Tag Archives: poets

Cait Weiss Orcutt Reads Natalie Shapero

 

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

 

 

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero

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

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

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

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

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK

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


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

Further Reading: 

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

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

Further Reading:

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


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

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Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer Reads May Swenson

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Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson. We consider how reading a poem aloud — deciding which syllables to stress, and when to pause — can express ideas the poem suggests. We take a very close look at phonetics , and discuss how the study of linguistics informs Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s reading of May Swenson’s work. Thank you for joining us!

 

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” by May Swenson:

Jessica Hudgins: OK so obviously the first thing I have to ask in our conversation about these poems is sound – how long did it take you to record them? In “Question,” for example, there are some lines that you stress exactly as I expected you to, “How will it be/to lie in the sky,” and others, “bright dog is dead,” surprised me. Were there any lines that, while you were recording them for us, you had to stop and think about?

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer: Thank you for starting with sound! Warning: if you aren’t much interested in meter and sound, perhaps skip to the next question, because I am about to geek out with great enthusiasm.

So much of what draws me to May Swenson’s work is her musicality, her rhythmic play, her pleasure in the way lines chime. Both “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” are poems I memorized long ago (like two decades ago?), in part because they move me, and in part because in learning them by heart, I’ve been able to challenge and deepen my understanding of Swenson’s poetry.

I should mention, however, that I read both poems on the page when I recorded them for you, in case I’d taken liberties with Swenson’s language over the years (which, it turns out, I had). I recorded each poem two times.

With “Question,” the poem literally gallops. It’s based on two-beat lines, often iambic. However, I choose to recite it as if some of the lines are a spondee followed by an iamb. This basically crams three beats into a two-beat line, perhaps like the way some of us try to cram more “beats” of life into the limited time we’re given. Check out this first stanza:

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

I suppose the first line could be a trochee and an iamb, though that would have less of a charge. And I suppose you could read the third line as two iambs, but that would produce such a sing song effect, and I intuit Swenson wants to evoke a wild ride, a quickening, instead of a predictable Hallmark ditty. The poem is driven, driven with question, driven by mystery, driven with curiosity, and I love the way her metrics strengthen this drive. The poem’s pulse is our pulse, both in its insistence and in its subtleties.

I love, too, that she ends the stanza with an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). So that the stress of the word “fallen” falls off at the end of the line. This mirroring of sound and meaning thrills me. I don’t just hear the fallenness, I feel it physically.

And then, once the two-beat pattern is established in the first two stanzas, Swenson breaks the iambic tendencies in stanza three, adding even more syllables to the lines in a sprung-rhythm way, allowing more movement inside the imposed form.

But now let’s consider these lines:

How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

You noted in your question how I read the last line of this stanza as four separate beats, five really, including “good” from the line before. Well, it’s a line about death, a literal stopping of the gallop of life. And it seems to me that by giving each single-syllabic word an emphasis, Swenson is, in effect, hammering nails into a coffin. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. It’s allowing the silence between the sounds to come to prominence, a preface to the eternal silence that follows that last word, “dead.” By giving each word its own beat, the poem aurally brings home the finality of that line.

Also curious to me: the only question mark in the poem is at the end. The poem thrusts through where any punctuation might try to tame it. As if question is the new statement. When that question mark finally arrives at the end, we can paradoxically rest there in its rising uncertainty.

As for recording “Four-Word Lines:” this poem is the most haunting, surprising erotic poem I know. Though it is startlingly graphic inside its bee/flower metaphor (“I’d let you wade/ in me and seize/ … a sweet/ glistening at my core), it is delightful and playful and even a bit goofy with its insistence of all those sibilants, voiced and unvoiced, creating an audible swarming of bees. Swenson even gives us the odd plural possessive word “bees’,” which to me invites a buzz-heavy doubling of the “z.” Oh the ecstasy humming in the air! This poem makes me simultaneously blush-ish and breathless and foolish.

Once, while walking through a modern art museum, I came to a large blue bowl on the wall that created an echo effect, so I recited the poem into the bowl—the resonance of all those zzzzz’s was deliriously hypnotic.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson:

JH: In “Question” May Swenson approaches metaphor in a couple different ways. In the first stanza she uses direct address to compare the poet’s body to a house, while in the third stanza she refers to the body by name to introduce a metaphor of the body as a dog. In “Four-Word Lines” Swenson is more focused on repetition and sound. Say a little about why you chose these poems, and about Swenson’s influence on your work.

RWT: Swenson’s use of metaphor is my other most favorite part of her work. In “Question,” she leaps between body as house, horse and hound. Pleasing how she’s chosen three five-letter words that begin with h. Random, but not random. As house, the body literally contains us, “hides” us, keeps us safe, though eventually it will “fall.” As horse, our “mount,” it helps us “ride” and move through the world. As hound, it is our soul’s companion, it “hunts” our food, it sniffs out “danger or treasure.”

She interchanges the metaphors as the poem speeds along, not handling them one at a time, but all at once, so very true to the experience of having a body. And also, as you note, the speaker seems to be both in the body and also witness to the body. She is, at the same time, whatever it is that will die and whatever it is that will live on.

I often use this poem in workshops about the body. It is easy to pick almost any three nouns and explore them metaphorically. “Body my slug, my sloth, my soil.” Or “Body my wall, my woods, my wine.” And it is easy, in a way, to imitate her form here, basically a litany of questions.

