Few poets can use the words of other writers without venturing into the territory of imitation. This is the case of Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, who takes words from Sylvia Plath in his collection of centos, La Belle Ajar.
Cepeda uses Sylvia Plath as a muse, as his poetry morphs Plath’s themes with his own experiences. While Plath transformed her suffering into melancholic poetry, Cepeda takes raw emotion and crafts them into meticulous, structured pieces.
In our interview, we speak on the writing process, honoring Plath, and how freeing the confines of poetic form can be.
You wrote in strict form for this book, La Belle Ajar. The collection is a collection of centos. What draws you to the cento?
As a writer, I’m always trying to challenge myself with forms. The cento was [a form] that I’ve never attempted until I sat down with The Bell Jar.
I’d been to a reading in LA where one of the poets took lines from Prince’s movie, Purple Rain. [I thought to myself] that’s fascinating. At the time, I was also publishing this anthology called Dark Ink and there was a reading in Orange County, California. That was where I got drinks with Chase Bergrun, who had taken lines from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and made poems from it. They planted the seed.
I wasn’t looking to do this. I still think it’s atypical. I’ve tried it with other authors and it’s difficult. The reason why it works with Plath is the fact that Plath was meticulous with the words she chose. She would always have a dictionary open. Since she was always so meticulous with her word choices, the poems came out as well as they did. I was lucky to pick the right book and the right artist.
Do you prefer form or free verse? Why?
The artist Picasso once said “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
When I was earning my MFA degree at Antioch University in Los Angeles, during my first project period, I was mentored by the poet Richard Garcia. He had us master a form, like the sonnet, and everything in between. I basically took it upon myself to learn all these forms so I could follow the adage of Picasso. My MFA degree was life-changing. Going through the process of all these forms, made me a better writer. I put myself in the confines of these forms because it’s a good way to sharpen your poetic voice.
MFA programs don’t work for some people, but for me it was an opportunity Before going in there, I was an addict. I thought of [my MFA program] as my last chance in life. I was going to take everything in.
In the preface, you said she “embodies timeless artistry.” What is it about Sylvia Plath’s writing that draws you to her, and how is her style or content reflected in your collection?
I have a belief that as a writer and as an artist I must connect with [my] audience. You need to share a creation that is personal because the personal is universal. Anything that you’ve experienced in your life, someone else out there is bound to have experienced that, too.
This was Sylvia Plath’s philosophy, too. Many of her famous works, like The Bell Jar and “Daddy,” drew on personal incidents that shaped her life. She was brave enough to put her life on display for her art.
I was going through a traumatic experience, mourning the loss of my mom who passed away right before the start of this project. Mortality is one of the themes in all of Plath’s works; this project and rereading her has forced me to confront a lot of fears that I was afraid to face for years of my life.
Many people would have never shared all the stuff she shared in her life, which is what I think makes people connect with her. She makes people believe the words on the page. You feel all the stuff she experienced. Plath has made me dig deeper and there are so many poems I would have never written if I have never discovered the artistry of Sylvia Plath.
Does your new book touch on new or different themes compared to your previous books or is it a continuation?
Writing La Belle Ajar was challenging. I was using a strict form. I was taking individual words from a writer and trying to make poems out of them. Trying to create something from someone else is difficult when you’re not imitating. My goal was to honor Sylvia Plath. When I first started writing, I sat down for three hours and ended up writing half of it. I showed what I had to my wife, who is the Plath expert in our family. She said “there’s something here.”
I wouldn’t want to beseech Plath. I [write] to honor her spirit and inspiration. I hope people read this and want to read her work, because if so, then my goal is met.
What was the writing process like?
What I ended up doing, since there are twenty chapters in the book, was to write one poem a day. I was in the midst of the worst depressions of my life, dealing with the death of my mom; I was trying to find a way to channel all my emotions.
I was in my office and The Bell Jar was just in front of me. I wanted to intake words to get myself back into some form of creativity. In my headspace, I felt like I was conversing with Plath. I felt a connection with her, like she was guiding me through the writing process. I was reading poem number sixteen in The Bell Jar called “How Did You Get Here?” I thought how did I come to be here? It was so correlated with what I was going through.
After I finished the project I went through what I call “going to Plath school.” I read these biographies and I learned about her posthumously. My book got accepted but it wasn’t another year until it got published, so I spent that year learning more about Plath because I knew people would ask me about her. If this book gets published and I go touring, I need to know more about Plath than I do. It felt like she was still in my life because she was still teaching me. There was a point in her biography where she died. It hit me so hard. Even though I knew she passed away, she was such a driving point of my work.
When I finished the book, I sent it to other writers to get critical acclaim—blurbs and such. That’s the hardest thing. But people were connecting with it. It made me think that it was going to have a life. It’s not going to fade, it’s going to grow and be talked about. My goal is that it be taught in classrooms and that English professors use the book to get students into Sylvia Plath and to teach it in tandem with The Bell Jar.
You have a piece on our website called “I Have Smoked Way Too Many Blunts To Write A Memoir.” Could you give more context to the piece? How did it come about?
I saw a tweet that said “I’ve smoked too many blunts to write a memoir.” I thought that’d make a great poem title, so I wrote the poem. It’s also based on the experience I had when I became sober.
You can take anything from your life and write about it—a work of art, social media, anything. It’s something I tried to teach. My students say “I have nothing to write about!” Anything you encounter is fodder for you to write about it.
I have a saying that goes like “when inspiration calls, you have to answer.” If you see something interesting, write it down. I use my social media to post quotes and highlight passages of works I like. In that same vein, I use social media for inspiration and sometimes it comes back to me.
Michelle Lin is a spoken word artist, activist, and daughter of the Asian diaspora; her work weaves emotions and imagery for a rich tapestry of storytelling. She represented the BAM! Toronto Youth Slam Team for two years and attended Brave New Voices (an international poetry festival) representing Canada. A rising sophomore in Kenyon College, Michelle majors in English and creative writing and serves as an associate for the Kenyon Review. She won Button Poetry’s video contest in the youth category with her poem “Eulogy to Van Gogh’s Ear.”