Bodies of Work: A Collaboration Exhibition & Reading

Tomorrow I’m reading from Intimates & Fools at the Apollon. Here’s a link to the press release, but the full details are also below. I hope to see you there!

a bunch of books

The Apollon & Les Femmes Folles Present:

Bodies of Work: A Collaboration Exhibition & Reading
One-night only: April 21, 2014
Apollon Omaha, 1801 Vinton St., Omaha, NE

Featuring a collaborative art series by figurative artist Rachel Mindrup, body-artist Sally Deskins, and poet Fran Higgins and A live reading featuring Higgins and poet Laura Madeline Wiseman, author of Intimates & Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with body-art by Deskins.

Art exhibit opens: 6pm (free)
Reading: 6:30pm (free)

SPECIAL EVENT: Drink n Draw, 8-10pm ($5)

We will also be collecting new bras/undergarments, and/or gently used women’s clothing for Heartland Family Service! Heartland Family Service, founded in Omaha in 1875, is a non-profit, non-sectarian social work agency. We help parents who struggle; couples who want to save their relationship; children who are removed from unsafe homes; teens who made the wrong decisions about alcohol, drugs or crime; survivors of family violence; low-income families–mostly women and children–who fall into homelessness; and many, many more who need a helping hand to get back on track. Annually we serve 35,000 to 40,000 people in twelve counties. heartlandfamilyservice.org

Collaborative Series (above: “Grammar Man”): Poet Fran Higgins, body-artist Sally Deskins and figurative artist Rachel Mindrup come together to create a series of mixed-media work that explores body image, art history, womanhood and motherhood, furthering their “Mother-Artist” project originally debuted Feb. 2013. The trio of artists started with Deskins’ acrylic body-painting; “Inspired by Yves’ Klein’s Anthropometries, I take a feminist approach, as artist, model and director, examining how our outside selves both hides and radiates our mind,” describes Deskins of her approach.  Thereafter, Mindrup was given the twenty large works to draw on at her discretion; “Usually I spend so much time painting figures, paying attention to every resolute detail; with this series, I wanted to draw quickly to echo Sally’s swift body-printing method, and I kept seeing these mythological characters, coming in and out of the body parts like the bodies represented a whole world,” describes Mindrup. Mindrup then passed the work onto  Higgins who, penned ekphrastic poetry on each, based on her own perspective, displaying irony, hilarity, and sometimes raw truth on the female, motherhood, and human experience.

Intimates & Fools: Coupling body art and poetry, ‘Intimates and Fools‘ intimates the complicating pairing of the female form and cultural notions of beauty while playfully seeking to bare and bear such burdens of their weight. Laura Madeline Wiseman’s poetry explores notions of the bra and its place near the hearts of women, while contemplating literary and pop cultural allusions and illusions of such intimate apparel. Sally Deskins’ body art and illustrations make vivid and bright the female form while calling into question the cultural narratives on such various shapes we hold dear, be they natural, consumer, or whimsy. The book is published by Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014 and is available on amazon.com.

Les Femmes Folles is a completely volunteer run organization founded by Sally Deskins in 2011 with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art with the online journal, books and public events; originally inspired by artist Wanda Ewing and her curated exhibit by the name Les Femmes Folles (Wild Women).  Les Femmes Folles Books is a micro feminist press that publishes 1-2 titles a year by invitation. Other books include Les Femmes Folles: The Women, 2011, 2012 and 2013, also available at this event and at blurb.com. femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com

The Apollon is Omaha’s multi-genre arts and entertainment hub where all are welcome to indulge their tastes in a place of welcome and warmth. The Apollon experience is co-created by a vibrant, well-supported arts community and an equally vibrant, well-rewarded audience. apollonomaha.com

Fran Higgins earned her BFA, graduate certificate in Advanced Writing, and a Masters in English from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her work has appeared in Plains Song Review, Celebrate, SlipTongue, NEBRASKAland magazine, and The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets.

Rachel Mindrup is a professional artist and art educator. Her current painting practice is about the study of the figure and portraiture in contemporary art and its relation to medicine. Mindrup’s client list includes: Kiewit Corporation, Boys Town, Creighton University, Boys Town National Research Hospital, and the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. Her artwork is held in many private collections including those of Primatologist Jane Goodall and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Rmindrup.com

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

Sally Deskins is an artist and writer, focusing on women and feminist writers and artists, including herself. Her art has been exhibited in galleries in Omaha, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago; and has been published in publications such as Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, and Painters & Poets. She has curated various solo and group exhibitions, readings and performances centered on women’s perspective and the body. Her writing has been published internationally in journals such as Stirring, Prick of the Spindle, Bookslut and Bitch. She edits the online journal Les Femmes Folles, has published three anthologies of art and writing and her first illustrated book Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, was published in Jan. 2014. Femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com, Sallydeskins.tumblr.com

SPECIAL EVENT: DRINK N DRAW, 8-10pm, 19+

Drink n Draw Omaha is a socially creative event inviting artists (painting, sculpting or drawing) to come and practice their craft inspired by two professional art models. Cost is just $5 for artists 19+. Bring your own supplies and take advantage of APOLLON’s beverage service.  No photography permitted. (Photo above by Drink n Draw photographer g thompson higgins.)

More information at facebook.com/drinkndrawomaha

introducing cover artist Lauren Rinaldi for Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience

I’m very excited to have my new book, Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience now available from Lavender Ink. It is a campy, contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth, that charts the love of three sisters who each marry the same man upon the demise of the sister who preceded her. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but this telling focuses on the love each of his unfortunate wives felt, the first blush of romance and young marriage, the complicated turns of mature desire and the past we bring into our present affections.

bluebeard book arrives

When I went looking for cover art, I asked Les Femme Folles and Les Femme Folles Books editor Sally Deskins if she knew of any artists who had created anything that might make the perfect cover art for a bluebeard retelling. She suggested several artists, some of whom she’d recently featured in her journal and others in the Les Femmes Folles 2014 Calendar,  a calendar that featured art by artists like Wanda Ewing, Bonnie Gloris, Rachel Mindrup, Kristin Pluhacek, Megan Loudon Sanders, and Lauren Rinaldi. I researched these artists and others and then read the interview with Lauren Rinaldi in LFF. Here’s her bio:

Lauren Rinaldi is an artist whose work tells intricate and personal stories exploring the meanings of encountering the unexpected through painting.  Her works depicting the female figure are meant to inhabit the space where the line between sexual empowerment and objectification is blurred. She draws inspiration from children’s books, old Hollywood, art history, meditations, memories, badly written paranormal romance novels, her cat and her surrounding environment. Lauren currently lives and works in Philadelphia with her husband and son, and is represented by Paradigm Gallery + Studio.

The interview featured this beautiful piece:

Desire'sConquestAndDemise

Lauren’s artist description of the piece:

Desire’s Conquest and Demise
The Nightmare, which depicts an incubus, a horse and a sleeping woman. In my painting, the incubus is replaced by my deceased cat. The woman takes a position believed to encourage nightmares, and the horse (or mare), in my piece, is replaced by another woman. It is meant to simultaneously show a woman dreaming and the contents of her dream or fantasy. This painting is part of my most recent series of works exploring ideas about the pursuit of fantasies resulting in deterioration, decay or even death.

I contacted Lauren to see if she’d be interested in having her art on my book. She said, “Yes.” Yay! Check out more of her fabulous work here: http://laurenrinaldi.tumblr.com/ and http://www.laurenrinaldi.com/.

I gave a reading from Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience and more late last month in West Virginia. I’ll be reading from my work soon in Nebraska, as well as talking about my work on the radio. Here’s the information about those events. I hope to see you soon!