It is not easy, however, to do what Swenson has done, which is to create a masterful envisioning of the transition from life to death. After the word “dead,” the speaker takes us to the beyond imaginable realm of body-less-ness, offering us only questions, which is the only real answer available to most of us.

I love that pun in the third-to-the-last line, “wind for an eye.” Though the eye still might see, the “I” is unseen, becomes wind, becomes spirit, becomes invisible, powerful and still somehow animate. With its puns and rhymes, this poem is a playground, despite its serious content.

We can find Swenson punning again in the title of “Four-Word Lines.” It is, of course, a nod to the poem’s self-imposed form. The poem is also forward in its sexual thrust. And as the first poem in “The Love Poems of May Swenson,” I think some editor was having fun by making the poem, in effect, the book’s foreword.

Here’s something else I love about Swenson’s writing—she creates simple forms, in this case four-word lines, and then uses this small limitation as something to push against and fuel creativity. Here, she charges the poem with alliteration and assonance. The similarities of sound resonate within single lines, but also reach into the next lines, creating a complex of connections beneath all that constant buzzing. It’s like the two lovers in the poem managing to connect despite the overriding “swarm of other eyes.” Let’s take a look at the inner assonances/alliterations in the first five lines:

Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a flower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over

In line one, we have the /r/ in “your/are,” which carries through in line three with “flower” line four with “brown” and “power” and line five with “breeze” and “over.” In line two, “feel like a flower,” has such strong interplay between the /f/ and /l/, and then the /ow/ sound of line three with “flower” is pulled into line four with “brown” and “power.” There’s the vocalic rhyme of “bees” in line two with “feel” in line three and “breeze” in line five … there’s more, but you get the idea. It’s splendidly woven!

Many years ago, I wrote out the poem in the phonetic alphabet so I could better see the patterns. What thrilled me then, and thrills me still, is the way Swenson seems to let sounds lead her through the poem, allowing her to arrive in unexpected places.

In my own practice, one major inspiration I take from her poems is to let myself be led by rhythm and rhyme in playful, insistent, unpredictable ways. After years of practicing this approach, I still appreciate how sound helps lead me into surprise and revelation/anti-revelation.

By the way, I earned my master’s degree in English language and linguistics because I wanted to understand how phonetics and syntax could inform poems. Swenson, Hopkins, Cummings—these were some of the poets who inspired me to explore this way.

JH: The verbs in “Question” are: do, sleep, ride, hunt, go, know, lie, hide. These are interesting to me, especially the last. No longer having a body should make hiding easy, but we get a sense of what Swenson means. I think I hear you gesturing toward this paradox in your recording. Why would Swenson ask where she’ll sleep after she’s dead? I don’t exactly mean that, but I’m curious how you might answer the question.

RWT: Right … what a curious ending. I have puzzled around this for years. Here’s where I land with it now. I think the speaker is suggesting that the I is the most essential part of us. It is not the body. It is, perhaps, the soul, what animates the body. And, to some extent, the I “hides” in the body. And then, when the body is dead, the I is exposed. The “shift” in the penultimate line is not only a garment, it’s the transformation from body and soul to simply soul.

This poem often makes me think of the Ramana Maharshi quote, “The reason to ask ‘Who am I?’ is not to arrive at an answer, but to dissolve the questioner.” And here, the questioner is still not quite dissolved at the poem’s end. How can it imagine what happens after its own dissolution?

I’m curious what you think about why she asks where the I will hide when the body is dead.

JH: These poems are so disarming. Their tone could be described as innocent, but the speaker is knowledgeable and calm in a way that makes us rethink that as we read on. What do you make of their titles?

RWT: I spoke already about the multiple puns in “Four-Word Lines.” I am embarrassed to say it was years before I found them, but I was so delighted when I did!

As for “Question,” here she rolls many questions into one. It seems to me there is some suggestion that all questions are really parts of the same ultimate question, “Who am I?” Just as all poems are, in some way, trying to answer that one question, though perhaps in a more plural sense, “Who are we? What are we doing here?”

As you say, there’s an up-front innocence that can make the poems feel quite simple. On the surface, “Four-Word Lines” is a modest story of bee meets flower. But there’s daring and pluck in the lines as they limn desire.

I also think that part of the reason the poems are ultimately disarming, as you say, is because they don’t include moral judgement. They don’t tell us how to feel. Swenson’s writing style is observational, terse, permissive. One poem takes us out of the body. The other leads us more intimately into the body. And after reading and re-reading, these poems continue to open, like the “flower breathing bare,” and we see just how richly crafted they are, how they allow us to wade in layers of both meaning and form.

 


 

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer lives in Placerville, Colorado, on the banks of the San Miguel River. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate and as Western Slope Poet Laureate. She teaches poetry for 12-step recovery programs, hospice, mindfulness retreats, women’s retreats, teachers and more. An avid trail runner and Nordic skier, she believes in the power of practice and has been writing a poem a day since 2006. She has 11 collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in O Magazine and on A Prairie Home Companion. Her most recent collection, Naked for Tea, was a finalist for the Able Music Book Award. One-word mantra: Adjust.  www.wordwoman.com

Further Reading:

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem-a-day blog
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer on Rattle
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s Tedx Talk on the Art of Changing Metaphors

May Swenson (1913-1989) wrote several books of poetry, including A Cage of Spines, Iconographs, and More Poems to Solve. Swenson received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.

