The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” by Heidi Czerwiec

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, available from Gazing Grain Press. Order your copy here.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

Sam Slaughter is a spirits writer living in the New York City area. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA from Stetson University.  He writes for The Manual and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of places, including Midwestern GothicMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review. He was awarded the 2014 Best of There Will Be Words and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line was published in May 2015. His debut short story collection God in Neon was published in 2016 published by Lucky Bastard Press. He loves playing with puppies and a good glass of bourbon.

Lyric Essentials: Emily Corwin reads “Damsel, Stage Directions” by Stacy Gnall

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Emily Corwin reads “Damsel, Stage Directions” by Stacy Gnall.

Emily, a fantastic poem you’ve read for us today. What can you tell us about Gnall and her work?

Emily: Gnall’s book, Heart First into the Forest was recommended to me by a friend who had read her work and immediately thought of me. In poems, I am always interested in female bodies, fairy tales, girlhood, woods, Midwestern landscape—all of which Gnall is investigating, so the book was really inspiring for me. She is from Ohio, which was another connection, since I spent my years in undergrad and grad school there, and she completed her MFA at Alabama. I believe her first book draws heavily from her MFA thesis collection. It is really a magical set of poems. I also discovered, recently entering the role of Poetry Editor at the Indiana Review, that we had published some of the poems in that collection back in 2009. It was so exciting to see the poems in a different context, to see them before they became part of the book.

Chris: I find the “stage directions” portion of the title intriguing. There is the implication that this is an act, but throughout the poem it seems the escape we are witnessing is real. What do you make of the title and how it influences the poem?

Emily: I would say, the poem is playing with the idea of a damsel in distress as a role to be played, but interestingly, a role that follows certain directions. She must wake in a place she doesn’t recognize, she must fall just once in the chase. Gnall is playing with a familiar narrative, that of the girl alone in the forest, the girl running from a mysterious, implicitly male threat. There are expectations for what that looks like—we know with this scene of the chase, we have seen it before. But we don’t know, in this poem, how it will end, and that creates tension, an investment on our part. Notice how, by the end, the repetition of “must” has fallen away. The girl manages to escape the threat as well as the expectations embedded in her narrative.

You’re right to say it feels less like an act and more real. I would read the “stage” here as being less of a theater stage and more cinematic. The poem has an immediacy and a motion to it, like a film sequence, the camera tracking our heroine through the woods and out into the road. The stakes are so high—we want her to survive, and we are given access to every moment of the chase. So that, by the end of the poem, when there is the implication of a happy ending, that she made it—this is very satisfying. Though we do not know with certainty if the threat is still behind her, there is still a sense of relief and triumph—that at least, she has made it out the woods. This poem stays with me—I return to it again and again, and each time, I still get caught up in the suspense. What happened to her before the poem began? Who is the “him” and how far behind is he? Will she make it out this time? It really is like watching a favorite scary movie.

Chris: I love the open endedness of this poem that you mention. It gives the poem this sandbox feel—allowing the reader to change the story every time the poem is read. Are uncertain endings something you use or experiment with in your own poetry? Or are you more of a definitive ending type of person?

Emily: I like uncertain endings for sure—my writing tends be extremely lyrical, ambiguous, suspending the reader in emotion. The poems I like reading too tend to end in an undefined space. I think that’s what makes a poem beautiful—its mystery, its multiplicities, the poem as a site for many readings. I don’t want to know everything about it all at once, I want there to be something open and indefinite, a thing I can return to over my lifetime and understand it differently each time. That kind of poem has longevity and power for me.

Chris: In addition to the suspense and urgency in this poem, what other features of “Damsel, Stage Directions” make this poem essential to you as a writer? Are there other poems by Gnall that you would recommend to us?

Emily: What makes this poem essential for me is its attention to pacing, its whimsy and magic, its lush imagery that opens up into larger themes of gender, myth, and story-telling. I love all of Gnall’s work, but especially, “Bella in the Wych Elm,” “Trespass,” and “What the Child Was Given Next”—all of which are in Heart First into the Forest. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
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Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Winter Tangerine, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome was recently published through Brain Mill Press. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.

