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Lyric Essentials: Julie Marie Wade Reads Two Poems by Maureen Seaton

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose and a longtime reader of Maureen Seaton. When we sat down to talk about Seaton’s work, Wade had deeply valuable insight which took us down roads from the epiphanous to the Blunderbuss. Wade looks deep into the heart of Seaton’s work and evidences the grace and good humor with which she connects. This interview is as much a tribute to Seaton by Wade as it is an instructional for anyone who hasn’t yet considered the importance of Seaton’s wide-ranging body of works. This interview made me wish I were one of Wade’s students.

Black: What made you choose the work of Maureen Seaton?

Wade: I think there are poets each of us have needed for many years before we find them, and when their poems appear before us at last, the experience is almost mystical—a feeling of having known someone before you knew them, of being deeply affirmed by the epiphany of their presence in the world. Maureen Seaton is just such a mystical, epiphanous, much-needed poet for me.

I went to high school and college in the 1990s, at a time when Maureen was coming out as queer and coming into her own as a poet who worked as diligently in form (sonnets, villanelles, et al.) as she did in the most envelope-pushing, experimental spaces. She was taking risks, in her life and in her art, that I didn’t yet realize a person, let alone a woman-person, could take.

Somehow I did not encounter Maureen’s writing until after I had already taken the greatest plunge of my own life, though—not going through with my marriage to a man at the end of my first year of graduate school and continuing my journey through life with my true love, a woman named Angie, to whom I am now happily married.

Not long after that plunge, in 2003 or 2004, I read a poem by Denise Duhamel called “When I Was a Lesbian,” which I found stunning and thrilling, a poem which opened doors for me to imagine my own life as formerly (for all intents and purposes) heterosexual. I took that poem as an invitation to begin exploring more consciously the first twenty-two years of my life “when I was straight.” But what I didn’t realize until I delved deeper into the collaborative poetry written by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton (Exquisite Politics indeed!) was that Denise’s poem was written as a response to Maureen’s own “When I Was Straight,” which belongs to an ever-growing series of other poems—“When I Was Avant-garde,” “When I Was a Jersey Girl,” “When I Was Bi(nary),” etc.—that opened onto the vast landscape of Maureen’s work in conditional, circumstantial, and subjunctive spaces.

Years later, I had the privilege of meeting and coming to know both of these poets, long-time friends and collaborators, in real life, and I was audacious enough to ask them to bless my own book-length project, a collection of poems called When I Was Straight. Not only did they bless it—they blurbed it, collaboratively!

 

Black: Why these particular poems of Seaton’s?

Wade: I have never read a Maureen Seaton poem where I didn’t have the sensation, at one point and usually at many points, of hearing a gong reverberate inside my head. When I read Maureen’s “When I Was Straight,” the gong struck loudest at this moment: “there is no lover like a panicked lover.” It was one of those moments—the best moments for readers of poetry, I think, or readers of any literature—where I sketched in my notebook, How did she know?!?! There was a cosmos in that line, one I recognized in my own life but had never even attempted to name, let alone in such a concise and elegant (and witty—I love the omnipresence of Maureen’s sense of humor across her canon) way.

So I knew I wanted to record this poem because it was the first, though by no means the last, of Maureen’s poems to seize me in that visceral and oracular kind of way. Then, I started looking at other aspects of the poem, particularly the diction and the juxtapositions. Who describes heteronormativity as “that Old Boyfriend Theory of Headache and Blunderbuss”? Who uses the word “blunderbuss”? I started noticing the little sparks coming off of pairings like “linearity and menthol” (an abstraction paired with a potent concrete), “pretense and fellatio” (there again), and chewy Anglo-Saxon words and phrases like “crowded with cleavage,” “fickle,” and “winged clavicle.” Which is to say I fell in love with this poem on all levels: conceptually, sonically, stylistically. It’s also meta, as the poem performs its own “trapeze art and graceful aerobics.” The poem is that art, those aerobics.

For the second poem, I ran into the challenging fact of the enormous range and depth of Maureen’s body of work to date. With so many gongs striking inside my head, so much marginalia scribbled on every page, I decided to choose a poem that moves in diametrically different ways than “When I Was Straight.” That poem is pulled taut like a tightrope in its shape on the page—all those lovely tercets upon which the speaker-as-tightrope-walker is performing her remarkable feats, turning somersaults and riding unicycles and juggling torches. I wanted to showcase something different. There were so many poems I considered— “What She Thought,” “Impatiences,” “The Nomenclature of Wind,” “He Crossed the Hallway with a Soul in His Hand,” and “Red” standout among them—but in the end I chose “The Realm of the Wide” as exemplar of Maureen’s wide-realm poetics. Instead of a tightrope, this poem is the circus tent, a canopy she opens over the whole world of her knowing and longing and wondering. If this poem were a horoscope, it would describe something essential about every Zodiac sign.

 

Black: “The Realm of the Wide” is particularly unique in its scope. This is a winding long-poem with a lot of great turns. What about it do you want to call particular attention to?

Wade: Through all my years as a student, there was an incongruity—really a snobbishness—that I never understood in the realm of literary theory. We learned there was a school of criticism called reader response, but then we learned, both explicitly and in a variety of subtle ways, that this school didn’t “count” as a real school. We could deconstruct and post-structuralize. We could go through mimetic doors and intertextual doors and feminist doors in our examination of texts, but we couldn’t go through that primary door of our own personal experience of intellectual-emotional-visceral engagement. As a teacher of creative writing, I know I don’t stand a chance of encouraging my students to “write as readers”—to cultivate an awareness of their audience—without acknowledging and anticipating a reader’s response to their work. And if we are writers, we were readers first and also readers in a state of essential perpetuity, let’s hope! So how can I ask my students not to cross the threshold of reader response, which I value not only as a doorway to meaningful analysis but also as a doorway to meaningful emulation?

Which is to say: “The Realm of the Wide” speaks to me directly as a poet with similar intellectual and emotional investments to Maureen Seaton. It also speaks to me as a poet who is always studying the possibilities of poetic form and the elasticity of poetry as a genre. It speaks to me as a teacher of poetry for similar reasons—the thrilling range of invitations and permissions the text offers to fellow and future writers. This poem further addresses me as a person with multi-genre and hybrid-text infatuations and commitments. I wonder whether poem is really only one name this text might answer to. Is it a micro-lyric-essay, too? A micro-lyric-segmented-braided essay? Some or all of the above?

This imperative alone: “Feel yourself mingle with the word you love beside you.” That’s what poets do, and lyric essayists, too. The words are alive. They can lose cells and run temperatures.

I’m also obsessed with finding new ways to talk about the moon, something that crystallized for me when I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s extraordinary memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. She invites readers to tell her something she hasn’t heard before about that much-romanticized heavenly body. Maureen does it here, seamlessly: “this moon has got me up the way someone comes in and drags you out of bed to play cards or eat mayonnaise on toast at 3 AM…” Yes! That way. That moon. Exactly.

There are bullet points in this poem, denoting the list from “baby pigs” to “a shaman in a wheelchair.” The blanks that follow the chorus of adjectives “Sorrowful,” “Joyful,” and “Glorious” are actual blanks, not the word “blank,” which changes the experience of reading the poem on the page versus listening to the poem read aloud. These visual poetics in Maureen’s work instantly transform the ranch house poem into a multi-floored mansion: rooms on top of rooms, a ceiling that is also a floor, etc.

