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For Folk’s Sake: In Brief with GennaRose Nethercott

by Desmond Peeples

This fall will be many readers’ first introductions to GennaRose Nethercott’s potent, monstrously creative poetry. Her debut book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, has earned the loyalty of Louise Glück, queen of night poems here in America, and will be published in October as a National Poetry Series winner. If you don’t know GennaRose yet, you can find her poems all over the internet—but your paths may have crossed already.

More than any other young poet I know, GennaRose has worked to spread her writing’s reach far and wide, body to body. She’s busked custom poems-to-order in cities across America and Europe (you can order online, too); architects and small business owners have commissioned her words, paired them with million-dollar homes and displayed them as product copy; she is in constant collaboration, always crossing her work with other creative disciplines; she winters in New Orleans, has slept on a bookshelf in Paris.

GennaRose is an old friend, a co-conspirator—we ran a ruthless kindergarten gang together, and more recently an indie lit mag—and a fellow Vermonter. Over the long, storm-addled winter, we paper airplaned this brief interview between New Orleans and Montpelier:

From the passersby who prompt your poems-to-order to the musicians featured in your recent album of ballads, a diverse array of perspectives, both artistic and otherwise, have been welcomed into your creative process. As a poet, what is the significance of collaboration and community to your work?

On the purest level, my collaborative work stems from loneliness. Being a writer is often immensely isolating, and I’ve long struggled with how to maintain my creative practice while still being a member of society, still connecting with other people. Often, I fail at balancing the two. However, with collaborations such as the ballads or the poems to order, I’m able to escape that isolation—and allow forging relationships with other people to be not a distraction, but rather an essential part of the creative process.

Beyond that, working with other people and other artists allows my work to transcend my own limitations. Take the Modern Ballads album, for example: I wrote a series of narrative ballads that I wanted to take the form of songs. I’m not a skilled enough musician or singer to lend them the sounds I desired for them, so I partnered with a team of professional musicians who set the ballads to music and performed them. Thus, the lyrics were able to far exceed the limits of my own skills, and become better works of art. Other creators are amazing! Don’t get so bogged down by a sense of do-it-yourself egoism that you prevent your work from being as good as others might help it grow to be.

Could you talk a bit more about what inspired the Modern Ballads project, and what drew you to the ballad form in general?

The idea for Modern Ballads first materialized when I was living in Scotland, studying oral folk traditions as part of my undergrad. I became infatuated with the work of ballad collector Francis James Child, who traveled England and Scotland in the 1800s, gathering and transcribing traditional songs and poems. At the core, I was mainly drawn to the storytelling aspect—ballads, by definition, are poems/songs that tell a story. They’re narrative, telling of illicit love affairs and murders and rogue fairies. They have a mystical quality to them that enchanted me. I thought, How cool would it be to write a series of new ballads, based on, and slightly subverting, those traditional forms? To study the Child Ballads, and create something contemporary? And then have a bunch of bands set them to music? At the time I tabled the idea, because I didn’t know any musicians. Then four years later, I moved to Boston and fell in with the folk music scene—and now I know too many musicians. So figured I may as well make use of ’em.

Your work as a folklorist clearly influences the majority of your poems and stories. In your writing—and in the writing world at large, if it’s not too much—what are some essential ways that folklore and literature intersect? And for that matter, have you encountered any fundamental conflicts between the two fields?

At the core, folklore and literature are both about reflecting the society which creates them—designed function as a mirror of the time and environment in which they were born. But where they differ is largely in process: Literature is single-authored, written down, and static, while a folktale is authored by many voices, passed through oral storytelling, and changes with each telling to adapt to whatever time and circumstance it’s in. Those differences aren’t in conflict, however—they just both fulfill different roles in the world of storytelling. And for me, it’s the storytelling ability of each that’s fascinating. The potential to snatch away a reader/listener and deposit them in some other life.

Your forthcoming book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, tells the story in poems of a lumberjack whose hand, when chopped off, becomes a dove. The idea reminds me of a quote from the folklorist and fairy tale scholar, Jack Zipes: “If there is one ‘constant’ in the structure and theme of the wonder tale, it is transformation.” To you, what is the greater significance of transformation within folklore, and within your own writing?

Shapeshifting is my ultimate obsession in storytelling. Because as we all know, change is unyielding and constant. It never sleeps. Shapeshifting stories allow this truth to manifest literally—so ultimately, transformation is ever-present in lore because it is ever-present in life. In shapeshifting lover tales, for example, where a sweetheart morphs between an animal and human form, it forces us to ask ourselves: Do we truly know those we love? Can we be sure they will maintain the Selves we know them as? At what point do we stop recognizing our dear ones? Ourselves? And in the case of Lumberjack, in which a part of his body, a part of himself, is severed and transformed, it speaks to how once something, even something we consider fully ours, is taken away, it belongs to itself. It becomes something new. And once something changes, truly changes, to the point of sprouting wings or fangs or scales, nothing can ever return to what it was.

As a winner of this year’s National Poetry Series, The Lumberjack’s Dove marks your arrival on the national literary scene. What’s your ideal public role as a writer with national readership?

I’m still figuring this out, since that position is so new and strange and surprising for me. But ultimately, I just want to be able to continue writing and have my work connect with readers in a way that offers some sort of solidarity and giddiness. I want readers to feel seen when they encounter my work. And personally, I want to be on the road as much as possible, touring my writing, doing readings, meeting people in-person. I’ve always been drawn to the traveling bard archetype, so part of me wants to embody a modern version of that—to serve as a sort of footsoldier for language and story, an ambassador.

Here’s a quickie—what have you been reading lately? What literary happenings have you excited?

I just read The Bear and the Nightingale, which is a beautiful Russian fairy tale by Katherine Arden (the sequel was just released, as well). Before that, I gleefully shimmied my way through Before the Devil Breaks You, the third book in Libba Bray’s The Diviners series, which are YA books about teen psychic flappers in 1920s New York City who fight ghosts and investigate occult murders. All the best things! And I’m always re-reading everything Kelly Link ever wrote. I’m super into contemporary fabulist fiction writers. If you’ve ever been near me when I’m tipsy at a party, you know this, because I basically just ramble the words, “Kelly Link! Aimee Bender! Karen Russell! Angela Carter! Helen Oyeyemi!” on repeat like some kind of sports chant. Oh, and I just got Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which I haven’t started yet but am very excited to dive into.

Care to share any new projects you’re working on?

I’ve been chipping away at a book of spooky short stories (possessed roosters, paper children, women turning into houses, etc…), and agent-hunting for another manuscript of mine which is a bestiary of imagined creatures. Otherwise, prepping The Lumberjack’s Dove to come out in the fall, and Modern Ballads to drop in the early spring.

~

GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other projects include A Ghost of Water (an ekphrastic collaboration with printmaker Susan Osgood) and the narrative song collection Modern Ballads. Her work has appeared in The Offing, Rust & Moth, PANK, and elsewhere, and she has been a writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris.

She tours nationally and internationally composing poems-to-order for strangers on a 1952 Hermes Rocket typewriter—and is the founder of the Traveling Poetry Emporium, a team of poets-for-hire. Nethercott holds a degree in poetry, theatre, and folklore from Hampshire College. A Vermont native, she has lived in many cities across the US and Europe, but is always drawn back to the forest.

Ruben Quesada smiles at podium in front of abstract posters at Cafe Anna

Ruben Quesada Talks Poetry, Translation, and Neck Tattoos

by Blake Z. Rong

Ruben Quesada & Miciah Bay Gault in Cafe Anna

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, set within a thick black circle, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day, in August in the 1970s. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am, and my personality,” he said. Getting that tattoo “seemed like the right thing to do.”

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in Bell, an oft-overlooked city tangled within Los Angeles’ grid-like boulevards, five miles southeast from downtown, close to where the 5 and 710 Freeways converge. His mother immigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. With the help of relatives she left Quesada’s father and an abusive relationship to move to Southern California, where she worked to raise Quesada and his two sisters. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua. They had six children, five of them daughters. The son was just a month older than Quesada.

“We became best friends,” said Quesada. “From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable. I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. Because my mother had to work, she couldn’t take any time off to take us on vacations. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA, he sought a reminder of the past. In many ways, he said, earning graduate degrees in the arts severs you from this personal history: you either have to let go of it, or find a way to integrate it into your work. “I knew there was a lot that I had to let go,” he said. “But growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to, and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut poetry collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. When he is not teaching, he serves as Contributing Editor to the Chicago Review of Books, Senior Editor at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the moderator of the AWP Conference’s annual Latino Caucus, which he founded. He earned his MFA at the University of California Riverside, then a PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a town he recently immortalized in verse.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation. We spoke in Café Anna, on the ground floor of College Hall, named after the ghost that still haunts the building.

 

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, he did what many people you grow up with do—people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

 

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.

No.

 

But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

 

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and largely Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. Early on, I knew that Latino culture was quite diverse, that there were others who spoke Spanish like me, but maybe not held the same ideas about food, or ritual, or tradition. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

 

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on, read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started writing letters, which was cathartic. I didn’t understand that writing letters could be a form of poetic expression until high school. My school offered college guidance, but the resources were minimal: I didn’t know that I could go to college and study poetry. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside, because it had a department of creative writing that was separate from English. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

 

When you graduated, you said: “I knew that I wanted to lead a life in the arts.” Did you ever have any doubts?

I had doubts because I heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult. I wanted to do it full-time. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? Having changed my appearance in this way immediately limited the kind of work that I’d get. In many ways, it forced my hand.

I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It became critically important to me that I ensure that the visibility and presence of people of color, and queer people were in the literary community in the arts. And so that is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

 

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas that we have in our own head, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that Neruda book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something that I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language that was familiar to those I knew.

 

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, it’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

 

An alum from this program recently founded their own journal, and you’ve had your hand in two: Codex Journal and Stories & Queer. It seems to be something that a lot of us might pursue.

I started Codex in 2011, during my final years at Texas Tech University. I wanted to find a way to integrate tech and also create a space for people who weren’t visible, including an annual queer people of color issue that ran once a year.

Stories & Queer is a traveling reading series that my partner and I started in 2013. Its aim is to travel to rural areas where there’s a lack of visibility of LGBT people—we find a space and we create a literary event, so people there have an opportunity to tell their stories. In Montpelier I’m currently organizing a literary event with a Vermont group called Outright.

 

What are some things that surprised you when you launched a journal?

Codex has been on hiatus for some time. But toward the end, I found guest editors. It takes a lot of time to curate an issue—this was a quarterly journal, and even four times a year, it was a lot of time to try to either solicit or go through submissions and create a cohesive idea for each issue. Even though I found guest editors, trying to find a guest editor who was passionate about a particular idea also took a lot of time. It’s a digital journal, and that also takes some financial backing. To ensure that all the work I publish lives online, I have to continue hosting that URL. There are so many small journals I see disappear in a year, mostly because people don’t have the time and money to ensure that it’s gonna be around. The long game is important. If you’re going to feature people’s work, you owe them the space to ensure them that their work will survive.

Maybe it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I don’t know if surprise is the right word—it renewed my respect for literary institutions that have been around for decades.

 

What drew you toward Luis Cernuda and his work?

I was drawn to Spanish language poetry because of my background. The most recognizable poets of Spain might be those of the late 19th or early 20th century, a group known as the Generation of ‘27. That includes another recognizable name: Federico García Lorca. Cernuda was a contemporary. They were the only two gay poets of that group—Lorca was not out, but Cernuda was. In many ways, his openness with his sexuality may have hindered his success. I started studying Cernuda during my MFA program, and began to translate my work then. There are three American poets who have translated most of his work—Reginald Gibbons, Derek Harris, and Stephen Kessler who’s won many awards for his translation of Cernuda.

 

But there is one collection by him that has not been completely translated. When I was in graduate school I reached out to his family and acquired rights to translate his work. It’s his collection called Las Nubes, or “The Clouds”, that I’m currently working on. As I finish my second collection of poems, I’m slowly returning to Cernuda.

 

How does Las Nubes fit into his overall body of work?

This collection was written in exile. Cernuda self-exiled in 1937 and he never returned. So these poems were written during his time outside of Spain. He taught at Columbia University and at UCLA, and it’s during his time at UCLA that he died. So it’s interesting to translate these poems that were written in his native language, while he was outside of his home country.

The poems align themselves with most of his other work, which is spare, influenced by surrealism, and focused on love and desire. Throughout his body of work, he’s wrestled with his homosexual desires and how that fit into his world. He does that through the implication of the body and nature.

 

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

The second collection is a departure from my first. My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. I think place and family play a prominent role in that collection. If someone was to examine many first collections of poetry by Latino writers, they might find that those are pretty common themes.

The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments—there’s a section on communion, there’s a section on confession, and the poems are organized in parts. One section might have a title, but poems in that section are numbered. What’s different about the way they look is that they’re laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a Mayan stone in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs. Those glyphs reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas, emojis, and I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

 

You said you live in Chicago. How do you like the city?

I love Chicago. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There’s many things I like about it. Its public transit, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways: the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home.