Reading and Interview with Michael Lyon & Rachel Mindrup
KIOS-FM, Omaha Public Radio
8:30 am, Monday, April 21, 2014
30th & Leavenworth, Omaha, NE

Reading and Show of Intimates and Fools with Fran Higgins
Les Femmes Folles
6 pm, Monday, April 21, 2014
Apollon, 1801 Vinton St
Omaha, NE 68108

Reading from Intimates & Fools and more with Sally Deskins and Cat Dixon
Noon, Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Connect Gallery, 3901 Leavenworth St
Omaha, NE

Reading of Women Write Resitance and more
Nebraska Book Festival
3:15 pm, Saturday April 26, 2014
Omaha, NE

Interview with Karen Sokolof Jovitch & Jody Vinci
It’s the Beat Radio show, Mighty 1290 KOIL (am)
noon-1pm, Saturday May 3, 2014
9740 Brentwood Rd
Omaha, NE 68411

 

“tales we carry around with us”: The Chapbook Interview with Sally Rosen Kindred

Sally1

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) is a retelling that explores aspects of Peter Pan by giving voice to Wendy, Tiger Lily, and Tinker Bell. Why retell women’s stories? What is your process when writing poems based on pre-existing texts such as Peter Pan?

My interest in these kinds of retellings began with reading them. Some of my favorite poems do this kind of work—poems by H.D., Anne Sexton, Carol Ann Duffy, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove. I am a narrative thinker; my approach to identity, spirituality, family is narrative. I love story, and I get attached to stories. I think the stories we’re told as children, in particular, take on a special weight, illuminate and shape the rest of our lives. And so when these stories have people in them who don’t speak much but would probably have a lot to say, and there is some opportunity to re-connect with them, to give them new shape to reflect new ways to think about who they, and we, are—well for me, a project like that is irresistible.

I tend to focus on women’s stories because I’m a feminist, and there’s a lot of work still to be done in thinking about how gender and race are constructed in these tales we carry around with us. Peter Pan and Wendy is a rich, compelling tale; it’s also extremely problematic. Little girls still watch Disney’s Peter Pan today and want to be Wendy Darling. Many grown women in our country are walking around with Tinker Bell’s tiny fairy body in their heads. My sons, who are Latino and were very young when I first read Peter Pan aloud to them, wanted to know why there was a football team in the story—and I had to explain what J.M. Barrie meant by “Redskins.” Tiger Lily doesn’t even speak in the original Peter Pan and Wendy. She doesn’t even speak! She does in Darling Hands. The story of Peter Pan isn’t going away, but I can’t see holding onto it without doing this kind of work.

About the process: I start by reading and re-reading the primary text, as well as annotated versions and some criticism for context. Practically, it can be easier to get started each day on a sequence that works from a pre-existing text. I can always begin by returning to the original story. With Darling Hands, I often started my writing time by re-reading some part of Peter Pan and Wendy, copying down a sentence, and using it as a point of departure. I kept many such sentences as epigraphs.

It’s got to be careful work, because the reader already has a stake in the voices at play. If she cares about this story before she picks up the poem, if she believes that she knows the speaker, then I have to give her both something she knows (a voice, a scene, a feeling) and something she doesn’t (some reward for her return to this tale).


The cover art for Darling Hands, Darling Tongue is lovely. Can you talk about it?

The cover art, by the incredibly talented Nashay Jones (www.nyelarebirth.com), is one of my favorite things about the chapbook, and every time I see it, I’m grateful again for the chance to work with Hyacinth Girl Press. Editor Margaret Bashaar suggested several possible artists to work on the cover–artists who had done work for Hyacinth Girl Press before–and when I looked at their work, I was struck by Nashay Jones’s ability to depict girls and women of color in her work, giving them real bodies and convincing presence but also a kind of luminous magic and personality and strength that I just loved. The last thing I wanted on the cover was a pale golden Tinker Bell flying easily with a too-delicate, too-ethereal fairy body. Just as I hoped that my take on the Peter Pan story would not be a Disney echo, I was confident that Nashay Jones’s vision would be her own, and it is, and it’s stunning.

In the November/December 2013 issue of Poets & Writers, Jennifer Ciotta argues that “if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: ‘It’s all about the money, honey.’ You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it” (69). As an author of two full-length books, an award-winning chapbook, and an additional chapbook, discuss your experiences with publishing and promoting your collections and reaching your readers. 

Well, I have to say, I look at that comment, and I think, “What money?” Anyone who’s signed up for a lifetime of writing poetry is going to need to eat and keep warm somehow, and going to want to do her press proud, but she is unlikely to be “all about the money.” I have similar questions about wanting to be “successful.”  I mean, again, what is the definition of success when a person wants to spend her life with poems?

I’ve never had trouble finding someone else who would be willing to define literary success for me, but I have often been sorry to have gone looking. There will always be people—in MFA programs, in the latest issue of Poets and Writers—who will be happy to set the terms. It makes sense to listen to these folks, because I want to be part of a literary community. It also makes sense to tune them out when I’ve heard enough.

I do think it’s important to promote my work, though, so that I can find the readers who will be most interested in it. I owe it to the wonderful presses who have generously taken a chance on me, and I owe it to my poems. I also think I have to balance that need against my horror at having to “sell” myself, and the realistic limits on my energy—what I, as an introverted person, can reasonably do, and what’s effective, and so worth doing.  I want to spend more time writing than marketing—though I do love the opportunities that promoting a book has given me to visit classrooms and libraries, and meet people who love poems, and talk with people about poems, and share my work.

I feel lucky to be publishing during the era of social networking, because I am so much more comfortable making my first impressions about my writing through writing. I confess, I love the safety of being behind the screen. I feel much less pestery and invasive mentioning I have a new book in a feed someone can scroll on by, rather than walking up to them at…what, a cocktail party?  Do people go to cocktail parties, or is that just on tv? I don’t go to cocktail parties. Even at a poetry reading, I’m the type to sit in the audience, have the amazing auditory experience, and duck out afterwards without mingling.

I also love reaching people in a personal way through postal mail.  When Darling Hands, Darling Tongue was coming out, my kids and I made collage-and-paint postcards to celebrate—we stuck to fairy-related imagery, in honor of Tinker Bell—and we mailed them out to the first 25 people who said they wanted them. I have no idea if this was a “successful marketing campaign,” but it sure made a few days of summer vacation fly by. I’m pretty much up for any promotional activity that involves finger paints.  I liked that each postcard was different, and we spent time deciding who would get which one. It felt personal.  That’s my favorite kind of  “promotion”—the personal kind, that brings news of a book, without a sense of obligation.

What is inspiring you these days? 

I’m inspired by walking outside and reading field guides. I have a full-length book coming out this month, Book of Asters, that uses the science and lore of the aster family of flowers to talk about human families (and specifically my family). I’m also inspired by Grimm fairy tales—all those bad things that happen to girls in the woods, and how they marked us as children—and I’m excited about paintings, and bodies in paintings: reading Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall and Molly Brodak’s  chapbook The Flood has got me thinking about how our historical and cultural moment teaches us to see and represent bodies.  And right now my brain is crowded with the life of Charles Dickens, whose childhood, city and lexical adventures are finding their way into my work.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

Mostly I try to get better by reading, and talking to others about reading, poetry. I also read a lot of novels and nonfiction (about those obsessions that feed writing: botany, history, theology, language—thank goodness for the library!). I read books on the other arts, and books on craft. I try to get better by writing, too, of course—which means scrawling on paper but also walking and waiting—and talking with others I trust about what I’m writing.

Your chapbook credo: A chapbook has the chance for concentration and intensity that a full-length book doesn’t always have, so a good chapbook is intimate in the hand and the mind. A great chapbook is bound with a ribbon!

Number of chapbooks you own: Over fifty.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Maybe forty? Forty-five? (Still a few in the to-read pile—I subscribe to Hyacinth Girl Press, and they just keep coming! Hooray!)

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy and read chapbooks and talk about them on Facebook and GoodReads. I also write reviews for publication.  My most recent review is of Molly Brodak’s The Flood in The Rumpus.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: That money (such as it is) goes back into buying books, chapbooks, and the tea I drink while I read them.

Your chapbook wish: To write more and to read more chapbooks…preferably chaps bound with ribbons.

Residence: Columbia, Maryland

Job: I’m lucky to write from home, where I also take care of my children. I taught writing in the classroom for seven years, and then on-line for eight; I still love doing classroom visits and workshops in schools.

Chapbook education:  The first chapbook I read was Bodies of Water by Sarah Lindsay (Unicorn Press). I got it in high school and carried it around in my bookbag. I quoted from it on Mrs. Windham’s chemistry test.  Thus began my chapbook education.

