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Vintage Sundress with Jessica Rae Bergamino

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Sundress’ Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with the writers who have published with us in the past. Three years ago, Jessica Rae Bergamino published The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them , a beautiful chapbook that explores questions of selfhood, mythology, and queer femininity in an intergalactic landscape.  In this installment of the series, Sundress intern Athena Lathos interviews Bergamino about the evolution of her creative relationship with space, as well as the pieces of writing and art that have preoccupied her since.

Lathos: You published The Desiring Object with Sundress in 2016, and UNMANNED (with Noemi Press) in 2018. Can you tell us a bit your about the project(s) you are currently working on?

Bergamino: The project I’m currently working on is a hybrid exploration of intergenerational family trauma and violence, though I’ve also been thinking a lot about an interview recently with Brenda Shaughnessy where she talked about the generative capacities and possibilities that come with learning something new and the freedoms of not only being a beginner but being bad at something. So, right now, I’m approaching things that I’ve storied myself as being “bad” at, like gardening and playing music, and looking to see what I can learn in that practice.

Lathos: I enjoyed reading this interview that Adam J. Gellings conducted with you in August of 2016, particularly because it offered insight into your use of compelling and unusual primary sources for The Desiring Object (namely, “recordings of the congressional hearings on the Voyager project, [and] maps of moons made from the Voyager observations”). Can you talk about some primary sources in the media, popular culture, politics, or art that have informed your work lately? desiringobject

Bergamino: I actually spent a huge amount of time working with the Voyager material; along with The Desiring Object, UNMANNED is a collection written through the personae of both Voyager space probes. That book project allowed me to take a deep dive into Cold War era popular culture and politics, science fiction, and Carl Sagan’s critical and creative writing. I knew that I wanted any pop-culture, scientific, or historical references in the book to be relevant for the Voyagers’ launch in 1977.  Since I was born in the 80’s I couldn’t access my own cultural memory of the time period, so I became increasingly interested in the way that some popular culture morphs into a popular mythology and, in turn, how popular mythology might interact with the so-called classical mythologies written into the stars in the names of planets, moons, and satellites.

Lately, I’ve been interested in exploring what might constitute intergenerational popular mythology of girlhood, especially as it is related to queer youth. George from Nancy Drew, Kristy from The Babysitters Club, Anne Shirley, Harriet the Spy, the list goes on… I’m not interested in what subtext may or may not be present in the books or source text, but, rather the way that a shared queer imagination has sprung up around these characters.  Inevitably when I talk about this, a straight person feels the need to tell me that my queer kin are wrong — homophobia makes people so boring!

Lathos: The praise for UNMANNED applauds your capacity to “queer our space canon” (Julia Bloch) and envision “science goddesses through whose aspects [you] explore both the human and stellar condition” (Kazim Ali). What was it like for you to explore gender and sexuality in a galactic landscape, especially through technologies (like the Voyager probes) which might be considered cybernetic, posthuman, or even genderless?

Bergamino: One of the many threads I ended up following in UNMANNED was depictions of space-age femininity that come to us through science-fiction. UNMANNED contains many of what I call “nested persona poems,” where the persona of Voyager Two “tries on” the personae of Princess Leia, Barbarella, and Miss Piggy, to name a few. These nested persona poems provided me space to think through and about some of the possibilities of femininity and feminized bodies that have already been imagined in outer space and then expand upon, re-imagine, and re-vision these performances of gender.  

Each Voyager probe carries a golden record which includes an audio-visual story of life on Earth, and ends with an EKG recording of Ann Druyan — the creative director of the record  — meditating on, among other things, falling in love with Carl Sagan. She’s talked about this in a number of different settings, though I came to the story while listening to an episode of Radiolab. As the project developed, the EKG became one of the least compelling things about the Voyager mission, but it also meant that I never thought of the probes being gender-less; if anything, they are, in my mind, saturated with gender.  I wanted to explore that saturation and use it as an opportunity to pivot into more and more queer visions of femininity. In the queer femme community, we celebrate and talk a lot about femme identity and resilience without orienting femme in relationship to butch or masculine-of-center bodies; by writing both Voyager probes as femme, I hoped to enact some of that celebration.

Lathos: Though two different projects, UNMANNED and The Desiring Object share a common subject. How are the two related, and what was navigating that relationship like from the perspective of craft?

Bergamino: I appreciate the pun there in navigating because so much of The Desiring Object is asking what it means for Voyager Two to navigate the interstellar mission while also learning to navigate her own relationship to identity and desire.  I like to think of The Desiring Object as the poem where Voyager Two learns her own capacity for individualization; in UNMANNED, a sequence titled “Excerpts from Voyager One’s Private Correspondence with Carl Sagan,” explores similar questions through the consciousness of Voyager One.  

While The Desiring Object expands and contracts across the page  as Voyager Two struggles through her relationship to both the mission and herself,  using the scientific tools and experiments that make up the Voyagers bodies as the organizing principle — I like to think of it like the body scan relaxation technique, where a person relaxes by focusing intently on one body part, and then another, and then another.

“Excerpts…” is a series of linked prose poems which follow a linear arc informed by the western zodiac.  Because each Voyager probe is unable to communicate with the other, I wanted to put two very different forms of poem in motion in order to place pressure on the fact that while they were identical in many ways, their social-political-emotional concerns are very different within the books.

Lathos: Given that you have written both a chapbook and a full-length book about space and the Voyager probes, I couldn’t help but ask you about the recent death of the Mars Rover, and the way in which the internet responded with an unexpected magnitude of grief. What do you think it is about space, as well as our attempts to explore it, that we find so compelling?

Bergamino: I’ve been sitting with this question for weeks now, trying to find new ways to put the nature of awe into words and making Star Trek jokes like “damnit Jim, I’m a poet, not a philosopher.” But, most simply, I think the idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying for all sorts of reasons —  including the possibility that there is nothing out there, god or alien, to save us from ourselves — and that the stories we can tell about outer space are one way of staving off that terror. Also, in modernity, capitalism loves a “clean slate,” and we haven’t enacted the irreparable harm that we’ve done to this planet on other planets (yet).

Lathos: A classic question, but one for which I always love reading the answer: What have you read lately that has inspired you, impressed you, or moved you to think about something in a different way?

