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Lyric Essentials: Helena Mesa Reads “Winter Stars” by Larry Levis

Helena Mesa PhotoWhen Helena Mesa wrote to tell me which poem she chose to read for Lyric Essentials, she said, “When I think about formative poets for me, Levis always comes to mind. I still remember reading Winter Stars in my kitchen in Houston, and awakening from the thrall, still in my kitchen, sitting on the floor, my lunch cold in the toaster oven.” Here we’ll look at Larry Levis’s control of the line, and think about how that control gives him more freedom to address loss and regret. We’ll also consider how Levis’s attention to specific moments in the past deepen the emotions he describes as happening now. Thank you for reading.

Jessica Hudgins: It was really moving to me, after learning that you first read this poem in your kitchen, to read the poem myself and see that it takes place in another domestic space—the poet’s backyard. You say that this poem and the book Winter Stars shaped you. Can you say a little more about that? How has Levis’ work influenced you?

Helena Mesa: As a young poet first reading Winter Stars, I was struck by the meditative quality of Levis’ poems. I never knew where he would go, how he would arrive there, and I was awed by the way his poems came together. Take the opening narrative of “My father once broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.” I never imagined that narrative would move to the statement of misunderstanding to the mind-as-city metaphor to the beautiful, intimate arrival: “Cold enough to reconcile / Even a father, even a son.” As a young female Cuban-American poet, I feared sentimentality, so much so that I buried sentiment under layers of imagery and detachment. Reading Levis was invigorating—he allowed readers to meditate on a small moment with him, and through his meditation, he risked revealing emotion as he discovered meaning.

Levis also challenged me to embrace the free verse line. When writing, I’d hear my teachers repeat, “Think in a 10-syllable line.” It was good advice for me at the time—the syllable count gave me a structure to work within and against as I learned what the line could do. And, while I loved poets whose lines weren’t traditionally shaped by syllabics (poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Lynda Hull, Lucille Clifton), I didn’t yet understand how they constructed their lines so each possessed integrity, each resonated. In fact, when I first read “Winter Stars,” I foolishly thought the lines weren’t controlled. Look at some of those early lines:

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand…

The line breaks are super unexpected. The hard enjambments on “held” and “first” push forward, but Levis’s caesuras within the lines—versus the ends of lines—create tension that mirrors the poem’s opening narrative. When I read “first / two fingers” aloud, the internal rhyme and hard stresses emphasize each syllable, which slows the pacing, which lets me further visualize the image before I reach “so it could slash.” The “sharpened fruit knife”—a dangerous object—is being “held,” and the pacing slows down as Levis zooms in on the image of how Rubén Vásquez held that knife “horizontally”—pause—“& with surprising grace”—slightly longer pause—“Across a throat.” So dangerous. The lines tug between speeding forward and pausing with punctuation, musicality, and end-stopped line breaks. And then, Levis balances the most dramatic detail—“Across a throat”—pause—on the same line with “It was like a glinting beak in a hand”—something potentially beautiful that, of course, isn’t beautiful. It’s such a delicate balance between contrasting elements, and Levis’s craft—his control—both evokes sentiment and undercuts sentimentality at the same time.

Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”

JH: The extended metaphor that begins, “If you can think of the mind as a place continually/visited…” is particularly striking to me, and of course the way that Levis’s attention keeps coming back to the stars. Can you point to a moment in the poem that you admire and describe what you admire about it?

HM: Yes, exactly! How those stars become a mechanism for meditating on his father and his looming death. There are so many things to admire. The beauty of the turn “I got it all wrong,” stated in plain vernacular speech. Or, the poignant direct address to his father. Or, the sincerity of “where a small wind.…wakes the cold again— / Which may be all that’s left of you & me.” But, today, looking at the poem again, I find myself focusing on Levis’ repetition of “now” in that almost-surreal fourth stanza. Three times he says “now”—it’s insistent. In its most simplistic function, the repetition grounds the reader by locating us in the present time; but more importantly, the repetition of “now” allows Levis to both move through time and pay attention to time. The present moment—in its limitations and imperfection and sorrow—is merely the present moment, and even this moment will be lost, like the California light, the place in their lives, his father’s speech, his father’s life, their relationship.

