ended up coming down to Mexico so we could meet in person. It was at this point that I gave a talk for a local lecture series that talked about my process of grief recovery. Tony, who was in the states at the time, did not hear the speech, but he heard about it and asked me if I could send him a transcript. I did, and it was he who convinced me I needed to write a book about it and asked if he could write alternating chapters.
The co-authoring worked out very well. I handed chapters over to Tony as I wrote them, he wrote his replies and I edited them. He had about every book on the grieving process ever written and so we compiled an annotated reading list at the end of the book that in itself is a valuable resource.
AL: When you started your blogin 2013, your initial intention was to help people through grief, but your focus soon changed to sharing your life, and encouraging people through your life lessons. There’s a lot of positivity and humor on your blog, especially in some of your poems. You have over 6,000 followers. What do you hope readers will take away from your blog?
JD-B: I hope it makes them laugh and think and take risks and realize that even if the way we experience life changes as we age, an excitement with life need not wane. Even limited to your own house and yard, nature and just the fact we exist with all our complicated inner workings is such a miracle that even the observing of it can be enough. Having a way in which to express this amazement is a huge help as well, be it art, writing, music, dance, or even volunteering, interacting with animals or thinking about your long incredible life.
AL: You are one of my very favorite poets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been delighted by a turn of phrase or an unexpected twist in your poems. Your meter and rhymes are impeccable, and the words flow like music. Where did you learn to write poetry like that? When did you start? Who are your influences, your favorite poets?
JD-B: When she was young, my mother kept a rhymed journal. We absolutely loved having her read it to us. Everything was perfectly rhymed and metered and hilarious. When my mom passed away, I asked my sister, who lived in the same town where my mom had lived, to send it to me and she told me that my mother had decided it was silly and burned it years ago. I was so disappointed. She also wrote humorous plays for her women’s club to perform at state conventions. My friends and I performed one of them for a talent show once.
Well, long story short, whenever someone in my family deserved teasing, she and I would sit down and write a rhymed poem about them. Some appreciated it and others didn’t, but we certainly enjoyed writing them. I think as a result of this that an ear and eye for rhythm and rhyme just grew up with me. By the time I got to college, where I took every creative writing and journalism course that was offered, rhymed poetry was not in “style,” so I wrote mainly short stories. Later, I studied screen writing which wasn’t my bag and substituted a poetry class and joined a writer’s workshop in Hollywood. Everything that had drained my soul in the TV world was healed when I started writing (still unrhymed) poetry, and with one 5-year hiatus (which is another story that I’ll tell if another question leads up to it) I’ve been writing poetry ever since.
I started writing rhymed and metered poetry on my blog when I started following word prompts on WordPress. I’ve been thinking (and even occasionally dreaming) in rhyme ever since. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of writing a poem in my sleep, grab my computer from the bookcase headboard of my bed, jot down as much of it as I can remember, and go on following where it leads me. I think the reason why I prefer to write in rhyme is that it limits my choices and makes it easier not to “block.” I write one line, then run through the alphabet to find every word that rhymes with the last word I’ve written, pick one and make a sentence that leads up to it. It is a game that creates an end product that is as much a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader. I absolutely love the project. Poet friends have told me it is keeping me from writing more serious work, but I notice most of them are not writing much at all. I write one or two poems a day and have for the past 7 years. I love waking up in the morning and doing so. Can’t wait to feed the dogs and cats and then jump back into bed to write. I sleep with my computer plugged in on the headboard of my bed. It is the last thing I do before I fall asleep and first thing (after feeding the animals) I do in the morning. I have quit all activities that occur before 2 pm in the afternoon to devote myself to writing in the morning.
AL: You’ve authored one book of poetry for adults. Any chance another poem collection will be coming out? (Please, please, please.)
I actually have poems selected for several books, but I keep putting off doing the final formatting. I think the first one will be poems about family and growing up in the same town I was living in in Prairie Moths, my first book of poetry.
I also have two autobiographical books that have been finished for years—I just can’t make myself do the final edit and I hate the business part of trying to find an agent or publisher. I will probably self-publish them—if I ever get around to it. I have another book project that involves my humorous poems about aging, but it is a book with a twist, and I’m not telling what that twist is!
[Note from Andrea: All you agents and publishers out there, here’s your chance to snag a great client!]
AL: You’ve written several books for children. Are they all in verse?
JD-B: Yes. My illustrator just finished the illustrations for a third one. The illustrations are sitting to my left waiting to be scanned and formatted. I just keep putting it off.
AL: You collaborate with illustrator Isidro Xilonzochitl. How did you meet? Why did you decide to work with him? Describe your process as a team.
