Before the First Book: A Roundtable Discussion


Steven Espada Dawson, Elisa Gonzalez, and Gaia Rajan are writers with distinctly different approaches, whose work is nevertheless connected via shared concerns around class, literal and familial borders, the limits and possibilities of lyric, and the violence of achievement. I admire the critical lens each of them brings to every stage of the writing process.

Below, I talk with these brilliant poets about their writing rituals, creative dreams, and fears, as well as their respective first book projects. In a rare pre-first-book glimpse, Steven, Elisa, and Gaia share their thinking and creative processes.


Do you have any writing rituals? What helps you sustain/nourish your writing?

Steven Espada Dawson: Timing is everything. There’s that classic animal dichotomy of “cat writers” and “ox writers.” I am not an ox poet. I can’t follow through on a three- or five-hour writing marathon, no way. My writing comes in short bursts. It’s like this little, fragile battery that gets easily drained by the responsibilities that help keep the lights on. I’ve learned to lean into the sprints when they pass through, give myself to them completely. I wrote a full draft of a poem once—one that is especially important to my manuscript—in the bathroom of a dope Ethiopian restaurant in Indianapolis. If you’ve got a long layover in Indy, check out Major Restaurant, and get the zilzil tibs.

Elisa Gonzalez: This question is interesting because I feel that writing needs no nourishment apart from persistence, if you mean how is the production of writing sustained. Simply by doing, redoing, etc. This is hard because money exists in tension with time, and financial precarity, for instance, competes with the preservation of the time to persist. Obligation, in general, runs counter to writing for me. I am fortunate right now to have time, but haven’t always been so. For years my primary “ritual” has been to claw time back from various obligations. With greater and lesser degrees of resentment and success.

As for what makes what’s written better, or easier, I think reading is fundamental. I read a lot of bad things, but every time I read a good thing—or a great thing—I experience a rush of desire to write that generally also leads to some new idea about form or subject. Observation, too, is important to me. The practice of noticing. I am not a ritualistic person, though I admire people who are. My sisters, who are more mystical than I am, gave me some crystals that I dutifully sun in the windowsill and transport to my desk, but that’s as far as it goes.

Gaia Rajan: Ever since I was nine or ten, I’ve been writing down disembodied phrases—first on my Gmail drafts in middle school, then on my Notes app and the Bear app (a note-taking app mentioned in a previous interview in this series). The phrases are untethered details, and most of the time I have no idea what they mean or how they could fit in a poem. When I’m writing, I dip back into that well of phrases. Because of that seed of surprising language, I’m able to move beyond rigid structures into dream logic. I love poems that are committed to surprise, that escape rationality in some way. A lot of the phrases do end up getting edited out in future drafts, but that prevailing vision is always what I’m going for. Not pitch-perfect, but strange and true.

I write at night. I have a playlist specifically for writing, and I know all the words to the songs so they can’t draw me away from my own words. Sometimes I’ll even boost the bass a little bit, so the percussion overwhelms the lyrics. I feel like the night is mine— writing time I don’t have to fight for. And on a good night, I feel completely separate from the ideas and worries that obstruct my writing. Those worries feel so far away I don’t even recognize them.

Community sustains my writing. I used to think this just meant reading and going to readings, but now I’ve broadened my conception of community. Sometimes, it just means reading friends’ and strangers’ poems, generously reading a new book, and even doing the quiet work of observing.

Gaia Rajan


Tell me more about your current project. How/when did this project begin?

Dawson: I’m currently in the final stages of revising my first full-length collection of poems. In any formal sense of the word, my project began while applying for MFA programs in 2016. That’s maybe the first time I realized the poems were really working towards something cumulative.

My manuscript is a braided project centering myself, my mother, and my brother. It was my brother who forced the distinct trajectory of my creative work. My brother is a heroin addict, and we lost contact with him completely in 2009. His absence implanted in me a kind of compulsory imagining. I write, in part, to help me more accurately process the world of my past, to cut through nostalgia’s trick: that we must misremember the past to make it better than it was. Sometimes “nostalgia” is also wanting things to be the same as they used to be, even if those moments were objectively grim. I want my speaker and my reader to feel that even the most difficult truths are so often saturated with love and desire.