I’ve considered living in cities like New York City and I still think about it sometimes, but the pace of New York makes me a bit nauseous. There’s just too much happening at once. Los Angeles is in retrospect too spread out. Chicago is busy enough and there’s enough culture that it feels like a middle ground.

 

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc?

I write anywhere I can, at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table.

I love revising, I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. I try to step away from something as often as I can.

Silhouettes and Landscapes of a Vermont Poet at Home on the Page

by Valentyn Smith

In an ideal world, Kerrin McCadden and I have found ourselves sunken into the velour armchairs of some vintaged cafe and have spent the last hour huddled over our steaming tea mugs, deep in conversation. We’d be talking poetry—especially because Kerrin McCadden’s poetry earned her the 2015 Vermont Book Award, as well as the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize. Alas, in the real world, Kerrin is as incredibly busy as she is incredibly accomplished. ­­­Over this fall, she was on a deadline for a magazine while judging a book contest and guest teaching at UVM. All this in addition to the balancing act that is her life as a full-time Vermont writer, teacher and parent. Yet there’s still more to what makes Kerrin so fascinating. And it’s the other life Kerrin lives that intrigues me, the life of a poet at the desk with her pens, dreams, words; a poet at home.

The first time I saw Kerrin, she was spotlighted at the 2017 Vermont Book Award Gala as the 2015 winner for Landscape of Plywood Silhouettes, a collection of poems. As a current MFA candidate, I have been curious about the creatures of habit that are writers, about their ghosts, their portals and their story-telling origins. Here, Kerrin granted me the tales of her own storytelling origins as well as the art of multitasking while sneaking a peek at her nightstand. Fortunately, she carved out some time to share her writing chops, warmth and artistry with me as she juggled la vida loca as well as treated me to her sagey insights and poetic word-smithing and, wisdom-wise, it reads like a string of pearls.

 

Valentyn Smith: We’re going to dive into portals—great writing that triggers our imaginations with inspiration, gets our creative juices flowing and (vicariously) transports us. I’m curious about the books on your nightstand (could be a proverbial one), as well as favored books on your shelves, and favorite poems and poets. For starters, what is a book that you’ll turn to for inspiration, time and time, again? What books or writers are your “portal-reads,” transporting you to times, places, memories or worlds that bring you back to the now and then to the page, ready to write?

 

Kerrin McCadden: Weirdly enough, on my nightstand is the 1912 edition of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases by P. M. Roget, a beautiful little pair of books full of common and not so common words and phrases. There are some real gems in there—words and phrases no longer in circulation. It’s both a soporific and an imagination agitator.

I also have my travel journals from recent trips (France and Ethiopia), the novel Grace, by Paul Lynch.

On my proverbial bookshelf, re: books I return to, is a pile of The Art of books, including The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Art of Recklessness, by Dean Young, The Art of Description, by Mark Doty. There is also Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, which stands as a sacred text. I mostly only read poetry these days and have collected hundreds of contemporary collections, which I cycle through—moving a new handful of them to my table periodically to revisit.

 

VS: Who is a writer and/or what is a book that you believe everyone should read in their lifetime? In that same vein, what other book(s) do you highly recommend to young writers and poets?

 

KM: I know my reading history is skewed, as is everyone’s. We are pushed toward and away from books according to our education systems, our circumstances and our tastes as they emerge. I’m hesitant, ever, to say who should read what (though telling people what to read has been my life’s work—so, irony, yeah), but in any context, I can only say why I’ve chosen a book for the moment of my recommendation. I’ll say that for myself, a seminal work was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. I don’t know if everyone should read it. I read it by accident, and it rocked my young world.

For young poets, I want them to read the poets writing now—otherwise they insist on writing with all kinds of old-fashioned flourishes (grammatical inversions, clunky rhyme, forced patterns that are not consistently deployed). When I show them what poems are doing now, they can gain a sense of how to invent a poem, which is what we are all doing with every poem we write. I show them literary journals online. Most of them don’t know what a literary journal is. I have them sign up for the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series—anything to put contemporary poems in front of them. Once young people start to read contemporary poetry, they can begin to know what the conversation is that they are trying to enter.

 

VS: What is the best piece of advice on writing (or piece of writerly advice) you’ve been given? 

 

KM: I think across the board, it is the learned willingness to keep at the page—both to create new work and to revise what I’m building. One time at Bread Loaf, Ed Hirsch gave a lecture in which he said that writers need, primarily, to show up at the page. He exhorted us to bump our heads against the ceiling of our abilities, not our willingness to show up at the page. By which he meant you can’t know what you can do unless you continually practice. Showing up at the page is the magic answer. Show up again and again, or lose hope, really, of being a writer. If writing is how you process the world, then you need to have the practice of writing. I can’t stand it when students of mine say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything.” Any human can come up with something. Imagination is our central gift. I’m pretty sure imagination is how we first figured out how to use tools. We could imagine something we couldn’t see. What they really mean when they say, “I just couldn’t come up with anything,” is that they don’t like what they wrote, or they didn’t come up with anything. Just keep putting the words together.

 

VS: Storytelling has its origins in the oral tradition. How much of your work do you write by ear and how would you describe your work’s relation to sound?

 

KM: This is an interesting question, and, I think, goes back to my response about practice. When I first started putting poems out into the world, one consistent response was about musicality in the poems. I know that when I write, there is a certain moment when I discover that the language has settled into what I want, but the toggle switches that I throw to decide are many, and it’s a process that’s become largely intuitive. I also know that all my early memories of poetry were the language of the Catholic mass, which I had memorized by the time I left for college. The mass is designed to be effective to a listening audience that may or may not be reading along. It’s a collective language experience, so the language is heightened in importance not just because it’s about God—but because a huge number of people are sharing it. Church was where I experienced formal language, language as an act of performance, language that transcended daily language—and I memorized it through sheer exposure to it. I know that musicality in language is part of the pattern of how I think. And before I read contemporary poets, I read the Romantics and the Modernists, who also teach line by line how sound can work in poems.

I’ve also always been a mimic, picking up accents in ways that are sometimes embarrassing. I catch on to phrases I like and use them repetitively in spates. I catch on to patterns obsessively. I’m really in love with sound, which is tough, because I’m losing my actual hearing. Good thing, I guess, that language happens inside the mind as well as in the ear!

 

VS: What was the first poem you read (or heard) that blew you away and lit your fire? Why?

 

KM: It was probably “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso. I read it during high school, and it was unlike anything I had ever read in school. I loved how unhinged the speaker was and how highly tuned Corso’s imagination was—how ranging and wild it all was. I think this is the first poem that taught me what poems could do in our time.

 

VS: Are you into form? If so, which and why, or why not? Details, please!

 

KM: I’m totally into form, structure. Every poem invents its own form even if the form of the poem is received. Regardless of the fixed nature of a form, of course, there is always invention—even on the obvious level of sequencing words. By which I mean to say every poet is into form. For me, I don’t revel in received forms, but I do love watching a poem as I’m writing it and making the formal decisions that are good for the poem. When a poem is drafted, one of my favorite editing sequences is moving it into and out of various shapes and forms. Shifting a poem from long lines into short lines, for instance, tends to expose baggy phrasing—and that’s how I tend to find it, when a line is shortened and I realize there’s nothing necessary in it. Shifting between different forms, even ordering of the lines, helps expose what should be cut. I’m a poet who errs on the side of too many words, and it takes me tricking myself to see where I should lose any of them.

 

VS: What was your very first encounter with poetry? What inspired you to write your own, and at what point in life was this? Also, how would you describe your current approach to writing poetry, compared to when you first started writing? What compelled you then versus now?

 

KM: I have some ridiculous snippets I wrote when I was little, in grade school. What is clear in them is that I was already interested in making connections that were not ready-made. I love to think associatively. In fact, one thing I struggled with when I was a young student was the idea of outlines. I had no idea how to plan what I was going to think. Writing was the act that made the ideas show up at all. I’ve always written to think. So, I wonder early on if my corrections on my papers regarding “organization” were actually not weaknesses but the beginnings of poems or poetic thinking. I was never effectively able to fight my interest in letting my ideas wander. I could always write good sentences (the “Test of Standard Written English” was the only part of the SAT where I earned a perfect score), but they were always serving different gods than the outline, or the prescribed sequence. Now that I actually get to be a poet, I’m glad I resisted. I just wish that someone had seen the way my mind worked as a potential strength.

My current approach to writing poetry is pretty sturdy, by which I mean it hasn’t changed very much. I walk about in the world like a collector, looking for images and ideas that I want to put into poems. My daily life is full of this kind of walking meditation. I keep notes, I worry an idea for a poem until I know what I want it to feel like once I’ve written it. At some point, I make the time to sit and write. I just start, because I know that later on I can improve the beginning. I let the first draft just come out. Sometimes I let it be a “talking” draft that just explains the ideas, allowing clunky phrases to be there. On a second and on subsequent passes through the poem, I clean and move, clean and move. Then I usually put the poem away for awhile, so that next time I see it, it isn’t familiar. I fall in love with every draft still—thinking this is my best poem ever. Which it never, ever really is. So, I wait, and then I take it back out, show it maybe to a good friend who knows my poems so they can tell me what moves I just keep making, or can push me toward a core issue in the poem. Most poems take months and piles of drafts. This plays out over and over again!  I know I learn and change over time—for instance right now I’m uncharacteristically attracted to making shorter lines and altogether shorter poems.

 

VS: What does your ideal place of work look like? Where and when do you write? How—longhand or screen? Also, how do you go about insulating yourself while in craft mode?

 

KM: My usual place of work is the red sofa in the living room. I have had various office spaces, but I like to work in the living room. I like good light and windows and a fire during winter. When people are around, I tune them out, or am just really clear that I’m working, or I wait until I’m alone for a number of hours. I also have a right hand man in my little poodle. He’s been next to me when I’ve written almost anything. He’s next to me right now!  I write on my computer. I’m old enough that I learned to touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the keys and I type really fast. The beauty in typing quickly is that making the words appear is not the chore. Being a good typist means there is one less thing in the way when building a poem. But the speed at the keyboard does not mean I write poems quickly, as I said earlier. They take so many visits to get anywhere close to finished. I’ve learned to be very patient. Right now, though, I’m almost five years away from when my first book was accepted for publication. I’m getting antsy to finish this next collection. Patience isn’t feeling like a friend in that department.

 

VS: What are the lessons and perks or roots that living in Vermont has offered your poetry?

 

KM: Well, one perk is material support. There are a number of agencies in Vermont that have supported my work, from the Vermont Arts Council to the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund, to Vermont College of Fine Arts through the Vermont Book Award, to a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. I am also a public school teacher at Montpelier High School, and it needs to be said that my school is a great supporter of my work as a poet—even when it means leaving the building to read or travel or teach. I’m surrounded by support. Almost every college and university has invited me to come read, and many bookstores. Vermont loves its poets. And Vermont’s poets find each other. My writing group has been meeting for almost a decade and is like family.

There is also the way the cold seeps into our lives—making everything a little treacherous. In Vermont, neighborliness is a survival strategy. No matter who is in your community, you’d better remember that each person might be someone you need, whether you are in a ditch, or suddenly sick, or suddenly can’t heat your home. By this I mean to say there is a fluidity between people—a willingness to honor and see each other with generosity. Sometimes this makes its way into my poems. I am also entirely in love with the hardscrabbleness of Vermont, how nothing is a given and luxuries are to be revered. God, it gets cold here. And you can’t go anywhere without knowing people. So, if you are a poet who is inherently interested in people, they come out in droves to things. There is so much to see, everywhere, be it landscape or human landscape. And the plants and animals have beautiful names: jewelweed, ermine, aspen, pig week, lambs quarters, Winooski River, Camel’s Hump, Mount Hunger, Eden, Moscow, Buel’s Gore, Hardack Mountain, lynx, fisher cat, coyote, great blue heron, bobolink, june bug, mayfly, etc.

 

VS: Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is a delicious title. Absolutely delicious. Many titles in the collection were great—”Elegy for the Woman Who Became a Chair”! How do you create titles? Do they come before the poem, created during or afterwards? And when do you know it’s “the one?”

 

KM: Thanks! I don’t think much in poetry comes sequentially. I think everything comes out of order, all the time—that’s the beautiful nature of this art. Titles usually come before the poem, to create a working frame for what I’m doing, then, after the poem is written, the title is the last thing to be solidified, most times. I usually change a title a number of times. In fact, there are a few poems I am convinced are finished except for the title. I’m stuck at the title!

 

 

VS: If you could offer young writers a recipe consisting of what they’ll need to sustain them for the writing-life, what “ingredients” would be called for to serve them in the seasons to come?