JH: Do you consider “Winter Stars” an elegy? Like, of course it is, but it also seems less concerned with grief than reconciliation and the way that memory connects us to one another. What do you think?

HM: I’m strangely fascinated by elegies that are non-traditional elegies, which might be another reason why I’m drawn to Larry Levis. When asked about being an elegiac poet, Levis once said, “I often feel that that’s what I am as a human.”

I think of “Winter Stars” as having an elegiac eye or positioning—we see him mourn as his father “is beginning to die”—losing language and, presumably, memory. The grief is present, but it isn’t that raw grief we associate with the death of a loved one. To me, that grief points toward a different kind of loss—Levis mourning the relationship he could have had with his father, and realizing it might be too late. If Levis portrays his father as “ashamed” for “a lost syllable as if it might / Solve everything,” Levis may also feel shame for getting “it all wrong.” And, because the poem focuses so much on the father-son relationship, and even ends on those two clauses, yoked in one line—“Even a father, even a son”—it’s hard for me to detach one from the other. To think of his father’s approaching death means Levis is also aware of his own mortality, without saying so.

True to “Winter Stars” as a whole, however, Levis unites contrasting emotions, or perhaps, turns toward complex emotions. The mourning and elegiac eye end on reconciliation. The sky might be a wide expanse, but within it is starlight, which Levis twice alludes to as something that persists. And, in the final stanza, Levis describes a “pale haze of stars goes on & on.” Starlight endures, in contrast to the temporality of the moment (the meditation), in contrast to the tension between the speaker and his father (the past).

 


Larry Levis (1946-1996) was an American poet. He published several books for which he received recognition from the International Poetry Forum, The American Academy of Poets, and the National Poetry Series. Levis taught at the University of Missouri and Virginia Commonwealth University and directed the writing program at the University of Utah.

Further Reading:

“Winter Stars” by Larry Levis
“The Poet at Seventeen” by Larry Levis
Larry Levis reads at the 92Yk
Edward Byrne on Larry Levis at Blackbird

Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and Sou’wester. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and she has attended Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop and Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at Albion College and lives in Oakland, California.

Further Reading:

Helena Mesa on Verse Daily
Mentor & Muse 
Review of Helena Mesa’s Horse Dance Underwater
Purchase Horse Dance Underwater


A note from Anna Black: It has been my great pleasure to be a part of the trajectory of this series. Through it, I have met many new friends and come to learn about a number of poets that had heretofore been unknown to me. This has been a tremendous pleasure and I am grateful for having had the opportunity. As I am now handling new roles for Sundress, I am handing over the series to the capable and deft hands of Jessica Hudgins, our former intern, and I’m excited to read the new voices that she will bring to the table, too. As for me, you can find me as the host over at Poets in Pajamas, and I’m also now serving as the staff director for Sundress. So I didn’t go far. I hope you’ll welcome Jessica and make her feel at home as you all did me. -Anna

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

 

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Lyric Essentials: Mia Leonin Reads Two Poems by Shara McCallum

Mi LeoninMia Leonin here reads “Madwoman’s Geography” and “From the Book of Mothers” by Shara McCallum. In the process of discussing these poems, we cover incredible ground. Are women permitted public rage? What is it in writing motherhood that is so challenging? Leonin touches on the risks of writing motherhood, the need to thrive in the wise wilderness of the unconscious, and what can only be referred to as McCallum’s songs.

Black: Why did you choose poems by Shara McCallum to share with us?

Leonin: I met Shara McCallum when she was an undergrad at the University of Miami. Although she was a gifted young writer, she was thinking of pursuing a career in musical theater. Clearly, she found a different path. She is now the author of five books of poetry.

However, two of the most distinctive elements I appreciate in her work are the construction of voice and the musicality of her diction and syntax. I think McCallum’s love of song, persona, and theater transferred remarkably to her poetry. I am a creative writing lecturer and have been surrounded by nineteen- and twenty-year-old undergraduates for the better part of twenty years, so I appreciate the trajectory of Shara’s passions into her career.