Bergamino: I’ve been reading and learning so much from adrienne maree brown, both in her written work and podcast, How to Survive the End of The World, which she’s created with her sister, Autumn Brown. brown’s concept, in particular, of “moving at the speed of trust” from her book Emergent Strategy has deeply informed my evolving sense of poetics and understanding of the possibilities of poetry moving in the world. Also, I was lucky to be in New York while the Hilma af Klint exhibit was on display at the Guggenheim; her paintings exploded for me in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I want to follow af Klint’s threads of tender wildness and see where it takes me.


 

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Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of UNMANNED, winner of Noemi Press’ 2017 Poetry Prize, as well the chapbooks The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them (Sundress Publications, 2016), The Mermaid, Singing (dancing girl press, 2015), and Blue in All Things: a Ghost Story (dancing girl press, 2015). Individual poems have recently appeared in Third Coast and Black Warrior Review. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is the Senior Book Reviews Editor for Quarterly West. Find her online at www.jessicaraebergamino.com.

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Athena Lathos is a poet and nonfiction writer from Santa Maria, California currently living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her work can be found in Enizagam and Verseweavers, as well as on her blog, Bertha Mason’s Attic. Her recent essay about the job market, “I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got was this Moderate-Severe Depression,” was featured as an Editor’s Pick on Longreads. Lathos completed her MA thesis, “A Sea of Grief is Not a Proscenium: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Spectacle of Racist Violence in Cyberculture,” at Oregon State University’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film in May of 2017. Lathos was a finalist for the 2016 Princemere Poetry Prize and a runner-up for the 2018 Princemere Poetry Prize.

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Vintage Sundress with Danny M. Hoey, Jr.

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Vintage Sundress is back with another installment, this time featuring Sundress author Danny M. Hoey, Jr.

Danny wrote his debut novel, The Butterfly Lady, in 2013, and he took some time to speak with intern Lauren Sutherland to touch base on life since his first publication and take an honest look at the struggles of publishing and the literary community.butterfly lady

Sutherland: What has changed for you since The Butterfly Lady was published?

Hoey: Since The Butterfly Lady was published, honestly, I have become a little more anxious. Not because I can’t write or produce, but because I am afraid that what I write next won’t be good enough. I have been invited to a lot of readings/panels; people have taught my book, and I have gotten great feedback about the work. And, every time, the question comes up, “When is the next book?” So, that makes me anxious and nervous and fearful that I can’t write a good enough book again.

Sutherland: Has the publishing of The Butterfly Lady altered your perspective on the literary community?

Hoey: Honestly, I thought more folks in the literary community would be more supportive. I support other artists by reading their books and telling folks publicly that I read their books. I have folks who read my book and tell me in private that they loved it but never say it publicly. That bothers me, and I hate that I feel bad about that.

Sutherland:  Was your rise to publication smooth or a struggle? What obstacles did you face?

Hoey: It was rough—I got a lot of rejections that were “positive” with remarks like, “I like the book, but it’s not for us.”  Also, because of the subject matter, I was fearful of folks not accepting the work. But once it was accepted, things moved smoothly, and the book was received very well. And, I am thankful for that.

Sutherland: What is something worth noting about being published that you would want unpublished writers to know?

Hoey: You must keep going—keep producing, writing, creating—even when the book is out. Because the work must continue.

Sutherland: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?

Hoey: I have not.  I have had some stories published as well as some academic articles. Also, my book was a feature at a Writing Festival at Broward College in South Florida—all students in the ENC 1101 courses read my book and did various projects/research/responses over the work.

Sutherland: What are you working on now?

Hoey: I have a complete draft of my second novel, and I am in the process of polishing it. I am kind of superstitious, so I don’t want to divulge too much information, but it is about a soul singer and race riots.

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Dr. Danny M. Hoey, Jr., an Associate Professor of English, joined Indian River State College in 2011 as an Assistant Professor of English. He most recently served as the Administrative Director of Minority Affairs and English Department Chair in addition to his professorship. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree and a Master of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing, along with a Master of Arts degree in Africana Studies and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He actively participates in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the Modern Language Association, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. His stories have appeared in WarpLand, Women in REDzine, Mandala Journal, Connotation Press, African Voices Magazine, SnReview, The Writer’s Bloc, and The Hampton University First-Year Writing Textbook. His pedagogical essay, “Dutchman, The Black body, and The Law,” is forthcoming from the Modern Language Association’s Series Approaches to Teaching Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. The Butterfly Lady, his first novel, won the ForeWord Firsts’ Winter 2013 debut fiction award and the Bronze Award in the IndiFab Book of the Year Award. He is currently at work on his second novel.

Some of Hoey’s work:

“The Watermelon Eating Contest” on Mandala Journal‘s website

“What Do We Do?” on SnReview‘s website

The Butterfly Lady from the Sundress store online

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Lauren Sutherland is a recent graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN and proudly has a Bachelor’s degree in English with a writing emphasis and a Deaf Studies minor. Lauren enjoys reading and writing poetry, but her ultimate passion is for editing. She has been interning with Sundress since July and loves getting the opportunity to have a hand in the literary community.
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Wendy Chin-Tanner Reads Vera Pavlova

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In this conversation, Wendy Chin-Tanner talks about how reading Vera Pavlova‘s work gave her a model to follow in writing short poems about romantic love and about how Pavlovas’ writing disallows sentimentality and by engaging with the past. Pavlova’s poems are sincere, terse, and often also deal in ars poetica. Chin-Tanner puts them in context with Rilke’s Liebeslied, and identifies them as a “call to see things as they are.”

Jessica Hudgins: How has Pavlova’s work influenced yours?

Wendy Chin-Tanner: Vera Pavlova’s work speaks to me about relationality, its contradictions, conflicts, and nuances, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Her poems are imbued with a masterful compositional musicality that stems from her background as a trained classical musician and are delivered with the absolute greatest possible economy of words. I discovered her when I was working on the poems in my first collection Turn through my best friend, Russian-born anthropologist Veronica Davidov whose father, writer Mark Davidov, had worked with Pavlova. Short form poetry was already of great interest to me, but I was having trouble wrapping my head around how to write a love poem and Pavlova showed me the way. She quickly became both a poetic and personal touchstone, as she writes with urgency, immediacy, unsentimental sincerity, and mechanical precision about the emotional dynamics that underlie romantic love, how they necessarily replicate traumatic and triggering patterns of partners’ families of origin and how they are then called upon to make a choice between reproducing those wounding patterns and doing it differently, a choice between “rehashing” and creating. Not only is this an apt description of emotional processes in relationships, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process, and on a meta-level, the conflicts and layers expressed in this concept supply the necessary dramatic tension of the poetry. When I began developing the trisyllabic tercets that make up the majority of the poems in my second collection Anyone Will Tell You, I returned to Pavlova whose short lines and confidence in claiming blank space on the page emboldened me to do it, too. Reading her has not only informed my understanding of craft, but also the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: In both of these poems, Pavlova brings two actions in relation to one another in order to clarify what each word means. So, when I read, “Enough painkilling, heal,” I get worried, and ask myself, “When have I tried to remove something painful instead of trying to heal?” And, when Pavlova writes “to sing or howl,” the difference between singing and howling emerges, just because the words are next to one another. Do you respond the same way to these poems?

