Group Bio: Ana Maria Caballero, Lissa Batista, Susan Falco, Chloé Firetto-Toomey, Samantha Leon, Freesia McKee, Yaddyra Peralta, and Rosa Sophia are a group of current students and alumnae of the Florida International University MFA program.
In the fall of 2019, Julie Marie Wade taught a course called Hybrid Forms in the MFA program at Florida International University. The first of its kind at the institution, the course served as a threshold for all of us in it: hybridity became a method for tackling large, difficult, “slippery” topics; an invitation for pedagogical innovation; and a diving board for projects we felt we may have never otherwise written.
We spent the semester reading Basho and Stein, Toomer and Waite, and each other’s work in an unusual workshop format Julie called “the epiphany workshop.” We wrote erasure poetry and composed collaborative exquisite corpses. We each chose a hybrid text of our own to read and present on. We ventured into writing new kinds of work that defied categorization. We talked a lot about what constitutes a hybrid form, a question that became more complicated the more we thought about it.
During the final class meeting, Julie handed out Hybrid Forms Club cards she’d made, inaugurating us into roles as official members of the evolution of creative writing. What we didn’t know then was that we would each soon enter a long period of social isolation. The ability to tackle slippery topics became more important than ever before.
Asking each other what we gleaned from this landmark class and recounting its effects on our writing, we decided to compose an experimental, collaborative interview. Each contribution to this interview is another spoke in the wheel of our hybrid writing circle.
Aetna health insurance. A run-up Amex. Debit. PA driver’s license. A 10-punch coffee shop loyalty membership with 3 punches left until a free latte. If someone stole my wallet they might be hoping they’d come upon something interesting like a key to a safe with an address, or a wad of cash. What they would find instead is an imprint of an unremarkable 27-year old, with not many assets to reap. Then they would probably empty the whole sad thing, and finally come upon one peculiar looking card: plastic (official, not like the coffee shop reward card), happy (not like the Aetna health insurance card, which is depressing), and transactionless (not like the credit card, whose soul is exchange and it shows it with a stripe.) They would see that I’m a member of something called the Hybrid Forms Club. No address. No website. No phone number. Exclusive. Secret. Real? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. And before the thief would throw away my wallet, in their mind, for a brief moment, I would be interesting, maybe even remarkable.
Ana Maria Caballero:
The first lesson of Julie Marie Wade’s Hybrid Forms class is that every experience is worthy of becoming a sequence of words. Now, how will those words land on a page? What if, at times, they come out as gulch,
and, at others, as cliff?
Or, worse, what if—
in the same breath—the words flow out as tunnel, straight and steady as prairie wind? Who will want to read, much less publish, such questionable, hybrid things?
The second lesson of Julie’s class is that there is in fact (and in faith) an audience for hybridity, for the curious phrases that I (in fact and in faith) need to write. Such writing: nothing short of what it feels like to experience the world as the body that houses my particular soul. Audience: nothing short of community, of communion with other particular souls who, too, must draw in breath to exhale a response.
Ever since childhood, I’ve been searching for a way to write about my family’s inherited trauma and the murder of my great-aunt June by her husband. At 17, I wrote a novel called The House Guest which fictionalized elements of my family’s stories, but still, something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I became a student at Florida International University at 32 and enrolled in Professor Julie Wade’s Hybrid Forms class that I realized I had been imprisoning myself in a “genre box.” I didn’t believe myself capable of writing poetry, and I didn’t even know the definition of lyric essay. But it was in Julie’s class that I began to write a wholly different kind of book, a compilation of poetry, prose, imported text and lyric essay called Otherwise a Good Man. This book took my aunt’s murder and placed it front and center, exploring the implications behind her husband’s sentencing record, which stated, in part, “otherwise a good man.” In studying hybrid forms, I learned my writing doesn’t have to be defined: I can present characters and a story through multiple forms. Most importantly, I need not worry, “Will anyone want to read this?” I can take comfort in the fact that readers of hybridity are out there, after all.