Bio: I’m a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who lives in Maryland and also has a special love for Pittsburgh. I’ve received fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. My chapbooks are Garnet Lanterns, winner of the Anabiosis Press Prize (2005) and Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), and my full-length collections are both from Mayapple Press: No Eden (2011) and Book of Asters (2014).  For more information, see sallyrosenkindred.com

Poems “can find their way to each other like lovers”: The Chapbook Interview with Sara Henning

sara henning

To Speak of Dahlias, your recent chapbook from Finishing Line Press, is a lovely mediation on making—the making of art, the body, family—and also on unmaking. Can you talk about your process of making poems, making books and chapbooks, and there by making meaning by making art?

 What a lovely question! I have always considered the act of writing to stem from the body.  Writing is an embodied act, fusing the head, the hands, and the heart.  When I am writing, I divest myself of borders and just enter the field of language. I feel, and then I think. When I’m thinking, I’m generally on my Smartphone researching (behavior of animals, scientific variables, perjured women, issues of the psyche and its aperture). Then, I internalize my research and feel my way onto paper.  The birthing of a poem in this way can vary from a week to several months, and the revision process, when I am honing, sculpting, and providing sinew, can culminate in a day or a year. I never give my poems time limits, and I never rush their publication. When the poem is ready, it will let me know.

The making of books is an entirely different process. Trying to find the best combination for the poems to connect with each other, reverberate, and find fluidity is a process in which I am still seeking competency.  I have relied quite a bit on my exceptional mentor, poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, for help finding an order to my work.  While my poems found their own connection in To Speak of Dahlias, Lee was integral in helping A Sweeter Water to find its shape and poise. I am currently writing my second full-length collection, tentatively titled Lost Girls, and I am working with trying to listen to the poems. Sometimes, I think if I can listen closely to the poems, they can find their way to each other like lovers.

 

In both your chapbook To Speak of Dahlias and in your full-length collection A Sweeter Water the theme and image of the dahlia reoccurs. It’s a beautiful and complicated image. I’m wondering if you can talk about this artistic choice.

The image of the dahlia is very compelling to me, perhaps because it is complicated. First, it is a beautiful flower that underwent issues of dubious naming.  It was named after two botanists—Swedish botanist Dr. Anders Dahl, from which it attained the name by which we know it today, but also by botanist Dr. Johann Georgi of Petersburg, who named the flower Georgina.  The name of dahlia was only recently clarified. In both of my poetry collections, the question of naming seemed exigent to me, as one central motif of both collections draws upon the speaker’s lineage.  She is not only the literal product of adultery, after which many secrets and obfuscations follow, but has an uncertain existential existence she spends the duration of the book attempting to unraveling for the reader.

Second, the dahlia is a robust plant, a source of nourishment and fertility. It was first brought from Mexico to Malmaison by Empress Josephine de Beauharnais for her garden. One must remember that in nineteenth century France, dahlias held the cultural capital of diamonds. After one of her servants stole a coveted tuber, the Empress commanded all of the plants be destroyed. Weed-like, dahlias self-reproduced after this act of extermination, and in the 1840’s became a food source after the blight of the potato crop. From this historical episode, I have come to see the flower as an image of sustainability and self-perpetuation, which seems to follow the speaker as she emerges out of dangerous confusion into a clarified existential space toward the end of both collections.

I know you’ve been to the Vermont Studio Center as a writer-in-residence. What was that experience like? How important are colonies and residencies for writers?

 My experience at the Vermont Studio Center was an empowering one. I went in 2008 after experiencing some post-MFA artistic anorexia, and left with a feeling of vigor. I had the chance to converse with poets Mark Irwin and Fanny Howe about my poems, gleaning important and constructive feedback, and had the time and space to create lasting friendships with amazing artists and writers that have lasted until today. A very talented and warm-hearted artist I met during my residency, Leslie Joren Wagner, ended up designing my book cover!

I think colonies and residencies for writers can be important, but are not for everyone. A poet friend of mine tries to participate in a residency every summer he can because it provides him time and space away from his quotidian experience, and thus the emotional space to engage in meaningful writing.  I can be a bit of a social butterfly, and so found days devoted to isolation away from my loves and cats challenging, especially as the residency reached the third week. Given this personality tic, my social interactions with the artists and writers were often more gratifying than the actual work I accomplished, but I know many who have relied on the sacred quiet of a residency writing studio to finish books and projects.

 

In “Consociational Poetics: An Interview with Anne Waldman” the March/April 2013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Waldman talks about her “founding mothers” and the women writers “who have had the burden of neglect or struggle to be heart” (58). I’m wondering if you can talk about the women writers who have “opened the floodgates” for the writing you’ve done, are doing, and hope to do in the future?

I’d love to! Let’s be honest: I owe my artistic life to Muriel Rukeyser. Without her poetics of lived social justice, equality, and feminism, many strong female writers could not have followed in her stead. One of her mentees, Anne Sexton, even called her “mother of us all.” I admire the feminist social activist poets who followed her, poets who demanded that society be accountable for its behavior.

In his latest book, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, poet and critic Robert Archambeau has described the discursive state of poetry—glutted with professionalization, smug bohemianism and a dangerously dwindling readership. In an atmosphere decimated by war, poverty and an increasing need to justify one’s weight in cultural capital, he asserts that poetry is suffering the fate of subcultural demotion and growing cultural ambivalence. That’s a pretty bold assessment, but really, what he is saying shouldn’t really be shocking. I mean, critic Charles Altieri engaged a dystopic scrutiny of contemporary poetry’s cultural moment (through its award of prizes and what is taught in MFA programs) almost thirty years ago in his 1984 work, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. In this work, he exposed a system of stylistics aimed at an audience made homogenous by its state of economic and social privilege. He claims that the lyricism that emerged, including restrained setting and emotion building to a predictable climactic image, was alluring because it approximated the narcissistic sensibility of the professional classes. Since then, the claim that contemporary poetry remains infested by boutique McWriters practicing shadow-dances of homogeneity for an audience of each other, or compelling writers dumbfounded into reticence by national and international horrors, seems to be an alarming, yet conventional trend.

What baffles me is that in this paradoxical environment described above is allowed to perpetuate in the wake of the aforementioned Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, Carolyn Forche’s poetry of witness,  and the volumes of poetry addressing a world devastated by Vietnam, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the silent war on women. It is in this enigmatic environment that I’m trying to engage with poetry as a means of embodied resistance to hegemonic narratives. After all, I strongly subscribe to second-wave feminism’s axiom, the personal is political.

 

You grew up in Georgia and currently live in South Dakota where you are pursing your doctorate. You also travel a good deal for readings. How does place inform your poetics?

 Physical place for me is less important than metaphysical and psychic place, though the two inform each other. When I am outside of a physical environment, I am able to garner a more accurate representation of it than when I am ensconced in it. This is important when the physical place I am attempting to penetrate has had important meaning for me. For instance, much of A Sweeter Water takes place in, and addresses, issues exigent to lower class Southern culture.  The poems that speak to this were largely written during my first year living in South Dakota. Distance, displacement and diaspora engender a sad yet allusive safety for me, because escape can mean shearing off essential, yet comfortingly dysfunctional, elements of identity.

When I find myself in disparate cultures, I am always measuring difference between where I was and where I am going. For instance, I spent the winter holidays in New Orleans, a place that we know is both culturally enriched and ravaged by eco-critical and social issues. To relate to what I saw of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina spliced against the exploitative tourist romps of the privileged on Bourbon Street, I thought of how my mother, living in a cockroach-infested apartment in Savannah, Georgia on a steady diet of generic cigarettes and beans and rice, boarded up her windows to escape the ravages of Hurricane David, while a short drive away, revelers indulged in alcohol-tinged escapades on River Street, and lavished in beach getaways on Tybee Island.  While lately I find myself in a different place almost every month (I thank the English Department of the University of South Dakota for allowing generous funding for graduate students to participate in conferences and reading), I see the change in place as a lineage in the fold of my emotional displacement, rather than an exotic encounter.

 

Given that you’ve just had a new book released from Lavender Ink and are giving readings to promote it, what’s the influence of performing your poems on your writing—does the anticipation of reading or giving readings influence how your work appears on the page?