One may consider a career in musical theater as much of a pie-in-the-sky endeavor as poet; however, Shara possessed the desire and skills for voice, performance, and music and to this day they contribute to her unique qualities as a writer. Perhaps someone else may have integrated those passions into another profession. The point (and what I try to communicate to my students) is this: Shara reminds me that if we are in touch with those activities that enliven and embolden us, if we recognize what most gives us a sense of purpose, we will find a place for that purpose. Shara’s truth is a complex one of black and white; mother and daughter; American and immigrant. Her poetry holds these contradictions and more.


Mia Leonin reads “Madwoman’s Geography” by Shara McCallum

 

Black: And why these poems in particular? 

Leonin: “From the Book of Mothers,” a poem from This Strange Land is one of my favorite poems. It explores the complexity of motherhood—moments of tenderness and whimsy, anger and trauma, life and death. Above all, it is a poem that sings. I was so excited to participate in this project because it was an excuse to read this particular poem out loud. The late poet Miller Willams called the poem “a meeting place between reader and writer.” This has always felt true to me—a poem is an act of co-creation between reader and writer. “From the Book of Mothers” takes Williams’ dictum one step further: it is a song that wants to be sung.

I also selected the poem “Madwoman’s Geography” from McCallum’s most recent book, Madwoman. A poetic descendant of Rita Dove, Louise Gluck, and Lucille Clifton, McCallum is a master of voice and persona. In “Madwoman’s Geography,” she creates a voice of feminine authority, agency, and transformation.

In my first life, I slid

into the length of a snake, then

sloughed scales for wings.

She takes us from Eve to Icarus in three short lines. Wow!

McCallum’s work underscores women’s life-long metamorphosis, stirring psychological and emotional depths without falling into sentimentality.

Black: Can you explore the concept of the long poem a little? 

Leonin: I think the literary collage is at the essence of many long poems and that is definitely the case with McCallum’s “From the Book of Mothers.” Her use of collage reminds me of the quilt made by an anonymous woman from Alabama at the Smithsonian and referenced by Alice Walker in her essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”

The collage is a symbol of the communal reservoir of “women’s work,” a feminine resourcefulness women have accessed for generations to create something beautiful from the mundane, the oppressive, and otherwise unbearable aspects of our daily lives. The women in McCallum’s poems contend with mental illness, neglect, abuse, and poverty. It’s no accident that McCallum employs the collage form to create a work that is vibrant, resonant, and beautiful in musicality and image. The collage aesthetic also affords McCallum the linguistic and cultural latitude to move from the Ganges to the Jamaican Patois of wutless, to numbers in Hebrew, and beyond. McCallum’s syntactic sense of the line is always tight. It’s as if she is writing the bountiful, wholehearted lustiness of Whitman and compressing it into the hymn-tight lines of Dickinson.

McCallum writes: “Pushed from the calabash stained by its pulp,/we were turned into little girls.” The sh in “push” and “calabash,” the alliteration and echo of “push” and “pulp”—these words in proximity churn towards a melodic syntax. The cumulative effect is orchestral and rich.


Mia Leonin reads “From the Book of Mothers” by Shara McCallum

 

Black: Likewise, maybe the concept of a “mother poem”?

Leonin: There is a double consciousness that comes with motherhood: one is propelled into the world of what is and what should be. That should may come from self, society, or both, but as my mother used to say of her mother’s punishments: “the thinnest branch makes the sharpest switch.” Our narrow definition of what is deemed acceptable or interesting to write about on the subject of motherhood cuts deep. We are expected to underscore the mama bear fierceness of mothers, the nurturing instinct of mothers, and the “instinctive” bond between mothers and children, but what of the loneliness, despair, and resentment? What of boredom and humor? What of fathers who mother? Right now, we are having a more public conversation about what it means for a woman to be angry and the double standard imposed upon women when it comes to expressing anger.  We are not supposed to express feelings of outrage and most definitely not on behalf of ourselves.

