Tag Archives: poets

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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Filling Our “Bottomless Teacup”: A Conversation between Lavender Ink Poets Sara Henning and Laura Madeline Wiseman

 

Laura Madeline Wiseman LFF 2013Laura Madeline Wiseman: Ann Patchett talks about the writing advice and guidance she received as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College from Allan Gurganus, Russell Banks, Grace Paley, and more in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Talk about advice you received as a very young writer and how that advice has eventually enabled you to write this book.

 

 

 

 

Sara Henning: During my undergraduate years, I worked with two poets whom I admire and love as fathers and artists: L.S. Klatt and sara-henningBrian Henry.  L.S. (Lew), the current Poet Laureate of the greater Grand Rapids area and professor of literature and creative writing at Calvin College, was a doctoral student when I enrolled in his introductory creative writing class during the summer of 1999.  Though he has since gone on to garner such distinctions as the Juniper Prize for Poetry and the Iowa Poetry Prize, at the time he was a kind and overworked graduate student who did nothing but embolden me. I was scared pre-med student wading in forbidden territory, and he gave me the chance to chase my real desires in an empathic place. While what I was writing didn’t speak toward capabilities I would only discover later, he was the first person to give me permission to write from a place of graceful imperfection.

From Lew’s hands, I passed into an advanced poetry class with Brian Henry. Brian, whose distinctions are too far to name, but include accomplished poet, translator, editor, literary critic and professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Richmond, taught me to be a rigorous reader and a disciplined writer. It was with Brian that I learned to cry and laugh with the poets who would stay in my heart as I continued to write poem after poem, including strong female writers such as Jorie Graham, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Anne Carson. I still have drafts of poems Brian took his pen to, underlining the few promising kernels (and crossing out large sections!), writing in the margins words like “amazing.” I wanted to rewrite the poems for Brian, because Brian was raw, experimental, brilliant, and believed in me in a way that I could not believe in myself. With Brian, I published in Fence as an undergraduate. Because of Brian, I did advanced summer creative writing institutes at the University of Georgia, wrote a creative honor’s thesis of poems, and got into George Mason University. At the last AWP in Seattle, I had the joy of running into poet and artist Tara Rebele, Brian’s wife. It gave me such joy to give her a copy of my debut collection, to tell her what I hope even one future student of mine will tell me:  because of Brian, I am what I am.

To sum up my undergraduate experience, Brian and Lew taught me to be fiercely loving to the poems in front of me, to write as scrupulously as I read, and to believe in myself as much as I would learn to believe in my work.   I could not have written A Sweeter Water without the humility and tenacity these men taught me, reserves I’d call on to draft, sculpt, and re-write the poems of my father’s suicide over and over, poems that literally taught me that pain can be a catalyst for actualization.

LMW: I love how you describe the examples of what your undergraduate teachers taught you. I have so many teachers I’d like to thank from my undergrad at Iowa State University, but particularly my teachers Deborah Marquart, Fern Kupfer, and Steve Pett.

SDH: I am so excited to hear that you also had wonderful experiences with your formative professors! I think about those foundational influences when I think about how I approach subjects that feel important for me to explore—how I might veer and elide with mentors as I find my own way. This leads me into my next question for you. As a poet interested in the trope of myth, will you speak a bit about your draw to female subjects who have been silenced or unspoken for in your current work? What do you hope to accomplish by the task of reclaiming their voices and/or telling their stories, and do you think that this task is especially exigent in our current cultural climate?