 Not long ago, my mother told me that though she would have preferred my choice of the medical profession over literary academia, she was nonetheless convinced during my younger years that I would end up employed as a song writer.  As a girl I took piano lessons, and often would play by ear instead of performing the notes on the page.  When I like a musical artist, I will often listen to his or her work on repeat in order to get the songs into my blood to better understand them. These songs stay with me for years: Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, John Lennon. The list goes on.

How does this translate to poetry? When I give readings, I find that most of my poems work better when read aloud than when read silently on the page, and that isn’t because I try to write for performativity. I think it just happens organically for me, and this comes back to the notion that writing is an embodied process for me, one that uses every single one of my physiological facilities: breath, the way the throat clenches and reopens when a sound is both beautiful and painful, the fact that the body, in pain and pleasure, performs a kind of song.

 

What is inspiring you these days? The polar vortex, the heart’s resiliency, how the body and mind are often so amazingly able to heal themselves.


How are you trying to get better as a poet?
I read everything I can get my hands on. I am in the middle of ordering books to study for my comprehensive exams, and while this is surely a daunting process, I am pretty excited to have an excuse to bury myself in books. I also try to write regularly, though this can be hard while pursuing doctoral study. I also try to forgive myself the time it takes me to engage in the creative process. Much of this time can be perceived by others as “down time”:  surfing the internet and researching minutiae, meditating under a pillow, watching my cat perform his territorial shenanigans, long interludes of staring into space.  I am trying to remind myself that this is all necessary time, even when it feels like a poem should just sashay right out of me when I put pen to paper, already muscular and seductive, ready to be cossetted onto the page.


Your chapbook credo:  
The heart burns harder than anything, so why not focus on the heart of anything?  The poems of a chapbook are like incantatory distillations, their own, short and intense experience. Being able to achieve this brand of tight fluidity is an amazing practice, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried it.


Number of chapbooks you own:
probably 30

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: probably 20


Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets:
 When my friends publish chapbooks, I like to include them on my social media outlets. As money allows, I try to buy as many chapbooks as I can. I also make myself available to write blurbs, which is an intensely pleasurable experience for me.


Where you spend your chapbook earnings:
 On things essential to preserving the literary life: groceries, cat food, books, essential oil, and my subscription to Dropbox.


Your chapbook wish: 
I would love to write another chapbook! They feel essential to book writing for me, a way to experience the architecture of a longer work.


Residence:
 This city girl now lives in a little house on the prairie in Vermillion, South Dakota.


Job:
I am employed as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of South Dakota, where I also serve as the Managing Editor of the South Dakota Review. During the summer months, I read exams for the AP Literature program, and attempt to gain employment as an adjunct for my university. I also serve as a short order cook for my Muse, who has most recently been discovered attending twelve-step meetings for a pretty crippling addiction to beignets.


Chapbook education:
About four years ago, I watched an ex-boyfriend who was also a poet compile a chapbook. As I watched him go through the process, another close friend shared with me her method of compiling, and publishing, a chapbook with Finishing Line Press. Incidentally, this press that would later become my chapbook press.


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

 

The Chapbook Interview: Juliet Cook & Robert Cole on Collaborative Chapbooks

How did your collaborative chapbook begin?

Juliet Cook – My memory issues might be warped, but my recollection remembers me posting tortured Saint photos on my facebook page and then Robert Cole suddenly emailing me, asking if I might be interested in poetic collaborating. I wasn’t familiar with his poetry and I don’t think he was familiar with mine, so I suggested that first we should send each other a few poems to find out if we were interested in each other’s creative style and thought the two styles might fuse together well, and I think both of our initial impulses were YES and so we dove in.

Robert Cole – Yeah at first, I wasn’t very familiar with Juliet Cook’s poetry, but after we exchanged some of our work, the idea crossed my mind that it may be interesting to see how our writing would work together if we did some collaboration. After I approached her about it, I read a poem by her in an issue of Caketrain that caught my attention and pretty much sealed the deal. At the time we didn’t have a chapbook in mind necessarily, but we quickly started to realize we were producing enough poems to put together a cohesive manuscript.

I wanted to start a collaboration with Juliet to explore the aspects of life that I have been afraid to confront. I wanted to scare myself, really. It became apparent pretty fast that our combined style of writing was doing just that. Also, what few collaborative chapbooks I’ve read had always interested me. I wanted to step away from myself and my own work to see what would happen if I gave up complete control. Creating a hybrid, doing something strange, I wanted to try that. It turned out to be an inspiring experience. Collaborative poetry (or any kind of collaborative art for that matter) is something I think artists should explore more often.

Can you describe your collaborative process? How did you go about revising each poem, the sequence of poems, and finding a home for the chapbook? Was anything frustrating about the experience? Delightful? Surprising?

JC – For me, there have been a few times in the past when I’ve attempted poetic collaboration with writers I am familiar with and whose writing I like, but either our styles don’t seem to mesh very well together OR nothing ever happens after our initial attempts at collaborative writing.

I think part of the reason nothing ever happens (beyond the writing itself) is because oftentimes when you’re working with another individual, aside from the writing, you don’t know what their style is in terms of revising, submitting, and so forth. Robert seemed pretty open along those lines, so I handled our submission process the same way I handle my own work – start submitting poems almost as soon as I think they seem done. I’m good at staying organized when it comes to keeping notes about when and where I have stuff submitted – and I kept Robert on top of acceptances and rejections.

As far as the poems went, we worked on one at a time – some lines of his, some lines of mine, some lines of his, some lines of mine, arrange the lines, slightly revise some lines, remove some lines, rearrange the lines until we both agreed a poem seemed done – and then on to the next poem.

Most of Robert and my collaborative writing happened in April and I knew that Hyacinth Girl Press was accepting chapbook manuscript submissions in May, so I ordered and organized our poems into chapbook format, sent that to Robert for his approval, he approved, and I submitted it. Obviously I didn’t know if Hyacinth Girl was going to accept it or not (and if they didn’t, we would have submitted it to other sources), but it was accepted by Hyacinth Girl, the very first source it was submitted to.

Writing twenty some collaborative poems in about a month, organizing nineteen of them into chapbook format, already having nine of those nineteen poems accepted for publication by literary magazines, and having the whole collection accepted by the very first press it was submitted to made it a delightful writing experience for me (and hopefully for him too, but I don’t live in his brain, so I don’t know).

The only aspect of the collaboration that was slightly frustrating for me (and maybe for him too, but again I don’t know) is that poetry is such an emotional realm for me and such a mental turn on that if I’m working on poetically collaborating with someone and it’s going well, then I also tend to spurt a bunch of other personal information (thoughts, feelings, ideas, personal opinions), sometimes maybe to the point of causing them to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. After several times of sending Robert long emails and receiving a three sentence response, I realized I needed to back off emotionally and just stick to the poetry with him and so I did.

He’s a young guy anyway; he probably doesn’t need some mentally imbalanced middle aged woman spewing her junk at him. Except for in poetry land.

RC – The process was surprising in that I didn’t expect it to happen so easily. Nothing was forced. We started by exchanging 3-6 lines of whatever came to mind, adding to each set of lines through email, and quickly found a rhythm. Our chapbook was written primarily through email exchanges in just a few weeks time. Poetry is always frustrating, but the collaboration didn’t come with any stress that wouldn’t otherwise be there had I been writing by myself. It was also perfect timing. I was in the middle of this period in my life where I was struggling financially every day, living alone in a dismal apartment, eating rarely, battling plenty of health problems and worries to fuel my expression. That’s not to say things are different now, but after working with Juliet on this book, I have been able to enjoy a sort of creative relief.

What collaborative collections do you admire and what is it about them that works?

RC – A few months ago I began corresponding with poet John Amen, editor at The Pedestal Magazine, and he was kind enough to send me several copies of his chapbooks. But one book in particular, “The New Arcana”, really grabbed my attention. This collaborative project Amen did with Daniel Y. Harris is interesting to say the least. I’m not a book reviewer, and wouldn’t know how to elaborate on why I enjoy this collaborative project so much, but it contains a great deal of innovative language. The humor in “The New Arcana” also hit home for me. A portion of the humor in this book that I continue to return to pokes a bit of fun at the academia and their impossibly outstanding author bios and curriculum vitae.