To ignore women’s experiences is to ignore the power of those experiences and the power of women. The patriarchy is invested in that imbalance of power. It permeates our nation at every level from the top down. George W. Bush’s presidency gave us “No Child Left Behind” and a “Culture of Life” while waging a war that took hundreds of thousands of lives and ripped apart countless families in the Middle East and in the United States. Now, with our “grab ’em by the pussy” president, the already thinning veil has been ripped away. Donald Trump, our president and a man accused of multiple sexual assaults, ridicules Dr. Ford, a victim of sexual assault and lauds her alleged assailant, selecting him to serve on the highest court of the land.

There is a double consciousness that comes with motherhood: one is propelled into the world of what is and what should be. That should may come from self, society, or both, but as my mother used to say of her mother’s punishments: “the thinnest branch makes the sharpest switch.” Our narrow definition of what is deemed acceptable or interesting to write about on the subject of motherhood cuts deep. We are expected to underscore the mama bear fierceness of mothers, the nurturing instinct of mothers, and the “instinctive” bond between mothers and children, but what of the loneliness, despair, and resentment? What of boredom and humor? What of fathers who mother? Right now, we are having a more public conversation about what it means for a woman to be angry and the double standard imposed upon women when it comes to expressing anger.  We are not supposed to express feelings of outrage and most definitely not on behalf of ourselves.

If you are a poet and a woman and you want to write about motherhood, you know you are taking a risk. People don’t want to know motherhood and parenthood deeply. We are in a country that loves to sound the trumpet of family, but denies children healthcare and parents maternity leave. It separates children from their parents at the border and seeks to interfere with a woman’s reproductive choices. McCallum doesn’t just write about motherhood. She writes about it as a changing state of being. She reminds us of the connections to one another, to life, and to death. Her fragmented stanzas and sections interweave movement, echo, and variations to haunting effect. This dramatic tension builds and recedes until the poem ends on a profoundly simple question:

If not this room, this life

then where, then when?

McCallum’s writing about motherhood—here and elsewhere in her work—reminds me: Here. Now. It gives me the courage to write.

Black: What are you working on now?

I’ll be honest. I’m working on living. I’m emerging from a period of great change—the end of a long marriage, the beginning of creating my own home, and the middle of mothering a teenager. I am a strong believer in the wise wilderness of the unconscious mind and so to begin writing, I need to avoid creating a particular project and just write.

Also, in the last few years, I have filled many notebooks and computer files with words that I think are more on the lyric essay end of the spectrum than they are poetry. In time, I will return to these notebooks and cull through them. In the meantime, to return to the wilderness, but well accompanied, I will begin a series of writing exercises that I call “Papelitos.”

___________________________________________________________

Shara McCallum is a Jamaican-born poet and author of five poetry collections including the most recent, Madwoman (Alice James Books, 2017). McCallum received her MFA from the University of Maryland and her PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is a Professor at Penn State University and the former director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. McCallum was recently awarded the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for Poetry and has in the past has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Byner Award from the Library of Congress, and other honors.

Mia Leonin is the author of four poetry collections: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child (BkMk Press), BraidUnraveling the BedandChance Born (Anhinga Press), and a memoir, Havana and Other Missing Fathers (University of Arizona Press). Leonin has been awarded fellowships from the State of Florida Department of Cultural Affairs for her poetry and creative nonfiction, two Money for Women grants by the Barbara Deming Fund, and she has been a fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts/Annenberg Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. Leonin has published poetry and creative nonfiction in New Letters, Prairie SchoonerAlaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Witness, North American Review, River Styx, Chelsea, and others. She received a special mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology. 

Leonin has written extensively about Spanish-language theater and culture for the Miami Herald, New Times, ArtburstMiami.com, and other publications.  Leonin’s poetry has been translated to Spanish and she has been invited to read at the Miami International Book Fair, Poesia en el Laurel in Granada, Spain, and in Barcelona, Spain. Leonin teaches creative writing at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

 

The Good Stuff:

 

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Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She 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, and New Mobility among others. Black 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. Black is the host of the Poets in Pajamas reading series and staff director at Sundress Publications.
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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.

___

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.

______________________________________

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?

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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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