“Dear Alphabet. Dear Spark:” Kristy Bowen and her major characters in minor films

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Kristy Bowen’s poetry reads like an arpeggio sounds, with flurried phrase and dynamic image. She has cracked her own code for the essentially eclectic. Her most recent collection, major characters in minor films, delivers the goods again, but reaches deeper into new themes and territory for the poet. Emotive, unapologetic narrative sprouts from unexpected structures throughout, crazy gluing pop culture and unique imagination to form wry, yet thoughtful beauty. These are places where Ryan Gosling, bus rides, celluloid moons, and cats collide and coexist in the aftermath, making complete sense as the disparate becomes the inseparable.

Sara Biggs Chaney, author of Ann Coulter’s Letter to the Young Poets, admitted, “I want to be best friends with the ‘I’ of (major characters.) She’s hilarious. She’s heartbreaking. She’s more than a little bit dangerous.” Donna Vorreyer claims major characters’s “language moves like a camera, cutting from image to image, leaving impressions that form intriguing fragmented narratives of love, intrigue, mystery and damage.”

Without further ado and further description, Sundress will now take you backstage with Kristy Bowen to shed light on how these major characters found their way into the not-so-minor book.

Jacob Cross: In “open letter to the muse,” a perfect beginning to the collection, you write “on good days, you’re a mad scientist. On bad, a vain girl with a scalpel.” I love this division on inspiration and craft, because it’s what so many writers struggle with on a draft-to-draft basis: the joy of creation through revision versus the dread of slicing apart tidbits, so to speak. How do you balance these two extremes, the “good” and “bad” days? 

Kristy Bowen: Since my writing tends to happen in spurts, I tend to do all the slicing and dicing as I go, so perhaps I create more like a scalpel wielding mad scientist than either/or (it wasn’t always like this). I can usually wrangle a finished draft within a couple passes and if I can’t I usually just step away for awhile. I think it helps to have other creative distractions when things just don’t seem to be flowing or working properly. I can always turn to editing projects or visual projects and then come back to the thing that’s troubling me with a fresh mindset.

JC: Before we go much further, could you describe a bit of your reasoning behind the organization of the different sections/chapters that make up the book? Some, such as “dimestore operetta” and “past imperfect” feature a wide range of forms, where as “I hate you James Franco” and “celluloid moon a love letter in 13 parts” showcase singular wedges of prose poetry. Did these overall differences help determine where the pages fell into place?

KB: I tend to like to work on shorter series of poems, sometimes one or two at a time, so they naturally form themselves into sections. Every once in a while those smaller projects somehow clump together thematically or tonally over a few years to form a larger book—I had some great ordering assistance from Erin Elizabeth Smith to determine what order the sections would be in and how they flowed into one another. I also tend to vacillate back and forth between forms, so some groupings are consistent and others vary depending on when I wrote them. The two newer sections (the moon poems and the James Franco letters) were solely prose, which I’ve favored over the last 5 years or so. Lately I’ve taken a turn back towards lineated poems, though.

JC: Your work is exquisitely exciting because it’s as eclectic as it is focused. As varied and unpredictable as the refreshing language can become, there is still a grounded feeling in poems like “language theory” or “worse case scenario,” a feeling of flash narrative. In other words, is this feeling of a present story a sign a poem is home when writing it: that the story element builds up from so many unexpected architectures, like say, in the board game Jenga? 

KB: I started out as a fiction writer, so story and narrative are very central to anything I’m writing even if it doesn’t appear that way at first glance. Granted, I don’t always know that story when I sit down to start something, but sometimes the fun is in letting that story develop in bits and pieces that form a whole. major characters in minor films as a whole tends toward more lyric “l”-based missives than some of my other books, but there are still narrative threads than run through them, even if they are just purely autobiographical (or sometimes semi-autobiographical at least).
I like that word “architectures”—sometimes it feels like poems are just these small frameworks that hold a story.

JC: Speaking of blocks, you use refrain phrases in free verse in a visually pleasing way, also adding some pretty cool connotative rhythms, such as in “Autobiography” and “no girls were harmed in the making of this poem.” In the latter, “no,” “can’t,” and “won’t” stand out if you stare at the poem as visual art, suggesting a flowing development in the agency or status of the female identities “not” in the poem. 

My question: how organically do these repeated phrases come about? Are any of them remotely purposeful from the earliest stages?

KB: I think probably more than anything visual I tend to work with things like this in terms of sound. I tend to compose poems out loud, so sound and those repetitions become part of the way I speed a poem along toward its ending. Those repetitions and consonance make that happen in a way that delights me when I can do it successfully. I guess in general I work more toward aural variation than visual, (but I guess they have the same effect just in different ways.)The visual manifestation seems somehow more intuitive to me (i.e. I can’t always explain why a poem looks the way it does). I also love visual poetry though and the possibilities therein. We’ve chosen a number of vis-po books to publish at dgp, so it’s probably influencing me without me even knowing it.

Kristy Bowen Author Photo

JC: In “dimestore operetta,” the word “mother” seems like an emotionally charged vein running through the core of some of the pieces: the mother in “fictions,” a mother being beckoned to in “bad touch,” and a female hunter described as either sister or mother in “how to re-imagine your life through mythological characters.” Could you expand on the meaning behind this and some of the other ways your themes engage with women today?