 

KM: Well, again, just to always show up at the page. I think a lot of young writers think writing is some strange gift—either you have it or you don’t. Sometimes young writers can’t figure out a poem and so they give up, assuming they just don’t “have it.” I often hear young writers say things like, “I couldn’t think of anything to write,” or, “I had writer’s block.” Young writers may not know precisely how to make a poem work, and this is I think what they mean when they say they have writer’s block. Writer’s block to me seems a luxury—I mean, if a person can put another word next to the words that are already there, then there is no such thing as being “blocked.” What writer’s block means is that the writer is afraid they can’t write anything good—that they are self-policing and stopping themselves from experimenting, from throwing words on the page, from even trying. Since poems in our age are invented as we build them, the only way to know how to write a poem, or how to make a poem “good” is to practice. Practice means two big things, two big commitments: reading poetry (contemporary poetry, traditional poetry, poetry in translation, etc.) and drafting. Drafting means sketching, trying, experimenting, learning how the poem can work. It means being willing to unseat the poem, move the lines around, change the words, write the poem the way it begins to want to be written. I like to write poems until it feels like the poem is taking control. I know a poem is “done” when the poem resists change. Getting to a place where your practice is codified in any way means screwing it up so many times you can’t count. Young writers need their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, too.

 

VS: What is your writing practice and process? What is a writing ritual that you have that continues to encourage your growth as a writer and keep you writing?

 

KM: Right now I have 107 students in my course load. Despite my job, I’ve always felt compelled to keep writing, so I encourage looking at the vocation of writing as a compulsion, or else, in these busy times, it will never happen. I’ve learned to carry ideas for poems around in my head—roll them around, play with them until I can make (not find…make) time to sit and work the poem out of my head. I dream up poems while I’m driving, while I’m teaching (bless “free write time”) and while I’m falling asleep. I have really good “critical friends”—writers I can bring poems to, or complain about poems with, or work through how a poem works with, or just piss and moan with. There is nothing like finding, nurturing and keeping friends in this art—otherwise it’s a lonely business. Some of my friends and I have a weekly writing workshop—it’s highly ritualized and ends up being possibly the most fun I ever have during most weeks, which is not to trivialize my life but to celebrate the great luck through which I found them. We have a blast and we also blast the poems we bring with our poet lasers. I learn so much from them.

 

VS: What words of wisdom or anecdotes would you offer to other working writers regarding project design and organization? What are specific things you do, in order to efficiently and productively manage your time? How do you make sure to allow yourself time to write, revise and hone your craft even when you are extremely busy?

 

KM: I make dates with myself—carve out blocks of time. I take myself away from my house—to my husband’s airport, maybe—although it’s been forever since I’ve done this. I fantasize about going to stay in a convent for a weekend, or renting myself a house somewhere with some poets (something that’s in the works right now). I mean to say there is no way to productively manage time. I think one needs to make time. Carve it out.

 

VS: My absolute favorite poem in Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes is “Skeletons.” Its speaker describes a scene from a dream, but the effect of your language does so much more. What dream or dream scene have you vividly experienced that has inspired you to write?

 

KM: Thanks! I love that poem, too—especially how it turns around inside itself. There are moments of language in that poem I loved discovering. Actually, though, I haven’t ever written from dreams! Any poem of mine that claims to originate in dream is lying, or feinting. I’m primarily interested in imagination, which is itself a kind of dream… day dream. I think all poets enter a dream state when they write, a place where nothing is quite as precise as our waking lives, but everything is also more precise and pointed. In poems, letting the imagination loose is a way of dreaming.

 

VS: How does your environment, both past and present, influence you as a writer? How has your life’s landscape inspired your writing?

 

KM: In Vermont, I’ve lived on a farm and in an actual village—one of the very few that was not run through by a state road. People actually walked around in it, from place to place, and I lived right on the sidewalk. My front yard was about eight feet deep. People’s heads bobbed past my windows in my living room all day and night. There was always someone doing something, someone to observe, someone to get to know, and many of my poems have come from the ten or so years I lived in that place. I think my book is practically infused with Plainfield, Vermont.

When I go to Ireland, my language and phrasing get different. It’s strange. I think my speaker, too, is very different. I’m a different person in Ireland. I spent my whole young life daydreaming about this place we had come from, and when I finally went back to find it, it was a mythical place in my mind, but I had to reconcile the myths with the terrifically real place I found. I am always doing the math of who am I? when I’m there, pushing my speaker more off-kilter. I’m also so fascinated when I’m there, like a toddler, by naming things, asking what everything is called.

 

VS: In an interview with Rachel Contreni Flynn, you were in Ireland, “home on holiday,” and you stated that being in Ireland put your family’s ghosts in front of you. What did you mean by that? I just love the sound of that statement, and it reminded me of your poem, “Little Ghost Girl.” What are your thoughts on the idea of us travelling through life with our family’s ghosts? Do these ghosts enter your writing and, if so, what is that like for you?

 

KM: Poems collapse time, don’t they?  They are artifacts of memory pretending to live in the moment. They collect and collect and sort and sift. What else is there to put in poems but ghosts?  Everything we remember is a kind of ghost—as is everything we imagine or send into the future. Our imaginations are machines that fabricate reality. Everything is exactly as it was, and nothing is. So, I’m comforted, really, by the idea that ghosts are what populate our poems, inasmuch as ghosts are shadows of what really was, who really did what. Maybe our ghosts are the antidote to the young person’s requirement that a poem represent “what really happened.” Every time a young person, just to circle back to the younger ones one final time, insists that a poem needs to represent what “really happened,” or every time a young person resists revising a poem because then the poem will no longer be a record of what “really happened,” what they really need is ghosts—entities that can float through anything, be anything, capture anything and stir anything.

 

VS: And lastly, what’s next?

 

KM: What’s next?  Finishing my second book of poems. That would be the best next thing. I have a monster pile of poems. Maybe I’ll find two collections in the pile!

Book Review: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation

by Paul Daniel Ash

The literary world has been applying the “-punk” suffix to science fiction sub-genres so frequently and for so long that it sometimes verges on self-parody. It all began with cyberpunk, a description of the 80s noir-esque SF of Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and of course William Gibson. This was soon followed by steampunk, a term which came to refer to both retrofuturistic SF and a fashion style that mashes up Victorian and post-industrial elements. In the wake of that has come biopunk, dieselpunk, nanopunk and a host of other -punks: tags for sub-genres and sub-sub-genres proliferating, spread by fans and book marketers but not always universally recognized throughout the industry.

The idea of solarpunk as a distinct genre has only emerged in the last few years. Mostly self-applied by writers of speculative eco-fiction, solarpunk has become as much a philosophical and esthetic stance as it is a term of critique. The proponents of solarpunk present to us a future that works, as much as it may still struggle with the consequences of climate change and rapacious capitalism. What, then, is there to distinguish it from techno-utopianism or post-hippie fantasies like Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia? “There’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk,” wrote Adam Flynn in 2014’s Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto. “But it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance.”

A new anthology, consisting of 19 short stories, ten poems and seven pieces of artwork, is the most recent vehicle to give voice to this nascent movement. Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation came together as the collaboration of Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, two MFA candidates in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. When they came to Iowa in 2015, as avid readers as well as writers of SF they both lamented the fact that “the environment was an antagonist” in that genre, “already destroyed to the point of no return, or simply not a consideration” (from the “Editors’ Note”). They saw in what was then a small Tumblr coterie the roots of a different kind of near-future SF. And given that near-future SF virtually always means dystopian SF these days, these writers were (to paraphrase William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives) standing athwart science fiction, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it. In 2015, there was as yet no anthology of solarpunk works in English. So, working in what little spare time was available to them as graduate students, Wagner and Wieland commissioned pieces that exemplified the qualities they were seeking, and reviewed over two hundred submissions from around the planet. They launched a successful Kickstarter to complete the project, which was published in August 2017.

The selection of short stories is as eclectic and diverse as the authors, drawing from multiple styles and languages. The masterful Daniel José Older, author of the Shadowshaper and Bone Street Rumba fantasy series, contributes “Dust,” a tale of uprising that plays with fluidity of gender and space-opera tropes to tell an ultimately hopeful story. “The Road to the Sea,” by the Israeli author and Campbell Award laureate Lavie Tidhar, is both elegiac and uplifting. “Boston Hearth Project” by T. X. Watson is an action-packed, propulsive story that imagines a near-future Occupy with augmented reality tech. Iona Sharma’s “Eight Cities” explores faith and consciousness against the backdrop of a Delhi inundated by rivers swollen as a result of a changing climate. And “Speechless Love” by Yilun Fan (translated from Mandarin by S. Qiouyi Lu) tells the story of a relationship between two “stratospherians” in a future where “atmosphere colonization replaced space colonization.”

The inclusion of poetry and visual art in the anthology emphasizes the vision of solarpunk as a movement rather than merely a literary genre. The language in the poems runs the gamut from the technospeak of “Strandbeest Dreams” by Lisa Bradley and José M. Jimenez, to the more traditional SF imagery in “light star sail bound“ by Joel Nathanael, to the flowing lyricism of “The Seven Species” by Aleksei Valentin. The artworks, like the poetry interspersed throughout the anthology, are intricately detailed and somewhat reminiscent of art nouveau: a movement not entirely dissimilar in its evocation of the natural world, its ease with the romantic, and its insistence on being of its historical moment.

In their Note, the anthology’s editors emphasize the importance they placed on including a diversity of voices. Solarpunk is very much a global movement: indeed, the first anthology of solarpunk fiction was published in Brazil in 2012 (with a Kickstarter currently underway to publish an English translation). The true genius of this work lies in its essence as a community project, as a labor of love by writers, artists and editors. It takes more than a buzzy label to make a movement, and the energy of these student-editors – coupled with the outpouring of interest and involvement across national boundaries – suggest that solarpunk may be finding resonance in this often-fearful age.

 

Publisher: Upper Rubber Boot Books (August 29, 2017)

ISBN 978-1937794750, 254 pages

$13.99

 

A Reading: Poetry from Tom Paine

DANCING THE CRAY-CRAY

 

People do crazy shit. Now I am people.

Better late than never! I write this poem

for you, perfect person in a panic attack.

I write this poem ‘cause when I danced

the cray-cray, this poem was MIA. Perfect

people go crazy-crazy ‘cause when they get

all cray-cray, there is no poem or tattooed

cray-cray friend to say: we’ve been waiting

for your cray-cray heart to grab the wheel!

Here’s the good news: you will never smugly

shit on cray-cray again, and you will comfort

the cray-cray, as this direct poem hopes to do.

Here’s the bad news: before this mortal panic,

your life was a lie. I lied, that’s the best news.

 


FERRYING

 

Would you rather

be paralyzed

from the neck down,

or dead?

I awoke with this question,

and thought:

that’s a crazy-ass question.

So I made coffee

and sat on your quartz

in the garden;

waited. The birds sang,

I sipped;

shoveled my toes

in dark soil.

I kept thinking:

dead, or paralyzed?

Pick one, a voice said.

A honeybee sat down

on a petal of your pansy

and wiggled her ass.

How does this honeybee fly?

Another crazy-ass

morning thought:

but there it alights

again, insistently:

wherever the hell you are,

it is your fingertip

ferrying this honeybee

flower to flower.

 

 


 

SAY

 

Before your first sunset,

after a second wine,

we’d walk the goat trail

 

to the secret bay, watch

the sun pulled over cliffs,

and naked, we’d slip out

 

of the mouth of the bay,

and into the ocean’s rollers,

where we have no say.

 

Again, the sun will set,

as I kiss your lips at last—

the gale is to the North.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar

by Genevieve N. Williams

Portrait of the Alcoholic – Kaveh Akbar

Sibling Rivalry Press

2017


Kaveh Akbar in Portrait of the Alcoholic writes with such spiritual risk and honesty that we as readers are brought into the liminal spaces of language, addiction, and displacement. Sobriety is maintained through community, and empathy is written into every poem of this collection. These poems explore relationships between addict and drink, between people, cultures, and languages. From the opening poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” we are pulled in by Akbar’s wild metaphors and similes: “sometimes one will disappear into himself / like a ram charging a mirror when this happens / they all feel it.” When I ordered my copy of Portrait of the Alcoholic, I’d recently been released from probation for a DUI, was working fewer and fewer hours at the bar where I’d worked for nine years, and was easing into the realization that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. At weekly, court-mandated AA meetings, I listened to people’s stories and contributed my own. We felt collective pride when someone maintained sobriety and collective worry when another relapsed. This sense of community and shared recovery comes through Akbar’s opening poem and is maintained throughout this gorgeous collection.

Empathy is central to Portrait of the Alcoholic, as are moments of profound vulnerability. “When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do,” Akbar writes in the poem “Being in this World Makes Me Feel like a Time Traveler.” When the court mandated I attend AA meetings, I feared being inundated with religious dogma. That wasn’t my experience. Attending a small meditation group Saturday afternoons, I was grounded by our discussions and weekly repetition of the Serenity Prayer. We talked about spiritual fitness. We practiced mindfulness. The disease of alcoholism is tricky — Akbar beautifully articulates its complexities and the necessity of vulnerability in maintaining sobriety.

It’s not only alcoholism that these poems grapple with, it’s also immigration, language, memory, displacement, and the realities of a life lived in the margins and with resilience. These themes are woven together seamlessly in the poem “Do You Speak Persian?” Akbar writes,

I don’t remember how to say home

in my first language, or lonely, or light.