I have written in different genres, always looking for space to translate my consciousness onto the page. Fiction and essay writing–even my beloved lyric poetry—none of it faithfully captured the ubiquitous saudade-like existence of my immigrant experience. Nowhere could I find the container to express the lifelong familial battles with mental illness. Julie Marie Wade’s Hybrid Forms class and the work she introduced us to “took the top of my head off.” A semester’s-worth of readings by writers such as Kazim Ali, Khadijah Queen, and Craig Santos Perez showed me that there were spaces in literature for an unconventional Honduran-American like myself. And it’s paid off in the number of publications (in poetry and nonfiction spaces) I’ve had since. More importantly, I feel just right in my current writing skin.
Think outside the box. The outside is hybrid. A blender. A smoothie. A cookbook. A cookie. From the first day we were to ask ourselves in and out of class what is hybrid? The leggings I wore to class, a polyester/cotton. My mouth; a hybrid of teeth, gums, tongue, a throaty experience— to talk is hybrid. The class, a mix of fiction and poetry grad students, coming together, writing about and creating a hybrid piece, wow. Hybrid inception. The most important thing when it comes to this class, when it comes to Julie, hybrid is acceptance. Hybrid is forgiving.
As a fiction writer I had been focused on continuity and plot in my studies. As a human being trying and failing to walk the line between fiction and autobiography, I had been struggling. As a student I’d been paralyzed by the crippling desire for perfection one feels looking at a blank page. Dr. Wade’s class was like a drink of aged whiskey, neat: it steadied my nerves and bolstered my confidence. I felt an immensely liberating sense of freedom: I was no longer considering genres as creatures I must be married to until death. Poetry and prose and life all could come together, as gracefully and naturally as body and rhythm and music come together on a dance floor after a drink of aged whiskey.
Just after undergrad, when my MFA was merely a glimmer in the distance, I started writing a collection of…poems? proses?…about bureaucracy’s tyranny and being involved in student government. From the outside, the subject couldn’t have been more boring, but on the inside, I knew that these uncategorizable pieces were probably the most interesting thing I had written to date. At least, they were the most interesting to me. I just didn’t know what to call them. Arriving to the hybrid forms parking lot years later felt like coming home for me—for many of us, I think. We finally found out we were not alone in the wish to subvert, that somehow we’d been driving all along on the roads of genre to the same destination without knowing it.
This class is a living lyric essay; each of us narrative threads. In our first meeting we brainstorm hybrid forms literary and beyond… My first time teaching in prison, I carried Julie in my ziplock back of multicolored markers—her voice read excerpts from The Narrow Road to the Interior. (We are each hybrids of those who touch us.) A young man relates to the old horse on which Basho rides, how it instinctively knows its way home. Home is a word we wish to enter, as instinctive as longing. Julie’s syllabus, a lyric essay, an emulation of “Professor of Longing,” how one might reside in a hermit crab form, kick off your shoes, joggle naked to the music. Words are footfalls beyond the precipice. Anything is possible. Even the toilet is a lyric object.
Each of Julie’s classes are a return to some shifting sense of self or home, a memory rewritten to get to the little raw soul of things; an opera of camelids?
Rosa Sophia is the author of Village of North Palm Beach: A History (History Press, 2020). She lives in Palm Bay, Florida.
Samantha Leon is a writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Rattle Magazine, So to Speak and on Poets.org.
Yaddyra Peralta‘s work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4 (Haymarket Books), and is forthcoming in Home in Florida (University of Florida Press).
Ana Maria Caballero’s writing has appeared in outlets such as the LA Review of Books, Gigantic Sequins, and the Southeast Review. Find her online at: www.anamariacaballero.com.
Chloé Firetto-Toomey is a British-American poet and essayist. Her chapbook Little Cauliflower was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2019. Learn more about her work at chloefirettotoomey.com.
Freesia McKee is the essays editor at South Florida Poetry Journal and a contributor to the Ploughshares blog. She’s a poet, hybridist, essayist, performer, and teacher.
Susan Falco lives and writes in Miami, FL. She is a card carrying hybridist and a graduate of Florida International University’s MFA program.
Lissa Batista is a mother, high school teacher, a writer and pretends to be good at domesticated duties—you can catch her on most days almost vomiting over dirty dishes after one-pan meals. Her poems have been published in Riff, Saudade County Press, and Jai Alai Books.