KB: I think the entire book creates/reflects this strange pressure cooker of a female world that is formed by things like made-for-TV movies, pop-culture, the art world, celebrities. Also the intersection of these things with the more domestic world of women, whether it’s mother, daughter, wife, mistress. The book does seem to encompass/be encompassed by this “girl-shaped” world—where the frame of reference is that of daughter/lover/interloper, but at the same time as artist/muse/creator and the friction you find in that co-existence, both good friction and damaging friction.
JC: Did you know James Franco was at the Chicago Humanities Festival in May of last year? Did you also know that he discussed his book of poetry, Directing Herbert White? In short, he claimed it was him finally tapping his time in Hollywood for literary “subject matter.” You’ve dealt a lot of blows through verse to his celebrity, but what would you like to say here concerning Franco that you haven’t said? 

KB: I always say JF has gotten sort of even more douchey since I finished that project in late 2011 with all of his nonsense and that terrible book of poems. I think what is cool about James Franco is that he is so very meta and very aware of his own absurdness. I don’t really hate him (or even know that much about him beyond what I’ve gleaned in passing), but I do sort of cringe at the cult of celebrity and how that effects something like the poetry world (i.e. how magazines clamor to publish ‘names” over quality, which believe me, as an editor aware of the gains to be had by doing so.) Still, in the end, those poems aren’t really so much about JF as a person, but more so as a concept from which to jump off into explorations of my own anxieties as a writer and as a creative person in general in a field with a very small audience (as opposed to Hollywood and it’s very big audience.)

JC: Where do the poems on Franco in major characters in minor films fit in the grand scheme of the collection? Are they a counterbalance? Some of them are less an attack on him than they are succinct scenes and deeper moments, such as the “kids in the park” piece on page 49. I could see how these would mesh well with the other poems in major characters. Your voice is poignantly consistent, no matter what shape the stanzas are.

KB: When Sundress published the JF poems as an e-chap a couple years back, my sister wrote me saying that this was the only series of poems I’d written that sounded most like me. I started the whole thing as a joke. It wasn’t intended to be poetic or fancy in any way, so they are very conversational. Like if you and I were sitting in a bar, this would be what I’d be rambling on about. When I’m “poeming” I tend to get wrapped up in images and rhythm and an attempt to be poem-like. The concerns that developed in the series echoed a lot of what was happening in the first section of poems that deal with the whole muse vs. artist debacle women wind up in, as well as the pop-culture subject matter in other sections, so it seemed like they were a good fit in the book as a whole.

JC: “meteorological facts about the midwest” is flippin’ awesome. The disjointed, punchy prose poem really escalates and vanishes as fast as it arrives. Tell us about this one if you would, whatever you have to offer on it. Also, any Midwest weather stories you’d like to share?

KB: I grew up in the countryside near Rockford, Illinois, so tornadoes were always a possibility. There were many nights me and my sister would be woken up to head to the basement where we huddled until the all clear. There was always this creeping sense of fear and at the same time excitement when the warnings would come across the TV or radio. Weird freak lightning storms and greenish skies and microbursts that would send patio furniture flying. The closest I ever came to what may or may not have been a tornado I didn’t actually see (some friends and I were in a vehicle parked under an overpass and just dirt flying everywhere and a cop pulled over pointing at the sky.) I’ve also seen the wind pick up event tents in the South Loop like they are blocks and move them like 4 feet.

JC: Are there any release parties/readings/events we can look forward to from Kristy Bowen? Also, what’s your next written endeavor likely to be? Too soon to tell?

KB: I’m doing a release reading for major characters on April 3rd at Quimby’s bookstore. I’ll also be reading the week before for The Kettle Blue Review and the week after at the AWP conference in Minneapolis with Sundress. In November I finished a full-length project out now that is sort of about mermaids (both actual and metaphorical ones.)

[Editor’s note: A few of these poems appear in Till the Tide, a separate mermaid-inspired anthology also from Sundress.]

What I’ve been working on now are several small series centered around the apocalypse that will eventually be a manuscript. Also a book-length project about a creepy roadside motel and a murder.

JC: Let’s be real: we should end with your cats. How wonderfully goofy are they? Or are they the stern, brooding type? What’s their favorite thing to do?

KB: I have way too many of them, as I say in one of the James Franco pieces, (5 actually), so they’re a mix. The oldest are a pair of gingers that sometimes resemble the twins in the Shining (I actually tried to name them after them, but the twins do not have names.) My tuxedo Max is cool and aloof and I try way too hard to get him to like me. The two youngest named after writers, Zelda and Ezra, are super sweet and more dog-like than cat-like. They mostly spend their time living in my home without me while I work to pay their rent. I’ve always said I would have a huge menagerie of animals if I didn’t live in the city—dogs, rabbits, horses, goats—but for now, it’s just cats since they are fairly independent and low maintenance.

major characters in minor films is available now for purchase at the Sundress Store.

I*HATE*YOU*JAMES*FRANCO is available as a free e-chap at the Sundress website.

A writer and artist, Kristy Bowen is the author several written and visual projects, including girl show (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and the shared properties of water and stars (Noctuary Press 2013). She lives in Chicago, where she runs dancing girl press & studio and edits the online litzine wicked alice.

Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems are due for release in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.

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