Gonzalez: I’m also working on a novel and story collection, but I’ll limit myself to talking about my book of poetry, which I’m brattily calling Uncollected Essays at the moment. I am not sure there’s a point at which it hasn’t been in progress, though I haven’t always been working on a book of poetry. In fact, I only recently (within the last year) decided that I was making one, after several years of thinking that I couldn’t make the book I wanted so I wouldn’t make one at all. Now I’m pulling the skeins of different poems to see how to tie them together. I suppose I have reconciled myself to the idea that there is no perfect book out there waiting for me to perfect myself enough to write it, and in fact if I am lucky I will get to write many books, trying to approach this ideal. I do take comfort in seeing inadequacies and imperfections, since I assume that if you are satisfied, you will have reached a plateau without understanding there are higher peaks. A boring metaphor, but reasonably accurate, I think. Two projects that are not this one but are both poetry: a long, long poem on boredom, and a polyvocal poem made via interviews with my mother and four sisters.

Rajan: I have three manuscripts active right now! The closest to completion is my second chapbook, about the violence of achievement. To me, this violence is not just evident in institutional awards/prizes, but in the millions of ways each of us erase ourselves to be good. How this erasure becomes instinct, how we forget it ever wasn’t. Who am I—who would I be—without my tether to achievement? How much kinder, gentler, more open could we all be without these tethers? I’m looking for a way of existing in my communities, and in my relationships, that allows me to be free.

I also have a micro-chap called Elsewhere that’s almost done (hopefully by the end of June!) about my fascination with escape stories and my tumultuous love of the Midwest. And I’m just beginning to dream up the arc of a new poetry chapbook with much more of an interest in narrative than my previous work. I’m skirting around the edges of a full-length until I feel like I’ve figured out who I am as a poet and person a little bit more. I think there’s a lot more growth in store for me.

Elisa Gonzalez


What books/records/film/visual art is this project in conversation with? 

Dawson: Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture are easily the two most influential books for my own project.

Diaz’s work centers a consistent speaker and their familial struggle with a brother’s addiction. In that way it feels like a cousin to my book. I got to introduce Diaz at a reading once, and after spending some time with her, she signed my copy “For Our Aztec Brothers.” It’s probably my most treasured literary item. Rasmussen’s book centers a consistent speaker and their struggle with a brother’s suicide. My brother’s disappearance was unexplained, and—even after a diligent search—no one has seen or heard from him in twelve years. As far as the government is concerned, he’s “dead in absentia,” dead in absence. Because there was no goodbye, no explanation, it often feels like a familial suicide. When my manuscript is next to these books, tucked away together in my bag, it feels like it’s among cousins.

Gonzalez: I’m choosing to interpret this as “works that make me write or understand the writing better.” So: the oeuvres of Tory Dent, Brenda Shaughnessy, Zbigniew Herbert, George Oppen; Essayism by Brian Dillon; Place by Jorie Graham; Shallcross by C.D. Wright; Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks; “The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson; Descent by Lauren Russell; “August Notebook: A Death” by Robert Hass; “At Night the States” by Alice Notley; Curves of the Apple by Rosmarie Waldrop; Water Puppets by Quan Barry; Debt by David Graeber. These are the first things that come to mind, at least. Would that I were more visually and aurally influenced!

Rajan: I wrote the first draft of my second chapbook while rereading Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I was really interested in contextualizing my feelings about erasure and achievement in Asian American history and identity. That theme persisted as I wrote and rewrote this chap, but other themes began to creep in: girlhood, grief, my love of neon signs at night. I also religiously listen to Mitski, who writes some of the most piercing lyrics I know: “I better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die.” I’ve also been translating the Aeneid as part of my study of Latin, and reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt for the very first time (an altogether magical experience).


What is a creative dream that scares you?

Dawson: I don’t want my family to read my poems. Full stop. The veil between my speaker and me is especially thin. The desire to keep my personal histories and emotions close to my chest is at odds with my desire for a book. I’ve shared poems with my mom twice. I wanted her to be proud of the growth I made, the years of commitment to feel measurable, accessible for her. Both times she broke down in a real way, and it took time to recover. I don’t want to kill her with a book. Why couldn’t I have been a dentist?