JD-B: When I moved to Mexico 19 years ago, I had thought I was moving here with my husband. Unfortunately, two days before we were to move down to the house we’d bought here, we went to our doctor’s office to get the results of physicals we’d had the week before and discovered my husband had pancreatic cancer. He lived for 3 weeks. And so, when I actually moved down to Mexico two months later, I was moving alone to a place where I knew no one except for my real estate agent! Since I was interested in art, I started making the rounds of galleries and one of the first artists whose work I was attracted to was Isidro. I bought several of his paintings and through him I met a number of young Mexican artists who formed a group called ARCOC. I was adopted as their sole female comrade and we put on several art shows, art experiences for kids and art contests for kids. When I started my poetry reading series, it was in a coffee shop Isidro and his partner at that time opened up on the ground floor of his studio. We’ve been friends ever since.
I actually wrote most of the children’s books years before but had done nothing with them. I asked if he’d be interested in illustrating them and he said yes. His partner at the time, Kristina, had grown up in the states and so she translated them to him for illustration purposes. I set up the books, minus illustrations, and the two of them collaborated over how he would illustrate them—with hilarious results, I think.
AL:Which poetry journals did you edit? What did you look for in poetry submissions?
JD-B: I ran a reading series at a local coffee shop here in San Juan Cosala, Mexico, for two years. I also edited an anthology of writing by high school students when I was a teacher in Cheyenne, Wyoming after coming home from Africa. It was entitled The Spiral Notebook. In L.A. I was one of the editors of The Sculpture Garden Review, which was not, despite its title, an art journal but a poetry journal. I also ran a reading series at the art center in the San Lorenzo Valley near Santa Cruz, CA. Recently, that entire valley was evacuated due to fires and at least one of my friends lost his house, others won’t be able to go back for a year until water and electricity is restored. So sad.
The ten women in a women’s writing group I started here in Mexico also published an anthology entitled Agave Marias, stories and poems about crossing borders and breaking boundaries. That anthology is available on Amazon, as are all of my books. Oh. An interesting sidelight of Prairie Moths was that some years after I published it, I got an email from a man in Oregon who said, “I am the youngest boy in your pictures of your grandparents standing in front of their homestead with their daughter and her 8 sons.” He was a cousin, at least 20 years older than me, that I had only met once when he passed with his family through South Dakota on their way back to Utah, where they lived. I believe I was 10 or 11 then. We started up a correspondence after his first email to me and he invited my sisters and me to come to their family reunion and we all went. I came from Mexico, one sister from Wyoming and another from Minnesota. It was fabulous. Only two of the first cousins were still alive, but there were at least a hundred people there who were their descendants. Since then one of the first cousins and one of the first cousins once removed has passed away, but I’m still in touch with the one who wrote to me, who is now in his nineties.
What I look for in poetry is originality, word choice, and heart. Although I presently write mostly rhymed and metered poetry, I mainly do so because somehow the prompts force me to. I don’t know why. It is also a sort of game I play to keep my mind working. I used to do crossword puzzles. Now I do metered rhyme. I really do think as we grow older that it is vital to exercise our minds.
AL: What advice would you give to a beginning poet?
JD-B: I think many beginning poets think that poems should rhyme but with almost no exceptions, I encourage them not to try to rhyme. The thing we need to learn to do is to follow where our mind leads us—to write without editing and without stopping—just to write what comes and to edit later. Then, to edit remorselessly. It is important to get to that place in ourselves that we wouldn’t necessarily get to through reason or careful plotting.
AL: Can you define retablo for us? When did you start making them? How did you begin?
JD-B: The retablo is a frame or shelf enclosing decorated panels or revered objects above and behind an altar in a church. In Mexico, it is a box which contains a figure, photo or painting of the Virgin Mary, Christ or some other saint and sometimes little votive offerings or objects. Most homes have at least one. I took the idea but it quickly evolved into themes that were not religious. I tended to work around a certain theme. One year it was saints, another it was famous artists, another Mexican legends, traditions or places I visited. I have created one for each family member or friend who died. I’ve even done one on the Coronavirus.
AL: Any more funny stories you can tell us about your work? (See Tuesday’s post for the previous ones.)
JD-B: When I was in Peru, I bought a few small oil-on-canvas paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary, thinking I would turn them into retablos. I worked for a long time on one of the Virgin, adding first tiny beautifully crafted wooden musical instruments. I didn’t know why but then I started adding little books and pages of poems taken from a miniature book of poetry, pen nibs and other objects associated with music and poetry. When it was finished, Isidro’s cousin Eduardo was at my house for some reason and he saw the retablo and said, “Huh. Santa Cecilia!” I said no, it was the Virgin and he said, no that it was definitely Santa Cecilia. After he left I consulted Google and sure enough, it was Santa Cecilia, patron saint of poets and musicians! She had somehow attracted to herself the exact appropriate symbols.
To close this interview, I am adding links to a few more of Judy Dykstra-Brown’s poems (and photographs):