JC – I don’t recall reading any new collaborative books or chapbooks recently; for the most past, I’ve always tended towards individual creative expression more so than collaboration (until recently, do to my awesome collaborative experience with Robert). However, in 2012, I solicited several poets to participate in a collaborative chapbook to be published by my Blood Pudding Press – “Fainting Couch Idioglossia”– and I really enjoyed how some of those collaborations turned out, such as Daniel M. Shapiro & Jessy Randall and Kelly Boyker & Margaret Bashaar. Both of those collaborators two different styles fused together really interestingly. Also, I’ve fairly recently read some uniquely interesting collaborative work published by the online literary magazine, Counterexample Poetics.

I’ve had the opportunity and sneak-peak of your chapbook Mutant Neuron Codex Swarm forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. I enjoyed the word play, the rhythm, and sound. Can you talk about how this chapbook is similar to or different from work you’ve done alone or in collaboration with other artists?

RC – I personally have never written work myself quite like what Juliet and I managed to create. I appreciate how it’s a combination of our voices, virtually a 50/50 share of writing work load. Many lines I contributed to this collaboration were simple sentences or 5 word lines I had been sitting on for months or years but never found a place for them. When I handed them to Juliet, suddenly more substance could be pulled from them and I was happy to finally put these ‘stand alone phrases’ into something more substantial. Although I’m working on another collaborative project now, this chapbook was my first attempt at working with another artist. The difference between collaborative work and writing I do alone is the sense of not being fully responsible for the completion of a poem. In other words, if I wrote 4 lines or so but couldn’t think of how to continue, Juliet had no problems expanding upon the lines in a way I would have never considered.

JC – I feel similarly to Robert on this. I was delighted by how our two different styles seemed to interestingly mesh and fuse together so well. Also, since as an individual writer I seem to use similar content and even similar words a lot, I really enjoyed receiving lines that included words that don’t usually pop out of my poetry brain (like scrimshaw and sultans and puppies) and integrating that stuff into the same forum as my kind of words (like egg cups and tentacles and a blow torch) and probably creating new kinds of descriptions for both of us. I’m currently working on another collaborative project too, but there’s no way it’s going to come close to the lightning fast blow torch pace of Robert’s and mine. I don’t usually write my own poems anywhere near that fast, so it was a really unique experience for me in that respect too.

What cover art do you have in mind for Mutant Neuron Codex Swarm?

RC – We’ve been looking at a few different options. Juliet, I believe, may have a better answer to this question.

JC – When I participated in a Hyacinth Girl Press poetry reading this past July, HGP editor, Margaret Bashaar mentioned an artist she had in mind for the cover art, whose work she thought might fit well with the dark twisted MUTANT content and I was able to meet that artist. Her name is Rachael Deacon and she’s an independent film maker, as well as a creator of her own unique art photos and drawings and paintings. I’ve seen some of her art that already exists and am definitely a fan. I think she is going to create a whole new piece of art for the MUTANT cover and I think it will be hideously, gruesomely powerful and non-humanly awesome.

What is inspiring you these days?

RC – Music, documentaries, B-rated sci-fi movies, artifacts, ancient mysteries, playing chess online. I like to entertain the idea that there might be a scroll of forbidden wisdom hidden beneath a floorboard in my house. I’m not entirely sure if I get inspired or not. Some nights I just wake up around 3 or 4am with an urge to write one sentence that won’t leave me alone and it kind of just goes from there.

JC – Visual imagery sometimes inspires my words (and vice versa). Plus other poetry, movies, music, thoughts, feelings, mental imbalance, and dreams too.

A bottom leg got cut off/
in last night’s dream.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

RC – I’m never content with how accurate my writing reflects what I mean to say, so that helps. Reading a lot is important. I keep up with as much new poetry and fiction as I can, but I also read things like microwave instruction manuals or spam mail.

JC – Continue to read, write, re-read, revise, think in a focused way, and express myself my way.

Your chapbook credo:

RC – Since this project with Juliet will be my first chapbook, I haven’t been able to develop any kind of credo. I think it helps to visualize how the words will appear on the printed page while remaining detached from the idea of publishing it until it’s completed.

JC – I don’t have a set in stone credo, but if I have close to 15 new poems that do not yet appear in a chapbook, I might start thinking about how they might fit into one – and then concept, poem order, other formatting, title, and so forth.

Number of chapbooks you own:

RC – Thirty or so.

JC – Hundreds.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read:

RC – Probably 18.

JC – Hundreds.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets:

RC – When I have the money I think the best way to promote and help other poets is to simply buy and read the chapbook. I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but I think social media can be useful for networking and helping promote other poets who are really worth reading.

JC – Purchase chapbooks, read chapbooks, share lines from chapbooks, and publish chapbooks through my Blood Pudding Press. I’m currently in the process of reading chapbook manuscripts submitted to the latest Blood Pudding Press chapbook contest.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings:

RC – Buying time to write more stuff. Time is really expensive. When I earn money from my creative writing it tends to go toward groceries or bills which translates to me having to work a few less hours one week, giving me breathing room to think and make poems.

JC – Towards publishing chapbooks and buying other art supplies and art and unique tidbits.

Your chapbook wish:

RC – I have three chapbooks I’ve been rewriting back and forth for years now. I’d like to extract what I like from these three and create a new chapbook altogether.

JC – Sometime in 2014, organize another new chapbook of mine and find a new press to accept it.

Residence:

RC – The Paseo Arts District in Oklahoma City.

JC – State-wise, I live in Ohio – but mostly, I live in my warped brain.

Job:

RC – I recently found good work as a copywriter and editor, but for most of my adult life I worked in customer service, food establishments, casinos, gas stations, anywhere really.

JC – I help at a paint your own pottery shop – but passion-wise, my job is mostly poetry and artistic pursuit in various ways.

Chapbook education:

RC – I have a lot to learn.

JC – Ongoing. I’ve been interested in the content and design of zines and chapbooks for more than twenty years. I was involved in the Dusie Kollektiv chapbook trading group from 2008 through 2011. I started my own indie chapbook press, Blood Pudding Press, in 2006 and it still exists.

Chapbook Bio:

RC – Right now I’m in the process of writing a collaborative novel with another poet/editor that I’ve appreciated for some time and hope to have some news on that soon.

JC – My own poetry chapbooks include “The Laura Poems” (Blood Pudding Press, 2006), “Girl Gang” (Blood Pudding Press, 2007), “Planchette” (Blood Pudding Press, 2008), “Gingerbread Girl” (Trainwreck Press, 2008), “Projectile Vomit” (Scantily Clad Press, 2008), “MONDO CRAMPO” (Dusie Kollektiv 3, 2009), “PINK LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR” (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2009), “Tongue Like a Stinger” (Wheelhouse, 2009), “Fondant Pig Angst” (Slash Pine Press, 2009), “Soft Foam” (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 4, 2010), POST-STROKE (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 5, 2011), Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2011), and POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press, 2013). Plus the forthcoming “MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM” by Robert and me, to be published by Hyacinth Girl Press sometime in 2014.

Blood Pudding Press chapbooks by others include, “GROWLING SOFTLY” (a multi-writer chapbook, 2007), “ w i n g’d” by Kyle Simonsen (2008), “ECTOPLASMIC NECROPOLIS” (a multi-writer chapbook, 2008), “SPIDER VEIN IMPASTO” (a multi-writer chapbook, 2009), “At night, the dead” by Lisa Ciccarello (2009), “The Spare Room” by Dana Guthrie Martin (2009), “LETTERS FROM ROOM 27 OF THE GRAND MIDWAY HOTEL” by Margaret Bashaar (2011), “FAINTING COUCH IDIOGLOSSIA” (a multi-writer chapbook, 2012), “Renegade//Heart” by Lisa M. Cole (2013), “Poking through the Fabric of the Light that Formed Us: Songs and Stories to Read in the Mirror” by Lora Bloom (2013), and “Sister, Blood and Bone” by Paula Cary (2013). Plus the two winners of the current Blood Pudding Press chapbook contest will be announced in early 2014.