And then the two quotes juxtaposed at the end, the high-art intellectual sound of Magritte’s statement about “symbolic meanings” and the profound yet directly accessible statement about vanilla attributed simply to “Nick,” the famous artist in conversation with the Everyman or Anyman. This is Maureen’s hierarchy-neutralizing power as a poet. She validates so many ways of knowing simultaneously. She rejects high horses. Her work is full of dark horses and wild horses. Her work epitomizes for me what Magritte means by “the inherent mystery” that many people sense in an image but are also frightened by because it can’t be easily named and thereby tamed. I find that inherent mystery everywhere in Maureen’s work, so I’m just holding up this poem as a representative example. When she says, “It mattered, but only slightly,” she is making a spectrum out of a taken-for-granted binary. If we are used to thinking of things mattering or things not mattering, as many of us are, then here come those surprising hoofbeats of “slight mattering,” the invitation to a thought experiment of mattering on a sliding scale.

Maureen’s is a luminous, curious, capacious, unrelenting mind. I would follow her anywhere because she has never used her intellect as a weapon or crafted her rigorous, expansive poems with only an elite readership in mind. On the contrary, I find Maureen Seaton to be one of Poetryland’s most generous guides. If she takes her readers into a swamp, she supplies the waders. She also grows and tends the orchids we are destined to find there.

Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?

Wade: Perhaps more than any other poet, Maureen has taught me that you can write as and from all your varied versions of self, including the most seemingly contradictory. Many poets become known for writing a certain way, a certain kind of “signature style,” a recognizable shape to the content and/or appearance of their poems—but not Maureen. I think her poems are deeply fluid, within and across every book project and sometimes even within a single poem. These poems are queer in the truest and deepest sense of the word—spectral, rhizomatic, protean, “all-of-the-above” poems. And this fact alone has given me tremendous permissions in my own approach to writing. I’m not trying to make my work into something that stays put after it’s placed on the page. I want to make work that feels like a living organism, the way Maureen’s poems do. Instead of the poem (or lyric essay, or hybrid form) as art object, I want to learn how to make the most porous and anti-static kinds of creations. If the poem is likened to a painting on the wall—vivid and imagistic—let it also be a painting where the eyes move, where the frame slants, where it is never the same painting twice that the viewer looks upon.

I often talk to my students about entering their own writing “through the smallest door,” and sometimes the smallest door is a single word. I like to get as close as I can to individual words, and Maureen’s poems bless and press that enterprise further. One whole stanza from “The Realm of the Wide” consists of: “The word: Outlandish.” And what a word! I love the invitation to stare at the word, to see the “out” and the “land” and the “dish” in it just by lingering in that long pause. I’ve never asked Maureen if she is synesthetic, but her poems are, and as a synesthete who experiences the world of language in vivid colors, Maureen’s poetry amplifies my synesthetic experience of the world as well, adds another tier/floor/skylight. “You could jump the fire and ride to where the words are backdrafting,” she writes. How visceral and invigorating and absolutely true!

Finally, I think it’s Maureen’s own biomythography she’s drafting and revising and reimagining across these pages. (I hope Audre Lorde wouldn’t mind my invoking her term here, as I know Maureen and I both deeply admire and write as grateful readers of Lorde.) Maureen’s poems resist stasis because she has resisted stasis—staying put in any one role, category, or geographical location. Maureen is candid about falling into and out of love, marriage, divorce, sexual awakenings, motherhood, faith, doubt, and always, the complexities, dare I say “the inherent mysteries,” of gender, desire, and the body. There is much in her life’s reckoning and recurring themes that overlap with my own. In another salient capsule of experience that seems to denote the way she was raised, Maureen writes, “Everything/ should be Disney or saintly.” That was my first imperative, too. With every poem and hybrid form, Maureen is teaching me how to write my way beyond those initial strictures of conventional beauty, contrived happiness, and religious dogma.

Black: What are you working on now?

Wade: On the prose front, I’m writing essays for a collection called “The Regulars,” which is another slant on my own bildungsroman. At a certain point in time, I realized that I have stories I tell and stories I write, and it occurred to me that some of the stories I tell—which are often the most absurd glimpses of my childhood, darkly humorous but also intimidatingly sad—might have another kind of life on the page. The title is a reference, in the most literal sense, to being regular customers at the Old Spaghetti Factory every Sunday, my parents and I, but also to the relentless quest for normalcy—or at least to be perceived as normal and consequently likable, admirable, and good—that governed my upbringing. (“Everything/ should be Disney or saintly” indeed!) Angie, my spouse, suggested the title, which I love, and so I’ve been writing my way into some of my own personal oral tradition, the stories I have only shared with close friends who say, “Tell us about the time you had to …” or “What was it your parents did when …”

On the poetry front, I’m writing a lot of secular psalms for a sequence that I think will belong, eventually, to a collection called Quick Change Artist. That project might also subsume some or all of the poems from When I Was Straight, which illustrates the before-and-after experiences of someone, essentially the same someone, who was first perceived as heterosexual and trying very hard to tow many tacit heterosexual lines, and then who, in the second half of the project, reckons with all the new ways people respond to her as an out lesbian, a woman marked by sexual difference.

There’s also a hybrid-form memoir about food that I’ve been toying with for years called The Western Family. (I grew up on the West Coast, and the brand of most of the food products we ate in our home was “Western Family.” Food as source of pleasure, shame, ritual, family connectedness and family discord, and food as marker of a particular zeitgeist is something I intend to explore.) And eventually, I plan to write a collection of poems that mirrors the question-and-answer clues on Jeopardy!, the game show that seems to have played ceaselessly at the dinner table throughout my youth and is now playing throughout my adulthood, recording daily on our DVR, in fact!

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Maureen Seaton received her MFA at Vermont College and is the author of nine poetry collections and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls among many other projects. Her work has notably appeared in Best Small Fictions and Best American Poetry among many other places. Seaton has received multiple awards and recognitions for her work. Among them, several Lambda awards, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection, Fisher was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Seaton is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Miami, Florida.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Catechism: A Love Story, SIX, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, and the forthcoming The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami.

Links to the good stuff:

Seaton at Black Lawrence Press

Seaton’s Newest Collection, Fisher

The Rumpus Interviews Maureen Seaton

Seaton at Lambda Literary

Julie Marie Wade’s Website

Julie Marie Wade at The Academy of American Poets

Julie Marie Wade at Tupelo Quarterly

Wade’s When I was Straight

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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Lyric Essentials: Emma Trelles Reads Three Poems by Ada Limón

Poet Emma Trelles, author of Tropicalia (Notre Dame, 2011), came to chat about the extraordinary work of Ada Limón. We talked about horses, chaos, and the importance of Latinx poetry.

Black: Limón’s work impacts a lot of people and as a result, she enjoys well-earned success. What is in her work that you are particularly drawn to?

Trelles: There’s so much I admire about her work. She is a master of cadence in that she knows precisely where to expand and contract her lines to create a voice that reads to me instead of the other way around. I think it might be easy to miss this aspect of craft in her poems because the sound of them is deeply engaging, like having a conversation with a confidante. But it takes a lot of effort to create that ease and she renders this armature invisible. I’m also drawn to how her poems are both joyous and melancholy at once as if she is celebrating the experience of life instead of simply its victories. “In the Country of Resurrection” comes to mind; she begins with the mercy killing of a possum on a dark road and ends with a gush of morning light in the kitchen. In seven couplets, a shape that echoes this duality, she moves us through despair, and in the final two she speaks to the decisiveness, the choice, it takes to move forward. Her poems are survivors, and the ability to endure inspires me as an artist and a human every time I’m bludgeoned with another slab of bad news. We must continue.

 

Black: Horses are a recurring theme throughout the book, and we see it again here in “Downhearted.” This theme really hit home for many readers. Do you connect with it, also? And if so, why? Where does it take you?