Further Reading: 

“Question” by May Swenson
“Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson
“While I’m sunbathing, or whatever,” May Swenson on her process with the Modern Literary Collection

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

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Poets in Pajamas Presents Sarah Ann Winn!

Poets in Pajamas, a Live-Stream Reading Series by Sundress Publications
Presents Episode 42: Sarah Ann Winn

Enjoy live poetry? Ever wished you could attend a reading without leaving the house or changing out of your jammies? Bailed because had no one to go with? Wish there were one closer to you?

Well worry no more! Poets in Pajamas (PiP) is a live-feed online reading series presented by Sundress Publications. We bring live poetry, complete with Q&A and poet interaction, to you. We don’t ask you to dig out a scarf, no, we welcome you as you are and bring the poetry. Won’t you join us? We often draw a diverse audience from around the world and we’d love it if you, too, were there.

Our next episode will air on Sunday, November 11th, at 7pm EST, featuring Sarah Ann Winn. On behalf of Sundress Publications, Anna Black will host.

Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017), won the 2016 Barrow Street Book Prize, selected by Elaine Equi. She’s the author of five chapbooks. Her writing has appeared in Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Smartish Pace. She serves as Reviews Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

Sarah Ann Winn at Beltway Poetry
Sara Ann Winn’s Alma Almanac at Barrow Street
Sarah Ann Winn at The Boiler
Sarah Ann Winn at The Good Man Project

 

Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Black 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. In addition to hosting PiP, Black is the staff director at Sundress Publications.

 

The readings occur on PiPs Facebook page every other Sunday at 7PM EST/4PM PST. The selected poet will read for about 15 minutes, and will then open the floor for an additional 10-15 minutes to receive questions from the audience.

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Lyric Essentials: Lisa Allen Ortiz Reads Three Poems by Victoria Chang

Lisa Allen Ortiz and I sat down to talk about poems, but the conversation wove through not just the work of Victoria Chang and the character Barbie Chang, Ortiz spoke about the connection of the work to current events (namely the Kavanaugh hearings), and love, and Simone De Beauvoir, and women, most especially poems for and about selfish bitches, and so much more as it all swirls in and through Barbie Chang’s world. Allen Ortiz’s love of these poems is passionate and expansive and her thorough reading is intimate and clear.

Black: Why did you choose Barbie Chang to talk about?

Ortiz: As you know, it was difficult for me to make a choice, for as Kaveh Akbar says we are living in a golden age of poetry. This is something non-readers-of-poetry may not know. But much like the leaps forward in the technology of the electric automobile, iPhone apps and authoritarian regimes those of us in the poetry world have been working furiously too, and our recent cultural decision as poets to be more pluralistic and inclusive has birthed a mind-bending, heart-exploding scene of innovation and invention, and the cultural project of poetry is richer, more vital and so powerful that I will barely make a shrug of surprise if soon the whole invention of it blows up every iPhone in every hand of every user and renders flat, prone, and mute every authoritarian on every marble floor of every guarded authoritarian palace all over this tenderly powerful planet. Such is the poetry scene now. And in such a milieu, I picked Barbie Chang.

Two summers ago, for complicated reasons, I read The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir. It’s impossible to understand, but I read it all the same and the impossible thing I understood from this existential-feminist work is that we as women are seminally fucked.

Our political situation is not only a problem of economic and legal justice—as feminism is often positioned in American culture. In De Beauvoir’s vision, women are subjugated because of our very beings, because of our biological-spiritual-spatial connection to men. We love men. We serve men and make babies for men. Not all of us, obviously. But a good many of us, and this has put us in a position in which we hold up and work for a system in which we do not have and never will have full autonomy and self-determination.

The next summer, into my world, fell the book by Victoria Chang, Barbie Chang. It’s a collection of poems about the public life and private life of a woman, of a speaker, and the life she speaks about. And one voice is the private voice talking about the public voice, and one voice is the public speaking to the private. It’s so odd and also so realistic, funny, accessible, contemporary, a collection that hides inside itself and beats its fists on the walls of itself, a collection that is wildly relevant at the moment.

Most of the poems in Barbie Chang are persona poems written in the voice of Barbie Chang who seems to be both a shield and a seed for some other kind of private, true-self.  (They are persona poems but written in the third person, so they have a storybook quality and also a scientific flair of tension.)

The more authentic voice of this project is protected in the middle of the book, manifested as an emotional and lyric series of sonnets. I didn’t choose to read any of those poems here, but really, those are my favorite poems of the book. And the Barbie Chang poems are also mirrored in the epistolary style poems that end the book and which appear to be letters to a daughter and are heartbreaking responses of a woman who is trying to raise a woman who she hopes will live a more authentic and fully realized life, a life chosen with purpose and eccentricity, a life outside the Circle but outside by choice rather than by the system of the Circle, a life more full than the life Barbie Chang navigates with such limitation.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang Loves Evites”

 

Black: And why these poems in particular?

Ortiz: It just happens that I am answering these questions in bed, recovering from a radiation treatment. And it just happens that as I am recovering, a certain gentleman of high regard is being called to consequence by a very polite Doctor of Educational Psychology who wanted to know if it was okay if she just politely and reluctantly gave testimony that the gentleman-of-high-regard had sexually assaulted her when she was 15 as it seemed kind of a little bit relevant, and the duty of a good citizen to report an act of blind fury and ego by this gentleman of the Circle who was already deemed the best choice for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. 