WCT: Poem 22 takes a Rilkean preoccupation, as we see in his poem Liebeslied, with the relationship between the self and the other, and the negotiation of the space between engulfment and abandonment, and gives it a fresh twenty-first century psychoanalytic feminist perspective. I read the opening line, “Enough painkilling, heal,” as a call to see things as they are, to face the truth about ourselves and others, and our situations, the good and the bad, in order to affect positive change.

In poem 62, my interpretation of the line, “to sing or howl,” is that it speaks to the gendered performances of masculinity and femininity as the poet addresses her partner as “a wall of stone,” behind which she is both protected (so that she is free to sing on the other side of the gender binary) and unheard (or stonewalled). Our lived experiences cannot occur, regardless of our politics or wokeness, in a cultural vacuum, and the many contradictions of heterosexual love in an unequal society are played out in this poem in both its pleasures and frustrations.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: What are you working on now?

WCT: Right now, I’m working on the second draft of King of the Armadillos, a novel based on a true story that takes place in New York City and Carville, Louisiana in the mid-1950s that explores the ways in which power, bio-ethics, race, gender, sexuality, stigma, community, illness, recovery, immigration, intergenerational trauma, loss, love, and redemption come to bear on families, relationships, and human experience.


 

Vera Pavolova Vera Pavlova is a Russian writer whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She is author of several poetry collections, including The Heavenly Beast, translated into English by Derek Walcott and Steven Seymour;  Letters to the Room Next Door, a collection of 1,001 hand-written poems with illustrations by Pavlova’s daughter; and If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems, Pavlova’s first collection in English.

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collections “Turn” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and “Anyone Will Tell You,” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for graphic novels. Some of her poems can be found at RHINO Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. A trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, Wendy was born and raised in NYC and educated at Cambridge University, UK. She is the mother of two daughters and the proud daughter of immigrants.

Further Reading

Vera Pavlova’s Website
LitHub Interviews Vera Pavlova
Vera Pavlova Reads at PBS News Hour

Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Website
Four Poems at The Account
Purchase Turn


Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

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Vintage Sundress with Sandra Marchetti

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Head Shot 1In our first installment of Vintage Sundress, a series which will check in with our authors in a “where are they now” style, intern Lauren Sutherland interviews Sandra Marchetti, author of Confluence, a book of poems published in December 2014. Sandra’s lighthearted dialogue is refreshing to take in, and her joy in sharing her story as an encouragement to others is such a sweet read. We hope you enjoy!

Lauren Sutherland: What has changed for you since Confluence was published?
Sandra Marchetti: Confluence succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I am so grateful to the literary community for embracing the book the way they did. This is due in no small part to the commitment of Sundress—saving the day and publishing the book after my first publisher temporarily shuttered—and a lot of hustle and the goodwill of others. The book was reviewed in some of my dream destinations: The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, andThe Kansas City Star to name a few. The book sold almost 500 copies (I believe). I didn’t think that was possible for a poetry book from a small press. I took my book cross country (the South and the Midwest, really) on a reading tour that lasted a whole summer. Confluence was a dream-maker.
Sutherland: Has the publishing of Confluence altered your perspective on the literary community?
Marchetti: One thing I learned was that the literary community is willing to embrace you when you have something new to offer. It’s harder when your latest book-length work is a few years old (for better or worse). That’s natural. It’s the way consumerism works. On the positive side, it taught me that if you’re willing to hustle, assemble a good team behind you, build some connections, folks are willing to give you a chance and invite you into their digital and physical spaces. 
Sutherland: Was your rise to publication smooth or a struggle? What obstacles did you face?
Marchetti: It was a struggle, but maybe it needed to be. Many first books are. The book was my MFA thesis, so I began work on it nearly 8 years before it was published. The book went through many iterations. I sent it to nearly 200 open reading periods/contests before it was accepted anywhere. I had very few encouraging notes from publishers, and the farthest I made it in a contest was as a “quarterfinalist” once.

The privilege I had was some money behind me to keep sending and to go on residencies. Without that, I might have been out of the game. Once the book was accepted, the press stalled, then shuttered (see above) and the book was homeless again. Erin Elizabeth Smith asked to see the manuscript and she took care of the rest, shepherding it into the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the story.

Sutherland: What is something worth noting about being published that you would want unpublished writers to know?
Marchetti: It’s cyclical. I’m in a down period right now—not publishing as much as in the years immediately before, during, and after Confluence came out. I’m still learning that that’s okay. The biggest thing is to gain trust in yourself. It was a long time before I stopped thinking during a dry spell, “I’ll never get published again,” or “I’ll never write again.” I always do. It takes time to learn that, and publishing does help to boost confidence, for better or worse. My first chapbook publication, The Canopy, in 2012, pushed me to finish Confluence. 
Sutherland: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?
Marchetti: I have published two chapbooks since Confluence. Heart Radicals, a collaborative chapbook of love poems,and Sight Lines, an e-chap that’s part lyric essay and part poetry. Before Confluence, I probably wouldn’t have pursued either of these projects. Publishing Confluence really opened me up to other kinds of books—collaborations, cross-genre work, publishing a book entirely online—none of these things were projects I saw myself participating in previously. Once I got my “dream” publication, I decided it was time to “play.” 
Sutherland: What are you working on now?
Marchetti: I’ve been drafting two full-length manuscripts since the week after Confluence was first picked up, and they are finally gaining some maturity as projects. Aisle 228 is a book of baseball poems about the Chicago Cubs, going to ballgames with my dad, and listening to baseball on the radio. I’m also working on a book of poems about influence—poetic and environmental—that’s sort of akin to Confluence. The second work is on the back burner right now as I’m starting to send out Aisle 228 to publishers. It’s an exciting time. 
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Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from SundressPublications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Heart Radicals (About Editions, 2018), Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Poet Lore, Blackbird, Ecotone, Southwest Review, River Styx, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Whiskey Island, Mid-American Review, Barrelhouse, Pleiades, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from George Mason University and now serves as the Coordinator of Tutoring Services at the College of DuPage in the Chicagoland area.
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Lauren Sutherland is a recent graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN and proudly has a Bachelor’s degree in English with a writing emphasis and a Deaf Studies minor. Lauren enjoys reading and writing poetry, but her ultimate passion is for editing. She has been interning with Sundress since July and loves getting the opportunity to have a hand in the literary community.
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Interview with MR Sheffield, Author of Marvels

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Sundress Publications editorial intern Jenna Geisinger sat down to talk with Sundress author MR Sheffield, author of the new release, Marvels, about the ways the book practically wrote itself.