 

I remember only

delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

 

and shab bekheir, goodnight.

 

How is school going, Kaveh-joon?

Delam barat tang shodeh.

 

Are you still drinking?

Shab bekheir.

 

For so long every step I’ve taken

has been from one tongue to another.

From his childhood in Iran to his life in the United States, Akbar has carried not only memory but also the loss of memory, not only language but also the loss of language.

Language is also a means for resistance, for gaining control over craving. Step one of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. By naming a thing, by admitting to the disease of alcoholism, there’s some power regained in an otherwise powerless situation. Akbar’s tone is tender even as it’s regretful. “I am less horrible than I could be,” he writes in the poem “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),”

I’ve never set a house on fire             never thrown a first-born off a bridge             still my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour             with a turning away             I’ve given this coldness many names             thinking if it had a name it would have a solution             thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs

Vulnerability is in this honest examination of self, an attempt to gain control of craving in its naming.

In the poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” Akbar writes in stanzas that zigzag across the page,

 

I’ve lost the unspendable coin I wore around

my neck that protected me from you, leaving it

bodyhot in the sheets of a tiny bed in Vermont. If you

could be anything in the world

 

you would. Just last week they found the glass eye

of a saint buried in a mountain. I don’t remember

which saint or what mountain, only

how they said the eye felt warm

 

in their palms. Do you like

your new home, tucked

away between brainfolds? To hold you

always seemed as unlikely

 

            as catching the wind in an envelope. Now

you are loudest before bed, humming like a child

    put in a corner. I don’t mind

much; I have never been a strong sleeper, and often

 

the tune is halfway lovely. Besides, if I ask you to leave

you won’t.

The poem continues this mindful attention to addiction, and is true to the experience of recovery. The addiction doesn’t go away. Here, Akbar addresses alcoholism as though it was a person, and this heightens the intimacy between alcoholic and alcoholism. We readers feel the persistence of craving, as we experience it through Akbar’s rich language and sensory detail.

As someone who has struggled in my own relationship with alcohol and alcoholics, I related to Akbar’s beautiful articulation of desperation and need, and of recovery. The willingness in these poems to express a raw vulnerability and to name an experience we often keep secret is as healing as it is artistically rewarding. Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic is a collection that sings of experience, that evokes vulnerability, and that implicitly asks us as readers to look honestly at our lives.


Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear recently or soon in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, PloughsharesFIELD, Georgia Review, PBS NewsHour, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, Narrative, The Poetry Review, AGNI, New England Review, A Public Space, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Best New Poets 2016, Guernica, Boston Review, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in Fall 2017, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, is out with Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. 

Kaveh founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. Previously, he ran The Quirk, a for-charity print literary journal. He has also served as Poetry Editor for BOOTH and Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review. Along with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, francine j. harris, and Jonathan Farmer, he starred on All Up in Your Ears, a monthly poetry podcast.

Terrorists

Donald Levering

The neighbor kid behind me

in line, twitching,

with black widow bites down his arms,

 

about to implode

into obituary.

Or the one in the vacant lot

 

packing powder in a pipe

to blow himself away

in a blizzard of dirty pigeons.

 

There’s the guy on the bus

with inflammable breath,

nudging me.

 

God don’t let that be

my bombshell daughter naked

in a sleeping bag on a public bench

 

with gaps in her teeth, picking at scabs.

I say to myself

behavior isn’t contagious,

 

the spray from that vomiting vagrant

can’t infect me with DTs.

But that youth who was caught

 

letting himself into my home

to stash contraband

and steal heirlooms—

 

please tell me he’s not

my tunnel-eyed son,

quick with excuses,

 

plotting a fix.

The Catalog of Broken Things by Anatoly Molotkov

by Anthony DiMatteo

The Catalog of Broken Things – Anatoly Molotkov

Airlie Press

2016

Differences of character, author, and reader appear written in stone. However, Anatoly Molotkov’s mesmerizing first book of poems, The Catalog of Broken Things, reveals such borders are dotted lines. “You remember your own memories better than your past,” the speaker tells us near the end of the book, reminding us how our fictions penetrate our life stories. Even the position of speaker proves unstable in the book’s explorations, often switching places with the reader who typically constructs a speaking voice out of her own identity presumably outside a book. The Russian-born American Molotkov, who began writing English in 1993, challenges this external place of the reader in one of his “Melting Hourglass” poems:

    Dear Reader
I unwrap myself
like a delicate candy
but to whose tongue
does it belong?
is there anything left
after the wrapper?

This question doesn’t just recognize the ephemeral pleasures of poetry. It also inserts or “inflects” the poem into the reader’s own mental processes. As a founding editor of the Inflectionist Review, Molotkov uses the term “inflect” to describe his poetics. We inflect, or mirror a world, rather than reflect upon the world. The mental processes of making and matching are not fully distinguishable

The collection is a four-part collage: “The Catalog of Broken Things,” “The Protagonist’s True Story,” “The Melting Hourglass,” “Your Life As It Is.” The first and third sections feature short lines; the second and fourth present predominantly prose poems with stanzas of varying length. This sequencing of constriction and expansion simulates something like a now in, now out, flow of heart and mind.  In this flux, we struggle to discern the enormous shadow of the real from the tiny shadow of what we create, as in this passage from section one:

My daughter’s hands are made
of mirrors
reflecting only my own
face.
Is this how she thinks
of me, or I of her?

She is a shadow without offspring.

 

The second section offers a way of thinking about these existential problems the

speaker presents us with. Blocks of prose alternate with shorter, indented ones that begin with

the phrase “in the final experiment,” as in these lines: “In the final experiment, you are the

typist, / and I’m the letter I.” The point is that no final experiment puts to rest such matters of

who does what to whom. The collection induces and frustrates any settled image again and

again. The writing places a rug under us to reveal the lack of a floor, or, as Molotkov puts it on

the last page of his book, “You go outside, but the outside is gone.” His tactics bring to mind the

Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of art as an “ostranenie,” or a “defamiliarization” that an

artist must put into play “to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Molotkov makes the

stone stony, revealing his poetry as both a sensation of the world and a world itself.

Riddles of estrangement and engagement begin with the first line of the collection: “I let

my dead mother in.” The dead but not at rest mother living inside the speaker, we are told,

“holds the map of broken things / for my catalog.” She is the missing conduit through which the

speaker has come to learn of life’s fundamental uncertainties:

She knows suns
and moons fail in the end. Boats
sink, rot. Marble
crumbles.  And now, I
know it, too.  I’m used to this
exit of others, this betrayal
of permanence.

The book offers a journey of disorder and disappearance. As in life, one must find a way. Conspicuously in search of some lasting order, no life or book can provide, Molotkov’s Catalog ends with the reappearance of a dead mother only this time – for the first time in the book– she is now, “your dead mother…surprised to see you.” The implication is that it doesn’t matter a bit to our imagined memories whether she is alive or dead, absent or present. We exist in a zone together, and no passport beyond being born needs be issued to enter into that still-life zone incapable of being walled off. Alternatively, we are all exiles from our mother’s body upon birth. Molotkov, a Russian immigrant to America whose own mother remained in Russia until her death, writes erasure and discovery into every line of his book.

A passport as both legal document and as poetic zone of rapture or transport is

active as a symbol from the first page.  The speaker has his dead mother come to life like a

puppet seeking refuge:

My mother brings a pillow full of
her own hair, soft like dawn.
She grew it all her life, and after.
She sleeps lighter with her head
on her own past.
The past, her only coin.

Her lips don’t move. She says,
Where is your passport?

The speaker in the last lines of section one answers her, “that thing you said was true. / I’ve applied for my passport.” This impending emigration from mother and homeland echoes the book’s first lines where the speaker let the mother in, an exile of death as well as the source of his life:

I let my dead mother in.
She’s lonely out there on her own.
Her ears are seashells
empty of sea.
She carries me among her bones
where her womb was.

These are harrowing lines whose scope widens in the course of the book to approach something like a vision of our shared humanity.

When it comes to having mothers dead or alive, our personal pronouns prove interchangeable. Molotkov’s shifting use of pronouns throughout the book – my mother, your mother, my wife, your wife, my husband, your husband – indicates how life stories readily exchange. Pronominal shifts suggest something like a verbal anamorphosis as in this passage from “The Melting Hourglass”:

            you watch me
through the lens of a telescope
my shining eyes magnified

you know me
you trust me
you run to me

there’s no one here

you stop
puzzled

inverted

Repeated allusions to chess in the final section, “Your Life as It Is,” symbolize our silly rule-bound expectations about mine and yours as well as the weird unpredictabilities of living our own life while playing at shared games. The king and the queen “take up residence off the board.” “The smoke from their barbecue causes you to tear up in fake grief.”  Such writing gently, comically, throws a stone into our hall of mirrors so easy to mistake for life. Molotkov’s humor prevents the iconoclastic voyage from going sour or dour as reader and writer face and become each other:

In the final experiment, you are the
protagonist, and I’m the author. You
resent the implications of this assignment.
You discard every copy of my account.
You pick up a pen and write.

From my own reading of this work, I can attest to its spillover force, its ability to reach beyond the page and inspire. Perhaps it will do for you what it has for me.  Or, in Molotkov’s encouraging words from “The Melting Hourglass”:

you said something distant
something I missed
as usual
from my perspective
you are far ahead
of me.

Watch Didi Jackson Read On the Death of my Father

On the Death of my Father

Thomas Melvin Gibbs (1943 – 2006)

 

All too often my back betrays me

as I pick up the lightest pillow while making our bed,

or bend to brush my hair after a hot shower.

So I’m forced to walk crooked, arched to one side

like a preacher from the God-soaked South.

 

Reverend Howard Finster played the banjo and sang

about a small tack in the shingle of his roof:

              Come on back and stay with me?

              Come on back and stay with me?

              Make the little house what it ought to be?

 

He paced back and forth on the stage of The Tonight Show

in a suit like any suit my Appalachian father might have worn,

bought second hand, collar wide as a flag, his wavy

gray hair combed and greased bucket high.

He even wore those same black boots

with a slight heel, zippered at the side,

like shiny gritty teeth peering out below his pant leg.

His outsider art graces the album cover of Little Creatures

by the Talking Heads, and a vision of his dead

sister climbing down from Heaven

and the memory of his brother burned alive

were enough to make him born again

and to preach the word by age sixteen.

 

When the sun sets around these parts,

it tries to gun down all the trees

but settles for bullet holes in street signs, especially

those announcing a deer crossing or to Stop.

Because who wants to stop? My father died

five years before Rev. Finster, was no preacher,

except maybe to whoever lived at the bottom

of all those bottles he was Hell-bent on emptying.

 

Sumerians thought to translate footprints

birds left in the mud near the edge of the Euphrates.

They thought the prints to be a secret cuneiform.

After five Hallelujahs we can be saved, right? How many

texts do we need to know to make it in to Heaven?

So many signs to translate for our own salvation.

We can bend over the lines and read them out loud

until our throats are dry and our backs break.

 

Sympathetic Magic

Sympathetic magic. This is a term that does mean something like what you think it would. It is a kind of sympathy, an extension from one thing to another — the idea that you can influence something based on its similarity to something else. Think poppets, little dolls made to look like lovers or bad neighbors. What you do to one, you do to the other. Think pink candles lit for love; pink as interior, tender parts.

This magic is also called the magic of correspondence or contagion — the properties of one thing leaping to another. In folk medicines around the world, it shows up in what has been called the doctrine of signatures — the belief that you can tell what plant will heal you by its similarity to an ailing part. Lungwort, with its oval, spotted leaves, was prescribed to cure our ulcerated and cancerous lungs.  Walnuts for the brain. Eyebright, a sunny-centered herb, for what hurts the eyes. Saxifrage breaks apart stones with its roots, and so was thought to clear away kidney stones.

As a poet, these are my favorite falsehoods. As above, so below. Correspondence means a kind of matching, but also letters, communication. If I light this wick here, and kiss this rock, some cloud above me will shift in response. If I make this metaphor well enough — if tenor moves with vehicle, hovering above that holiness called ground — then some confusion within me will lift, and I will be able to see clearly enough to show you something — that I love you, that I fear for you, that I have found something beautiful and terrible in this world.

I refuse to believe this work means nothing. And yet, I know  you can crack walnuts between your teeth all day and your brain can still stutter until it stops. I know if I cut back the hair of a doll that looked just like you, even if it had your own locks sewn into its scalp, you would be untouched. Intention is powerful, they say. But I don’t know if it moves anything above or below. I only know what metaphor, what ritual, moves inside of me — what corresponds to my blood, what intent can contagion my daily movements: I will be better today. I will fight better today. I light a blue candle in the dark — blue for healing, blue for calm — and for a minute, the whole room is.

There are some who believe that the doctrine of signatures did not begin as the idea of a map placed on earth by God to tell us what can heal us. They say that individual correspondences between the shapes of plants and their qualities were used first as mnemonics — to help us remember when we stumbled onto a good one, a cure that actually worked. Eyebright, as it turns out — whether by coincidence or long-forgotten, accidental discovery — when used in eye drops, really can fight infection. Maybe that’s what ritual, what magic and the magic of good writing can do — they remind us of what we already know can help sustain us. An intent. A symbol. A daily work. A correspondence, a leeching of light from one source to another.