So here I am in bed, reading Barbie Chang, watching male senators and judges twist their mugs into ridiculous shapes, insisting that since they went to Yale, they know best, and meanwhile my insides are turning green as my body mutinies against itself—and that’s TMI, but Barbie would totally approve of me making a social gaff like that. She makes social gaffs all the time.

All that to say that Barbie Chang is relevant this very minute and will likely continue to be relevant for a sad stretch of time longer unless what I am witnessing is finally the revolution, and women will heretofore be liberated and self-determining and goodness and equality will reign. If that is the case, we can all read Barbie Chang the way we read Jane Austin, as a fantastic piece of social satire and a sad-laugh at the expense of it all because Barbie Chang is also that.

Barbie Chang, the character, is an outsider in an insider world (she calls the insiders “The Circle”—an idea Victoria Chang has explored in earlier work too). But Barbie Chang’s world is also internal in many ways. She’s inside a house, caring for her ailing parents, for kids, for the domestic world that women, a la Simone De Beauvoir, have as a birthright to manage and see to, a world of graduations and celebrations but also decay and demise and such confounding loneliness that the self is sharpened (at least in these poems) to an ice pick. These poems crack.

I chose “Barbie Chang Loves Evites” to introduce the voice and concerns of Barbie. It’s not as complex as other poems in the book, but it’s funny and emotional, and its concerns appear shallow, but the shadows they make on the page are ominous, and I love that quality that exists in many of Chang’s poems.

(I have to interrupt myself here and say that a real, real reason I also chose this book for Lyric Essentials is that the poems are SO FUN to read aloud. We should all have Barbie Chang parties and read them to each other!  For one thing, Chang rhymes with soul-swinging abandon. Also, there isn’t a scrap of punctuation in this book, but Chang is such a master of music and meter, that I never misread or misunderstand. All the readings I did for this project were once-throughs. The poems read themselves. And they love to be liberated from the page to the ears. I swear. I fell in love with each one more when it passed through my body. Poems are indeed living things that need breath. Oh! Like me.)

Of course, Barbie Chang is pretty messed up. She obsesses about being included. She is slouchy and strange and shirks around the edges of the Circle. She has an apparently made-up boyfriend named Mr. Darcey. She sometimes wishes her mom would die. She’s irritated with her father’s calls. Nonetheless, she loves her parents too much, loves her daughters too much, cares too much about her career, about the Academy, the insiders, the powerful. She judges herself, indulges herself, misunderstands everyone and is misunderstood by all.

… she

is never late when invited

always ready for mimesis ready to put

on her costume to

drink mimosas her heart smells like

moth balls jumps at

every broth bell her heart growls more

each day she trims it with

a number 2 it’s messy work missing

her aorta by a little bit

her heart is always sort of bleeding she is

always waiting for

invitations…

See what I mean about the sound? First of all that mimesis/ mimosas thing!  (Mimesis is the deliberate imitation of the behavior of a group in order to fit in. Like any good word, I had to look it up and now have to use it all the time, and I cannot imagine how I ever understood the world without it in my vocabulary before I discovered it in this poem.)

Second, I love some frowned-upon syntax here like “little bit” and “always sort of bleeding.” That’s how Barbie is— that woman-in-the-kitchen-way of being. I love her. And I am her.  And I thought of Barbie Chang so much as I was listening to Dr. Blasey Ford testify before the U.S. Senate. We recognize what power is when we see a person without it speaking up despite or in the face of. Barbie Chang does that. She’s raising her little voice, and I don’t mean that dismissively. I mean that it’s a truth. Our public selves, our “second-sex” selves have little voices. That’s just true. At least in the world where I currently live and where Dr. Ford and the great poet Victoria Chang live, women are constricted and constrained and speak breathlessly, and yet it’s so odd and surprising that Victoria Chang pushes that constraint forward in this collection where we can examine and acknowledge it for the reality that it is.

I also chose one of the “Dear P—“ poems to read. (There are seven “Dear P—“ advice poems that quietly close the book, and this is the first.) Once again, I chose a less-complex poem because I wanted you to experience the hospitality and transparency that this book offers, but Chang also builds a house, nay a metropolis of the ideas I’m tossing around here. These are nothing but teasers, of course! Anyway, a big project of this book that is also a big project of mine is the idea of love (Haters, back off!) specifically what love does to self and what love requires of self and how love defines what the self is. How much solitude love requires! How much separation. In other words, Barbie Chang can’t find love because she cares too much about the world. But Victoria Chang is well-versed in love and its domain.  These poems reveal that it’s when a person can let go of concern for the world and instead look at the world clearly and quietly, in the way Rilke directs us, say—in complete solitude, in selfless-selfishness. Ah. That’s what we’re looking for.  Love is not forced or inherited or earned even. It’s free and everywhere but few can find it because few are standing still and apart enough the way the speaker in this poem advises her daughter …

                                                …. good things are  often in    pieces    are backing  away from doorways  are alone  the heart   is   alone in  our bodies because   it must be   to love.

I can’t leave without reading “Barbie Chang’s Tears” to you. Maybe you will be thinking of Dr. Blasey Ford while I read it. But maybe you will just be consumed with Barbie the way I am. (Also, I had to include at least one poem with Mr. Darcy in it!)