Jenna Geisinger: In your collection, Marvels,  you frame each section with a found poem from H.D. Northrop’s copy of Marvels of Natural History. How did you come across this copy?

MR Sheffield: We have several bookcases full of books A lot of them I purchased, but many were given to us. Marvels of Natural History is one such book. I actually just noticed it on my bookshelf one evening and was immediately enthralled.

JG: What inspired you to incorporate his poems into your collection?

MR: His descriptions aren’t really poetry. It’s a book of illustrations and information on animals. The kind you give to kids. You know, before the internet. Anyway, some of his descriptions are so strange and out of date. Like the double-fish entry—it’s just bizarre. And, I don’t know, it seemed like this stuff wanted to be poetry.

JG: The found poems are descriptions of different animals, which you repurpose in the rest of the poems of the section to apply to a mother/daughter relationship, creating really lovely extended metaphors. How did you make the connection between these “marvels of natural history” and Gladys and her mother? What struck you about animal characteristics applied to humans?

MR: Thank you. The extended metaphors grew out of the book itself—I can’t take credit for that. But, we tend to draw such a thick, black line between ourselves and animals, when really (and as everyone suspects, but perhaps denies) we’re all just animals. “Just.” It seemed to me that HD got to kind of go on this wonderful adventure describing these animals. I imagined the mother doing that—being this grand, world explorer who loves her daughter but will not sacrifice for her.

JG: Gladys and her mother communicate through various forms: telephone/voicemail, letter, and fax. Why did you choose to defy the time period?

MR: I thought it would be funny. It also seems to me that, although we have these new forms of communication (social media being a primary form more and more), we’re still saying the same awkward things. That is whether, through a conversation, a fax, a text message, or a comment on Instagram, we are preoccupied with the same old thing—the human condition.

JG: Your collection explores the themes of grief and abandonment within a family. Why did you choose to show both Gladys and her mother’s perspective, as opposed to just one?

MR: I don’t like the idea of one person dominating the conversation. It’s important to consider other perspectives. I thought bringing in Gladys would do this.

JG: What inspired you to make Northrop a love interest of Gladys? How do you think it adds to the larger arc?

MR: I’m not sure—that just kind of happened. I was so focused on him, and I wanted a reason for his presence.

JG: In your bio, it is noted that this is your first collection. What was your approach to tackling a work of this magnitude?

MR: I just wrote it, haha. At the time I was taking a writing workshop with Nick Flynn. He had us do freewriting exercises every evening. Those exercises became this book. This might sound stupid, but it kind of wrote itself.

JG: If you were to write another collection, would you change your approach?

MR: For sure, I want to try many different types of writing. I have a few other manuscripts of prose poetry and fiction. Right now, I’m working on a novel. It is definitely not writing itself, haha.

JG: What are you reading currently?

MR: Honestly? I’m reading a self-help book called Stop Obsessing. I’m not sure whether or not it’s helping.

MR Sheffield’s book, Marvels, is available for sale here.


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MR Sheffield’s work has been published in Black Warrior ReviewHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Florida Review, and other publications. This is her first book.

 

 

 

More of Sheffield’s work can be found here:

2017 Black Warrior Review Spring/Summer Edition 

2016 Hayden’s Ferry Review Spring/Summer Edition

37.1 2012 The Florida Review

Marvels at Sundress (pre-order)

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Jenna Geisinger is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from New Jersey. She attends the MFA Professional and Creative Writing Program at William Paterson University, while working as an associate managing editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and a reader for Philadelphia Stories, where she has been previously published.

 

 

 

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Cait Weiss Orcutt Reads Natalie Shapero

 

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Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!

 

 

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero

Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?

Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.

            As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?

            So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero

JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?

CWO:  As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.

            “Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”

            As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?

JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?

CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.

            Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.

            In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero

JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?

CWO:  Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.

            Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.

            Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.

            Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too.  All universities do.

            Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.

JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?

CWO:  In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:

ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK

                                                                        pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.


Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston ReviewChautauquaFIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.

Further Reading: 

Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “Frontier” at the Boston Review
Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “To the Loch Ness” at Hobart
Megan J. Artlett reviews Valleyspeak at the American Literary Review
Purchase Valleyspeak at Small Press Distribution

Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.

Further Reading:

Natalie Shapero at Poetry Society of America’s “In Their Own Words” series
Natalie Shapero reading “Stars” at Dollhouse #23
Three poems in Pinwheel 
Purchase Hard Child at Copper Canyon Press


Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.

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Interview with Charlie Bondhus, Author of Divining Bones (Sundress Publications 2018)

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Valerie Lick: Divining Bones looks at Baba Yaga in an entirely new way — she’s magical yet earthy, ancient yet modern, invisible yet doing porn. There’s also the narrator’s connection with her, which threads through the book. What does Baba Yaga mean for the narrator and for the book as a whole? And how did you come to the idea of using her as a character?

Charlie Bondhus: I prefer not to specify what Baba Yaga means in this book because I think that’s something the reader should come to on their own. I can say that in folklore she’s either a helper or an antagonist. Depending on who you are and what story you’re in, she may give you the tools you need to succeed in your quest—generally after you’ve completed some impossible task for her—or she may eat you. The narrator of Divining Bones is on a personal quest. Does she help him, consume him, or both?

I discuss what Baba Yaga means to me and how I came to use her as a character in a short article that was published recently on Patheos. Quick version–I was inspired by beer, Alanis Morissette, and a desperate need for emotional healing.

VL: Children run, skip, and curse their way through Divining Bones. The speaker first experiments with the occult as a child, Baba Yaga longs for the taste of children, and the speaker wonders about having children. How did you choose to focus on children and aging?