Chris Petruccelli recently spilled boiling hot mashed potatoes on his foot. Yikes. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: The Journal. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris continues to drink whisky with older women.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” by Heidi Czerwiec

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, available from Gazing Grain Press. Order your copy here.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

Sam Slaughter is a spirits writer living in the New York City area. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA from Stetson University.  He writes for The Manual and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of places, including Midwestern GothicMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review. He was awarded the 2014 Best of There Will Be Words and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line was published in May 2015. His debut short story collection God in Neon was published in 2016 published by Lucky Bastard Press. He loves playing with puppies and a good glass of bourbon.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” by Heidi Czerwiec

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, available from Gazing Grain Press. Order your copy here.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

Sam Slaughter is a spirits writer living in the New York City area. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA from Stetson University.  He writes for The Manual and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of places, including Midwestern GothicMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review. He was awarded the 2014 Best of There Will Be Words and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line was published in May 2015. His debut short story collection God in Neon was published in 2016 published by Lucky Bastard Press. He loves playing with puppies and a good glass of bourbon.

Project Bookshelf: Taylor Gray’s Work in Progress

Here, against a drab apartment wall, is my pitiful bookshelf. Unfortunately, most of my books are in Nashville, stacked at the end of my childhood bed, guarded by my favorite cat. Until I can move my beloved books to Knoxville, I am stocking this bookshelf with textbooks and my McKay’s finds. So far, I have a small collection of thrillers, a couple of classics, and some anthologies of American literature (my favorite kind of textbook). I’m always looking to better my writing, so I also have ten or so books on style, word choice, and writing techniques. I bought a copy of David Morrell’s Creepers, my favorite book, because I couldn’t live without it. It is a work in progress, and I will spend far too much money at McKay’s this year. Any suggestions for my next trip?

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” by Heidi Czerwiec

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, available from Gazing Grain Press. Order your copy here.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

Sam Slaughter is a spirits writer living in the New York City area. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA from Stetson University.  He writes for The Manual and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of places, including Midwestern GothicMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review. He was awarded the 2014 Best of There Will Be Words and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line was published in May 2015. His debut short story collection God in Neon was published in 2016 published by Lucky Bastard Press. He loves playing with puppies and a good glass of bourbon.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” by Heidi Czerwiec

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, available from Gazing Grain Press. Order your copy here. It was selected for The Wardrobe by Sam Slaughter.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

Sam Slaughter is a spirits writer living in the New York City area. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA from Stetson University.  He writes for The Manual and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of places, including Midwestern GothicMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review. He was awarded the 2014 Best of There Will Be Words and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line was published in May 2015. His debut short story collection God in Neon was published in 2016 published by Lucky Bastard Press. He loves playing with puppies and a good glass of bourbon.

Rejection Letters: Separating the Good from the Ugly

Sending rejection letters is one of the most difficult parts of editing a literary magazine. As co-fiction editor of Willow Springs Magazine, along with Andrew Moreno, I’ll agonize over sending a rejection. I know that you, as a writer, have lovingly crafted every word, every image in your story, and I know that a rejection letter can sometimes hurt and feel incredibly personal. At Willow Springs, we stick to the basics. “Thank you for submitting “[Title]” to Willow Springs for consideration. We have decided against publishing your submission, but we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere,” reads our standard rejection letter. It is short and sweet, without platitudes or frills. We subtly note that the onus is on us, as editors, for rejecting the piece—it’s not the quality of your writing (we have so many amazing pieces to consider)—and we encourage you to keep sending the submission to other journals. While I hope that our rejection letter doesn’t break hearts or hurt feelings, I still hate sending them out.

Although we at Willow Springs keep our rejection letters short and simple, there are other journals that attempt to soften the blow. Literary Orphans tells submitters to “never take rejection personally, at this level it becomes very subjective.” After Happy Hour Review notes that, “As writers, we’ve received many rejections ourselves; we know it’s never easy,” in their rejection letter. Cease, Cows writes “we’re writers, too, and we hate rejection.” It’s a lot easier to take a rejection when the journal notes that they don’t like the process any more than the writer does.