LMW: My mother had a baby blue hardback edition of the Grimm fairy tales, one with gold embossed lettering on the cover and edge gilding. Sometimes at bedtime we were allowed to crawl into her queen-sized bed and she would read us a story from those pages of onion skin, those tiny words, under that soft glow of her bedside light. I’m not sure if she read the versions of the bluebeard story from Grimm to us, but it was a story I recognized later while I was working on my masters degree in women’s studies at the University of Arizona. For my thesis, I was examining the ways in which women authors challenged gender expectations in their work and read Margaret Atwood’s short story “Bluebeard’s Egg.” Later still, when teaching introduction to literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I asked my students to use the Power and Control Wheel to find the ways abusers use gender violence to maintain power and control. I always participate in the activities I ask my students to do. As they worked in pairs, I selected “The Robber Bridegroom” to see how this bluebeard holds his bride-to-be and the elderly woman who serves him restrained by the threat of what he might do by the threat of what he’d already violently done. This past summer as I was writing Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience and after I had researched bluebeard retellings and the scholarship about them, I started looking into popular culture, for though bluebeard existed in the distant past, in contemporary feminist literature, and in literary scholarship, I couldn’t recall a recent movie adaptation of a man who slaughtered his wives. I found two films available streaming and free on Youtube. The first was a bluebeard version made in 2009, one of those wonderful British films on low budget, but no less appealing for its decadent costumes, faux castle sets, and charming accents. I also watched the 1972 American version of Bluebeard with Richard Burton and Raquel Welch.

It’s hard not to be appalled by the depiction of women in television and film, even during times deemed revolutionary, like the second wave of the feminist movement, yet, here was this film. Here, we learn that bluebeard murders his wives at the point at which the wives ask to have sex with him, after all his various attempts to elide such sexual encounters have failed, and when sex is the only thing he can no longer deny, being the husband, as he is, and married, having yet to consummate those holy matrimonial vows. Bluebeard and his wives do not have sex.

Not once.

Each time, he murders them.

Certainly, the film does fault Bluebeard’s sexual impotency as the site by which we are to understand his violence act—a site and explanation left out of many of the original fairy tales. This 1972 Bluebeard must kill her to save himself the disgrace of admitting, that no, he’s not a man in that (sexual) way. Yet, in the film, Bluebeard tells his last wife about his previously murdered wives—offered to viewers in flashbacks—via his gaze and thus, his rational, as a way for his wife and viewers to empathize with him and the murderous acts presented as inevitable. Of course, he seems to suggest, we’ll believe and be convinced he had to murder them. If the murders of his wives aren’t enough, it is the wife that I’d mark as feminist that he violently and physically beats and eventually drowns, that gives one pause to consider how far the feminist revolution actually extended into popular culture in 1972. This wife—when compared to the other wives who appear in the film in more stereotypical female roles—has a first opening line that she presents from a podium speaking to a crowd where some carry signs that read “Universal Suffrage.”

Her first line: We must rebel against the tyranny of the male.

 

This is a wife who drinks, drives motorcars, flies planes, and shoots a gun, bull’s-eye, dead center into the paper target of a man. Though Bluebeard calls her “extraordinary,” he explains to his current wife that “she hated men.” This is a woman and wife who says in the 1972 film, “men have enslaved women for centuries,” and, “so called female weakness is a male invention.” Upon her first beating by Bluebeard, she magically appears to want to be slapped, punched, and beaten. She demands, as she tosses her head, that Bluebeard hit her and whip her until her eventual murder.

After I’d watched that film, I turned to my husband and asked, Could bluebeard be remade today, here? I wasn’t sure, for if the answer is yes, what viable reason would Hollywood offer as the legitimate excuse for his murderous acts?

To be fair, the very thought of such a film chills me, for look at the facts. A woman is physically beaten every fifteen seconds in the United States by a man, a father, a boyfriend, a husband, or a lover. Every two minutes, a woman is raped. About one third of women murdered are murdered by their intimate partners. For the majority of women, we don’t need a movie about women being murdered or beaten or raped by their husbands. That’s what we see in music videos, films, television, and advertisements. That’s what we hear coming through our thin apartment walls. That’s what we feel as the tension, that coil of invisible twine thrumming between a couple so taunt all of us fear to touch it. Stand across that room, and you can still palpitate his violence.

But we have to touch it. And by writers, I mean, we have to write and rewrite it. I feel that we as writers have an opportunity to offer other stories, to tell what Bluebeard’s wives might have told had they been given the full opportunity, to break the silences culture routinely keeps to maintain the status quo by filling that silent void with words.

SDH: We do have to touch it, because what is an artist’s goal besides portraying a culture’s contemporary moment? I’m so moved by your process of doing this in your current collection, and I strive for similar goals in my work.