Trelles: That’s interesting—I hadn’t thought about horses as a theme but more of how they fit into the prominence of the natural world in these poems. A terrible accident kills six horses in the first line of “Downhearted,” and this tragedy sets off a meditation about how we manage or manufacture sorrow even as we long for “the blood to return…the thrill and wind of the ride.” From beginning to end, this book houses creatures, landscapes, flora, the pleasures and failures of the body—they all are themselves, of course, but they also serve as fleshy signposts that point her, and us, toward ourselves and something bigger than ourselves. Namely, how we try and find meaning in chaos and how that process sustains us.

Black: Limón moves into prose poems off and on throughout the collection and we see it here in “The Quiet Machine.” What do you see as the purpose for this movement? How does this play with the other forms in the collection?

Trelles: I’ve thought a lot about how “The Quiet Machine” feels like an ars poetica to me and, now, looking at the other prose poems, I’m starting to suspect they all address writing in a way, or at least the feeling of making, and how that arrives through whir or stillness or somewhere in between. To me these poems serve as a deep pause; they slow down the hearty gallop of the book (which is astonishing for a collection of poems!) in a way that amplifies intimacy. Some of these poems felt like reading the pages of a secret notebook … 

Black: Do these connect in some way to or intersect with your own work?

Trelles: Oh yeah; my own writing also teems with trees and birds, sky and water. I’ve always been a great watcher of the natural world and my first book, Tropicalia, explores how the subtropics intersect with the built environments of South Florida and what it means to live in the midst of that thicket of concrete and lushness. I also connect to Ada Limón’s work because we are both Latinx writers who do not necessarily address our heritage in the ways that have come to be expected of us, such as through the lenses of ancestry or immigration, for example. I love reading those poems and greatly value the work of poets who write within this framework.

Perhaps now more than ever, Latinx poems are crucial to humanizing a population who is currently being criminalized in our country for no other reason than where we come from. With 57 million of us in the US, I’d also like to think there are lots of different ways to live and write as a Latinx poet, and these poems are important too because they show how we are not a monolith; our experiences are nuanced and singular and so is our creative work.

 

Black: Will you tell us about your work both completed and any current projects you’re working on?

Trelles: Well, it’s been a while since Tropicalia, won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was put out by the good folks at the University of Notre Dame Press. Since then, I moved to California and now program the Mission Poetry Series here in Santa Barbara. I’ve worked on a number of projects with Letras Latinas, most recently as an editor for its contribution to the Poetry Coalition, a national coalition of more than 20 organizations that promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities. I’ve been writing and publishing poems and hope to finish a working draft of my next manuscript by the end of this summer. There—’ve said it in print and now I’m beholden! I’ve also been collaborating with Alexandra Lytton Regalado on a series of poems inspired in part by the work and lives of women artists. In fact, I owe her an envoi and that’s the very next thing I’ll write.

Black: Thank you, Emma, for sitting down with me. And I’ll be hoping for that next collection, I can’t believe you committed to that in writing!

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Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky WreckThis Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Her new collection, The Carrying, will be released by Milkweed Editions in August of 2018. (Bio is from the author’s website.)

Emma Trelles is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the author of Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a finalist for Foreword/Indies poetry book of the year, and a recommended read by The Rumpus. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Best of the Net, Verse DailyPolitical Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity and others.  Recent poems appear in The Miami RailZócalo Public Square,and SWWIM.  A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, she lives with her husband in California, where she teaches at Santa Barbara City College and programs the Mission Poetry Series.

Links to the good stuff:

Limón’s Website

Limón at Compose Journal

Bright Dead Things at Milkweed

Limón at The Poetry Foundation

Trelles on SWWIM

Trelles at Zócalo

Trelles at Best American Poetry

Trelles’ Tropicalia at NDP

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, SWWIM, and New Mobility among others. She was awarded her MFA at Arizona State University and has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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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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Felicia Zamora reads from House A by Jennifer S. Cheng

Felicia Zamora is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks, but more than that, she is an incredible supporter and champion of the works of other writers in a way that makes her an astonishing ally and a valued friend. On poetry she is well-read and searingly intelligent. So of course, I asked her to read for us here at LE and I was excited to see who she would choose to share.

Zamora chose Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A (Omnidawn) and read three poems for us from this gorgeous book, evidencing her incredible generosity.

Black: What a great choice. What made you choose Jennifer S. Cheng to share with us?

Zamora: Cheng writes, “children experience memories as image and sound, which is to say they experience them as poetry.” Here is a book that builds poetry, history, memory, and home—inside each page, each utterance of longing.

House A is one of those books I ordered because I am a fan of Omnidawn Publishing and appreciate the new voices they bring to the conversation from new and emerging poets. Reading other women poets of color is important to my own writing as I am fueled by the experiences and worlds being created by these poets. These are necessary voices. Voices we all must hear. I was only a few poems into Cheng’s epistolary “Dear Mao” sequence and I was thinking, “Wow, I wish I had written this” which is my telltale sign that I love a book.

Cheng weaves intricate images that make a reader fall into these letters of searching. In “Letters to Mao” she writes, “Lost: the dark / spot inside my mother’s throat. Lost: house inside my seams.” Home is in the flesh. Home is in the history of family and culture. Home is in “the dark silhouette of my mother’s hair” and how her father taught her “to listen to the inside of a seashell.”

Black: Is the entire book in epistolary form?

Zamora: The book comprises of three sections with only the first section comprising of epistolary poems. In the middle and third sections, Cheng explores how one studies and organizes memory and place. She asks the reader to consider how one creates a home from scratch. She never loses sight of the act of building home in all its bodily and worldly means.

In the second section, “House A; Geometry B”, she writes:

“…the body of articulation occurs through

a house…

let us iterate it until it is its own

baseline. dislocation a house. longing as

location.”

This is transcendent work that Cheng accomplishes throughout these pages. She requires readers to rethink how we conceive of “home.” We enter into the journey of searching, not just by language, but by the universal language of mathematics, or ‘geometry’, and through the construction of voice and images, that keeps swimming back to how one makes sense of rootedness and a lack of rootedness.

Again in “House A; Geometry B” she writes:

“the body of a house:

sleeping fossil

geometric shell”

Black: Claudia Rankine said of the book, “Not since Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Calvino’s invisible Cities have I encountered such attention to the construction of love and love’s capacity to transform unimagined locations.” And I’m intrigued by the locations she talks of. Can you speak a little bit to the idea of place in Cheng’s work?

Zamora: It is through loss that the voice finds home in the everyday moments, finds place as something she can stow away into memory and carry with her. These are hard and beautiful poems born of necessity. Poems of a life in question of place. How do place and life come together? How does place etch inside us, leaving its mark? Cheng demonstrates how a body in longing plucks what it must, creates out from love new definitions of place.

She writes:

“…home is a narrative we are both familiar/with…

So that ours was always a story of leaving and never an/

anchoring of place.”

As a reader, Cheng builds micro worlds in each poem in which readers are allowed to swim in and contemplate space and place. She creates a fluidity in both her ideas and her language. This book acts as history, like the water in our bodies, it stays with a person into memory.

In “Letters to Mao” she writes:

“Dear Mao,

I hope you understand that what I am doing is trying to give you a history

of water, which, like memory and sleep, is fluid and wafting in refracted

light. History as water, so that I am giving you something that spreads.”

In many ways, these prose blocks transport and mimic the theme of the book: how home becomes that which we carry inside. How, “Such residue, the way a ghost becomes a blueprint.” There are historical vestiges of place inside those who long.

“Dear Mao,

Phantom limb.