Little World / After a Series of Rejections

Sawnie Morris

You      can safely e merge        to sit   with magenta   tulips   ,
orange day    lilies    shouting

surprise(!)    in their inaudible – to – humans –  language.  . ..   Dandelions make
punctuation    marks   in short   isomorphic    sentences of

manna and buffalo grass.     You   are struck
by the    watery    sounds       grackles    make.   It’s fabulous ,

and they are forgetful                of  you ,    which is also            grand,    gathered
as they are    in the crabapple     and hopping in   miniature

crescendos   ~ ^ ~ ~ ^   they’ve made      a discovery,   these   branches     this
bark : new     country,       paradise,     the real

estate     they have    longed     for .      How far out
on a limb are you willing to go? ,  ,     perched

on     the radical          reaches     of
nerve      nebulae . … .       Into the blue  

beyond      .  . …   .
a less  bird-like    sotto voice   chimes : “that’s your grandmother’s

language”     &       “ it’s   getting     hot”   – –
Y ou move   beneath

the   crabapple,       grackles
scatter.   In the halo of        sentence-diagrams

there’s a buzzing       Gertrude
vibrated    along   with.     You watch    a bumble bee     go     at it

with a blossom,   and a     smaller       black     drone     hovers :
amateur   observing a    pro.   The speaker

phone       makes an ugly   sound •     from inside
the house ,  as though    calling for   a

doctor.   The message     says
not   to     leave   a          message     ,,   someone

ornery    or desperate  or    oblivious   does so
anyway.   Your   beloved is

in the    painting   studio     laughing   at the    astrological
forecast     that has    interrupted the    jazz

show.  Briefly,
s/he hammers  a     board .   When you first crept   out

the door  you were     startled
by      branches    of the lilac   ,   how exactly

they  were         capillaries craning   their angular
snake-like     necks   , forest     explosions !     (radiant

ends ).    This     has   everything       to do    with
the limb-
ic    system ,       your  thin   malachite     t-shirt

a  pond –
w/     gold   sparkle ,     which   floats    , ,

and the emerald   ink      you write  in     every
spring  b/c you have   a need  to

talk to   yourself      in   color  after     the spanipelagic   wash
of   winter.    The black dog    drinks

from the bird’s   oval   basin     & lies down       covered
in     the  cadmium       heat of the nearest

star . Light     is    amniotic   , we swim ..       More banging
sparks   up   static  in      the studio.        You have   only

so much   sand   left       in   the eternity
symbol   ,       how are you      going to
count  it ?

( The   dog   rolls   on his    back
r olls   back     on his    side

snorts     . )       The virgin constellation    sits at a  tilt  ,
rock-nested.   She’s  seen     more  gracious

rotations  ,    but       remains
in the prayerful      position.   On the other side  of

dishevelment ,       stone and latilla       steps    hide
the insignia     of   crab          beneath

sage.       It isn’t that      you
are crabby    ,  it’s that  your    efforts  are       beginning to

resemble    a      gust       hitting      a    cluster
of densely packed particles.         Perhaps  your

elements are     perplexed . Wind
is      ephemeral.

The    dog           leaves   the   rays
in   favor   of   a      gray

the    crabapple             casts
,, (  The dog  ,     at least     , thinks

you might  have       something to     offer. )  The grackles
have decided      you are a non-
threat,   so move in      as   close

as      the nearest       apple  .
Chuck chuck  chuck ,    the shiny     crow     says,

Pheew.   Perfectly normal             bees
descend     to       lower   branches ,     close to your

hat, which is
human.   Nature          adores you ,

what more   can you want ?
The         unknowable           answers

w/ last night’s   dream :   B.H.     exhorts   ‘A.S.   to   WRITE !

A   Klee-like         twig-drawing   appears :       rectangular dwelling
containing a flower-in-a-pot, a stick-tree ,   and a stick-person

etched     in the skin of
an   upper   arm   ,

a     shot in the   dark

( like the doctor gives ) of the lyric :
( according to Donne ) :

a     little     world
made                                                                  cunningly   .”

 

And so, it is.

Invasive Species by Claire Caldwell

by Ariel Kusby

Invasive Species Claire Caldwell

Wolsak & Wynn

October 2014


Canadian poet Claire Caldwell’s debut poetry collection, Invasive Species, offers a unique perspective on climate change. Through juxtapositions between the natural world and human civilization, wildness and order, catastrophic climate change and everyday personal dramas, Caldwell questions our place on Planet Earth, and the roles we as humans are playing in our interactions with it. The poems acknowledge the absurdity and cruelty of how human beings treat our planet, but also recognize the weight of our individual experiences and emotions, the intimacies we usually focus on while ignoring our environment. Caldwell’s poems manage to explore substantial themes with an intimate gaze; the humor is simultaneously empathetic and darkly cynical. Take the title poem, which opens:

Once, we built towns on water park economies.
Slides reared up like dinosaurs, pale plastic beasts
engineered to outlast our kids.

And later:

We kept driving. Though moths
coated power lines like pipe cleaners,
we kissed freely. We were complicit.

Caldwell’s use of “we” suggests a collective responsibility. All humans forget the consequences of our actions on a global scale and choose instead to focus on family or love. While the speaker is understanding of these human desires, she highlights the individual’s personal accountability by admitting that she (like all of us) was “complicit” in some way.

Caldwell’s choice of animal imagery, such as “dinosaurs” and “moths [that] coated power lines like pipe cleaners,” suggest a kind of disturbed innocence, a perversion of childlike fun. A water park intended for child’s play morphs into a zoo of “pale plastic beasts,” an apt metaphor for the way we’ve changed our planet, not realizing it. The plastic that makes up the waterslides might be derived from the residue of the dinosaurs, petroleum. While the dinosaurs aren’t literally alive to harm us, Caldwell awakens them again as a means for the planet to take revenge on us.

That is, after all, what nature does in Invasive Species. While nuances in the human-earth relationship are delicately explored, it is eventually clear that the planet is stronger than human ego. In the masterfully biting section about Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard’s fatal pursuit of the grizzly bear, Caldwell does not spare her opinion on humans whose hubris allows them to try to manipulate and conquer nature. For example, in the section Descent from the poem “Grizzly Woman,” the speaker examines the experiences of Treadwell’s girlfriend, Amie. The poem begins:

I arrive like a drug
plunged through a central line.
Amber, translucent. Flushed

into Kaflia a third season,
rust-flecked hills spread
like a girl’s legs.

The poem’s relationship to this event is complicated, and has much more compassion for Amie than for Tim. The words “plunged” and “flushed” imply a lack of choice, and yet she arrives in Kaflia with him, where she perhaps should not be.

The image of them entering the Alaskan wilderness like a girl’s spread legs has a violent connotation. The message here is clear: Timothy Treadwell’s grizzly bear obsession was an extreme example of the foolishness of imposing oneself onto the natural environment.

In a different section of “Grizzly Woman,” Obituary, Amie dares the reader:

Say we asked for it.

By employing a phrase highly associated with rape culture, the poem asks the reader who the actual victim was. Caldwell seems to suggest that while the bear may have killed Amie and Tim, it was in fact the victim.

By morphing the Alaskan hills into a human body, the poem also suggests that in order for us to feel like we truly understand nature and our relationship with it, we must humanize it. In an excerpt from “A Seamstress Considers The Fourth Dimension,” Caldwell continues along this vein:

I’d be a historian, chart progress
by the size of the moth holes.
I’d inspect settlements split
along fray lines, seaside towns
drowned in blue damask, reefy tapestries.

Here the speaker projects her idea of human progress upon the small marks made by a moth in fabric. She imposes a textile upon the sea, and tapestry upon ocean reefs.  Is this imposition a futile and silly pursuit? The poem suggests that it just might hinder true understanding of the natural world. It is, however, a way for humans to control nature. Take “Just Give Me One More Thing”:

Above the alley, we’d strung our laundry up
like prayer flags. I watched as the wind
nudged your jean shorts and my orange
halter. You fussed with a can of tuna.

It had been a good month, sandal weather,
and no one asked about your missing toe.
We never burned our English muffins.
We traded spots at the counter,
the sink, rarely touching.

The poem begins with an impression of domestic orderliness. There is a peace and neatness to the way the laundry has been displayed, nature (the wind) has only enough power for a weak “nudge,” and the biggest problem is opening a container of dead fish. There is also a sterile quality to the way they avoid touching, which suggests a kind of fakeness or formality, a forced interaction. Despite these efforts at order, they eventually prove futile when matched against the wilder forces of nature:

Still, the flies gathered. Bluebottles
slurring circles around the trash can.
I set vinegar traps and dreamt of buzzing.
You remembered your father, the smell
of him, how you couldn’t eat for weeks.

“It’s something we all have to face eventually,”
you said, as I bent to tie up the garbage.
Maggots sprayed across the kitchen like champagne.

The second half of the poem reveals the inevitability of nature triumphing, even if the overpowering forces are small insects. Death is just as much a part of nature as maggots are, which figure as his messengers. They remind the speakers of their mortality and powerlessness. While the message is bleak, there is a strange and grotesque beauty. During her attempt to be orderly, maggots spray “like champagne.” Thus, a celebration of death occurs, albeit a dark one.

Caldwell’s poems are skillful in their ability to investigate large topics like climate change in a relatable and interesting way. The poems are often full of dissonance and strange juxtapositions that reflect our relationships with the planet and each other. If you want to read poems that can gracefully bring together a medical student, a decomposing blue whale, an adult skull, and a Portuguese butcher (as in the collection’s final poem “Osteogenesis”), then you should read Invasive Species. Its wit and strangeness just might forever change the way you see whales, bears, and climate change.


Claire Caldwell is a poet and editor living in Toronto. She was the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review‘s Long Poem Prize, and her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Maisonneuve and Prism International. Claire holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

Alison Prine Reads Coming Out

 

Wonderland of Words: An Interview with Matthew Dickman

by Lara Gentchos

More and more, I want to write honest poems that share something about my thinking and my life. – Matthew Dickman

The first time I encountered Matthew Dickman’s poetry was in spring 2016, during a reading of his work at VCFA’s Café Anna. He was reading from his fourth book of poetry, Wonderland (to be released this year). His poems were lyric and visual, sympathetic and matter-of-fact. I was struck by his ability to hold an introspective and reflective space around the objects, people, and events of his life, much of which was traumatic, if not tragic. Yet this space is neither judgmental nor sentimental. Instead, it allows for an appreciation of the human experience.

Dickman is the author of three poetry collections — All-American Poem, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, and 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother, poet Michael Dickman). He is also an editor for Tin House Magazine, a 2015 Guggenheim recipient, and a professor in VCFA’s Writing and Publishing MFA program.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Dickman to discuss the evolution of his creative process, the relationship between art and life, and his thoughts on the ethereal elements that make some poems stand out from the rest.

LG: What makes a text a poem for you, as opposed to an essay or piece of fiction?

Dickman: One thing about the question, what is a poem, or what is poetry, is that it’s a question that often isn’t asked of short stories, fiction, or screenplays. I think it’s asked more frequently, or exclusively, of poetry because poetry is so deeply linked to our emotional lives.

Poetry doesn’t come from storytelling. It comes from prayer. I think there’s something in our DNA as human beings that feels there’s something sacred about poems.

LG: Do you mean that poetry comes from prayer through its literary heritage? Or do you mean we experience it as something sacred?

Dickman: I understand it as both those things. I understand poems coming out of incantatory prayer and incantatory songs, but all poems share certain qualities — line breaks, stanzas. They utilize these things just like short stories might utilize characters or dialogue. So another answer is a poem is a poem.

I also believe in conceptual thinking, so if someone was like, “this lamp is a poem”, I’d be like, “Solid, awesome. That’s a poem for you.” But for me, poetry has changed a lot from my early memories, being nine or ten years old to being 41 years old. The way I approach my art has changed, too.

LG: How so?

Dickman: For a long time, I wrote strictly narrative poems that didn’t really free associate or go anywhere wild. They were like tidy little boxes on the page. I wrote poems in one particular way: I would get an idea for a poem, or maybe I’d read something in the paper and it’d be about bees and honey and I’d think, “Okay, how am I going to write a poem called ‘The Bee Keeper’s Daughter’? It’s going to be a poem about the beekeeper’s family, this young woman being alone and being stung, and how it all relates to her dad.” I’d have all these ideas. I’d come up with the first line and how it would end. All of it was in my brain. I would sit down and type it out, and basically transcribe it from my mind. I wrote like that for a long time.

Then when I was in grad school, after my first year there, that summer, there were a couple of major tragedies and I had kind of a psychic breakdown.

LG: Were those personal tragedies?