… Mr Darcy walks around the city

but Barbie Chang can’t

follow him  she can’t promote herself

if she had legs she would

stop begging if she had hands she would

stop her own wedding

Simone De Beauvoir writes: “Her wings are cut, and then she’s blamed for not knowing how to fly.” I’m afraid that’s true, sisters. And look at the sorrow that domestication causes in Barbie Chang. Mr. Darcy (who is some kind of figment, maybe a slant version of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice) he gets to gets to move freely in the world even though he’s not even real! He’s an UR-man, a perfect gentleman, an impossible situation.  But Barbie has none of the agency Mr. Darcy does.

Mr. Darcy comes and goes, but Barbie stays in Barbie world. In this particular poem, she apparently doesn’t have legs! (Sometimes she has strange doll-like features, but she’s mostly a human.)  If Barbie had legs, she would stop begging.  What can I say to that? If she had hands, she would stop her own wedding.  But she is without agency. She is pure loneliness—which of course is the only way to be a human and to love properly and exist in the world. But the world ignores her. Mr. Darcy is indifferent the way all our imagined figures are indifferent to us. He is perfect and yet imperceptible. Still, she wants to love him. She just can’t quite ever. He evades her grasp. Other men fall like shadows across these poems, but they do not see or acknowledge Barbie Chang except as a subject of aggression or dismissal or confusion.

…. she prefers to sleep on her

back so she can see the

eyes of her attackers in the morning

a bed with questions

with her depression on each side two

small holes from knees

I can spend the rest of my life reading those three last couplets. I don’t how Chang does that voodoo. That’s why I love all good poems, that thing they can do that makes complete sense and yet is impossible to understand. Revealed here is a submissive affection, an acknowledgment of the confusing reality of aggression, and it’s such a truth—I want to turn from it, but I can’t stop looking. The line “her depression on each side two/ small holes from knees.” does all the work of Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex in 10 deceptively simple and sickeningly heartbreaking words.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang’s Tears”

 

Black: Do these poems or Victoria Chang’s work overall relate to your own work? And if so, how?

Ortiz: Well, I’m a selfish bitch, and I like any book that takes on the subjects of selfishness and bitches! That sounds like a joke, but it’s very serious. I spent quite a few years in my own work worrying the questions: “What is self?”  “Why and how does the speaker matter?”  “How can we break down the barriers between the speaker, the spoken, the spoken-about, the spoken-to?” I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. Because, voila: Barbie Chang.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz Reads Victoria Chang’s “Dear P. There Will be a Circle”

 

Black: What are you working on now?

Ortiz: I’m working on mind-body poems. That’s been done, you might say. Probably. But it just happens that I’m being slowly constricted at the neck, and this is an interesting phenomenon. At the same time, I’m writing about sacrifice because I realized with a spasmodic start that new things don’t grow unless the old things die, and that’s how the whole system works. I’m tripping out about it. (Didn’t you pay attention in kindergarten, Mom? My daughter asked.) I can’t remember much about Kindergarten, but I do think it’s time for me to revisit some basic ideas about transformation. Barbie Chang has only further inspired me as Victoria Chang took this simple idea of exploring the public self of herself, and she tumbled it into a complex and, I dare say, very politically relevant and deeply human work.

________________________________________________________________

Victoria Chang earned a BA in Asian studies from the University of Michigan, an MA in Asian studies from Harvard University, an MBA from Stanford University, and an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Chang is the author of four poetry collections to date including the most recent, Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon, 2017). Chang teaches in the Antioch University MFA program.

Lisa Allen Ortiz is the author of Guide to the Exhibit, recipient of the 2016 Perugia Press Prize, as well as two chapbooks: Turns Out and Self Portrait as a Clock.  Her poems and translations have appeared in Narrative MagazineBeloit Poetry JournalThe Literary Review and have been featured in the Best New Poets series and on Verse Daily.  She grew up in Northern California and now lives in Santa Cruz. She’s really into growing lettuce and spending time in the forest. www.lisaallenortiz.com

Links to the good stuff:

Victoria Chang’s book, Barbie Chang at Copper Canyon

Victoria Chang’s Website

Chang on Becoming a Poet

Chang at Guernica

Lisa Allen Ortiz’s Guide to the Exhibit at Perugia Press

Ortiz at Verse Daily

Ortiz’s Self Portrait as a Clock at Finishing Line Press

Ortiz at Women’s Voices for Change

________________________________________________________________

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. For Sundress Publications she edits the Lyric Essentials blog and coordinates the Poets in Pajamas reading series.

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Growing Organically: An Interview with Scott Fynboe, Creator of SAFTAcast

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In honor of the one year anniversary of SAFTAcast, I had the pleasure of chatting with Scott Fynboe, creator of the series.

Jane Huffman: Can you tell me the creation story of SAFTAcast? What was your role in it?

Scott Fynboe: Okay, so, December 2013: Sundress VP and SAFTA Literary Arts director T.A. Noonan and I were discussing a then recent episode of The Nerdist podcast. At the time, Sundress was looking to expand into new, creative areas, and I was looking to get more involved with the organization, so T.A. tossed out the idea of doing a podcast of some sort.

We talked it over, drew up a proposal, pitched it to Erin Elizabeth Smith over the phone, and within minutes, Erin greenlit the project.

The show was pitched as something like “a podcast that goes back to the original ‘talk show’ style, like Jack Parr or Dick Cavett, with people just talking about things.” In other words, a writing & literature podcast that would feel like a getting-coffee-at-a-diner conversation.