CB: I didn’t go in thinking I’d write so much about children, but I found that if you write about Baba Yaga, you have to write about children. She is, after all, a bogeywoman, the wicked witch in the fairy tale. And children are always closely linked to fairy tales, both as characters and audience members.

As for aging, we tend to only think of children and the elderly as opposites. Yet as a Pagan I’ve come to believe that the soul continually cycles through birth, life, death, and rebirth. For me then, children and the elderly stand at a similar distance from the Underworld. Age is commonly associated with wisdom (fairly or not) and children are often characterized as being more open to the supernatural. I think it’s interesting to explore these seldom looked at similarities.

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VL: While writing Divining Bones, you clearly took inspiration from fairy tales, the occult, and classic concepts like the Panopticon. Why do you feel drawn to these sources? Are there any other works you were inspired by?

CB: Like a lot of queer kids, I loved fairy tales and mythology. I was also very curious about magick and witchcraft from a young age. Growing up in a Catholic home both stymied and exacerbated that interest. There’s lot of wizardry in Catholic ritual and lots of magick in the Catholic mindset, yet you’re also taught that anything which doesn’t come from the Christian God necessarily comes from the devil. I “dabbled,” as they say, when I was in high school, but I never got seriously invested in witchcraft or Paganism because I was too worried about eternal damnation.

And yet, I always kept a Pagan altar in my home through college and my 20s. I didn’t use it, but I always felt compelled to keep it. It wasn’t until my mid-30s, when I went through an emotional crisis, that I fully embraced Paganism. Writing this book was, of course, part of that process.

As for the Panopticon, you can thank grad school! Everybody in a humanities Ph.D. reads Foucault it seems.

VL: In this book, you confront identity at many different corners — queerness, gender, age, family — especially through the theme of transformation. How did you tackle identity as you wrote?

CB: Right now, people are asking a lot of questions about the nature of identity. Gender is particularly contested. Around the time I started Divining Bones, I was questioning my own gender identity. I understood myself as male, yet not. Genderqueer sort of fit. I liked to say “I occupy the Male metropolitan area.” I was witnessing my concept of my own gender transform and enjoying it immensely.

At the same time, I was experiencing other, less thrilling transformations. I was coming to terms with memories of abuse that I’d minimized for years and how they were affecting my health in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I was watching Donald Trump win the GOP nomination and claim power.

I dealt with all this by writing a book that’s about transformation. And queerness. And creating yourself. Right now it’s common to say we exist at the intersection of multiple identities—our age, our race, our gender, etc. To think about all the different ways we inhabit that intersection takes work. That’s where art can come in.

VL: This being your third published book, have you noticed any changes to your writing style or your writing process?

CB: I’m more okay with letting the poem take over when it needs to. I’ve also learned that my impulse is almost always to tell stories. Divining Bones, my last book All the Heat We Could Carry, and the two projects I’m working on now all have narrative arcs, some more implicit, some more explicit. Yet at the same time they’re very different projects.

When I’m feeling self-indulgent I compare myself to David Bowie, writing a bunch of concept albums that are radically different yet still recognizable as my work. It’s totally self-indulgent…but who doesn’t want to be David Bowie?

VL: What are you reading right now?

CB: There are a lot of great new poetry books recently out. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s Strut—which is from Agape!—for one. Robert Siek’s We Go Seasonal and Stephen Mills’s Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, both from Sibling Rivalry Press. I’m also reading When the Clock Struck in 1916 by Darren Kelly and Derek Molyneux, which is a dramatized retelling of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. I identify very strongly with the Irish part of my heritage and want to connect more with it. And I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. She talks about Frankenstein—one of my favorite novels—and the Antarctic—a place I’d love to visit—so it’s a great read.

You can pre-order your copy of Charlie Bondhus’s Divining Bones today at the Sundress store!

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Charlie Bondhus’s second poetry book All the Heat We Could Carry won the 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Hayden’s Ferry, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Copper Nickel. He has received fellowships from the Sundress Academy for the Arts, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat in Scotland . He’s Assistant Professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College and poetry editor at the Good Men Project. He lives in Asbury Park, NJ.

Valerie Lick, the artist currently known as Val, loves those tall, weedy plants that are kind of like daisies except the blooms are really small. She can be found looking mean and studying literature at the University of Tennessee, where she is a rising junior. She thinks that there should be more intersections between science fiction, Appalachian folklore, and fashion journalism.

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Interview with Danielle Sellers, Author of The Minor Territories (Sundress Publications 2018)

Jessica Hudgins, an editorial intern for Sundress Publications, asked writer Danielle Sellers about her 2018 poetry collection The Minor Territories. It is available for sale here.

Jessica Hudgins: In the first half of this book especially, we get the sense of something happening that can’t be stopped, even though we wish it could be. Later on, that’s not so much of an issue; it’s done. When, if it’s not too much of ask, were you writing these poems? Did they guide you out of a bad situation as it was happening, or did they help you understand what had happened, afterwards?

Danielle Sellers: I began some of the poems in the first section of the book while still a graduate student at the University of Mississippi over a decade ago. They’ve gone through many revisions over the course of the years. Many are rather new, like “The Germany Poems,” looking back, and trying to make sense of who I was then and why I stayed. That’s the central question women who are abused are asked: Why did you stay so long? The answer is never simple, and I’m not sure it can ever really be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

JH: “Memorial Day” is an interesting poem because it uses the context of a patriotic holiday to remember the awful things that this veteran has done to the speaker. Then, your next poem, “Civil,” remembers the same person as capable of tenderness. This is done for “our daughter’s sake.” Yet, the poem still ends on the line, “While I was pregnant, he sometimes rubbed my feet,” which of course is ironic, but still, to my ear, has some regret in it. We hear that regret later in the collection, too. As a poet who is not a parent, but who might want to be, I’m curious about the relationship that parenting has to the truth, or at least to honesty, as compared to the relationship that poetry has to it. I think this might be related to my first question.

DS: I’ve heard many people say it’s important to never badmouth a parent. This is very good advice, but is it still advisable when that parent has done unspeakable things? At what point do we stop protecting monsters and call them out? Monsters don’t deserve our protection. They should be rooted out; their crimes should be announced. That being said, people have many different sides to them. They aren’t just one way all the time. This is what women who are abused struggle with. If their partners were always monsters, it would be easy to leave. Monsters can be angels, too. Perhaps it isn’t the monsters of which we should be afraid, it’s the angels.