Dickman: Personal tragedies, yeah. A murder-suicide and then an illness-death. I just kind of lost it. I ended up in the hospital for about two days, and then I contacted the school and was like, “I need the next semester off for health reasons.” I started seeing a therapist every day, and I didn’t write poems for, like, eight months. I didn’t really even read poems. I just concentrated on being able to eat an orange every day.

I felt disconnected from poetry, but I still wanted to get my degree. So, I went back to my MFA, and I thought, “Well, maybe I’m not going to be a poet anymore, but poetry will be part of my life. Maybe I’ll be an editor or run a poetry series.”

But when I started going back to school, I had to write poems for these workshops to get credit for them. Something happened in that span of time of not writing or thinking about poems, of having to deal with tragedies that also set off memories of traumatic events in my childhood — having to work with all of that and be present with all of that. When I sat down to write a poem again, I seemingly forgot all the rules that were either given to me or that I had invented, for what a poem should be like for me. I started writing poems, like the ones you find in my first book, All-American Poem: free-associative narrative poems that kind of go all over the place.

LG: That’s so interesting. Can you give me an example of how that changed?

Dickman: Yeah. In my second book of poems, in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, there’s a poem called “Coffee.” And quite literally, I was like, “I gotta write a poem for workshop and I’m drinking coffee. God, I love coffee.” And I thought, “Okay, I’m going to write about coffee.” It was just like monkey-monkey [makes typing gesture with his hands]. My brain went all over the place. It didn’t really have to do with coffee, but it flowed all around. Instead of a box, a clean little machine of poetry, what I printed up was this rangy, free-associative narrative poem that was about coffee, but also about my older brother’s death, and Portland, and all these other things. And I was like, “That felt good.”

I didn’t really remember how it felt to write poems before, but that felt good to me. So I was like, “Well, let’s keep going with this. What else do you like, Dickman? You like public parks.” So I wrote a poem about public parks. It was just like monkey-monkey, typee-typee. Thinking about parks and writing whatever. That continues to be the case.

My poems in my upcoming book, Wonderland, are not as rangy and wild as the poems in All-American Poem, but they still come from a place of unknowing. From sitting down and having a feeling, thinking about something in a vague way and then just typing.

I do remember that in the past when I would sit down and write a poem, it felt really comforting; it felt very secure to me, like “I’m doing this thing and it’s part of my identity. I’m a poet and I write poems.” But the more I write poetry, the more it doesn’t feel like that. It feels more urgent and also a little more untethered because I don’t know what I’m going to write about or say.

LG: Do you mean untethered in a freeing and good way, or is there a stress to that not knowing?

Dickman: There’s a bit of stress, a bit of anxiety to it.

I don’t feel really free until I’ve been working on the poem a little. But when I first sit down, it’s like, “Is this going to happen? Am I going to be able to write a poem again?”

LG: But I’d imagine that anxiety also contributes to that sense of urgency you mentioned. Can you tell me more about that? How does that urgency connect to typing like a monkey, and writing “whatever”?

Dickman: It’s like I have a feeling, like a low-grade anxiety that I want to get this out of me. Then I start writing about the first thing that pops into my head, and I trust it.

LG: So, it sounds like that feeling of urgency has become really important in your process, but I’m still curious about this word “whatever”. What makes a piece that’s a free-association of “whatever” worthy of the title ‘poem’? What makes it worthy of being published, as opposed to a big messy, random pile of “whatever”? Do you tap into those rules you abided by before?

Dickman: A big issue is sincerely accepting the “whatever,” which is everything in your life, or everything in the world. Something I’ve been learning to be more and more in my writing is vulnerable. As an editor for Tin House Magazine, if it was between a super well-crafted poem and a vulnerable messy poem, I’d publish the vulnerable messy poem above the really well-made, maybe more emotionally conservative poem.

I’m going to die, and I want my experiences, as much as I can control them — which is not much — to be experiences with art that makes me feel something.

LG: Are you saying that vulnerability is key to the success of a poem?

Dickman: Yeah. This is something that I’ve learned recently. Around 2012, I was reading new poems, and a friend of mine who’s also a mentor and a poet, was in the audience. Afterward, we went out for a beer. We sat down and I asked him, “What’d ya’ think? My new hot-shit poems, right?” He was like, “Yeah, they’re good.” I was like, “Right?” And then he was like, “I have a question.” And I was like, “Yeah, what is it? Do you have a question like how fuckin’ awesome am I?” And he said, “My question is, Matthew, when are you going to stop being the hero of all your poems?” And I was like, “What?”

Then I went back and read all of my poems in my books, and I was like, “Fuuuck. I am the hero in all of my poems,” and I had a total epiphany. I was embarrassed. And I was like, “How can I write from the self, and about the self, and have it not be where I’m always the hero?”

LG: If you were always the hero, does that mean that you were always writing from a particular voice? Were you always writing from the same narrator, as a form of protection around your topics?

Dickman: Yeah, totally.

LG: But it sounds like you’re comfortable with that vulnerability now? How did that happen?

Dickman: I am now, yeah. But part of it, for me, has been seeing mentors of mine who are older who have been through a lot of crazy stuff, and who have worked really hard at being healthy. Seeing that they had no shame around things. It was a practice to both talk in public about certain things, things that could be thought of as either positive or negative, and also to write about those things — to the great chagrin of my mother and some other family members. There was an article in a big magazine that talked about a cocaine addiction that I had to deal with, and a bunch of other stuff. I was fine with it, but other people were like, what are you doing?

But, I don’t know. More and more, I want to write honest poems that share something about my thinking and my life. That’s about all I want to do as far as poetry goes: to explore different versions of what that looks like in poems.

 

For more of Matthew Dickman,  check out last week’s Etc. column where you can listen to Matthew reading two new poems  from his forthcoming poetry collection, titled “Wonderland.”  These poems also appear in Hunger Mountain 21: Masked/Unmasked, available now.

Ruby Mountain by Ruth Nolan

by Cindy Lamothe

Ruby Mountain – Ruth Nolan

Finishing Line Press

October 21, 2016


Shouldn’t you have spared the pretty hills…

So describes the harsh beauty of the Mojave Desert in the epithet of Ruth Nolan’s sultry and haunting poetry collection Ruby Mountain – a portrait of devastating loss and healing found in Southern California’s natural landscape. The collection embodies the inherent chaos and lasting impacts of a lover’s suicide, paired with compelling ancestral history and environmental destruction. Nolan deftly extracts graphic pain into formal verse and free-flowing poems using potent images of burning hills, smoldering fires, and red-throated hummingbirds. Lines like “the agony of draught / the swagger of flash flood,” and “this desert is an ocean of longing for love,” offer glimpses of a varying despair countered with moments of grace.

Though regionally situated in Southern California, the poems speak to broader, universal experiences of suicide, loss, and love. Nolan begins by expressing these entwining realities in “Anniversary Five,” wherein the speaker addresses her deceased lover:

shouldn’t I yell at you, then cry
shouldn’t I slap you in the face
shouldn’t I push your car off a cliff
shouldn’t I hike in your memory
shouldn’t I look for your passport
shouldn’t I pretend you did it for love
shouldn’t I believe it was a mistake
shouldn’t I wonder why not
shouldn’t I wonder why
shouldn’t you have done it somewhere ugly

She reflects, “I thought our love was a thunderstorm, rain hitting the rake naked by the pool,” thereby questioning common perceptions of unconditional love. In “U-Haul Villanelle,” the speaker’s voice is sweet yet cautious, revealing an ongoing struggle for redemption, and an inner ambivalence between forgiveness and regret: “Dust so thick that I can barely breathe / These stories aren’t so easy to remove / I pack another box and look ahead.” Her mourning unravels these smaller acts of domesticity, alluding to the more quiet, pervasive nature of loss.

Also embedded within Ruby Mountain‘s rich tapestry are vestiges of another tragic love story. In “Last Manhunt,” Nolan’s speaker references Native American suffering in the same desert regions, bringing to light a history of marginalization and shaming. As such, the poet shows a deference to the land’s ancestral heritage, creating a divergent space where love and loss collide, and the past and present intersect meaningfully:

He wears his deerskin shirt,
immune to bullets,
immune to railroads
immune to the absence of rain,
immune to real and fool’s gold

The Mojave is an unapologetic protagonist containing both the debris of the past and psychic space for healing. “Ruby Mountain,” for example, is both meditative and bold, urging the reader to not look away: “They say now – that you never died / that you slipped away under cover of dark / leaving only bullet holes / sprayed across the Wonderland of Rocks.” Grief is carefully threaded throughout the book; the speaker’s lover is the air and sinewy presence of the Mojave – the moving breath of desert. In “Nodding Off,” there is a yearning in the poem that evokes both the mystic of the scenery, and the desolation of losing a loved one:

I see open space
where once there was a tree, views
of the little San Bernardino Mountains
a bit more breeze
and I want to photograph the absence,
frame it with memory, now I can see
familiar patterns of stars,
a better view of passing satellites.

Nolan’s soft, subtle expressions paint these invisible terrains with a quiet, haunting power. The speaker’s thirst for her previous life is a mirage that beckons us forward, using compressed imagery to recreate a treacherous internalized landscape. In these poems, the alienation of grief yields to the desert’s curative elements. “Nodding Off” holds a reverence for the ragged scenery. Here, we touch the scorched earth and taste the speaker’s restlessness.

it will give me hope, I hope
I hope I hope I hope
that things really are connected,
better this than the whip of thorny
cacti stinging me in the face
every time I stepped into the front yard,
the sad fact of a bird’s nest tossed
onto the ground by a blast of wind,
the hooks of religions that rope us in,
the dams that block us all,

tell me there is no obsessive
compulsive desert here,
just a smooth meditation
of people walking the same
pilgrimages

This last stanza conjures symbolic images that achieve a balance between the poet’s fragility and her unflinching self-awareness – similar to other poems in the collection, Nolan hones in on the shared experiences of those who have come before and those who will come after. We learn from Ruby Mountain that the trajectory of loss is a manifold path, touching upon the personal and becoming the ecology we inhabit. It’s a book that bears witness to the resiliency of human nature itself and our ability to survive even the darkest of nights. Within Ruby Mountain, we find a gritty reminder that devastation and beauty have long coexisted – creating canyons and valleys, and a home for the desolate in search of light. In “What Rises,” Nolan hints at redemption: “Deserts and mountains on loan / hammering the center of sunrise / into broken hearts.”


Ruth Nolan, a former wildland firefighter in the Western U.S., is a writer and professor based in Palm Springs, CA. She’s the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line Press 2016). Ruth’s writing has also been published in James Franco Review; Angels Flight LA/Literary West; Rattling Wall; KCET/Artbound Los Angeles; Lumen; Desert Oracle; Women’s Studies Quarterly; News from Native California; Sierra Club Desert Report, Lumen; The Desert Sun/USA Today and Inlandia Literary Journeys. She is the winner of a 2017 California Writers Residency award. Ruth holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. She may be reached at ruthnolan13@gmail.com

Wonderland: Readings by Matthew Dickman

The poems in Matthew Dickman’s latest book, Wonderland (scheduled to be released by Norton in 2017), are an exploration of the factors, some familial, some deeply ingrained and social, which shape us as adults. How is it that out of a group of kids, all growing up together in the same rough neighborhood in Portland, OR, some grow up to be poets and others to be neo-Nazi skinheads? In our current political climate, when we can too easily define ourselves by our differences, Dickman reminds us that our art can be a way into finding our sameness—a way to rediscover our humanness.

https://www.audiomack.com/song/hm-ephemeral/intro-and-wonderland

“I think, as liberal white artists, we assume that we aren’t part of the troubling issues of this great lie of being white. We want to be the one white person that isn’t part of this infrastructure of racism that is in the United States, but the fact is that we are. You know, we’re deeply part of that. So, I’m just trying to stumble around and fall and explore the truth of what I’m really a part of and of who I am.” ~M. Dickman

https://www.audiomack.com/song/hm-ephemeral/wonderland

“It seems like everyday now, anytime we make art, or really listen to someone else’s point of view, or empathize with the other, that it’s a fight against meanness,” says Dickman. And that seems to be his real goal—to fight against blind meanness, to remember that we were all kids once, and to recognize more similarities in our selves than differences. The following two poems, both entitled Wonderland, follow the life of a fictional character named Anton, a composite of many boys Dickman knew growing up. Dickman tracks Anton’s life, from that of a young boy playing He-Man with a stick in his front yard, to marching with his new family, other skinheads, down the street as a young adult. Dickman’s objective isn’t to point fingers or even to chastise, instead, he says, “I’m just trying to stumble around and fall and to explore the truth of what I’m really part of, and of who I really am.”

 

Matthew Dickman is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). His poems have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, Esquire Magazine and The New Yorker among others. He is a 2015 Guggenheim recipient. Matthew Dickman is the Poetry Editor of Tin House Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Writing In Between: An Interview with Tyler Friend

by Breanne Cunningham

Writing In Between

We’re drinking red wine out of jars salvaged from Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter—Folie a Deux’s 2012 Alexander Valley Merlot. Later, we’ll open the Cab of the same vintage.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play in the background.