Cheng explores how displacement transforms a person, beyond a diasporic hunger of place, and the how the mind creates the necessary places for survival and love, in a world within us. However, even in the creation of, the voice is still haunted by history and absence; these ghosts in linger.

She says to Mao:

“…You were dust in my house. A

shadow underneath the floorboards.”

Black: What do you want to be certain a reader notices in this work?

Zamora: This is complex work: to unravel time and place in search of meaning in the journey of diasporic history, to speak of “the watery life of home” that goes beyond what Cheng says, “the ambiguity of homeland” that one does not possess in their own memory, for those memories belong to someone else. Connectivity to geography is that of spinning globes, tidewater, and ceramic horses.

She writes:

“…For homeland is something embalmed

in someone else’s memory, or it is a symbol, both close the heart

and a stranger you reach for in the middle of the night.”

Black: Do you see connections between either the poet and yourself or her work and your own?

Zamora: In House A, Cheng uses the form of prose poetry in the first section of the book to explore an intricate weaving of thoughts in compiled letters to Mao. The language in these poems combine narrative and lyric in electrifying and transformative ways, as well as the necessity of the experience being written for the reader to share. She writes, “If I could take a shadow and sew it to another until it formed a roof above my head.” This building of images, I mean, wow; this is world-building.

I’ve been drawn to the prose and prose-ish poem in my own poetry, because of the work the form requires of a writer: intimate attention to both the line and the sentence in simultaneity, and the poet must consider the role of each of these elements and how they function cohesively in the poem.

I also connect with Cheng’s work because she attends to the missing, the absent, the hole so authentically and with such necessity. She weaves the intricate fibers of language in these poems, and strums. My history was also shaped in absence and a different kind of displacement, so Cheng’s poems idea of home speaks to me and how home resides more inside my body than outside.

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Felicia Zamora’s books include Of Form & Gather, winner of the 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame 2017), & in Open, Marvel (Parlor Press 2017), and Instrument of Gaps(Slope Editions 2018). She won the 2015Tomaž Šalamun Prize (Verse), authored two chapbooks, and was the 2017 Poet Laureate of Fort Collins, CO. Her poetry is found in Alaska Quarterly Review,Crazyhorse,Indiana Review, jubilat, Meridian, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, West Branch, and others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Colorado Reviewand is the Education Programs Coordinator for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Jennifer S. Cheng received her BA from Brown University, MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa, and MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She is the author of MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems, selected by Bhanu Kapil as winner of the Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize (May 2018), HOUSE A, selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), a chapbook in which fragments of text, photographs, found images, and white space influence one another to create meaning. A U.S. Fulbright scholar, Kundiman fellow, and Bread Loaf work-study scholar, she is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Harold Taylor Award, the Ann Fields Poetry Award, the Mid-American Review Fineline Prize, and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poetry and lyric essays appear in Tin House, AGNI, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Volta, The Offing, Sonora Review, Seneca Review, Hong Kong 20/20 (a PEN HK anthology), and elsewhere. Having grown up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Connecticut, she currently lives in rapture of the coastal prairies of northern California. (Bio is from JSC’s website.)

Links to some good stuff:

Jennifer S. Cheng’s Website

Jennifer S. Cheng at Entropy Mag

From the Voice of a Lady in the Moon, a poem by JSC

Felicia Zamora’s Website

Zamora’s Poetry at Poetry Northwest

Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.

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Meet Our New Editorial Intern, Emily Corwin

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Hello! My name is Emily Corwin and here are some things to know about me!

  1. I love lists. Also bread, coffee, dresses, and lipstick.
  2. I live in Bloomington, Indiana with my partner, Joe and my cat, Soup.
  3. I am currently completing an MFA in poetry at IU Bloomington!
  4. As someone with chronic conditions (hip impingement, anxiety disorder, various joint issues), I write a lot about physical and psychic pain, and about fairy tales, the girly and the grotesque, longing, and magic.
  5. Next spring, my first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press. I have two chapbooks, darkling (Platypus Press) and My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) which came out in 2016.
  6. I am a Midwestern girl through and through—I grew up in Michigan, went to school in Ohio, and now, I am in Indiana!
  7. My favorite color is pink, my favorite musician is Grouper, and my favorite flowers are dahlias.
  8. My current poetry inspirations: Diane Seuss, Liz Bowen, Laura Theobald, Jennifer Givhan, Vievee Francis, Kiki Petrosino, and Stacy Gnall.
  9. My ancestor, Jonathan Corwin, was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials.
  10. I just finished my year as Poetry Editor of Indiana Review, and I am looking forward to continuing my editorial work at Sundress!

Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Day One, Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, THRUSH, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.

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An Interview with Jessica Rae Bergamino

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Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them (Sundress Publications, 2016). She sat down to talk to our editorial intern Adam J. Gellings about process, influence, and more!

Adam J. Gellings:  The Desiring Object OR Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them, is a wonderful combination of space & scientific exploration, crafted beautifully into these light, almost buoyant poems that float across the page. Could you speak about the conception of these topics, & how they all came together?

Jessica Rae Bergamino: First, thank you Adam for such a generous reading of The Desiring Object and for these thoughtful questions!

I first became interested in the Voyager mission’s emergence as contemporary mythology while listening to Ann Druyan’s discussion of the project on WNYC’s Radiolab.  These antiquated robots — without enough memory to play an MP3! — are floating through space with a golden record encoded with, among other things, the brain waves of a woman falling in love.  I wanted to explore what would happen if that knowing of oneself as something that can both desire and be desired was transferred on to their robot bodies. As the project evolved it became my love letter to queer femme resilience and the ways femmes constantly evolve the boundaries of desirability.

AJG: Other than poets, were there any other outside influences that were formative to the poems in this collection coming together?

JRB: Along with re-watching the original Cosmos, I read as much about the Voyager project as I could. I was lucky to have access to some amazing primary source material through a university library, including recordings of the congressional hearings on the project and maps of moons made from the Voyager observations and flybys. Two books, though, were particularly instructive: Murmurs of Earth, which explores the contents and creation of the Gold Records, and The Voyager Neptune Travel Guide, which is a weird little book prepared by NASA to orient Earthlings to the interstellar mission. It has a flip book of Voyager’s approach to Neptune!  It also has incredibly detailed explanations of what each of Voyager’s scientific instruments do and how they work.

AJG:  There is a playful rhythm to many of these poems as you read through them. Most notably in pieces such as ‘Ultraviolet Spectrometer” & “Triaxial Fluxgate Magnetometer,” where the reader is brought back to a single word or sound to bounce off of from each line. I wondered if you could talk a little about the construction of these poems in particular? How did you know when they were complete?

desiringobject

JRB:  Each section of The Desiring Object is titled after a scientific instrument that composes the Voyager’s bodies and the corresponding text explores, however tangentially, the work of that instrument.  I wanted to anthropomorphize Voyager Two without stripping away her scientific realities and hoped I could reverse engineer Charles Olson’s ideas about projective verse as if the typewriter were experiencing the text, not the poet. The ultraviolet spectrometer measures light, so it lent itself to the opening poem, and I loved the visual rhyme between the ultra-poetic O – invocation and exhalation, whole and hole, planet and a mouth, boundary and unending loop, etcetera, etcetera  – and the binary 0.

At the same time that the list of scientific tools provided a great constraint, I knew I couldn’t commit to a linear narrative of psychological development wherein each section had a clear resolution and the next section presented an entirely new challenge — the poems needed to experience technical glitch, repetition, and failure. The triaxial fluxgate magnetometer measures magnetic fields, so I knew that had a great potential to gravitate – pardon the pun – back to an earlier section of the poem.  I knew each section was done when I could no longer see the seams where the poems were knit together, but I could still feel the strain against them.