JH: We both studied at the Writing Seminars. “Late Inventory” reminds me of a prompt that Greg Williamson would assign, to write a portrait using only metaphor. Is this where the poem originated? What was your experience at the Writing Seminars like, and in an MFA program in general? You teach now – can you tell us a prompt you’re especially proud of, and assign as often as you can?

DS: I loved my time at Johns Hopkins, and several of the poems in the second section were inspired by my time there, but none of them were written while I was a graduate student there. “Late Inventory” is inspired by Dorianne Laux’s “Face Poem” which appears in her collection, Facts About the Moon.

Imitation is a tool I sometimes use when I’m stuck, and is an assignment I give to my creative writing students faithfully. I love to see how a form can be changed with new words. It is often one of the most successful poems my students write because they give themselves permission to use syntax and punctuation they might not ordinarily use.

 


JH: This book has incredible scope. Between poems we might jump decades. How long were you working on The Minor Territories? It comes eight years after your first collection. How did these books take form during the writing of individual poems?

DS: Well, my first collection was largely written pre-baby, as it was my graduate MFA thesis for the University of Mississippi. Being a working single parent takes a toll on your writing life. I worked on the poems in The Minor Territories for about ten years, often submitting it as a collection to contests before it was ready. I really credit the poet Carrie Fountain, with whom I worked as a mentee from a generous scholarship from Gemini Ink, for helping to shape the collection in its current form. Carrie told me to drop twenty poems and write twenty new ones, which I did over the course of about 6 months. It was a tall order, but the collection was much better for it. Sundress accepted it not long after that.

JH: You shift, in the last third of the book, from thinking about your relationship with your ex-husband, to your relationship with your daughter, your daughter’s relationship with her father, and, briefly, your relationship with your mother. What are you interested in writing about now?

DS: For the last few years, I’ve been working on a series of historical poems born out of ancestry research. There are pirates and Cherokee Indians, Bahamian spongers and shell-mongers, West Tennessee farmers, unnamed women who know only hard work and childbirth. It is endlessly fascinating to me. I’m having fun with it.

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Danielle Sellers is the author of two poetry collections: Bone Key Elegies (Main Street Rag, 2009) and The Minor Territories (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her work also appears in many journals and anthologies. When not teaching at Trinity Valley School in Texas, she can often be found writing or cooking.

Jessica Hudgins is a writer currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

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Interview with Rodney Gomez, Author of Citizens of the Mausoleum

 

Sundress Publications: The first poem in this collection begins with a quote from the Los Angeles Times, and several later poems also draw from newspaper articles. How did you make this decision? How do you see your work as a poet connected to, and interacting with, the work of a journalist?

Rodney Gomez: Well I think that poetry can and should serve as witness, especially for marginalized communities. I believe it’s a powerful way to document narratives that might otherwise go untold. So some of what you see in the book with reference to news articles is an attempt at preservation of some narratives that might not otherwise survive, or even be told at all. I don’t see this work as similar to journalism, however, because I am creating the story. I am not really telling the story. On the contrary, I am telling a story—the one that the poet hears and is then inscribing on the page. I can’t replicate, but only propagate, the narrative. Therefore, I felt that with these poems there was a need to point the reader to the actual news. In another sense, by drawing from news stories I am doing a very basic job—giving the reader some context that might be helpful to understand what is going on in the poem. In some cases, understanding might be necessary (“Checkpoint Aubade”). In others (“Zuihitsu of the Mesquite Virgin”) it’s helpful but not essential. I am indebted to other writers who uncover new realities. These shape my consciousness, and the poems themselves are also forms of gratitude. I see this relationship as parallel to an ekphrastic one, where another work of art serves as the impetus for my own poem-making.

SP: Your poem “Love” is so funny because it has this perfect twist at the end. It’s also notable because it’s a one-sentence, two-page monologue. Can you say a little about your process writing it?

RG: So “Love” actually arrived in the world pretty full-formed. There are autobiographical elements in it and the part about my friend and his girlfriend stem from an actual conversation, and so the style of the poem mimics that. It started off with a lot of conceptual leap-frogging and refusals to stop the freewheeling of imagination. I tried to focus the theme in subsequent drafts but I wanted to let the speaker’s point of view roam freely. It’s a bit neurotic, too, and I wanted to give the sense that you are hearing a monologue spoken on a therapist’s couch, but there’s a lot of room for empathy there.

 

SP: I feel like, in my own writing, I tend to do the same thing over and over again: the speaker’s voice is always my own voice, and I am usually writing about relationships. I can’t tell if this is just who I am, and that I should accept it, or if I need to push myself to experiment more. Reading through this collection, I’m so struck by the variety in form and tone. Is this something that comes naturally to you? My question is mostly one of admiration: how do you do it??

RG: Well I don’t like to be bored. I like surprises. I like to be delighted. I read so many collections that seem to operate exactly how you describe your own writing—the same voice, the same concerns, and the same way of telling the same stories or discovering the same concepts. So part of the reason for the variety in the book is a willingness to have fun. I have no allegiance to a particular conceptual framework or theoretical approach, so each poem starts anew.

On the other hand, I think development of a singular voice is not easy, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that your writing has a unity of voice. The voice you hear may be your own, or it may not. I would only consider the situation problematic if there were some lack of authenticity there. Is there something missing? Some people never find their voice, and this may be what you see going on in the collection. Maybe there are many voices because I haven’t found a voice. I might want to say that. Or I might want to say, instead, that I’ve developed a better ear for how a poem wants to develop than I had when I first seriously started writing poetry. So variety may be a consequence of developing the ear, or empathy. And the empathy is directed toward the poem—its concerns, its speakers, and its language.

SP: You have another book, Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge, coming out next year. Congratulations! Are you working on a new project now?

RG: Thank you. So yes, Baedeker will be out in February, I think, from YesYes. That’s the plan. That collection is about identity and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s a much more place-based book, a book about subverting conventions when it comes to Chicanxdad. I am working seriously on a third book right now, too, which is roughly based on the way we react to and make sense of acts of violence. It’s a horrible book in that it is depressing to write and really drains me, but I think it’s a book it is necessary for me to write. At this moment I am working on the one of centers of the book, a series of poems based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which is a series of dollhouse dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee to assist criminal investigators in their training. The scenes are ghastly — for example, one of them shows a bloody crib with a trail of blood leading out to the hallway from a child’s room. That book is a sister collection to Citizens and you can see some of the same concerns already in the first book. I’m not sure, ultimately, what kind of conceptual orientation the new collection will have. I only know that I have a rough operating theme and have certain contours of it in mind.