LMW: And I too am moved by the beauty you present in telling the story of suicide and its aftermath on family in A Sweeter Water. This brings me to my next question. What happens to a poet as she matures from the young poet as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, an MFA student at George Mason University, to a doctoral candidate at the University of South Dakota with a first book just out in the world? Have your themes and interests evolved? Is your sense of the poetic landscape more sophisticated? Do you see versions of your developing self as a poet in your writing, and if so, in what ways?

SDH: I am going to start my answer to this lovely question with a nod to a poet very special to me—Rainer Maria Rilke. In his first letter to the young Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke advises him, for better and for worse: “Nobody can advise you and help you. Nobody. There is only one way—Go into yourself.” I think this initial rebuff by Rilke, while externally taciturn, does hold some interior truth. I have had, and have, mentors who have helped me develop my relationship to my writing as it stands, and without them my relationship to my art would be vastly different. Though I have had excellent mentorship, much of the work I have accomplished relies on following through on suggestions, and trusting my relationship with my work. We all know that art is dependent on synthesizing one’s emotional and cultural tapestry, and the work, as the young and older poet recognizes, can only be completed, and recognized, in the process. I am going to stop speaking in generalities.

I began my relationship with poetry in an unhinged way, because my life soon after the time of discovery was pretty unhinged. I traversed my way through influences the way that I traversed my way through dysfunctional relationships inside and outside of my family, discovering holes just to find the answers in another hole. This time, of course, was not all dark. I deepened my breadth of knowledge of contemporary poetry in a way that informed my relationship with the writing practice, what was invaluable to me. Like many people pursuing an MFA, I had the chance to work closely with mentors whom I admired and had a chance to explore my writing through vast experimentation, including poets Eric Pankey, Susan Tichy, and Sally Keith. I would say, like many people exiting an MFA program, that it was in the later MFA and hard post-MFA years that I feel like I began to write the poems which had transcendent social and personal meaning for me. I always have had an interest in the human body and the way the body traverses the physical and emotional space around it. My beginning poetry was especially metaphysical. I found, over the years, as I began to write about my parents, that I could apply philosophical questions to concrete situations, and could create the foundational sinew that I was lacking, and craving, in my earlier poetry.

Thus, my first book is a document of my poetic progress and arrival—rawer than the work I am writing now, containing a certain verve that current, more jaded self embodies in different incarnations. I am being wry here, but only partially. I think as we grow, our interests meld into altered spheres, and we manifest them disparately. I am currently interested less in my own body than in the woman’s body as cultural perjure and victim. I am interested in tracing familial dynamics that lead women toward instability and victimhood rather than just my own experience with this, though both explorations inform each other. I am still very interested in nature and place (both of these themes dominate my first book and chapbook) and I think this continues to manifest in my current writing. I think my work shows my different incarnations of development that I hope will continue to grow.

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LMW: I love how you say your first book is “poetic process and arrival” and that your early writing was “the chance to explore” through “vast experimentation”. That resonates so well with my own work, the ways that each new project feels like a process that eventually arrives and that the poetic self is evolving as we writers write.

SDH: I love that writing and the self are able to negotiate that duality! So, I’ve got to ask: as an author with a stunning publication record—including three full-length collections, one collaborative book, two letter press books, eight chapbooks, and editorship of one of the most important anthologies of the twenty-first century—can you describe one of your early literary discoveries?

LMW: Okay! Let me tell you a different story, not an analysis of Bluebeard, but a slow discovery of another classic retelling, this one with a much longer history.

In AP English in high school, we were assigned The Iliad by Mrs. McCullum, this feisty, buoyant teacher who began each class with the statement, “Today will be a fabulous day!” and who gave me as a graduation gift a copy of the selected poems of Emily Dickenson. The previous year while in P.E., my track coach had a hard backed copy of The Firebrand by Marion Zimmerman Bradley in a metal tray on his desk where he often sat as we walked the class hour around the basketball court. Milling with the other students as he joked and sent his booming voice into the commodious space, I picked up the orangey book, puzzled over the title, the author, and the press logo. He said, “Take it. It’s yours.” Her novel was a retelling of Homer’s story of the Trojan Horse from the perspective of Cassandra, the cursed daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, who had the power of foresight but was cursed to never be believed whenever she portended what would come. Over the summer I read The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, books I picked up from a used bookstore for seventy-five cents a piece, part of my summer reading list aimed at reading a given number of books until those sultry, Midwest days came to their inevitable end. Earlier still, my fifth grade teacher showed movies most Friday afternoons and a few of those were cinematic recastings of ancient texts.