AJG:  Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

JRB:   I read drafts aloud to my cat.  A lot

AJG:  Who are your ‘go-to’ authors, or specific books that you reach for when you’re in a crunch?

JRB:  It utterly depends on the type of the crunch, but Elizabeth Bishop, Brenda Hillman, Sina Queyras, Lucie Brock Broido, and Alice Notley are among the constants.

AJG:  What upcoming projects do you have on the horizon?

JRB:  I have been working on – dare I say completing? – a full length manuscript which imagines both Voyager One and Two as they grapple with the ethical and intimate limitations of the interstellar mission.  I’m also beginning a project which explores the intersections of haunting, anxiety, and girlhood.

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Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of 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 or are forthcoming in Salt Hill, Willow Springs, The Journal, Gulf Coast, The Offing, Colorado Review, and The Cincinnati Review. She is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Utah, where she is poetry editor for Quarterly West. 

Adam J. Gellings is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a PhD student in English at SUNY Binghamton & he received a MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. You can find his work in Quarter After Eight, Rust + Moth & forthcoming in Post Road Magazine.

 

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On Poetry, Motherhood, and Bad TV: An Interview with Karen Craigo

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Montreux Rotholtz: Could you tell me a little bit about your process? Is there a guideline or a series of rules you impose upon yourself or use to edit your poems? And finally, what kind of generative exercises do you use to create new work?

Karen Craigo: When you’re really busy, it’s best not to be too married to process. The only thing I’m consistent about is writing every day. Sometimes it’s first thing in the morning; sometimes it’s in bed by the light of my phone. But I always write, and by this I mean that I write something with a purely creative purpose—neither my blog nor my journalism counts, although that writing, too, is a creative act. I try every day to try to express something essential in writing.

Of course, I do have to feel like writing when the occasion strikes. Because all of that writing has kept me in condition, so to speak, I tend to just jump right in. It hasn’t always been like this. In those periods when I’ve been away from the page for a long time, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to start anything. That’s where prompts come into play. I make a word bank from a failed poem, or I use something my son has said as a first line. (Lately his thing is to ask me to take him to imaginary places—“Let’s go to the egg house!” or “Take me to the place where they keep the bells.”) I make a mental note of these things, and when I have time to write, they provide an interesting germ of an idea—a starting point.

Incidentally, I’m not big on revision. I labor like crazy over small poems, and I tend to wrestle them to the ground in one sitting. I may make small changes after that, but for the most part, the poems are completed in a single occasion. I credit the fact that I’ve been quietly prewriting between writing sessions. I’ve been composing without pen or keyboard since the last time I sat down to do that.

MR: Reading No More Milk gives us some clues about your obsessions, the things you are grappling with and working around. Could you talk more about the themes you return to again and again; the topics you find your poetry reaching toward; the objects, people, or places that haunt your work? What are you obsessed with right now?

KC: I’m so transparent! Motherhood is magical to me, and I like to approach it mindfully. It’s perfectly fair to characterize that as an obsession. I’m also obsessed with spirituality and the body, and also with working life, and these themes dovetail throughout No More Milk. I consider myself the poet laureate of the electric bill. Someone needs to sing those ordinary songs—or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Right now, I’m all about television. I’m very excited about a manuscript-in-progress of poems based on characters from classic TV—Bewitched, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Happy Days, Sanford and Son. Whether it’s a love poem to the Professor from Gilligan’s Island or a paean to the Gooch from Diff’rent Strokes, I’ve been inspired by this project, and I even get to honor some important figures from my youth. The fact that Fonzie is fictional is no reason not to thank him for being magical.

MR: What are you reading at the moment? 

KC: I recently bit off a bit more than I could chew with a National Poetry Month book review project. I solicited books, intending to read one a day and then offer an appreciation (not a review—just an expression of where I found the most enjoyment in each collection). But I had sort of a tough April in some respects, and the job loomed very large—so I’m taking a more leisurely approach, reading any new collection I can get my hands on and reviewing them as I go. This project may stretch through the summer, and maybe I’ll never stop. But what I’m reading now is, quite simply, all the things. It’s been a great education for me.

MR: Do you find that what you’re reading changes or informs your work, or do you seek out specific reading material because your work is tending in a certain direction already? 

KC: I put a lot of stock in the value of randomness, both in my poems and in my reading. The best poems happen when you approach them in an uncalculated way, and I think reading whatever my gaze lands on helps with that. The trick is to buy lots of stuff and keep it around, near at hand. I guess you could say that I plan for serendipity to happen; there are poetry collections near every chair in my house, including the porcelain ones.

MR: Which poets do you see as formative for your work, and why? In particular, are there any underrepresented or rarely discussed authors who’ve really informed your poetry or perspective?

KC: This answer may be surprising, but I most enjoy poets who are very intuitive about form and content. Carl Phillips is one favorite. Larissa Szporluk is another. I don’t write like either of them; maybe I’m not bold enough to lean on intuition the way they do. I aspire to that, though—to trusting myself and trusting my readers enough to let us co-create a bit more than I do now.

MR: What, besides other poetry, influences your writing? Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from film, television, music, dance, or other art forms? What are your secret influences?

KC: You know what I love? Mystery novels and bad TV. I’m very lowbrow—like, astonishingly so. I sometimes turn on an NCIS or Bones marathon as background noise while I write. I was a newspaper reporter for a lot of years, and I do really well with a low hum of noise in the background. A movie or TV show I’ve seen a hundred times can be just the ticket.

I have another set of habits, though, that may seem a little contradictory. I like to keep a dream journal, and I’m very invested in meditation and breathwork. I can’t exactly call my dreams a secret influence, since they’re probably the product of too many television detectives themselves. But I do like to dig deep within sometimes, and to turn away from overt outside influences. I have this idea of God as a force we can immerse ourselves in if we pay the right sort of attention, and I guess I think it’s good practice to tap her on the shoulder every now and then. Or maybe, more accurately, to curl up in her lap. I like the writing that follows this, and I guess I kind of like going back and forth between the spirit and the world. It would probably be a mistake to dwell permanently in either sphere.

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MR: Tell us a little about No More Milk’s creation. Would you say that these poems were written to be together, to flesh out a story or theme, or did you write each one individually and see the connections between them later? How do you approach the process of creating a whole and complete book?

KC: No More Milk can probably be described as a true first book, in the old mode. These days people seem to write collections from the start, but I feel like there was a time when first books were more like a designer’s lookbook, offering lots of different styles, from day to evening to cocktail to red carpet. My obsessions (which you mentioned earlier) sort of unify the work—there’s a lot about parenting, a lot about money, a lot about the body—but I think I approached them somewhat individually. I guess I’m lucky, in a sense, that I get a little stuck—a little fixated—and also that I write a lot. I had plenty of poems to choose from, and they hung together pretty well, sort of by accident.

MR: What about the titles? How do you see them working together, opening the way for a reader or closing it off? How do you go about writing titles for your poems? 

KC: Titles are really hard for me, and I admire poets and other writers who excel at them. Sometimes I begin with a label title—“Milk” or “Money” or “Happiness”—and then obviously I have to revisit it and try again. It’s agonizing for me. A title sort of delineates a poem, and if you’re not careful, a careless one or a too-specific one can shut the windows on a poem, taking away a possible vantage point.

I’ve become much more loose with titles recently. I used to drag the lake of the poem, looking for a phrase that I could stick on top. These days I let myself be more inventive when titling—I just generate an appealing phrase—and I’m finding that much more satisfying.

MR: Can you reveal a secret to our readers? It can be about anything you’d like.