Citizens of the Mausoleum is available for sale at the Sundress store.

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Rodney Gomez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications, 2018), Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge (YesYes Books, 2019), and several chapbooks. He is the recipient of the Drinking Gourd Prize from Northwestern University and the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. His work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Verse Daily, and other journals and anthologies. A proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and the Chocholichex writing collective, he is also an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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Laura Villareal Interviews With Steven Sanchez About Debut Full-Length Collection

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Laura Villareal: I love the way Phantom Tongue weaves together religion, family, queerness, memory, and a complicated relationship with Mexican culture. With so many thematic strands, what was your approach to putting this manuscript together?

Steven Sanchez: In the beginning, I focused on writing into my obsessions rather than on creating a book—each poem was more important to me than figuring out how any particular poem might fit in with what I already wrote. My poems kept returning to the same themes and images, and my mentor Corrinne (Connie) Clegg Hales said that I should trust my subconscious, that there’s probably a reason why I kept obsessing over these particular topics. When it was time to put my thesis together, I printed all my poems out and started tracking what the main threads seemed to be and had a hard time separating them from each other.

My very first draft of Phantom Tongue had three sections. Connie asked me why I decided to use sections, and I didn’t really have a reason, other than it felt like a book should have sections. She said she didn’t really see a need for sections in this collection and I agreed with her. Then a couple of years later, I wrote more poems, replaced older poems, and tried out sections again—it was actually accepted by Sundress as a sectioned book. Sara Henning, my editor, actually brought up similar concerns about my sectioning and I re-read through Phantom Tongue and decided that the sections needed to go.

At first, I organized my poems based on their topics, but that felt too neat and sterile—I didn’t want a book that had a section of Queer poems, a section of family poems, a section of love poems, and a section of poems about language and internalized racism because those categories aren’t exclusive to each other—these categories, I realized, actually inform each other.

“On the Seventh Day” seemed like the best choice to open Phantom Tongue because a lot of the themes in the book appear in it. Next, I read that poem followed by several potential second poems in the collection until one seemed to fit, then I read that second poem followed by several third poem options, then the third followed by several fourth poem options, and repeated this process until I had a tentative order for the whole collection. (I ended up with dozens of different organizational possibilities to choose from.) The whole process reminded me of when I used to play Guitar Hero—you see the rows and rows of buttons coming towards you on the screen, but you just have to focus on playing the row of buttons closest to you. Eventually, the closest row disappears, then you can focus on the next row, then the next row, until you end up playing an entire song.

 

Laura Villareal: You have two chapbooks, To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) & Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017), was the process of putting together those manuscripts different from organizing your full-length?

Steven Sanchez: I feel like I totally approached each chapbook with the Guitar Hero strategy. I definitely couldn’t focus on as many threads in each chapbook, though. For To My Body, I ended up finding all of my poems that relied on body-related imagery. For Photographs, I focused more on poems revolving around memory. Even with those two different organizational focuses, each chapbook still tried to address internalized racism and internalized homophobia, which ended up becoming the backbone of Phantom Tongue.

 

Laura Villareal: While writing Phantom Tongue were there any books that you drew inspiration from? What are some books that you love and recommend?

Steven Sanchez: Two of the books that had a huge influence on me, especially when working on Phantom Tongue, were Rafael Campo’s What the Body Told and Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language.

Campo handles bodies, particularly Queer and brown bodies, with such tenderness and compassion. His book was the first book I’d ever read by a QPOC and it blew me away by showing me the different ways a body is labeled, identified, and understood. It also encouraged me to figure out the stories my own body has told and continues to tell—it empowered me interrogate who shape(d)/(s) my body’s narratives.

Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language lead me to question not just the narratives assigned to bodies, but how language is a dangerous (yet necessary) tool. What’s named can be weaponized. But, what’s named can also give somebody control over their own identity. Dream of a Common Language begins with one of my favorite poems, “Power.” In this poem, the speaker observes that Marie Curie gained her agency through her research on radioactivity. The speaker also observes that her hands-on approach with radioactive materials ultimately killed her. In this poem, power comes from our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the subjects that are most difficult to handle. While writing Phantom Tongue, I kept returning to “Power,” and as a result, I still find myself returning to it in newer poems I’ve been working on—I’ve adopted it as my own personal ars poetica.

In addition to these two books, a few more books I absolutely love and continue to learn from are Coal by Audre Lorde, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C.Corral, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero, Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González, Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel, My Alexandria by Mark Doty, Goodbye, Flicker by Carmen Giménez Smith, and The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir.

Laura Villareal: Something I admire about your writing is how you confront your relationship to Mexican culture. As a Latinx who can’t speak Spanish, I sometimes feel fraudulent or conflicted about my identity. I love the lines “small pigeons flying from her tongue, / carrying rolled R’s like small parcels / I’ve never been able to unwrap” in your poem “Past Tense”. I’m grateful for moments like those in your book. I guess I’m wondering, do you have any advice for confronting identity in poems when the relationship you have to it is complicated?

Steven Sanchez: That makes me really happy that you connected with “Past Tense,” I was really nervous writing that poem, especially because I felt like I was “outing” myself as a Pocho. I’ve been thinking a lot about my Pocho-ness, what it means for me to identify as a Pocho, and how this particular identity fits into larger systems of power. I don’t know if I have any advice, exactly, but I can totally share how I approached writing about my relationship to being Mexican and some of the things I got from that experience.

When I first started writing about my relationship to Mexican culture, one particular mentor was very encouraging. He pushed me to start including more Spanish in my poems, pushed me to start incorporating foods like nopales, tamales, and chorizo in my poems. He would say things like “This is so specific to your particular experiences and it’s great. You’ve really found your stride, keep it up.” And I did for a while, until I found myself writing poems to satisfy his expectations rather than writing poems that I felt genuinely connected to—I realized I was exoticizing myself and my poems to fit in with what he expected Latinx writers to write about.

Ironically, when I started writing about my queerness, he told me to stop letting my sexuality define my work and me.

I started understanding that when I was writing, I was writing with a straight, white audience in mind. I was making a Latino caricature of myself in my poems and downplaying queerness in order to reaffirm what some people think is an “authentic” representation of Latinidad. I think I fell into that trap because in workshop, we often discussed the “accessibility” of a poem, but whenever that word was thrown around, I didn’t comprehend that “accessible” has political implications—accessible for whom? People of color? Queer people? White people? Straight people?