Most writers are happy to receive these reminders; these empathetic rejection letters show writers that editors understand a writer’s mind. These are good rejections to receive—a writer is often encouraged with the news that the piece sent to a journal is not sub-par, that there are other factors at play in choosing pieces to publish. These are the types of rejection letters journals should strive to write, but often, letters can miss the mark entirely. So, fellow journal editors, what makes a good literary rejection? What separates a good rejection letter from a bad one?

First, the bad. If an editor encourages a writer who was just rejected to subscribe to their journal in a rejection letter—that’s a major misstep on the part of the editor. It’s insensitive; it says, “We don’t want your writing, but we’ll definitely take your money.” Also, rejection letters that begin “Dear Writer,” and do not address a person by name are letters that persuade writers to turn their backs on a journal. Or, worse, a “Your status has changed on Submittable,” note tells the writer never to bother with the journal again. If the editor hadn’t taken the time to send a simple rejection, why should the writer spend her time sending to the journal again?

One of the worst things an editor can do is send a rejection that patronizes the writer. A journal (that will remain unnamed) writes “we encourage all of our contributors to utilize peer workshops and local writing groups to expand on their work. You may wish to submit again after working with one of these groups, and we look forward to seeing what you have to offer in the future,” in its rejection letters. The level of condescension in the rejection letter is entirely uncalled for; this letter stings like a wasp. Luckily, these rejection letters are few and far between.

Writers prefer rejection letters that are clear, crisp, and encouraging at the same time. Letters that state clearly whether a journal would like more work from the writer are often those that help, rather than hurt, a writer when he or she decides whether or not to send to a journal again. Katie Manning, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review makes it a priority to thank writers for their submissions. “My journal couldn’t function if writers didn’t trust us enough to send work in the first place. It’s an honor that anyone sends us writing at all,” she says about sending rejection letters. A good literary journal is good because they are excited to share the writing they have found with the world. A good rejection letter strives to respect a writer as an individual and a human being.

A simple litmus test: “Is this letter respectful?” separates the good rejection letters from the bad ones. When a writer is treated like a contributor, even in a rejection letter, a journal is helping the literary community at large.

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Katherine Bell is a second-year MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers where she serves as a fiction editor for Willow Springs Magazine. Her fiction can be found in The Blue Lyra Review, Welter Literary Journal, and The Fem.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: “Sight Lines” by Sandra Marchetti

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This selection comes from the poetry chapbook Sight Lines, available from Speaking of Marvels Press. Order your copy here.

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Whiskey Island, and other venues. Sandra holds an MFA in Creative Writing−Poetry from George Mason University, and currently is a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University outside of her hometown of Chicago.

Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.

Lyric Essentials: Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

Pauletta, this is a wonderful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m not sure if Gallagher or her work need an introduction, but do you remember your first experience with her poetry? What do enjoy most about Gallagher’s work?

Pauletta: Chris, I think the first poem of Tess Gallagher’s I read was “I Stop Writing the Poem” “about” (ostensibly) interrupting writing to take care of the laundry, which always gives me an immediate ping of recognition—the tangle of art and life and memory. I am drawn to narrative poems, both in reading and writing. To poems where the story itself is the metaphor for some larger story. Gallagher does this especially well. The intimacy of the details within her poems gives me a sense of not just clearly viewing the scene, but embodying it.

Chris: What about this particular poem, “The Hug”? What are some specific elements that make this poem stand out to you as an essential piece of writing?

Pauletta: I chose “The Hug” as a poem to learn by heart when I used some of the practices in Kim Rosen’s powerful book Saved by a Poem in one of the poetry classes I teach. The poem was given to me by a potter friend who is also a great reader at a time when I was helping to care for a dear friend with brain cancer. Caring for him meant also caring for his complicated and somewhat ornery family. Pam said, “You have to read this poem!” And so I did, and not just read it but lived with it, took it into my breath, chanted it (“How big a hug is this supposed to be?) and through this process, came to a deeper sense of what it means to be connected and responsible to and for, not just those we choose, but those whom our lives choose for us.

What I never managed to do is to learn the whole poem by heart—it’s a long one!—but there are still bits and pieces of it embedded and available to me when I need them, as I often do, caring now for my mother who has dementia, and doing this within her current living situation in a memory care unit of a nursing home, so that hardly a day goes by that I don’t “lean my blood and my wishes” into a stranger for whom I feel such tenderness or into my mother who, while never a stranger, is often so very different from the mother I knew.