Tyler and I are classmates at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing and Publishing. We’re spending Saturday night at my apartment talking about sexuality and relationships, Tyler’s experience being genderqueer, how that informs their writing, and why they choose a different preferred pronoun each time he/she/they’re asked. (I’ll do the same here.)

Geographically, we are both from the south—they’re from Tennessee and I’m from Georgia—but our paths first crossed when I came for a campus visit in the spring of 2016. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Ampersonate and will complete his MFA in May.

BC: A lot of your poetry tends to surround an ambiguous gender identity; in your writing you describe identifying with both women and men, and also being sexually attracted to both women and men at the same time.

I am remembering a poem you wrote for our shared class in which you recall your first kiss with a girl and then later with a boy. The poem (titled, The First Time will be published in Tin House in June) ends with “For the record, I like taking it in the ass.”

Do you specifically channel that duality when you’re writing? How does it affect you as a writer?

TF: I think a lot of it just happens, I don’t necessarily try to channel it.

“I definitely work from the poetics of trying to break down binaries– no matter if that is gender or sexuality, or the natural world versus the constructed world, I think that most of what I am preoccupied with is duality and binaries.”

BC: Last semester we took a Pedagogy course together and our teacher’s first question was, “What’s your preferred pronoun?”

Friend: There are lots of other pronouns like x-e, or z-e or fae f-a-e, which I think is fun because it’s kind of like a fairy. So, it’s sort of a newish thing and it’s kind of complicated. I don’t care about pronouns, and I get really anxious whenever someone asks me, so I usually answer differently every time.

In my head—to me—male and female are entirely constructs, so you can’t be born one or the other. The phrasing is assigned female at birth or assigned male at birth. So, I was assigned male at birth.

But there are also—and where this becomes an issue is with intersex people—people with ‘ambiguous genitalia.’ There have always been people who are in the middle genetically, too. So, I am ‘male’ genetically, but I tend to instinctually [fall between sexes]. The terminology is still new and I am still new to it, so I’m still trying to work it out.

People have always existed in this ‘in-between, but as a culture, it’s becoming mainstream and people are realizing it more and trying to put words to it more.

Eileen Myles, for example, went by ‘they’ pronouns—I don’t know if they still are, [but] I feel like we are getting more iconic and popular, and more celebrities are bringing it forward.

Another poet like that is Andrea Gibson. They just recently switched to ‘they’ pronouns and they’re a little like Eileen Myles. They’re rock stars.

BC: Your poetry chapbook is Ampersonate. Talk to me about the title. The cover of the book is an ampersand sign that forms the figure of a woman.

Friend: I am big into squashing words together, so I was thinking about ampersand as in ‘and’, as in ‘continuing’. And personate has implications of theatre [and] acting.

A few pieces are directly related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my love affair with some of the characters.

BC: What was your process for writing the poem, “I wrote it. It must be true” (which is in Ampersonate)?

Friend: This is actually one of my favorite things I’ve written. I turned this in for an undergrad workshop and everyone thought I was on ‘shrooms. But I wasn’t! This is how my brain works.

It’s one-third from a dream I had, one-third text lifted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one-third text lifted from a dictionary of ecology.

BC: Is that how you normally write? What is your process and how does it turn into your art?

“Most of what I write is love poetry. And a lot of it comes from dreams. A lot of it comes from lucid dreaming, that half-awake, half-asleep state.

Then, once I get that part written, I go back to other texts and lift words.

I am also really big into word banks. When I’m reading something, . Then I’ll read something else and create another list. And then I’ll find a way to mash them all together.”

 

BC: Tori Amos uses a similar method when she writes songs.
Friend: The other thing I do is steal things people say.

BC: That’s what we do as artists. We borrow.

We borrow from our siblings when they buy a shirt we like. We borrow from celebrities to get ideas for new hairstyles. We borrow song lyrics to tell our mates we love them. We borrow from a little bit of everything to make us a little bit more like ourselves.

 

What is the pinnacle of your career? What are you shooting for?

Friend: Dream goals are getting published in Poetry Magazine. Rattle. Getting published in [PANK]. All the [publications] that I love.

I love literary magazines, so I would like to be Lit Mag editor somewhere. I’m also into Art Direction. The concept of teaching is interesting to me as well, but not yet. In the future.

BC: What about the social ideal? Family? Social acceptance?

“There is a traditional trans narrative of feeling like [you’re] in the wrong body; [you] don’t feel at home. [You] want to transition and be something different than what you are.

I don’t feel any of that. Part of it is my realistic approach to bodies in general—it’s a hunk of flesh.”

I would like to have a family. Ideally, I would like to have a long-term partner and I would probably get married for legal reasons, as far as kids go. I don’t really believe in marriage, but I’ve always romanticized the idea of a family.

BC: Did your parents help shape your gender identity growing up?

Friend: I guess they did. But I ignored it. I have a brother and a sister and my mom still refers to us as ‘the boys’, so in that way, yeah, boy was always there. But I never thought of it in a broader context where it was I’m ‘like’ these people and ‘not like’ these people.

I was never really socialized at a young age to see a difference [between male and female], so once I got into situations where [gender] turned into a binary, I veered toward male because that’s what everybody else said I was. But I was never put in a position where I had to define my sex.

BC: I remember the first time I saw you, you were wearing a flowy black miniskirt with flowers on it, black tights, and a pair of wedges. Your nails were painted and you were wearing makeup. I thought you were a woman.

Friend: Thank you!

BC: You recently mentioned that after you moved to Vermont, you became more open with expressing your gender and sexuality, and that precipitated a shift in your poetry. How does the new freedom you feel in self-expression show up in your work?

Friend: Over the past year or so, my poetry has become much less constrained—by form, by norms, by what I thought I wanted poetry to do.

The poems I’m writing now are longer and feel much more open, breathing steadily. The language has become less formal, and I feel like I’m kinder toward the language—I don’t break it up as much, I don’t distort or contort it. I let repetition happen when it needs to, something I always avoided before.

 

 

All artwork featured in this article is Tyler’s original work. Check out her poetry on the Ephemeral Artery Etc. page.

To learn more about their work, visit his website, Tylerfriend.

 

When the Cake is Baked

In my poetry writing classes at Diablo Valley College, revision wasn’t the most popular subject on the menu. For many students, this was their first time taking a poetry workshop, the first time their poems were looked at closely. Some of them had never even written a poem before. The workshop’s format first pointed out what was working in the poem. Only after all strengths were established did we start to discuss what wasn’t working so well and offered possible solutions for making the poem “better.”

This was tricky, depending on students’ ability to see the poem as a made thing, separate from themselves, a work of art in process that needs, well, work. No matter how much I talked about the importance of revision, even saying that writing was revision, my students would often get upset when told their poem wasn’t perfect and ready for publication in the most esteemed literary magazine in the land. Sometimes after the gentlest of critiques, a student started crying or left the room in a huff. I had to find a way to diffuse these tense and often unbearable situations. One day, while discussing a student’s poem, I blurted out, “Hey, the cake isn’t baked yet.”

My students liked this. They laughed. They liked saying it to each other. “Hey, that cake needs more baking.” “Needs more icing.” “More spice.” “Hey, the cake is almost baked, but why don’t you try adding some…” Fill in the blank with an element of poetic craft or good writing. This phrase became ours. We bonded as a class of not only poets, but bakers who knew how to get that cake stirred up, into the oven, and baked! It was a cake, after all. It wasn’t the end of your life if it didn’t come out very well. You can always make another cake.

With the help of my students over many semesters and hours in the poetry kitchen, I came up with a list of revision ingredients. I’m not the greatest cook on the planet. In fact, my most successful baking adventure has been with chocolate chip cookies. I will now drop the culinary conceit.

The following list is a mixture (guess I’m not quite ready to stop with the foodie talk) of my own thoughts on revision, and what I’ve learned from other teachers, poets, and writers.

  1. Openings. Consider the opening line to your poem as the on-ramp. Now that your first, (or tenth), draft of the poem is finished, do you think this is the best way to enter the poem? Or could you start a few lines later? Or do you need something else entirely? The first line establishes the mood, the tone, the ambience, how the poem will be received by the reader.
  2. What’s at stake? Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “A work of art is good if it has been written out of necessity.” Look for the passion, the trouble. Even in the most surreal or lyric poem, there is a nucleus of story and, therefore, conflict. One of the most amazing experiences in my writer’s life was taking a three-day poetry workshop with Jack Gilbert. He said terrific and useful things about writing. One was this: “Tell me something about love that matters.” What matters in your poem? What’s at stake?
  3. Energy. Does the poem have energy all the way through? Are there moments in the poem that don’t really need to be there? Is the description just decoration? Is it deepening the poem’s intent in some essential way?
  4. Surprise. Poetry makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Poetry is meant to wake us up, not keep us in the usual, predictable modes of thinking and feeling. However, here’s another gem from Jack Gilbert: “If everything is crazy, nothing is crazy; real surrealism has to have truth in it.”
  5. Take a walk. Memorize your poem and then take a three mile walk. Say the poem out loud over and over. You will hear it differently, discover places to edit, and new phrases, images might come to you. Besides walking, I often take my poem for a drive, put the poem right there in the passenger seat. In whatever parking lot I land in, I read the poem. It always amazes me how this process helps with revision, with my vision of the poem.
  6. Do a headstand. Start backward. Maybe the ending is the beginning.
  7. Duende. Always add in the duende. This ingredient is difficult to define, but I like what Federico Garcia Lorca wrote: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’” Duende helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that, as Lorca said, “Ants could eat him or a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.” Duende brings the artist face-to-face with death. Duende is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry; it’s irrational, earthy, with a dash of the diabolical. You know duende when you feel it.
  8. Meditate. Let the poem sit in the lotus position. Don’t look at it for a month, or for at least two weeks. If you keep opening the oven, the soufflé will fall. Wait, I forgot. It’s a cake! The same rule applies. You want to get some distance from the poem, so you can see it with fresh eyes, mind, and heart.
  9. Cleverness, irony, humor. These three ingredients need a special balance. Is the poem only being clever or ironic or funny? The reader wants more from the poem; the reader wants truth.
  10. Form. Change up the sentence structure. This opens doors and windows in the poem, gives you a chance to make a different kind of music.
  11. Use of space. How does the poem look on the page? Take chances with space and the arrangement of lines.
  12. Images. Images create an experience for the reader, so the poem is not just an explanation. See how many images you have in the poem. Metaphors? Similes?
  13. Endings. One of my poetry mentors once told me that a good ending to a poem is surprising and inevitable. Ending with an image is stronger. Also look and see if the poem already ended three or four lines ago. The poem is an adventure. It has to take the reader somewhere, be it physically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and/or spiritually. Not all of these levels are required. Reading the poem must cause a small or big change in the reader.

This list is not all-encompassing. I think these ingredients or elements of revision are the most important. The wonderful poet, Thomas Lux (who died last February) said in an interview:

“This [writing poetry] is not something one chooses to do…It is something I was drawn to. I do it      because I love to do it, and because I don’t have any choice. If I don’t write, I feel empty and lost…Poetry exists because there is no other way to say the things that get said in good poems except in poems. There is something about the right combination of metaphor or image connected to the business of being alive that only poems can do. To me, it makes me feel more alive.”

What makes a good poem? There are many answers to that question, as many as there are good poems. What makes a good cake? There’s a banquet of delicious cakes in the world to taste. It takes work to make a beautiful thing. When I’m at my writing desk, working on my twelfth draft of a twelve-line poem, one that may never be fully baked, or one that ends up in the trash, I remember it’s the process I love. It’s the making that gives me nourishing delight.

We Are Pleased to Announce the Judges for Hunger Mountain’s 2016 Literary Prizes

The judges are:

  •  Janet Burroway- Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

  • Robert Michael Pyle – Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

  • Lee Upton – Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

  • Rita Williams-Garcia – Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Janet Burroway, photo: Mary Stephan

photo by Mary Stephan

Janet Burroway, awarded the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing by the Florida Humanities Council, is the author of eight novels including The Buzzards, Raw Silk (recently re-released by Open Road Media), Opening Nights, Cutting Stone, and Bridge of Sand. Plays includeSweepstakes, Division of Property, and Media With Child (Sideshow, 2009), which have received readings and productions in New York, London, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Chicago; Parts of Speech, winner of the Brink! Development prize of Renaissance Theatreworks in Milwaukee; andBoomerang, winner of the Sideshow Theatre Company’s Freshness award in 2015. Her textbooks Writing Fiction (the most widely used creative writing textbook in America) and Imaginative Writing, are in 9th and 4th editions respectively. She is the editor of a 2014 collection of essays by older women authors, A Story Larger Than My Own, from University of Chicago Press, and her memoir Losing Timappeared in the spring of 2014 from Think Piece Publishers. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University.