One way Mrs. McCullum taught students to understand the Illiad was by having us fill out a summary worksheet where we added to the blanks the details of the story. If we’d read the book and filled out the worksheet, then we as a class could have a discussion moving from the same starting place—if this is the story, than what does it mean? In that humid corner classroom with windows lining two of the walls, in those wooden and cast iron desks made sticky by the sweat of our arms, backs, and thighs, and among all those bent heads furiously trying to fill out the blanks over a reading assignment not all had managed to complete, after an allotment of time to work on our own, we were paired. The gal ahead of me—a good friend I’d known throughout high school and who spent her summers clowning with her brothers, praying with her youth group, and reading books other than those I had read—turned in her desk, her sheet of answers mostly empty and her pencil shaft chewed, looked at my sheet and growled in half-frustration and half-jubilant hope, “You did the reading, then?”

My friend clearly had not done this reading. I had done this reading, the rereading, the rereadings, and had discovered in those readings that writers retell stories, recast stories, remake them to reoffer a new way to see what we had thought we’d seen before, but now looking at it, we see it anew. As an eighteen-year-old with a stomach gurgling for lunch and hot enough that my legs stuck to the wooden seat and my flesh made a sucking sound whenever I recrossed them as I sought a little coolness, a bit of air between skin and desk, I likely wouldn’t have been able to articulate that discovery. I likely would’ve laughed, bemused, looking at my friend’s frizzy and curling hair, her face flushed and damp, her mouth gaped and brow pinched as she snatched my worksheet and compared it to her own. As I watched her smugly eye the teacher tucked absentmindedly behind her desk at the front of the room and began to fill in her sheet with my answers, I would’ve laughed again as she listed all the reasons why she didn’t do the reading, how the book was the dumbest book ever, and when exactly was this interminable last year going to end.

My discovery: writers retell stories of the past.

But wait, there’s more to it than that.

Fast-forward beyond high school to college and grad school, where after reading those early Homeric texts, I read and/or taught Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, Judy Grahn’s The Queen of Wands, and others. What I loved about such texts, like Marian Zimmerman Bradley’s Firebrand that I’d read as a teen, was that shifting of perspective, that altering of the story ever so slightly by offering it up from another pair of eyes. How does the Trojan War appear from the vantage of Helen, what about from beside Penelope’s loom, or walking with Aeneas’ young, voiceless wife Lavinia as her child plays with acorns in the courtyard? To write such stories gives us a chance to imagine and inhabit that same world, but now one more fully drawn and conceived, with more voices, individuals, and perspectives. For me as a writer and poet, writing Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience was a logical step because though I had read bluebeard as a young person and a young scholar, I was curious to know just what his wives did think about those keys and how did they approach that locked room they were told never to enter. And I was disobedient enough to want to hear their story, to let those voices speak about such a fatal, matrimonial world.

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SDH: Perhaps in the re-telling, we as writers are grasping for individual meaning in eternal truths, forging through the ones were are given a priori, before the moment of conception, the ones then passed on to us through genetic and cultural memory. Perhaps if the act of writing is the act of revision, or re-vision, and like writers who inspired us, we are drawn to things knowable and unexplainable that we nonetheless furiously murmur over and over, then incarnation, re-imagining, re-experiencing, are the methods to discovering real artistic wholeness.

LMW: I think you’re right. I love that idea of wholeness.

You’ve offered us an insight into the powerful teachers who encouraged you as an undergraduate and the books and authors who have nurtured you as a developing writer. Can you offer us a complete and whole picture by talking about a few of your very early experiences composing stories and poems and the delights such acts offered to a young girl who would become a poet?