So, how do you (do I, do we) come back from those experiences? We don’t, in a sense, because they remain within us, “the imprint of/a planet in my cheek/ when I walk away. When I try to find some place/ to go back to.”

Gallagher’s poem is so much about a particular hug—hers, not mine—that I can smell the man’s overcoat, hear the voice of the street poet recede as the coat and the man envelop me. And “the houses—/what about them?— the houses.” (Ah! That line gets me every time!)

But the poem is also Joe, and my mom and the guy, Bill who paces the dementia unit and says, “Hi, Babe” every time he sees me. We writers all know that the universal is only visible within the particular. Gallagher does such particularities brilliantly, I think, and then startles us into the universal as the image of a button imprinting a planet on the speaker’s cheek, becomes one world flowing into another. For me, this poem (like the hug it describes) is truly “a masterpiece of connection.”

Chris: Do you find it difficult to read and write narrative poems given the level of intimacy and transportive power that exists in them? I imagine that it takes an emotional toll to “go there” while writing, reading, and creating such emotive conditions in a piece of writing.

Pauletta: The short answer is no. When I write I usually go to an interior place that I identify as being “down below” emotion. I feel a sort of clarity, an intense desire to “get it right,” to write my way through a remembered experience to a place of truth—albeit a subjective truth. Mostly I feel a sort of relief that I am naming the experience as fully and well as I can. I don’t write for catharsis. I write for understanding, and hopefully to create something beautiful and whole out of my life, even the broken parts. Especially the broken parts (that’s where, as Leonard Cohen says, the light gets in.)

Right now, much of my writing is about my mother’s experience with dementia, and my experience with her. I find myself living, and writing, very much in the present. The past feels less available to me and happy memories make me sad! I am sure there is a perversity about that statement which says as much about my personality as it does about my current situation! But the losing of self for my mother, and the losing of mother for me is constant—not static—a verb, not a noun, and this is very much affecting the poems I write. The remembered experience may be from this morning or last week, rather than decades past, which gives it a sort of immediacy on the page. So the challenge becomes how to contain this in a poem in such a way that it is not overwhelming to the reader. To write poems that are intimate but still communal. I find myself turning to form, which is new for me. The sonnet has been particularly useful to me. It helps me lean toward craft in my poems even as I am writing them, which, for me anyway, provides a counterweight to the intimacy of the poem’s present tense.  So, the short answer was no, but the long answer is…complicated. (Tangled, again.)

Chris: One last question, Pauletta. What other poems by Gallagher would you recommend to us? And—I lied—one other question: are there other poets you enjoy reading who tangle together all the threads of our tumultuous, beautiful human lives?

Pauletta: Gallagher is one of the poets that I have encountered mostly in anthologies, rather than in her collections, and I see I need to change this. In addition to the poems mentioned above, I love “Black Silk” (and recommend, too, the essay where I first encountered it, in Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry).  Also the poems, “Choices” and “Red Poppy.” And here, Chris, is the great gift of this interview to me: I did not know that Gallagher wrote about her mother’s journey with dementia. My research to answer this question sent me to a book on my shelf I have not yet read, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, with a foreword and several poems by Tess Gallagher.

Other narrative poets I love? So numerous! Allison Luterman, Dorianne Laux, Larry Levis, George Ella Lyon, Ada Limon, Cathy Smith Bowers (proving I read poets whose names don’t begin with “L!”), Sharon Olds, Nick Flynn, Maurice Manning, Linda Parsons, Frank X Walker, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Lisel Mueller …I’ll stop here, as there is no way to name them all! But you might note that a fair number of those have southern and Appalachian roots. Appalachian literature is as diverse as the region itself, but still, there is something about a good story that is a connecting force.
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Pauletta Hansel was recently named Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate. Her poems and prose have been featured in journals including Atlanta Review, Talisman, Kudzu, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Still: The Journal, Stirring and on The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry. She is author of five poetry collections, most recently Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011).  Pauletta is managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta leads writing workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond.

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Chris himself can be found somewhere in northeast Tennessee drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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