Robert Michael Pyle (photo credit: Florence Sage)

photo credit: Florence Sage

Robert Michael Pyle dwells, writes, and studies natural history in rural Cascadia. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and a Guggenheim Fellow, he founded the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Pyle’s eighteen books include Wintergreen (winner of the John Burroughs Medal), Sky Time in Gray’s River, The Thunder Tree, Where Bigfoot Walks, Chasing Monarchs,Mariposa Road, Walking the High Ridge, The Tangled Bank, Evolution of the Genus Iris: Poems, and a flight of butterfly books. Pyle has taught place-based writing at Utah State University, as Kittredge Distinguished Writer at the University of Montana, and in many other venues from Alaska to Alabama, Tasmania to Tajikistan. He is currently making poems and music with his friend, neighbor, and Grange brother, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.

Lee Upton photo
Lee Upton
‘s sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, recipient of the Open Book Award, appeared in May 2015 from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Poetry, Best American Poetry, and in numerous other journals and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, received the BOA Short Fiction Award and was selected by Kirkus Reviews for their listing of “The Best Books of 2014.” She is the author of the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; and four books of literary criticism. She is the Francis A. March Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Lafayette College.

Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of the novel One Crazy Summer, a Newbery Honor book of 2011, a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The sequel, P.S. Be Eleven, was also a Coretta Scott King Award winner and an ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers. She is also the author of six distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book); Fast Talk on a Slow Track (ALA Best Books for Young Adults); Blue Tights; and Like Sisters on the Homefront, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York, and is on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children & Young Adults Program.

For more information, visit hungermtn.org/contests.

Two Poems

Chard deNiord

How It Went, My Heart

In steps at your command
down the plank of a tall
fast ship with the salt
of sex across its lips.
In whispers, too, to the Captain—
Poor Captain—so swayed
by looks he went along
to the end with blindfold on
and toes curled round
the board. “Recreant,”
you said, and so it was—
all muscle and nerve like a bird
in the wind. As for its ghost,
it bled like a body slashed
at the throat by a single word.

 

where and how the blood was made

Her son’s dreadful bodies, buried by that mass, drenched the Earth
with streams of blood, and they say she warmed it to new life,
so that a trace of her children might remain, transforming it into
the shape of human beings. But these progeny also despising the
gods were savage, violent, and eager for slaughter, so that you might
know they were born of blood.
–Ovid

In a sea beneath a sea without a name
where waters gathered to a clarity
that was also sorrow. There, in the darkness
that thickened in a dream at the center
of nothing, a scarlet serum formed
with hypostatic stuff in the centrifuge
of gelid currents that flowed in time
with the moon, the moon, back and forth,
until the mere idea of things themselves
suggested bodies and they were formed
as germs at first before becoming flies
and worms and flesh, never mind the eons
that turned to seconds in retrospect
inside the heads of those whose brains
were seeds for minds, whose thoughts
progressed in a garden where innocence
died and beauty was born; salt sorrow
red lust   stars betrayal   difference depth
grief violence   awe trust   charge order
rage dust   chaos sky   fear gush
life stain   sea death   flooded their hearts
that hardened to stone at the taste of it.


This poem originally appeared in Hunger Mountain 19: The Body Issue.

Milk

Julie Cadwallader Staub

Winner 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

This goat kicked me only once,
as if to say she knows
I’m an amateur

but leaning my head
against her rounding flank,
I love the way her need for release
matches my need for her milk,
and I remember the ferocious little mouths
that latched on to me
relieving that overwhelming, dripping pressure of too much

and it was all too much then—
the endless stream of groceries meals
bills illnesses laundry jobs no sleep—
so to sit in the rocking chair was sweet respite,
to do just one thing:
watch the baby
drain the profusion of milk out of me
watch the baby
become so contented that nursing faded into sleep.

Now, this ordinary chore of milking generates
a similar contentment in me
the way her steady animal warmth warms me
the way my hands learn the ancient rhythm
the way the pail rings every time her milk hits it.

And a twinge of astonishment
quickens in me as well—
after you and I labored long and hard,
after we created so much together that is still so good—

how can it be that you didn’t live long enough
to come round to this side
where simple contentment gives birth to joy.

Pink

Kari Smith

Runner-up 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

like chrysanthemums, like tulips;
like the droopy pink heads of peonies
that filled our kitchen windowsill, spilling
over mason jars and plastic cups
until, it seemed, they could no longer bear
even the weight of air, their oversized
faces too heavy with touch. Pink
like a lily’s slow death, the mess of it
on linoleum—scattered wings
that catch, reflect the deep
pink streaks of sunset.

Pink like the color my mother smeared
across her lips, nights she disappeared
in her favorite outfit—backless top,
leather pants—leaving me alone
until she returned home in a perfume
of diesel and cigarettes; a man murmuring
through pink papered walls; and me,
curled beneath a dozen stitched blooms
I peered through until I heard the door’s
soft click. Pink like the smudged kiss
of sleep, like the stain of it on my cheek.

Pink like the playhouse,
where M. and I undressed each other—
the rub of denim, whisper of cotton
caught around our thickened breath;
the bed of throw pillows, our private palace,
taking turns with the mirror, small bodies
flung open, our pink parts splayed like a treasure
map, two crooked stars marking
what spots shimmered in the dark—this is how
we are the same, how we are different
pink like snapdragons’ puckered lips, that urgency
of tongue, a small pink flag of surrender.

Pink like the scar on my chin
from when a guy hit me, split me open,
with the edge of his ring, while a riot
of bougainvillea crept along a parking lot’s
chain-link fence. Pink, like the extra strip
on a plastic stick, the one meaning pregnant,
the violence of April as cherry trees drop
their canopies, pale stains blooming
down the brick and cement. Pink,
like the beginning of something,
or like the end. Or the slick, raised
pink of healing.

Time Under a Bridge

Lisa Breger

Runner-up 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

I don’t want to leave this world:
My friends are in it, and there’s so much beauty.
Even beneath the pigeon-pocked bridge—

the simple steel and concrete off-ramp
seeped with run-off, tubercular,
that runs over roadways and part of the river that leads nowhere—

there’s a park bench, a gathering of squirrels around a stale loaf of bread.
Who wouldn’t spend time here?
Yesterday, along the Greenway under cloudless late January sky,
a flurry of bluebirds sang in the branches.
Today, I follow blue hospital signs

near Boylston, neighborhood of pressure cooker bombs,
and recall survivor Heather Abbot as I take the elevator to the malignancy floor.
Painted toenails on a prosthetic leg.

My deviant cells abnormally split;
high-dose chemotherapies
target and destroy.

She decided they take the leg to heal the body.
I shut my eyes and see the harbor:
gulls squawk over fishing boats along the docks,
dive for entrails, fish heads, and carry them satisfied through salt air.

Small Version of a Long Story

John James

Impalpable, transparent, a big man
In a rabbit-coat turns twice, turns three times
Toward the sun. And then away.

Reveals the storied longing he totes.
The yellow pain that he’s been gifted.

From winter to rank spring
He descends the snowy mountains.
Lewd, and plucking bluemonk from the vine.

 

Five Poems

Lafayette Wattles

For a Time

— after “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

Saturdays my dad wakes beneath the still-bruised
sky. Then with number-crunching hands,
arthritic from calculating sixty hours
a week, he jigsaws silhouettes out of pine
for people’s yards, making vacation cash
we use each year. I never thought to thank him.

I’d forgotten the pattern for the capped boy,
shoulder slung with baseball bat, was a fourth-
grade photograph of me. The little girl stooped
over her midnight kitty was Laney three years ago.

As I watch him through the basement
window staining the wood jet black, sealing
us in shadows from the past, he’s gentle,
stroke after stroke. And, for a time,
so like the man I used to know.

 

Offseason Workout

I’ve already lost two whole days
saying goodbyes and getting here,

but I won’t let our move stop me
from training, which means

it’s back to pumping iron, followed by a jog
to the nearest store for a dozen eggs,

for the making of two soft hands,
which started with me and Dad

in the backyard my eighth-grade year,
after I told him football was everything.

Now, it’s just me standing
at the edge of the driveway

tossing those smooth white shells
higher and higher into the air,

like bones of some delicate thing
that’s not quite here yet.

And it’s up to me to keep them from shattering,
like babies falling from the sky.

That’s what Dad had told me to imagine.
At first, I had thought of Laney,

had tried too hard, my hands stiff like wood.
But you just need to put your fingers out

all loose and like they’re not connected the way we know.
Like there are nets between them,

webs that nothing can fall through.
Once you trust them to do their job they do.

Now, I can throw those eggs up forty feet at least,
and watch them fall back into my hands,

like a part of me that keeps returning
even after I let it go.

 

Quick Hands

Coach says, your legs, your feet
will only get you so far, says, blazing
down the sidelines isn’t much good
without the prize in your fingertips,
says, you need quick hands, and eyes
always on the ball, so he’s got you
on your back, arms at your sides,
palms flat to the ground
(only you aren’t allowed to lift them,
except when there’s a ball
nearby), and he stands at your feet,
tosses the pigskin at your chest
(only it’s never where it should be,
the way it is with you being anywhere,
even out there on the field),
and your hands fly up
like hungry birds of prey, like falcons,
maybe, with all that quick in their feathers,
rising up from a dive
(opposite the way that’s in their nature),
just in time to seize, thumbs
always in toward the numbers.

 

 

Strong Hands, Sure Hands

After watching too many Rocky movies,
Dad got the bright idea of using ordinary things

in not-so-ordinary ways, and he invented Drill #2:
me in the yard, hoisting his old bowling ball

overhead, just above my fingertips, letting both hands fall,
cradling that weight to my chest like a second heart.

 

 

Tryouts

I’m third fastest in all the sprints,
fast enough to make sure Coach won’t cut me,
but, even holding back, I can’t not use my velcro hands,
and my catching nearly everything
has some of them in fists and grumbles,
until all-everything looks-like-a-rock
star defensive end Chuck Stone,
with his red, white, blue ponytailed mohawk
and all those muscles ready to pop,
cracks pads with me, again and again,
and I manage to jump to my feet,
split lip and all, like Dad taught me
all those times in the yard. That’s what turns them.

By the time my feet are needles
threading together obstacle course tires with their silky speed,
the guys are all cheering, and they act
as if I discovered a spark of leftover lightning,
like that’s what’s running through my veins.
Chuck’s there, too, in my face
with his primal scream, pounding his chest,
again and again, as if we’re celebrating fire,
as if this is some essential part of us.
Pretty soon, I’m screaming, too,
I’m pounding my chest with the rest of them.
Then Coach calls us in,
says, good job, and the guys grow silent
all the way back to the locker room.
But I know I’m part of them now,
fleet-footed receiver of the pass,
brother in blood, keeper of the flame.

Evie Lovett-Rainbow Cattle Co. 56

Definition

Kerrin McCadden

I once found a deer collapsed near a lake—sleek,
immaculate, & unmoving except for its antlers, which swarmed

with orange-&-black-speckled butterflies that obliterated
the velvet beneath. Whatever word explains this,
I don’t want to know it yet.

—Matt Donovan

The thorax needs to reach 59 degrees for wing-muscle to take flight.
Angle the thorax toward the morning sun, fold and unfold wings, body at rest
and wait. During migration, find branches and rest in company.

Obliterate what you land on. Fold and unfold wings. The hinge is perfect.
The ornament of wings is more than we can bear. Fold: a prayer, asking
for open—the hemming of pants on a child, the folding, hold still, hold still,

fingers at the hem, the child on a chair, pins held in the mouth,
words spilling out the lips’ crease, itself a furrow, funnel, runnel. Words
there like run-off, storm water. When I read, I dog-ear pages, turn

up the bottom corner when there is a word I like, like fold. I don’t use a pen.
When the book is over, I go back through and find the words
I know I must have liked, and put them on my dresser. I took fold

because it was an old word. It doesn’t need anything from me. It sounds
like earth. Fold used to mean earth, I want to say. ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm
. Snow folds back like a sheet, uncovers earth.

It is all collapse and rise. Look at a child at a book of dinosaurs, where each
page turns and by some miracle of origami, dinosaurs leap at him,
the bookjacket flapping like wings, where he holds and releases beasts,

or a man who holds and releases a smile so that what remains are crow’s feet,
the folded markers of joy, which open in sadness like washboards on a back
road in spring, mud sagging into release and capture,

or the old woman who was trapped in her foldaway Murphy Bed for thirteen
hours, some joke of eponymous law—the space-making alternative
for today’s lifestyle
—some old humor like what governs the folding of maps.

If, like Dr Urquart, I put a monarch butterfly in a bag and hide it on a branch,
it will be joined shortly by another. So much for pheromones, or simplicity.
There is some system of wing-beats that speaks, some shiver of color

only they can see, the shift of shadow in the hinge of wing-folding, the kiss
of definition on stilled antlers by a lake.
These are the ways I am folded
by you—into the light crease the store clerk makes to keep a receipt open,

make it easier to sign, the pressure of her finger holding it still, into a cootie
catcher, numbers and fortunes in the folds, into a string of cranes, a rack of
highway maps, a stack of clean sheets,

into your chest on a quiet road.
  There were shadows—either from high
trees weltering or the wings on your back. Either way, they are pages now. I
fold them back into the night, each sheet a lakeside. I hardly recognize myself.


To read an interview with Kerrin McCadden, click here.

To read more poetry, click here.