KC: I have three unusual phobias: revolving restaurants, the state of Wisconsin, and those old-timey desk spikes people once used to collect receipts and stuff. One of these days, I’m nearly certain I’ll be found dead with a desk spike in my eye.

MR: What is the best advice you’ve ever received (writing-related or otherwise)?

KC: So much advice turns out to be worthless—not even harmful, just baseless and dumb. You can swim after eating; the weight of a corndog is not going to pull you down. You should have sex before marriage, and with lots of different kinds of people—you’ve got to check yourself before you wreck yourself. Eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you—we go back and forth, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re yummy in a McMuffin, so I’m eating those sonsabitches.

I’ve received some good advice, though. My dad told me to read a lot so I wouldn’t be dumb. And my mom told me to always make sure I had some money in my pocket and an alternate way home. My best friend in college convinced me to stop what I’m doing and get down in the grass to check out the bugs. One of my favorite professors instilled in me the importance of not judging people’s utterances by their grammar and conventions. 

Writing-wise, the best advice I ever received was to do it—write, I mean. All real writers say it. They’ll swear by one method or another for themselves, but particulars aside, the spirit of the advice comes down to this: Sit your butt down and be a conduit for the words. That’s the best writing strategy, and it works for all of us, regardless of skill level or genre or anything else. Sit and write and see what appears. That advice has always paid off for me, whether spiritually or artistically.

You can pre-order No More Milk today at the Sundress store!

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Karen Craigo is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013) and Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004), and her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals. She is a three-time recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council, and she is a former summer fellow with the Fine Arts Work Center. A freelance writer and editor, she also teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon. Her debut full-length poetry collection, No More Milk, will be released from Sundress Publications in 2016.

Montreux Rotholtz is a poet and an editorial intern with Sundress Publications. Her poetry collection, Unmark, was selected by Mary Szybist as the winner of the 2015 Burnside Review Press book award. Her poems appear in Prelude, jubilat, The Iowa Review, the PEN Poetry Series, Fence, and elsewhere. 

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Interview with Donna Vorreyer

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Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish from Redbird Chapbooks. She is the reviews editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection, and she works as a middle school teacher in the Chicago suburbs.

Sundress: Tell me about your process: Do you plan what you want each poem to accomplish, or does your writing evolve as you are working on it?

Donna Vorreyer: I rarely go into a poem knowing what I want it to accomplish. Each poem starts with some trigger –a piece of language, an idea, an image, a prompt, even –but then takes on a life of its own. I can start free-writing about tomatoes and end up with a long poem about a persona unearthing childhood trauma. I think that, once the poem lives on the page for a while, I can perhaps shape it to my will, but in a draft, the ideas and images of a poem have to be allowed to spread like ripples in a puddle. I believe that intellectualizing the poems too much at the beginning of the process can lead to stilted work. That’s why, during dry spells in my drafting, I don’t force ideas on to the page. The minute I say, “I’m going to write a poem about…” is the minute that I will draft a lousy poem. My initial drafts tend to be pretty rambling and somewhat prose-y in nature. In revision, I tend to hone image with particular attention to sound. And, as you have seen, most of my completed poems end up fairly short. So one could say I am more of a whittler than an architect.

Sundress: What’s on your bookshelf? Who are the main writers who inspire you and inform your work?

Donna Vorreyer: My bookshelves (there are many, all over the house) have a lot of poetry, of course, but also everything from biographies to novels to strange non-fiction topics like deadly plants and museum artifacts. In terms of main writers who inspire me, there are many, but I have a shortlist. Classic favorites, I would say, are Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickens and Melville. The richness of their language and syntax teaches me something new each time I read and re-read. In terms of informing my work, anything that I am reading is an influence. When I was reading the journals of Lewis and Clark, the language of nature was an inspiration. Reading Melville, the long sentences make my brain move differently. Reading Katie Ford or Traci Brimhall makes me consider image, emotional urgency, and surprise. Reading Amorak Huey and Diana Goetsch teaches me about humor and movement from idea to idea. So, I can’t honestly say that one particular writer influences me more than others.

Sundress: You often reference an unnamed “you” in your poems. Do you consider it the same “you” throughout, or does the title imply that these poems are many different “apocalypse stories”?

Donna Vorreyer: It could be read either way. I’d like to leave it to the reader to decide.

Sundress: You use water imagery throughout the book: “of the sea pulling into itself, the science of tides,” “Useless life, wharf/ with no docks” “When we wake, we walk to the river,” etc. Did you intentionally use water as a theme, or is it an image you are drawn to as a writer?

Donna Vorreyer: I do not intentionally return to water as an image, but I am drawn to water in a personal way, so I think it creeps into many poems (hopefully not in a clichéd way). I love the sound of waves and rushing falls, the fact that water can be both transparent and opaque, its colors, its moods…As someone who grew up near enough to Lake Michigan to know water but far enough away to yearn for it, water holds a sense of mystery and grandeur for me. Of course, there is also the human dependence on water –we are, after all, made of those atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, and anytime one is writing about the human condition or relationships, the body looms large. And the body contains oceans.

Sundress: Tell us a little about the title of the book and its significance.

Donna Vorreyer: The book was conceived as a way to explore how society tends to escalate any problem or obstacle to the level of apocalypse. I work with teenagers, and their tendency to inflate the size of a problem is normal. But I’ve also noticed serious issues with scale in all aspects of life today, especially on social media. Everything is either great or a crisis, and that idea needed a story to frame it.

A love story is the most universal of all stories, and love is rife with problems, so in that sense, every love story is an apocalypse story.

Sundress: How were the subheadings chosen, and how do they affect the progression of the book?

Donna Vorreyer: The subheadings are lines from different poems in the book and are meant to guide the reader through the stages of the relationship: a sweet beginning, typical ups and downs, a betrayal, a descent into crazed almost feral mourning for what was lost, and then a reconciliation of sorts. The sections were originally numbered, and my editor Sara Henning suggested section titles, something that had also worked well for me in my first book.

Sundress: What is one thing you wish people knew about you?

Donna Vorreyer: I started writing poems by writing song lyrics when I was in junior high school. I play the piano (pretty well) and the guitar (badly) as well as sing, and I had teenage angsty heartbreak enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. (Damn you, Mike Dalton!) I stopped writing in college and didn’t start again until I was in my early 30s. It’s never too late to start over when it comes to something you love.

You can purchase Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story at the Sundress store!

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“Quaker Meeting: Cambridge/Rangeley, Maine” from Gathered

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Quaker Meeting: Cambridge/Rangeley, Maine

There you are, purchasing
the Sunday paper. Ibuprofen.
Ajax. Pampers. Peanut butter.
Margarine. Clorox. There
you are, baby squalling, holy
voices in the IGA,
in Sarah’s kitchen tasting oatmeal-
raisin bread, yearning
for pies and chocolate frosting. You
will not forget the Wednesday corn
line. You must choose: How
many? and are the kernels
small and sweet?

“Almost died,” he
said, “fever of 106, down to
the hospital.” “Going to rain, trees
need the water, I guess.” “Thanks be
to God, my son got out, the night my store
burned down.” “Geologist dug up this
here rock, said it was from the time
of the Grand Canyon. Used to be this land
was all under water, back then.”
“Learned me the Internet at
the library—looked up my condition
on the Medline, they call it. Ain’t
no reason, just old age, they say, doctors
don’t know, but I’d have gone blind, it said,
if they hadn’t of given me the Cortisone
in time.” “I’ll think on it awhile, let
you know if I can fix it for you.” “The locksmith
out Rt. 4, he was a Baptist preacher,
died last June, you know. The schoolbus driver
he’s out 16 across from where the diner was,
the widow sold him all the molds. Lock
stock and barrel, you could say.” “Those wasps
you got, just spray ‘em with Raid and run
like hell.”