Erin loved the idea and gave me complete creative control over the show – title, logo, theme song, guest choice, etc. I mention that because one thing I really enjoy about working with SAFTA is that they let creators do what they do, and act more as advisors than architects. That freedom, then, allows a project – a show like this – to grow organically. It’s an amazing level of trust that they put into creators and I don’t take that trust lightly; it means a lot.

JH: How have the goals and incentives of the program changed over the past year?

SF: Some things have changed, certainly. But most of them have been within the show – redoing the way I open each episode, the addition of “The Burning Question that is on Everyone’s Mind,” that sort of thing.

But as for overall goals and incentives, I can’t say that much has changed. When the show was greenlit, T.A. and I wrote up a four-point “mission statement” for it:

  1. To be unique in the creative writing podcast market by producing a show that is not only informative, but entertaining.
  2. To give authors, editors and artists an outlet to not simply read and/or discuss their work, but to explore the topics that fascinate them and which display their personality.
  3. To foster Sundress Publications’ relationships with other presses, authors and artists.
  4. To continue Sundress Publications’ tradition of exploring diverse creative outlets.

I still adhere to those aims by keeping them in mind each time I record something. (Though, now that I think about it, the fourth one feels a little “out of date.” I think that was written because the show was going to be Sundress’ first audio-only project. It might need a little rewording.)

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JH: What is your favorite part of interviewing authors about their lives outside of their writing.

SF: Everyone – author and not – has stories about their individual histories and experiences. Yet there are also common threads that connect people. There’s an amazing balance of the unique and the universal experience in a conversation, and I love hearing someone’s stories while uncovering those connections.

For example, when Leslie LaChance was on the show, we got to talking about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We both know the film and we both have a dislike of it – but for different reasons.

As I recall, Leslie said she was working in retail when it came out, and customers were obsessed with the merchandise. Meanwhile, at that same moment in time, just a couple hours drive away, I was a little kid, having the merchandise forced on me.

And neither of us knew the other person existed until decades later.

I don’t know about you, but that’s so cool to me. Consider just how many separate moves, maneuvers, interactions, networks, relationships, jobs, hobbies, technologies, etc. had to be in place – just for one episode of The SAFTAcast to take place; for two people to connect over a mutual disdain for a Spielberg film.

Okay, I risk going on a tangent into quantum physics type territory here. So I’ll say that, ultimately, what I really dig about doing the show is just that I get to chat with awesome people; learn about their stories. Then let audiences discover how awesome the guests are, independent of their art. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

JH: Maybe this is an impossible question, but do you have a favorite episode or episodes?

SF: I “plead the fifth” on this question. However, I will say that I have a couple of favorite promos.

For technical reasons, I love the “Sundress Academy 2015 Holiday Message.” That was recorded and cut in less than two hours, and came out amazing.

Overall, though, the one that still gets me is for Mary Stone’s episode, “SAFTAcast en SAP!” Intentionally bad Spanish, goofy, non-sequitur sound effects, inaccurate music cues – I still giggle every time I listen to it.


JH: What is a question you often ask writers that you’ve never had the chance to answer yourself?

SF: “What was it like growing up in ________________?”

I could have a field day with that question.

JH: Do you have any other current projects you’re working on? What’s next for you?

SF: After being out of the scene for a few years, this April I got the itch to start writing and publishing again. So I aim to do a bit of that over the summer.

I’m also developing a second, Sundress-related podcast. But I won’t say anything about that right now.

JH: What’s next for SAFTAcast?

SF: Keep going and get bigger.

Okay, that was a little pithy. We [Sundress and me] are gonna keep doing the show, obviously. But we’ve got a few special things in the works.

We’re toying with making some merchandise of the show available to the public this summer, and we’d really like to do one or two listener/fan “contests” before the year is out (once we figure out the logistics of them). Speaking of the end of the year, based on the response from last December, we’re looking to do more than one “Holiday music mini-sode” this winter.

And who knows what’ll happen beyond that. Best thing to do is keep a watch on The SAFTAcast website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Check out SAFTAcast here.

More information on Scott Fynboe here.

More information on the Sundress Academy for the Arts here.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Jane Huffman writes from a variety of rooms in the Midwest. Recent poetry is featured or forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Word Riot, RHINO Poetry, The Boiler, Arroyo Literary Review, Moon City Review, and elsewhere in print and online. She is an Editorial Assistant for Sundress Publications. She was a recipient of a 2015 fellowship from the Stadler Center for Poetry. She has a BA from Kalamazoo College and is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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Sundress Publications Now Open for Full-Length Poetry Manuscripts

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Deadline: July 19, 2015

KNOXVILLE, TN — Sundress Publications is opening for the first time for submissions of full-length manuscripts. All authors are welcome to submit qualifying manuscripts during our reading period, which will close on July 19, 2015.

We are looking for manuscripts of forty-eight to eighty (48-80) single-spaced pages of poetry. Individual pieces or selections may have been previously published in anthologies, chapbooks, print journals, online journals, etc., but cannot have appeared in any full-length collection, including self-published collections. Single-author and collaborative author manuscripts will be considered. Manuscripts translated from another language will not be accepted.

The reading fee is $12 per manuscript, though the fee will be waived for entrants who purchase or pre-order any Sundress title. You can place book orders or pay submission fees at our store.

To encourage submissions from writers of color, we are offering a 50% discount during this reading period to all writers of color. Those who wish to pay their entry fee by purchasing or pre-ordering one of our titles will be given the option to submit two separate manuscripts or gift their second entry to another writer of color.