Gonzalez: I feel that creating anything is scary. I don’t think I have a dream that doesn’t frighten me. At the same time, the fact that everything frightens me does make everything less frightening.

Rajan: I want to create a project that combines immersive poetry and computer science, but I’m scared to take on something that might turn out too inaccessible or unwieldy to ever be released. One day, though! I already have full storyboards, and I’m trying to embrace the risk.

Stephen Espada Dawson


Is there an idea about being a writer/artist that you’ve let go of that you used to believe? Or, an idea about being a writer/artist you’ve come to believe more strongly?

Dawson: I often preach to my students some version of “the poem knows more than you do.” It’s a kind of poet’s motto I first heard in my MFA—that idea that there’s some level of trust in language, in the process. That, if you just start writing, the poem will lead you towards its real identity.

I want to push on that idea, though. I think, more accurate than “the poem knows more than you do” is “you know more than you understand, and the poem knows that part.” We all have this hidden room of creative knowledge and memory, and we very rarely have access to it all, except through this act of making. Trust in the poem is really just trust in yourself. For me, it’s a kind of faith system. I can always trust a poem to take itself where it needs to go; I can always trust my hidden knowledge to chaperon my language. It’s the closest thing I’ve had to spiritual consciousness, and it’s really empowered me.

Gonzalez: The cult of the prodigy uplifts people who can afford to spend time creating while young—often a condition of the upper classes, though not always. I used to believe I was a failure because I hadn’t published multiple books in my early twenties.

Perfectionism remains my scourge, however much I would like to let go of it—I never encourage it in other people, at least.

I believe that sometimes you should write for no one. No one except yourself. I am glad there are poems no one else will ever see.

Rajan: When I was younger, I used to think that a writer was a personality, a character from a romantic film or old book rather than a real, complex person. I strived to be worthy of my art—woke up two hours before the bus came to take me to middle school to write, isolated myself in a corner of the cafeteria at lunchtime to scribble in a notebook. A real writer, I believed, must be eminently brilliant, constantly creative, and always lonely. I feel like social media also contributes to this—writers, who often do our own publicity, are seen as influencers in addition to artists. Sometime two years ago, I realized that I couldn’t let the persona, the fantasy, overwhelm the poems. If I’m focusing on upholding an image, I can’t fully embrace uncertainty. So, I don’t have an aesthetic desk setup. I don’t have a typewriter, or a tab at an obscure coffee shop. But I still do have the words.


Photograph of Steven Espada Dawson by Taylor Kirby. Photograph of Elisa Gonzalez by Simon Bahçeli. Photograph of Gaia Rajan courtesy of Gaia Rajan.


Steven Espada Dawsonis a writer from East Los Angeles, currently working out of Austin, Texas, where he teaches workshops for Austin’s Youth Poet Laureate Program. The son of a Mexican immigrant, he holds an MFA in poetry from Purdue University. He has served as a poetry editor for Sycamore Review and Copper Nickel and is a finalist for the 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. His poems have appeared recently in The Adroit JournalBest New Poets 2020Gulf CoastKenyon Review OnlineSplit Lip Magazine, and Waxwing

Elisa Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer of prose and poetry. A former Fulbright scholar and recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, she lives in Brooklyn. 

Gaia Rajan is the co-founder of the WOC Speak Reading Series, the junior journal editor for Half Mystic, the web manager for Honey Literary, and the poetry editor of Saffron Literary. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon ReviewTinderbox PoetryMuzzle MagazineDIALOGISTSplit Lip Magazinediode, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Moth Funerals, is out now from Glass Poetry Press, and she is a two-time National Student Poet semifinalist. You can find her online at

Patrycja Humienik, daughter of Polish immigrants, is a writer and performer based in Seattle, WA. A recent semi-finalist for the 92Y Discovery Prize, her poems are featured/forthcoming in BOAAT, Southeast Review, Passages North, Palette Poetry, Four Way Review, Sporklet, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She serves as Events Director of The Seventh Wave. Her interviews include recipients of the Gloria Anzaldúa Chapbook prize, and the UW Public Lecture, “An Evening with Joy Harjo.” She is working on her first book, Anchor Baby. More from this author →