“call me obsessed”: The chapbook interview: Wendy Barker on giving great readings, prose poetry, and sequencing chapbooks

In the July/August 2013 Issue of Poets & Writers, Kevin Samsell coordinator of events at Powell’s books asked several of his favorite readers how they’ve gotten good at readings. Dan Kennedy explains “before I walk into the room every damn nervous tic comes out and I think, especially, that makes for an entertaining evening for folks…I’m from a kind of working-class background where I feel like, you, know, people have lives and a lot to do…keep it interesting  and paced and moving.” (74). I have two questions. First, I’m curious about your sense of your own nervous tics and if they help or hinder you as you approach the stage and/or how have you observed it in other writers? Kennedy also speaks about class and the awareness of how busy we all are. Second, how do your background and the background of the audience influence your sense of how to approach those moments on stage?

I can’t say whether I’ve become “good at readings”—that’s a call for others to make—but I sure can say I enjoy them more than ever! Used to be, back when I first started, around 1981, I’d be so nervous before any reading that I’d descend into what one friend called “Wendy’s Blue Lagoon.” I couldn’t talk or interact with anybody much at all till after the reading. And for years I’d be shakily anxious before any reading, whether for five people or five hundred.

But now, I’ve “performed” enough that usually, and I mean usually, I’m not very nervous. Even still, I always find my nose running before it’s my turn at the podium, at the mic, so I have to fold a tissue into a book before I face an audience. Strangely, after that point, I seldom need the tissue at all. Same with water. I’m obsessively sipping water in the five or ten minutes before I’m “on,” but, once standing before a group of listeners, most often I don’t need anything at all.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not focused. Preparing for a reading takes time. I like to know what kind of audience it will be. Students? And what kind of students? Community college in South Texas, or in Brooklyn? Upper-level and grads at a high-tuition private university? A writers’ group? General community group? What ages? Ethnicities? Region of the country? Of course I can’t always predict, but if I know, for instance, that an audience will consist primarily of people over, say, fifty, I’ll plan a very different reading from one designed mainly for twenty-year-olds who are juggling two part-time jobs and a twelve-credit-hour schedule.

When it comes to planning, I’ve learned enormously from watching and listening to other poets read their work. Readers such as Galway Kinnell, Sandra Gilbert, David Kirby, Denise Duhamel, Alicia Ostriker, and Barbara Hamby are superb models. Although I think some of the best readings I’ve ever heard were given by Ruth Stone, who seldom said a word between reading each of her poems, I seem to do better by giving the audience a little background, a little breather between poems. And I’m enough of a hambone that I like to get a chuckle or two here and there. So I’ll spend as much time planning my between-poem remarks as I do practicing reading poems aloud.

And I time myself over and over. Once, back in the 80s, I gave a reading at a friend’s university where, without realizing it, I went on and on for an hour and a half. The person in charge of the reading was polite, but direct, and I’ve never done that again! I was just having too much fun, and the students were laughing at all my jokes! But that was a serious breach of poetry-reading-etiquette, and I like to think I’ve never goofed in that way since.

Another horrific mistake I once made, one even more disastrous, was to read a poem about my middle-school-aged son while he was in the audience. It was a traumatic experience for him, one for which I’ve had a hard time forgiving myself. So ever since, I’ve been especially careful to make sure that I’m not violating anyone’s privacy. Even before I’m introduced before a reading, I like to check out the audience to see if something I’d planned to read might offend someone for some reason. Sometimes after I’ve launched into a performance, I can tell from audience reactions that I should drop a particular poem from my script, or substitute something else.

But then, I can’t always read an audience accurately. Once I was giving a reading before about five hundred people, standing behind a huge podium on a large stage far above the audience. As I continued with my planned program, I began to notice that many heads in the audience were bent down. “Oh no!” I thought. “I’m bombing.” It was all I could do not to slink off the stage and run to my car in tears. But I soldiered on, and, after I concluded the reading, thanking everyone, I was amazed at the enthusiastic applause, all the heads bent up now, beaming at me. I sold dozens of books afterward, for people who said they were so moved by my poems they began crying, and had to look down at the floor in order not to burst out sobbing. I was reading poems from Let the Ice Speak, the collection published in 1991 with poems that deal with the death of my father.

So I have to be careful—I don’t always know how my words are being received. More recently, on the road with my latest book, Nothing Between Us, a “novel” in prose poems (more accurately, a thinly-disguised memoir) about my years teaching ninth grade in West (read mostly African American) Berkeley in the 60s, with a narrative thread following a passionate affair between a young, white, married (guess who) English teacher and an African American colleague, I have been especially nervous because the subject matter of these poems is racially and sexually explicit. But I’ve found that the people I’ve worried most about, African American listeners, have been the most receptive. Often after reading from this collection, I’ve had African Americans come up to me afterward, tears in their eyes, thanking me for my honesty, wanting to hug (and I’m always up for a good hug), and buying a dozen copies of the book, one for every family member.

One hurdle I have to jump almost as soon as I confront a mic has to do with my appearance. One new poet friend joked, after hearing me read, that she was shocked and delighted at my humor because I “look so proper.” I’m tall, blue-eyed, once blonde but now gray-silver-haired and have been described as “elegant.” So that may be one reason I work in the beginning of a reading to establish myself as a person who doesn’t need—or want—to handle the world with white kid gloves. I have to dispel any prejudices audience members might have based on my appearance. That’s one reason I don’t usually wear pastel colors, but prefer black and strong dark colors, lest I be taken for one of those “ladies who lunch” who don’t want to be shocked out of their comfort zone.

And how to decide which poems to read? If a new book has recently been published, of course I’ll want to feature those poems. But I think sometimes I err on the side of reading too much new or recent work, ignoring poems that appeared in past collections. But whether new poems or old, I always think of a reading as a kind of concert. I want to take the audience through a series of experiences, and so I plan with great care the way poems will build on each other. I may alternate, for instance, between a meditative mood, hilarity, and pain. I like to end with a funny poem, if possible.

I love giving readings. It’s a way of reaching out and touching others. Of sharing words that come from my inner self and that, I always hope, reach to the inner core of others. I love the conversations that build after a reading, when people come up and share experiences related to those I’ve spoken about in the poems I’ve just read. It’s a matter of creating threads among people, threads that can weave us closer together.

I taught your collection Between Frames (Pecan Grove Press, 2006) in my advanced poetry workshop on the chapbook last term and one of the things we talked about was your use of the prose form in the poems that focused on film. Your fabulous and smart book Nothing Between Us (Del Sol Press, 2009) also uses the prose poem, flash fiction form. In Michel Deville’s essay “Stranger Tales and Bitter Emergencies: A Few Notes on the Prose Poem in An Exaltation of Forms (2009) edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes, he traces the origin of the form to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) and notes how the form uses “virtually all the devises of poetry” (262) as it “tends to include or exclude, subscribe to or subvert” (263) the genre. Though he notes the difficulty of such delineation, he divides the form into two camps, the “narrative” and the “language-oriented” trend (262), while noting that it is “a relatively young genre still in the process of self-definition. Moving back and forth between lyrical, narrative, philosophical, and critical material, the prose poem can be seen as part of a more general movement in contemporary literature towards the dissolution of generic boundaries” (266). First, given that the prose form only appears in certain poems in Between Frames, what is your sense of the unction of the form in that chapbook compared to its use in Nothing Between Us, entirely composed of the form? Second, if you had to assign yourself into one of Deville’s campus, which would you assign and why?

First, Madeline, a huge thank you for using Between Frames in your class! And bushels of thanks too for your kind comments about Nothing Between Us.

Yes, prose poems. How I love this form, which is a form between forms, neither prose nor poetry. I adore the fact that the line dividing a prose poem from a work of flash fiction is so slender it’s barely visible. And it’s a joy to find there’s so much interest in this form that can make use of every poetic device we find in lineated verse with the exeption of the line break. As you know, whereas in poems composed in lines, the tension between the the structure of the line and the structure of the sentence create pace, rhythm, and even meaning, in the prose poem it’s the sentence—and the play between sentences—that governs the poem’s rhythm.