SDH: Sure! Like many children born to a single mother, I grew up in daycare. My mother, for as long as I can remember, worked two jobs, trying to survive independently in the 1980’s, when opportunities for women, and the woebegone notion of equal pay, were, to use an aphorism, imperfect at best. Thus, like many artists, I was given the chance early on to embody, internalize, and attempt to find salve for, economic and existential deprivation. As it happened, like many children raised without siblings, I was forced to engage in singular play that would double as functional lessons in how to navigate the world. Therefore, I told stories, though the material text was often changeable: I sang them, I danced them, I wrote them when I had developed acuity with penmanship, though I never had the intervention of others to silence or correct my assumptions. I was the center of my own universe, soothsayer of Stevens’s “the the” with blonde hair and corduroys stained with red clay.

When I became school-age, my grandparents paid for me to go to Montessori School, a model of education that encouraged artistic expression, personal discovery, and learning at one’s own pace. I spent most of my elementary and middle school years in small classrooms engaged in one-on-one relationships with my teachers, who would push me to continue finding answers in ways that were both Socratic and Rogerian. Our school was minimalistic to the point of being acetic (we sat on the floor) and avoided technology in most forms (there was an old Mac in our Middle School classroom that no one touched except for the occasional game of Oregon Trail during recess). With a school and a home-life that offered little beyond the pleasure of the mind, I turned to books and stories as early as I could read. Then, I started writing my own.

 

I suppose I was always empty and wanted to fill my bottomless teacup, eager to gain mastery over an environment that I would never have mastery over, because I was poor, I was a girl, I was raised in rural Georgia, and in my familial structure, men made the world and women fussed over petty trifles. Many in my position would become statistics before they finished high school, whether they became pregnant, dropped out, or turned to lives of coarse survival, and I accepted it as I accepted the next rainstorm or news reel. Because I knew no one would read them, I was free to write reams of stories about my cats, exhaustive journal entries every evening before bed, poems before I knew they were poems. They felt like my conversation with the evening as it pulsed through my windows, my conversation with my dead father, my conversation with a mother who either worked or fell asleep on the sofa. Ultimately, they became my conversations with silence, comfortable and dreamy, when nothing in my life was comfortable or dreamy.

I have no idea where the stacks and stacks of filled notebooks are now, the daily rants and visions, much less the heap I’d request at the beginning of each summer (there must be eight years’ worth of binges), because as my grandmother zoned out to soap operas and my grandfather drank in his study, I was left to entertain myself, writing from morning to evening, writing until my hand, stained with pencil, hurt from bearing down, and writing past the pain. For all I know, they got lost in my mother’s last move, but the loss doesn’t matter. At that point, I wrote without a critic, valuing the process, not the product, and in my writing, I finally felt Italo Calvino’s version of lightness, which was everything. I was finally free.

LMW: Though our stories are different, I think you and I shared that surplus of creation as young writers. I always find it surprising that we writers often write so much while children and teens and then, when adults, some find it surprising that we’ve turned ourselves into writers. I often want to say, Of course we’re writers. We’ve been doing it all along.

Thank you so much, for this conversation, Sara! I’ve absolutely enjoyed it.

SDH: Thank you as well, and likewise!

 

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In Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), a campy, contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth, Laura Madeline Wiseman charts the love of three sisters who each marry the same man upon the demise of the sister who preceded her. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but Wiseman focuses on the love each of his unfortunate wives felt, the first blush of romance and young marriage, the complicated turns of mature desire and the past we bring into our present affections.

In A Sweeter Water (2013), Sara Henning’s debut collection, lyric surface collides with both dreamscape and haunted reality in a metanarrative of longing. Within a re-invented diction of elegy, loss is its own gripping and hazardous splendor: dahlia as talisman for new awakening, plush anchor to reclamation, water as cleansing taboo. Reminders that beauty is only an abbreviation for what is most brutal and tender.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska and has received an Academy of American Poets Award and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Margie, and Feminist Studies.

Sara Henning is the author of the full-length collection of poetry A Sweeter Water (2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

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