-Marian Kaplan Shapiro

You can purchase a copy of Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets, edited by Nick McRae, from the Sundress store for only $16!

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Cleared for Lift-Off: The Flight Patterns of Pretty Owl Poetry

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Since the Spring of 2014, the online literary journal known as Pretty Owl Poetry has brought potent and poignant writing to its growing readership. This is all due to its dedicated, tri-force-powered team: poetry editors Kelly Andrews and Gordon Buchan, as well as B. Rose Huber, the journal’s flash fiction editor.

In its ongoing quest to honor all things on the rise within the literary landscape, the Wardrobe sought out the story behind Pretty Owl’s evolution from none other than the POP editors themselves.

Jacob Cross: How did Pretty Owl come together in the months leading up to the launch issue in the spring of 2014? What was the initial meeting of the minds like for each of you?

Kelly Andrews: Prior to inception, I was working on B.E. Quarterly, a Pittsburgh-based literary zine, with a few other people in the community and loved the editorial process. I was also just starting to read poetry for Hot Metal Bridge, University of Pittsburgh’s MFA online lit mag. I really wanted to learn as much as I could about publishing and so the next logical step was to start a journal from the ground up. I reached out to Gordon and Rose—I had participated in workshops and online critiques with both of them and truly admired their abilities as both writers and editors. Very quickly we decided to make Pretty Owl a collaborative effort—with no designated Editor in Chief or Managing Editor. Our first meeting was a Google Hangout, and we were overflowing with ideas for the journal. At one point, we started working on collaborative writing that we were planning to share on the website, but eventually we shifted our focus to design, aesthetic, and outreach so that we could publish the best poetry and flash on a beautiful platform. The launch of the first issue was an incredible feeling—to have so many people trust us with their work was inspiring, and I still feel that way when we publish a new issue.

B. Rose Huber: During a late winter evening, I received a text from Kelly. It said, “I think we should start a literary journal. We should call it Pretty Owl Poetry.” At the time, I wasn’t sure how difficult this would be to do, but I knew well enough to say, “Yes.” I’d long admired Kelly’s work as a writer and editor and knew Gordon was a cool, artistic guy. The collaboration seemed like a good fit. As Kelly wrote, our first meeting was a Google Hangout with plenty of ideas to get us started. Gordon made me laugh; Kelly kept us on task. Our cats mewed in the background. It was pretty much perfect.

Gordon Buchan: Around that time, Kelly and I had been, not really editing, more like co-mentoring each other’s poetry through email, most notably her chapbook, Mule Skinner. I had been wanting to work on something that wasn’t a poem, was more like artwork, so when Kelly told me about Pretty Owl, I started sketching up blueprints right away. Rose, someone I had met one foggy minded night at a college party — talking, if I remember correctly, about poems folded up inside of cereal boxes — was something of a 5’1” tall tale; I wasn’t really sure if she existed, but everyone I knew knew her, and I had this nascent idea that maybe I knew her, too?

JC: Who designed the logo? It almost resembles a Rorschach test blot. Also, what was the basis for the look of the online journal’s website?

GB: Rorschach test blot? Awesome. The owl logo is based off of one dollar bill clippings. I had cut up a couple dollar bills and repasted them back together in a vaguely strigine shape. On the other hand, for the website design, I tried to work with negative afterimages or “ghosts.” If I’m not paraphrasing too much. According to J.H. Brown’s 19th century pamphlet, Spectropia (or Surprising Spectral Illusions Showing Ghosts Everywhere and of any Colour) if you look at a picture too long, it will cause an afterimage to linger in your vision (especially if you look at a blank page afterwards). I don’t know if I successfully created an afterimage-inducing-website design, but I thought it complimented Rose’s homepage banner well.

JC: Has the aesthetic selection of the journal’s poems and flash fiction evolved in any surprising ways? I love the poetic and concrete metaphors Pretty Owl uses in its submissions section, making the call for “lockets filled with tiny twig hairs.”

KA: Our call for submissions was a collaborative writing effort, and while it does offer a glimpse of what we are looking to publish, it isn’t all-inclusive to what we have actually published so far. What I find most surprising is how open Gordon and I are to different voices and styles of poetry. While there tends to be a bit of overlap in what we want to publish, each of us has had to convince the other to include pieces that fall outside of our intended aesthetic. But this is one of the most exciting parts of publishing for me—finding beauty in voices that are completely unlike my own and sharing that with the world. I don’t think the journal would be quite the eclectic mix of poetry it has become if it wasn’t for that openness that exists in our discussions.

BRH: Our flash fiction has evolved in sort of a backward direction. When you think of the term “flash fiction,” you probably imagine a traditional story told in few sentences like microfiction. But that wasn’t the type of flash fiction we were publishing in the beginning. Instead, I was drawn to the poetic, the lyrical. As a writer, I myself have teetered between prose and poetry, not really identifying with either concretely. And that’s the type of prose we’ve published. But in recent months, I’ve been trying to look more carefully at traditional flash fiction. Telling a short story in a small space is an art, and it’s something Pretty Owl Poetry wants to publish going forward.

Cover of the inaugural Spring 2014 Issue of Pretty Owl Poetry.

JC: How do you keep each issue fresh and distinctive? You receive new submissions and new names, but are there prerequisite, subtle themes that each of you attempt to apply to every new installment? In other words, how do you make each issue stand on its own two feet?

KA: One thing we are striving for in each issue is inclusiveness in terms of different voices. While we want to connect and relate to the pieces we publish, we also want to see the world fresh with each poem or piece of flash we showcase. I’m thinking about Cameron Barnett’s poem “Crepe Sole Shoes” in Issue 2 that recalls the death of Emmit Till in 1955 and the lines, “Today you could//be my grandfather.” That poem gives me chills every time I read it—how much has the world changed since that lynching and murder? How much is the same? The narrative and self-reflection in Barnett’s poem is incredibly relevant given the current headlines of police brutality and discrimination against people of color. The next lines in that poem are “I want to put you//back together, but//how can I rebuild you?” I read these as not just speaking to Emmitt Till, but to all of America. For me, each issue is idiosyncratic because we include phenomenal poems like that one. In general, I think we are less concerned about themes (though they usually manifest once we have accepted a handful of pieces) and more concerned with sharing contemporary poetry and flash that moves us.

BRH: The theme seems to emerge after we’ve chosen what to publish.  I choose the fiction exclusively with no input from Kelly and Gordon. I don’t see the poetry they’re choosing, either. When I’m designing the issue and reading all of the pieces together, that’s when the theme begins to emerge. Sometimes it’s uncanny how this happens given our independent selection process. But it’s not terribly surprising because I think, as writers and editors, we are all drawn to similar styles. Since we’ve started including art in the journal, I’ve found the imagery really ties it all together nicely.

GB: If an issue has a theme, it’s probably accidental. Kelly is very interested in diversity, and I am also interested in diversity, but Kelly is really, really interested in diversity. What I’m really, really interested in is keepings things chaotic and destabilizing my comfort zone. Luckily, these characteristics go hand-in-hand.

JC: What are some of your favorite literary journals, publications that each of you draw inspiration from as staff members of Pretty Owl?

KA: I think Gulf Coast, Caketrain, and PANK have beautiful print designs and the work they publish always blows me away. TENDE RLOIN showcases one poet and includes video or sound along with written interviews, and I love getting that big picture of the writer behind the words. Pretty Owl has adopted similar platforms with our online reading series that includes a short interview with the writer and also with our Spotlight Series in Pittsburgh.