Of course, although traditions of poetic prose have existed for centuries (with the Japanese haiban, the Chinese fu, texts transcribed from oral traditions of indigenous peoples, and passages from the King James Bible), it was the publication in 1869 of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen that constituted the first major attempt by a Western writer to question accepted formal premises with emphases on end rhyme and meter. And recently, as you suggest, prose poems have become a popular sub-genre, with numerous anthologies of their own, including, for instance, Brian Clements and Jamey Dunhan’s An Introduction to the Prose Poem (2009).

I first discovered the prose poem form in Sandra Gilbert’s graduate poetry workshop at UC Davis in the late 70s, when Sandra had us read Robert Bly’s The Morning Glory. Those poems, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, took the top of my head off. And one of the prose poems I wrote in that workshop, “Grandfather,” appears in my first collection, Winter Chickens (1990). But for years afterward, I’d ignored the form, until the early 90s, when I began a sequence of poems—funny ones, I hoped, and ironic—taking the various parts of male and female reproductive systems and having them speak. I have no idea where this notion came from, but I was on a roll, writing prose poems in the voices of ovaries, sperm, and fallopian tubes. I’d been working on this sequence when in 1994 I was selected to be a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute at Bellagio in Italy.

But once there, high above Lago di Como in June, breathing the scent of jasmine, everything, everything changed. That story, however, belongs in my response to your third question, so for now, I’ll simply say that, perhaps because I’d been writing in that form for months, the poems comprising Nothing Between Us emerged as prose poems from the start. There was no question of tinkering with line breaks and stanzas—the subject matter was too urgent. These pieces had to spring forth like gasps, as utterances so long withheld they could no longer be suppressed. And oh, yes, they’re narrative. They don’t have—didn’t have—the luxury of playing around with syntax. They’re trying to recreate voices I’d almost forgotten, incidents that I’d blocked from memory, but as I wrote, came flooding back. And I hope the poems are lyrical. I rely on metaphor throughout—weaving, threads, fabric work (all of which I was heavily “into” in the 60s) become metaphors for relationships, especially interracial relationships, and candy, sweets, ice cream become metaphors for the love relationship that builds through the book. And throughout, I was always concerned with sounds, with rhythms. Often I was playing with the rhythm of a particular kind of music, as in “Sax.” And even more often, I was playing with the rhythms of different kinds of colloquial speech.

But now to answer your other question, which you actually posed first. Between Frames was one of those rare joys for any poet: Palmer Hall—a beautiful human being, wonderful editor of Pecan Grove Press, and a fine poet greatly missed since his death several months ago—asked me to send him a manuscript for Pecan Grove. Now how many times does a writer, a poet, have that opportunity? I was honored, and used the chance to piece together some poems I’d been working on since around 1998. Most of the poems in the chapbook were written shortly after my divorce from my first husband and my moving in with, joining my life with, Steve Kellman, whom I married in 2005. They’re transitional poems, written during a period of grief over the much needed but still painful divorce and the difficulty of moving on. The collection culminates with the prose poem “Wedding Crashers,” playing with the plot of that movie along with the joy of Steve’s and my wedding.

Steve is not only a brilliant biographer and scholar, but he also serves as a book, film, and theater critic. So until recently, when he began focusing primarily on reviewing books and plays, I would join him for film screenings in San Antonio—sometimes he’d be assigned to review three or four movies a week. And, obsessive poet that I am, I found material for poems in many of the films, as well as in the dynamics involving the various film critics during the screenings. Probably since those pieces were dealing with a movie’s narrative, and since they often dealt with painful subjects, the prose poem form once again felt natural. With these pieces, I didn’t want interruptions other than paragraph breaks. There are only four of them in the chapbook. Quite frankly, although I tried, I couldn’t compose a whole series.

And soon, I was on to another obsession, poems about cloud formations and weather, short, lineated poems that comprised the next chapbook, Things of the Weather (2009)

I still love the prose poem form, and recently have begun using it again, finding it ideal to express complexities involving my mother’s bizarre British background that, I’m only now realizing, influenced me far more than I’d ever thought. So again, as with the poems in Nothing Between Us, material is oozing out, shaped by strange connections. And again, although the voice is conversational, I hope this work is lyrical, that it has a kind of internal music.

And what happened to the prose poems about reproductive parts? Abandoned. Never published. But they led to Nothing Between Us, to the prose poems in Between Frames, and about twenty years later, to the current work in my new manuscript-in-progress.

Obviously, if I had to subscribe to one of Michael Deville’s camps, I’d say all these poems belong squarely in the narrative group, with a hope that they’re also lyrical. But—and I quite realize that this predilection may place me in a “camp” that’s unfashionable—I’m not interested in writing more “language-oriented” poetry. As for using language that is packed, that does double-, triple-duty, I continue to believe that the prose poem can subvert all kinds of things, even when the language appears to be straightforward.

In her interview in the March/April 20013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle Kim Barnes asks “what is coming of age like for women?” (108) and then cites her female students’ answers of “you start your period, you shave your legs, you get married, and you have babies” (108). Barnes notes that in her novel In the Kingdom of Men she wanted “to tell the difference between the coming-of-age story of men and that of women” (108). Your book Nothing Between Us seems to me to be a coming-of-age story, a maturing, a re-seeing of the world for the narrator. Can you talk about this?

I started writing the prose poems of Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years (which originally had been titled simply The Berkeley Years) in 1994, when I was almost fifty-two. I’d been married for thirty-two years.

As I mention in my response to your Question 2, the poems began while I was a resident at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. Surrounded by the lush foliage and blooms of its 18th-Century gardens and perched above all three branches of Lago di Como while looking toward the Alps, Bellagio’s Villa Serbelloni is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The landscape must have reminded me of the Berkeley hills, also lush with flowering shrubs and high over glimmering water. But what began the poems had much to do with a conversation one evening after dinner with another fellow at the Villa, a distinguished economist who reminded me of my father. Our group been engaged in a lively discussion about whether poems should tackle political sensitive subjects, and Pierre Crosson and I had kept on talking together after the rest of the residents had scattered to other corners of the room. Somehow I found myself telling Pierre about my experiences in the late sixties while a young, white, married middle-school English teacher in a primarily black West Berkeley neighborhood a few blocks from the newly established Black Panthers’ headquarters. He seemed spell-bound, and burst out, “You must write about this!” What I hadn’t told him was that, during those years, I became involved in an intense affair with an African American colleague. I simply said that I couldn’t write about those years because the subject matter was politically incorrect and besides, I had a husband whose feelings I needed to consider. Pierre’s response was stunning: “Oh, hang incorrectness, and hang husbands!” he cried. “When,” he went on, his voice raised above the group’s conversational hum, “have male artists ever considered the feelings of their women? You’ve got to start writing about all this!”

I did. The next morning, high in my 11th-Century tower room, I wrote a draft of what became the final poem in Nothing Between Us. “After” is really a summary of the whole book. As if the events of that period came pouring out in one gasp, one small paragraph. And from that point on, for four years, the poems burbled forth.

The book could definitely be seen as a “coming of age” story. A story of a young woman in an environment that often feels (and is) hostile, even dangerous. Of a young woman who, although she had wept at Martin Luther King’s famous speech, and saw herself as a passionate supporter of civil rights, nevertheless encounters hatred because of her whiteness and unfamiliarity with the backgrounds of many of her students.

But the narrator of the “novel” is also not prepared for the “bullshit” of many of her male colleagues, and, having never thought of herself as attractive, is surprised and thrilled, rather than offended, at finding herself a target of sexual attention. Partly because her husband is immersed in his own work and is so often critical of her, Ty’s ” invitations” ultimately persuade the narrator to become involved with him, even though, as she says in “Eugene Thompson, The Hall Monitor,” she’d never thought about “going to bed with more than one person.” So the book is definitely a coming-of-age story in terms of a sexual awakening.

And of course, it’s an awakening into the realities of what it meant at that time to be black and to be white in the United States. The narrator learns much more than bedroom knowledge throughout the book. And in the end, it’s a “sadder but wiser” person we’re left with. Interracial marriages at that time were not only outlawed but often just plain dangerous in many parts of the U.S. As Ty warns the speaker in the poem “Bullshit,” when she pleads with him to marry her, she doesn’t “know how hard it could get.” In Berkeley, okay—there were, as the first poem in the book suggests, a number of mixed-race marriages. But other parts of country? You could be killed. (I still think of Obama’s mother’s courage.)