All manuscripts will be read by members of our editorial board, and we will select at least two manuscripts for publication. Selected manuscripts will be offered a standard publication contract, which includes 25 copies of the published book.

To submit, email your manuscript to sundresspublications@gmail.com along with your Sundress store receipt for submission fee or book purchase. Be sure to note both your name and the title of the manuscript in your email header. You may enter more than one manuscript, however each manuscript must come with a separate submission fee or book purchase.

A 501(c)3 non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is entirely volunteer-run, publishes chapbooks and full-length works in both print and digital formats, and hosts a variety of online journals. Although we are conscious of the lack of representation by women writers in literary publishing, we are a non-discriminatory publishing group focused on the creativity of all artists, regardless of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, education, etc. We are firm believers in fostering artists whose work is worthy of recognition.

To learn more about Sundress, visit our website at www.sundresspublications.com.

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10 Brilliant Gift Ideas for the Writerly Friends in Your Life

Office Supplies

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It might sound cliche, but writers like pens, notebooks, and other seemingly-mundane office supplies more than the average person. Try beautiful notebooks and planners, (like these from Moleskine, Baron Fig, and Leuchtturn), pens from Staedtler or Pantone (especially if your writerly friend is also arty), or just a run-of-the-mill set of sticky notes in every imaginable color.

Fingerless Mittens

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For productive days in cold offices. (Check Etsy to support independent artists!)

A Flask and a Fifth of Whiskey

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Obviously the stereotype that all-writers-are-heavy-whiskey-drinkers doesn’t hold true in every circumstance (we invite you to use your discretion), but something to help your writerly friend fight their writer’s block and celebrate their victories is a thoughtful gift. Alternatives for non-drinkers include champagne, Cheetos, fancy chocolate, bulk coffee.

Literary Shot Glasses

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Continuing on that whiskey idea, check out this Great Drinkers Shot Glass collection so that your writerly friend can raise a glass with their idols.


The Gift of Solitary Confinement

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There’s a trend in the literary community of writer’s working furiously to win scholarships to fabulously expensive retreats to the woods, the desert, and islands. For what end? Time and space. You can save your writerly friends the pain of applying to eleven places by gifting them a reservation to a cabin, hotel, condo on the beach — whatever suits their fancy. (Or alternatively, pay their $25 application fee for the Sundress Academy for the Arts!)


A Subscription to Duotrope

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Duotrope is an online service for writers that helps us track and manage our submissions. It is only $5 a month and a fabulous resource for new writers and those who are just getting started.

Subscriptions to Literary Journals

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A journal subscription for a present might seem a little outdated, but to writers of literature, print publications are still a big deal. And by gifting a subscription to a poetry or fiction journal, you’re not only providing a thoughtful and useful present but also supporting the industry. Pushcart provides a list of their favorite journals, but smaller journals are easy to find online too. If you can’t pick one, there is such thing as Journal of the Month club. It’s like one of those monthly wine delivery services but for poetry. Speaking of which, a wine of the month service is always a good idea.


A Letter

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Write your writerly friends something written. Writers tend to be the types of people who value the written word immensely, and also the types who will keep a letter from a loved one for the rest of their lives. Find some pretty paper and give it a shot. It is the thought that counts. And the way you write it down.

Books! Books! Books!

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Buy your writerly friends your book. Your friend’s book. A book you enjoyed recently. A chapbook. A cookbook. An art book. A book you think they’d enjoy. Something the New York Times told you they’d enjoy. Writers love books. It isn’t a cop out, we promise. (And we have plenty of Sundress titles to choose from at our store!)


A Chicken with a Name

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Donate to Sundress Publications and your writerly friend can name a chicken who resides at Sundress Academy for the Arts. Writerly people are excellent at naming things. Do good by them and good for the world this holiday. (Not half bad for the chicken, either.)

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Sundress Seeking Submissions of Political Poetry for New Anthology

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In September 2014, NPR writer and critic Juan Vidal wrote an essay whose titular question, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” provided a platform for various musings regarding the political state of contemporary American poetics. According to Vidal, “For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice. They gave voice to the hardships and evils facing people everywhere… What has happened?” He further suggested that poets writing today have failed to create work that carries the same “weight” as the poems written by their literary forefathers.

Should American poets still be trying to write “Howl”? Are Neruda, Kerouac, Baraka, and the rest of the Beat Generation the only viable prototypes for political literary expression in American culture? How does the influx of identities, voices, and life experiences that are now expressed in mainstream American letters potentially create and communicate new political vision(s) — vision that may sound or appear different from Ginsberg’s poetic/political tour de force, but is no less necessary, compelling, challenging, or iconoclastic? What do we even mean when we talk about the weight of a political work? How is that weight both carried and expressed by poetry today?

To address these questions, Sundress Publications is now accepting poetry submissions for a new anthology on the politics of identity, to showcase the substantial amount of political writing that is being done today. This print anthology, edited by Fox Frazier-Foley, Mary Stone, and Erin Elizabeth Smith, will include multimedia features: we are open to submissions in audio/visual media (e.g., video files of ASL poetry, audio files of spoken word poetry, etc).

This anthology is looking for submissions that contemplate ideas about race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, socioeconomic status, educational background, different life experiences, etc. and how our identities shape and complicate how we see ourselves in the world.

To submit, please send 3-5 poems and a bio (no longer than 75 words) to anthology@sundresspublications.com. Previously published work will be considered. If you send previously published work, please note where it first appeared.

