The Story of My Book: Lisa Allen Ortiz

Published periodically, “The Story of My Book” posts bring our collections to life through a series of five questions we ask all of our poets that highlight what makes every book unique and why Perugia is the right home for each of them (and may be for you and your book too).

Lisa Allen Ortiz on Guide to the Exhibit (Perugia, 2016)

1. What was the genesis of your Perugia book?

The genesis of Guide to the Exhibit is a dusty seaside natural history museum we have here in Santa Cruz. (A note here that since I started the poems in my collection, the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum has young new leadership and is in no way dusty any longer.) But when I went to the museum to write the poems in the book, it was dusty. I went to that dark dusty place to escape myself. I was tired of my own life. The present, the moment, the body I inhabit, its swishy cape of biography, all that stuff seemed showy, done. I wanted to scrape it off. I sought transparency. I went to a dusty, dark place to unsee myself, to seek something more whole, to find community or history or something. Okay, I was hiding. But I wrote as I was hiding, in that hidden little jewel of a museum. Little did I know that the self is not something to escape. The self follows a girl around. The self lurks at her elbow, no matter how obscure the museum into which she skitters. So that original motivation did not see me through the project.

Nonetheless, I found the natural history museum a fantastic place to write, filled with vocabulary and lists and stories. It’s in a natural history museum that a community keeps what is important to it about the natural world—evidence of animals and plants and the marks people have made upon the world. I found it all very interesting. (Although my dear friend Farnaz Fatemi famously said, “Lisa, the only thing more boring than a book of poetry is a book of poetry about a natural history museum.”) But even Farnaz will admit that boring stuff is simply exciting stuff, fallen to its knees. A museum is the morning-after party. It’s the empty shells when the bodies have been eaten, the antlers and fur, scraped off after rutting season. And in all that obscurity, in the glass boxes of those displays I saw my specter self, the kept-over part of me. And I wrote of her. I let her speak with the owl feathers, with the whale teeth and limpet shells. So the genesis of the book is in the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum, in the notebooks I took in there and in the hand that held the notebook.

2. How did you find out about Perugia Press?

Word gets around. Perugia Press is an amazing and unique press. In case word has not reached you yet, Dear Reader, let me whisper in your ear: Perugia Press is all we dream a press can be. I’ve traded information with a few writers, and I’ve spoken with my sisters at Perugia—we become a family—there’s no place like Perugia. Perugia Press publishes one book a year. “Real money grubbers,” my daughter said. Ha. Seriously, Perugia Press has integrity. That’s the cake. On that cake is a frosting of superhuman attention to detail. Perugia Press is run by a poet, a human being who works with a huge community of human beings who are kind, who read, who love the world. It’s a press of enormous caliber and commitment. I cannot sing their praise loudly enough.

3.  Can you describe an experience that confirmed Perugia Press was a good fit for you?

Perugia Press has such open arms. I was made to feel welcome not because it was a perfect fit but because the press is just so welcoming. I identify as a woman which is the only bar. Guide was my first book. I was just amazed at the level of attention my poems received at Perugia. It was humbling. It was blubbery. I wish every poet could get a chance to be a Perugia poet. I was able to travel to New England for the 20th anniversary reading series, and I was able to meet almost all my Perugia sisters. It makes me cry, remembering that time. We read together at the Helen Hills Hills Chapel which continues as a highlight of my writing life.

4. How have you changed as a poet, writer, or creative person since your book came out?

I don’t know how to answer this question. Do people change? This is a regular question that comes up at our family dinner table. The verdict is split, and I have become confused about the nature of human change. Perhaps I’ve written too much about fossils and feathers. I know that I have shed some skin and grown new cells. I have been writing fiction, which is a change. I’m working on a story collection. I’ve had two new books come out, both prizewinners. My 2022 post-Perugia collection, Stem, won the Idaho Prize judged by Ilya Kaminsky. I also have a translation habit, and a collection of poems by the Peruvian poet Blanca Varela that I co-translated with the marvelous Sara Danielle Rivera, The Blinding Star, was published by Tolson Books in 2021 and won the 2022 Northern California Book Prize for poetry in translation. I’m not sure any of that proves I’ve changed. It might all be just plain bragging—but I have, if not changed, at least moved on a bit. Perugia Press was my home lily pad, and I’m a little frog with a pen in my frog-hand, hopping along lily pad to lily pad, maybe changing—was I a tadpole once?—or maybe staying the same, just quietly ribbiting—so to speak.

Lost Horse Press, 2022
Tolson Books, 2021

5. Other than poetry, what moves and motivates you?

Well, I love animals. I love trees. I’m an active volunteer for a group called Save the Redwoods League, a kind of super-hero group of tree nerds. I’m really into lettuce. When I can, I grow my own. Check out what lettuce seeds look like—so tiny but they transform into big wet heads that you can eat! While you’re at it, check out what a redwood seed looks like—a seed not a cone. Those kinds of things motivate me, tiny things that are actually big. With power such as that in life, we might allow a world that is both sustainable and just. Maybe. I have a human family, and they are nice and funny. I’m not sure they motivate me but they make me feel better when I mess something up. When they come over, I make them big lettucy salads and try not to talk too much about trees or poetry.