When I started questioning who I wanted to access my poems, I realized I didn’t want to write for an audience who had a litmus test for the “authenticity” of my identities. I felt relieved, in a way, because it opened up a space for me to begin interrogating my own concerns about internalized racism, internalized homophobia, my inability to speak Spanish, and how those all affected me.
If I could give my younger-self advice, I would tell him that nobody has a monopoly over any identity. Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make you any less Latino. Write poems that matter to you. No matter what you write, people will label you whatever they’re going to label you, and that’s no longer your concern.

 

Laura Villareal: You reference religion quite a bit in your book. I feel like often religion and queerness can be at odds. I love where you say “Never forget what the Bible says: / when two people worship together, / they create a church / no matter where they are— ” in “What I Didn’t Tell You.” What’s your connection to religion and how do you feel it’s shaped your writing, if at all?

Steven Sanchez: I grew up as a nondenominational Christian, went to church every Sunday, was a member of a bunch of different Christian youth groups, and made sure to memorize the bible verse we were assigned each week in Sunday school—at one point I had memorized close to 300 verses. The interesting thing about the church I went to is that it was bilingual. The children’s Sunday school was exclusively in English, but the sermon afterwards for the whole church was entirely in Spanish, although the pastor occasionally translated some of his sermon into English. Prayers were almost exclusively in Spanish. That church also explicitly condemned homosexuality and banned open homosexuals from serving the church in any sort of capacity. In high school, I was the president of the Hanford High Christian Club and regularly attended services and youth events.

Needless to say, religion had a monumental impact on me growing up. You mention that Queerness and religion are often at odds, and that was definitely the case in my experience. When I started writing about homophobia, I noticed that religious imagery started creeping in without me even really intending for that to happen. When I started writing about internalized racism, religion also started creeping in. Religious imagery helped me interrogate the aspects of myself I was afraid to look at—as I was writing, it felt like internalized racism, internalized homophobia, and Christianity were inseparable. But, at the same time, I think my way of understanding the sacred is very much informed by Christianity even if I’m no longer Christian. I think, at least in some moments, using religious imagery in the context of Queerness was my way to reclaim and define for myself what is actually sacred.

 

Laura Villareal: The image system of your book is so tight. The visceral language makes it feel intensely intimate and resonate. All poets have linguistic obsessions, what are some of yours?

Steven Sanchez: Wow, thank you! I think one of my biggest linguistic obsessions, both now and when I was writing Phantom Tongue, is using “you.” I love the authority and force that comes from a direct address, especially in rough drafts. When I was writing about things that were particularly difficult, the second person address created a helpful distance between the subject and me. The second person made me feel inclined to write declarative sentences, and those declarative sentences built up my confidence as the draft progressed until, at some point in the poem, I gained enough confidence to trust my language, trust my images, and trust that what I had to say was important. Sometimes, the second person stays even after the initial drafts.

I think another reason I love the second person is because it fits with how I usually (attempt to) enter a poem—instead of thinking of a general audience for the poem, I find it more helpful to imagine that I’m writing the poem to a specific person—the images and language I use become my way of understanding my relationship to that person (and whatever topic that poem is trying to address). That being said, I think I’m particularly obsessed with fire, water, trees, and birds—those images made it easier to interrogate my relationships to some of the “you’s” I was writing to.

Another linguistic obsession I’ve noticed is that I love to list things in groups of three; I think it might be because of the way I was taught to end each prayer—“in the name of the son, father, and holy spirit.” It feels familiar and I get a sense of closure.

 

Laura Villareal: In June you’ll be teaching a month long workshop with Lemon Star Magazine focused on persona and social justice poetry, what made you choose those topics?

Steven Sanchez: I’m super stoked for that workshop! A few years back, Gary Jackson visited my school to read from his awesome book, Missing You, Metropolis—it’s a collection of super villain and super hero persona poems. One of my favorite poems in there is “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit.” In that poem, the speaker is Magneto (of the X-Men) and he comes across two children who have been lynched on swing set for being mutants. The poem is a powerful response to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and it ends with Magneto imagining how he will destroy the world.

Somebody asked him why he wanted to inhabit the voices of so many villains in his book. He responded by saying that poems, ultimately, are a tool of empathy. When we read poems, we are forced to see ourselves in the speaker. But, nobody wants to see themselves in the face of villains, nobody wants to know the horrible things we are all capable of, nobody wants to see themselves complicit in violence and oppression. I think about that all the time, which is actually what pushed me write “The Gunman” in Phantom Tongue—placing myself in the mindset of Omar Mateen in the moments leading to the Pulse shooting scared me, but by the end of it, I knew I couldn’t have written that poem any other way.

Another poet, Maggie Smith, said something else about persona poems that I’ve been thinking about a lot. She was on an AWP panel in Florida and an audience member asked the question (and I’m roughly paraphrasing), “How do I, as a person with relative privilege, write about racism and the experiences of people who are subject to systemic oppression?” Smith responded by saying that if we’re entering a conversation from a relative place of privilege, why don’t we place ourselves in the poem as the oppressor rather than the oppressed? We have more to gain (and risk) by inhabiting the persona of the oppressor—systemic oppression and violence isn’t just magically inflicted upon marginalized groups, it’s perpetrated by specific individuals and when we refuse to name and identify their role in oppression, we are missing our opportunity to actually learn from and understand systemic oppression in a more nuanced way. (Of course, Maggie Smith conveyed these ideas much more eloquently.)

I wanted to lead a Persona Poetry and Social Justice Workshop because I think Jackson and Smith are both absolutely right: we need to be willing to see ourselves in the villains of the world, because then it will help us understand how each of us, regardless of who we are, are complicit in systemic oppression.

 

Laura Villareal: I know Phantom Tongue is just coming out this month, but are you working on anything new?

Steven Sanchez: I am! It’s actually related to the workshop I’m leading. I’m trying to interrogate my own privilege and the ways I contribute to systemic oppression, even as a QPOC. I’ve attempted some persona poems, I’ve leaned into the “you” a lot, and I’ve been journaling a lot about it. Nothing’s even close to ready, but I feel like these drafts—my new obsessions—are leading me to my next collection.

 

You can order your copy of Phantom Tongue today at the Sundress store!

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Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Muzzle, Tahoma Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, and other publications.

Laura Villareal earned an MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. Her writing has appeared most recently in: The Acentos Review, Freezeray, Reservoir, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from The Highlights Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar. 

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