Submissions for this project are rolling.
Deadline: December 31, 2014, at 12:00 midnight PST.

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Where the Political Poets Are

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NPR wants to know where all the poets have gone. Or at least that’s the clickbait-y headline on a recent think-piece in which Juan Vidal laments that poets aren’t political these days.

Mr. Vidal suggests that “literary provocation in America … is at a low” now that the Beat generation has died off. He name-checks a bunch of canonical male poets of the past and laments that they are no longer with us. He praises rappers and slam poets and Lupe Fiasco. He closes his overwrought commentary with a question: “Did they [poets] stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?”

I can’t tell if that query is intended as a mere rhetorical flourish or if it’s supposed to be a self-deprecating joke. Because it’s entirely clear that poets have gone nowhere. We’re still here, still writing, still engaging with the world, still challenging injustice. What’s not clear is whether Mr. Vidal has read any poetry published in the past few years.

It’s entirely predictable for the poetry community to react defensively when someone suggests there’s no such thing as a poetry community anymore, and the poets I follow on Twitter and Facebook bristled for obvious reasons when Mr. Vidal’s piece first appeared. So I’ll try to keep my own bristling to a minimum here, providing instead a sincere answer to the question of whether American poets in 2014 are taking on the important issues:

Yes. We are.

It’s not just slam poets and rappers, either, though to be sure the spoken-word crowd offers plenty of compelling and important social commentary (check out the Button Poetry Facebook page for examples).

If Mr. Vidal is truly interested in poets engaging on the page, here’s a list of places where he could turn:

  • Jamaal May brilliantly engages with Detroit and the plight of the American urban environment in his book Hum.
  • Timothy Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation is a subversive and intellectual examination of the effects of capitalism and corporate power on meaning.
  • Brian Turner served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina, then came home and wrote eloquently about his experiences in two books of poetry, Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.
  • The poetry journal Rattle has an ongoing call for poems that respond immediately to the news of the past week.
  • Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full is, in large part, a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech, the university where he teaches.
  • Nikki Finney’s Head Off and Split (which only won the National Book Award) is intensely immersed in contemporary issues of race and politics.
  • In 2013, Nightboat Books published an anthology of “Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics,” giving voice to a community often overlooked by the canon and the academy.
  • Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is an argumentative and intelligent response to the 21st-century American power structure.

And this is but a starting place, the first names and books and poets that came to my mind, poems from my own shelf, my own recent reading list. Every single person who reads this blog post can surely provide their own list of political, engaged, reactionary, challenging poets.

So much of the best poetry being written today is doing exactly what Mr. Vidal wants it to: taking on the tough issues of the day, speaking truth to power, grappling with the limits of language to express what matters most. In his closing paragraph, Mr. Vidal offers this view of how poetry once functioned:

“They once fed us, our poets; emptying themselves in the process. Generously, courageously, they brought the darkness to light. They said what we felt, and didn’t mind taking the heat for it — whatever that meant.”

It seems unlikely that Mr. Vidal will ever read what I’ve written here, and unlikelier still that he’ll read my examples and rethink his stance. But if he somehow does wind up here and is reading this, I challenge him to read just one poem – Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” which first appeared in The Awl and was probably one of the most-read poems of 2013. This poem checks every box on Mr. Vidal’s wish list. Written well before his commentary, it offers the best rebuttal I can think of.

Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

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SAFTA to Host First Undergraduate Poetry Writing Weekend at Firefly Farms

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Sundress Academy for the Arts, a branch of Sundress Publications, is pleased to announce its inaugural Undergraduate Writers Retreat, which will be held from Friday, June 13th to Sunday, June 15th, 2014. The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held on SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee and focus on poetry writing, particularly with an eye towards creating, editing, and finalizing a graduate school application portfolio.

A weekend pass includes instruction, writing supplies, food, drink, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $200, with tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment available to rent. Payment plans are available!

The event will be open to all undergraduate and recently graduated college students and provides an opportunity to work with many talented and published authors from around the country, including Erin Elizabeth Smith, T.A. Noonan, and Rhonda Lott.

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Erin Elizabeth Smith is the Creative Director at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and the author of two full-length collections, The Fear of Being Found (Three Candles Press, 2008) and The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake Press, 2011). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Mid-American, 32 Poems, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Tusculum Review, and Crab Orchard Review. She earned her PhD in Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and teaches a bit of everything in the English Department at the University of Tennessee. She also serves as the managing editor of Sundress Publications and Stirring.

T.A. Noonan is the author of several books and chapbooks, most recently four sparks fall: a novella (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2013) and, with Erin Elizabeth Smith, Skate or Die (Dusie Kollektiv, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review, West Wind Review, Hobart, Ninth Letter, and Phoebe, among others. A weightlifter, crafter, priestess, and all-around woman of action, she serves as the Associate Editor of Sundress Publications, Founding Editor of Flaming Giblet Press, and Literary Arts Director for the Sundress Academy of the Arts.

Rhonda Lott, an alumna of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, recently earned her doctorate in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Texas Tech University. She has worked with Sundress Publications since 2008 as both an editor and artist-in-residence with contributions of poetry broadsides and book covers. Her writing has appeared internationally and locally in a variety of venues, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, cream city review, and The Los Angeles Review, as well as the Knoxville Film Festival 7-Day Shootout.

Space at this workshop is limited to 10 poets, so reserve your space today!

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