I also adore the online journals Big Lucks, Hobart, Octopus, Birdfeast, Phantom Limb, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish, and 12th House, among others. Each website has its own unique design, and they include such tremendously talented writers. If I could afford unlimited subscriptions to print journals, then I’d be buying copies of The Atlas Review and Gigantic Sequins as well; but for now, I’m just reading the poems that are available online and swooning.

BRH: In the early stages of Pretty Owl Poetry, I leaned a lot on Andrew Keating, editor at Cobalt Review. We went to graduate school together, and I’ve always admired his know-how with regards to online lit mags. We talked on the phone for quite a while about how Pretty Owl should look and feel. Those conversations really shaped our own journal, and now I have a much deeper appreciation for Cobalt Review and what Andrew is trying to do.

I also love, in no particular order: Hobart, Oblong, Aperion Review, Booth Journal, Metazen, decomP magazine and Tupelo Quarterly. I love staring at the beauty that is Ninth Letter. And when I need a good traditional short story, I get my hands on a copy of Glimmer Train.

GB: I think the first journal I ever read was Jellyfish, and that really opened my eyes to a world beyond the New Yorker. Today, I read a good amount of A capella Zoo, Sugar House Review, INK BRICK, and McSweeney’s. I think that Gregor Holtz, the guy who designs Octopus, is a huge inspiration, mostly because the innovative and beautiful things he creates compel me not to be a lazy asshole about my art.

JC: Have you ever considered doing a flash anthology or a sole flash edition? Was there any question when the journal was first formed as to whether or not flash would be included, or was it an instantaneous, unanimous “must-have?”

BRH: Although our name reflects poetry, we felt that flash fiction was a must-have for the journal. But, like I said, if you read through our issues, you’ll see that the work we publish is much more poetic than conventional flash fiction. We are drawn to lyric and sound in both poetry and prose. At the same time, we welcome more traditional flash fiction and often publish these forms in the journal. It’s important for us to include both.

KA: To add to Rose’s response, the poetry we publish is sometimes prose poetry that could easily be nestled under the “flash” title. We published a narrative poem by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens in Issue 5 titled “Growths” that chronicles outbreaks of “birdhouse development syndrome”—people afflicted with birdhouses inexplicably growing from their heads. The poem isn’t necessarily lyrical, but the imagery is so surprising with lines like: “Some of the burliest men I knew had a small raspberry colored birdhouse situated above one of their ears” or “Susan stared at the therapist’s frontal lobe olive birdhouse and felt biasness creep in.” I felt immersed in this strange world that MacBain-Stephens had created. Whether it’s technically prose poetry or flash fiction wasn’t a concern for us, and I think we’re actually more interested in pieces that embody a fluidity of different forms.

As for doing a flash anthology or an entirely flash edition, we’ve never considered this, but it’s a truly great idea! It definitely gives us something to discuss for our next meeting.

Cover of the Summer 2015 issue of Pretty Owl Poetry.

JC: I love the way Pretty Owl has formed an interactive alumni of contributors so-to-speak in so little time. With the featured artist interviews, video interviews, and the Spotlight Series, the journal doesn’t just pair bios and names with their poems. Pretty Owl really delves into personality and process by establishing such a community, both online and in person. So thank you for maintaining this commitment to bringing writers together.

Here’s the question: how do you plan to continue to build and interact with this community in the future?

KA: Thank you for those kind words! We’re currently tossing around ideas of how we can improve the online interviews and readings. One thing we might do moving forward is feature two writers at the same time with the hopes of getting a discussion going between all of us. We want the online interviews to be a little informal and fun for everyone involved. I don’t think we’ve done one yet that didn’t have some sort of technology hiccup, and we just try to go with the flow when that happens.

As for our Spotlight Series, I’ve started to bring in one “wildcard reader” from the community who isn’t (yet!) published in the journal. Pittsburgh has an incredibly vibrant poetry community and there’s so many talented writers that I would love to see in our issues and reading for us. We’ve also hosted out-of-town readers like Zachary Schomburg, Joshua Marie Wilkinson (twice!), John Beer, Mathias Svalina, and Noah Eli Gordon. With those readings, we had a great turnout, and I hope to put on more readings with people who are traveling through the area.

BRH: You may have noticed that our journal doesn’t really have a “home base,” and I think that’s a strength. Kelly’s in Pittsburgh; Gordon’s in Philadelphia, and I’m in Princeton, N.J. In our early discussions, we decided to not really label our journal with a place. That makes sense, given that our journal is on the internet, accessible to everyone.

That said, in the future, I hope to expand our Spotlight Series to the East. Kelly has done a fantastic job of rallying writers in Pittsburgh, and I’m certain we could do that here, too. Princeton is sandwiched between two major cities — New York and Philly — and I want to start taking advantage of that. Plus it means I would get to hang out with Gordon more, an opportunity I wouldn’t turn down.

GB: In the future, we want to feature two readings in the same interview, open a conversation between the members of this community. My goal is to be less of an editor or an interviewer and more like a fosterer of chaos. One day, I want that written on a plack: Gordon, Fosterer of Chaos.

JC: What is your journal’s greatest strength? What makes each of you beam with pride?

BRH: Our ability to work as collaborators. We don’t have a set editor-in-chief, making all decisions as a unit. This results in a better final product. At times, it can feel frustrating. That blood, sweat and tears thing? Totally happens almost every issue. But I find — and I think Kelly and Gordon would agree – that it’s during those passionate debates that our vision really shines. Some of our best decisions have been realized after hours of talking and arguing and sending a thousand emails to each other. In many ways, this is the way we established our mission. And I think, for the betterment of the journal, it’s made us all better editors and thinkers. I’m grateful to work with two writers with very different viewpoints; it’s forced me to be more thoughtful, engaged and passionate.

I also think we’re doing something different with our multimedia approach. We’ve really tried to embrace the electronic part of our literary journal. That’s why we’ve introduced Google Hangouts and other online mediums. Since the journal was born, we’ve wanted those voices to extend beyond the poem or story. There is a person behind those words worth showcasing, too.

KA: I’m always amazed by how each of us has certain abilities that have contributed to making Pretty Owl what it is today. Rose designed our layout and physically puts each issue together, along with maintaining our social media outlets. Gordon handles all of our artistic endeavors—from the design of the logos and our website to the cover art. I proofread each issue multiple times before it goes live and handle a lot of the outreach and networking along with the Spotlight Series. I couldn’t imagine what Pretty Owl would look like without our fierce talents combined, and I don’t want to! And we’re all incredibly busy people with multiple projects happening in our lives so the fact that we can work together to make each issue something we can be proud of and filled with writers we admire brings me tremendous joy.

GB: Kelly, Rose, and I are all, for better or worse, very passionate people. We are passionate about our tastes in art, and we are passionate about our passions. Most of Pretty Owl’s issues begin with a healthy dose of dissonance between the editors, and, progressively, the three of us shape it into something more unified.

1Kelly Andrews is an assistant managing editor at an economic journal and working on her MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. Her chapbook Mule Skinner is available from Dancing Girl Press (2014). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. You can read more about her past and future publications and literary endeavors at her website.

Gordon-profile-pic1-sundressGordon Buchan resides in Philadelphia where he navigates books of etymology and writes about his findings. Recently, he was published in BE Literary and Sugar House Review. Check out his blog, Invisible Woods.

huberB. Rose Huber spends her days writing about research at Princeton University. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cobalt, Pear Noir!, The New Yinzer, the Light Ekphrastic, BE Literary, and Weave, among others. She also binds books for those who ask. Read more here.


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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, Stirring, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems were featured 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 consuming copious amounts of half-priced sushi.

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