But Ty isn’t the marrying type, and since, as the narrator says in “Couple,” I couldn’t imagine not being married to somebody,” she returns to her white husband, to her marriage, although it feels like “going dead,” “clos[ing] down shop,” and “mov[ing] back to the desert,” as she laments in “Last.”

Sadder but wiser? Oh yes. And with a painful sense of what has been lost. Of the poignancy of what could have been. Of a missed chance.

The collection, however, was also a “coming of age” in another sense for me as a writer. For decades I’d buried memories of this period of my life deep underground, but once I tapped the vein, the material flowed out like a gushing oil well. And in reliving that period in my earlier life, I found myself at a turning point in the present. Although my marriage had been rich in many ways, there were underlying rifts growing so large that, on my own at Bellagio, I began to realize they could never be closed. This is not the place to describe the problems of the marriage, but to say that the writing of the “novel” (which is really a memoir) empowered me finally to leave that marriage and to begin life anew in my middle-fifties. It was as T.S. Eliot said, a “use of memory” for “liberation / From the future as well as the past.”

In love the conceit of Poems’ Progress (Absey and Co., 2002) and the ways you talk about the changes your poems go through as they’re revised—it’s such an important book for writers, for students, for scholars. I’m wondering if you can talk about the movement of poems into books and chapbooks. How important is it for you to craft and develop the individual poem, and then craft those individual poems into a chapbook, as opposed to simply having a chapbook length collection of poems? Do you write poems towards a series/book with that idea of the book propelling each new poem into creation? Do your poems change radically when they’re placed into a series?

I’m so glad you like the way Poems’ Progress is organized! That book is the product of a dream relationship between author and editor. The encouragement, patience, and expertise of Ed Wilson at Absey & Co. did much to create that book, which includes several poems I hadn’t been able to fit in earlier collections.

Though my first two books, Winter Chickens (1990) and Let the Ice Speak (1991) don’t contain poems consciously written as parts of a sequence, individual sections include poems following certain themes. The second section of Let the Ice Speak, for instance, is composed of poems that revise fairy tales or myths, and the first section includes poems about family memories. The second section of Winter Chickens includes poems about travel. Those two collections were a nightmare to organize! I’d removed a number of poems from the manuscript I’d been organizing, until Sandra Gilbert said I’d been too ruthless. So I pulled out all the poems I’d deep-sixed, and made two piles, one of more kitchen-, home-centered poems written in the late 70s and early 80s, and one of the more family-oriented poems that had been written mostly in the late 80s, around the time of my father’s death. The first pile became Winter Chickens, and the second, Let the Ice Speak. Amazingly, only a couple of months after I began to circulate the two manuscripts, both were accepted, Winter Chickens by David Bowen of Corona Publishing Company, and Let the Speak by Joe Bruchac of Ithaca House Press.

And like those two earlier collections, the poems in Way of Whiteness (Wings Press, 2000) were written poem by poem, ultimately organized to follow—albeit loosely—an emotional arc, if not a narrative one. Most of those poems were composed in the early 90s, around the time I was turning fifty.

It was in 1994, as I mention in my response to your second question, that I began consciously writing in sequences. And, with a few exceptions, since then I’ve composed most of my poems as parts of a series.

But you asked how important it is for me to craft the individual poem and then work it into a chapbook or collection. And of course, the writing and rewriting (and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting) of each poem is crucial. But more and more, since Nothing Between Us and Poems from Paradise (Word Tech, 2005), I’ve thought in sequences. Like the Berkeley poems of Nothing Between Us, Poems from Paradise also began at Bellagio. The little poems included in that book also deal with the subject of a love relationship, but in a very different way. I’d been working with a Bengali collaborator, Saranindranath Tagore (a descendant of the Nobel-Prize-winning Indian poet) translating the final poems of Rabindranath Tagore, and had been immersed in Eastern thought and poetry. So the pieces in Poems from Paradise speak of a human love relationship as a movement toward a sacred union. Throughout, I was also trying to revise the story of Adam and Eve—a sort of “why did they have to leave the garden” over-arching question that also seemed to ask “Why did they have to be separated”? The poems first appeared as a chapbook called Eve Remembers, published by Sudeep Sen’s fine Aark Aarts Press. But the poems wouldn’t stop, so eventually they grew into a book.

You asked if poems change when they’re positioned in a series. With the Berkeley poems, I made many changes as I began to work them into a book manuscript. I realized that I had to change names of various characters and also combine qualities of characters, so that a reader would follow  certain students and teachers throughout, along with following the love story between the speaker and the character Ty. I went back and forth looking for images that worked as controlling metaphors—like candy, sweets, weaving, threads, birds, and intensified those. I had to make sure the chronology worked in terms of the narrative arc. So, many of those prose poems did change, and change radically, after I began organizing the book. I wrote the last of those poems in 1998, but continued to tinker with the manuscript right up until 2008, when Michael Neff accepted it for Del Sol Press.

Since 1998, I’ve followed several other themes. Around 2000, I became fascinated by phenomena having to do with weather—the names of cloud formations, for instance. I read everything I could find about weather, even annoyed my patient husband by wanting to watch the Weather Channel. Those poems resulted in the chapbook Things of the Weather (2009), thanks to Pudding House Press.

After the obsession with the landscape above and beyond us, in the atmosphere, left me, I became interested in more earthly subjects, like colors, and where they come from, how paint is made, for instance. Several of these poems morphed into ekphrastic poems having to do with colors and their effects on us. But I only managed to complete around a dozen of these before becoming gripped by another obsession. Actually, come to think about it, there might be enough for a chapbook! Which, by the way, I see as a wonderful format—one that can include a series of related poems that often can be relished in one sitting, and then, of course, reread and reread.

In 2006, after dealing with the death of my mother in 2004 and some health problems of my own, I was seized by impulses to write about teaching. I began teaching in 1966, at first in a high school, then junior high, and then, of course, college, so at that point, I’d been teaching for forty years. The teaching poems burst out one after the other in torrents, although, especially because each poem followed a particular spatial form, finishing one often took many months and hundreds of revisions. These were poems about the intersections of literary texts, students’ comments, reactions, their lives, realities, and mine. Most have seen publication in journals, and one of them, “Books, Bath Towels, and Beyond,” which originally appeared in The Southern Review, is included in Best American Poetry 2013. The book manuscript is—I think—about finished, and I’m hoping for a good publisher.

And now? I’m working on poems about my mother’s bizarre British heritage, with the effects of her family and their past on the present. Hawthorne’s character Holgrave cries out in The House of the Seven Gables, “Shall we never, never get rid of this Past”? But as Faulkner famously said, “The past is never past.” So I’m playing with the notion of past influences on the present along with an acute sense of the ways our behaviors—and possessions—past and present—affect each other as humans and, although this may sound grandiose, also the planet and its amazing flora and fauna. It’s a big subject, requiring much research, but once again, I can’t seem to stop.

So, in brief (finally!), ever since somewhere around 1994, I sure do think in sequences. You can just call me obsessed!

Your chapbook Eve Remembers (Aarak Arts, 1996), which has a super funky cover that I adore, became part of your full collection Poems for Paradise (WordTech, 2005), a book published nine years after the chapbook. Sometimes poets have published poems they never collect into books/chapbooks, poems in chapbooks never folded into books, or sometimes whole chapbooks that are never folded into books. I’m always curious about what poets abandon or uncollect as well as what we decide to transport from a chapbook into a book, especially when there is a gap of several years. Can you talk about that process for these two collections and/or others? Is there, for example, a future book place for the lovely, fun, and smart poems in your Pudding House chapbook Things of the Weather (2008), perhaps nine years from it’s publication date, in say 2017?

I’m so glad you like the cover of Eve Remembers! I love it too—it looks rather like a richly embroidered fabric. As I mention in my answer to Question 4, Sudeep Sen, a fine Bengali poet who was visiting San Antonio in—1995?—designed and brought out the chapbook through his press Aark Arts. I was thrilled, because I wasn’t sure those little poems added up to anything at all.

And then, they just kept on coming. I couldn’t stop them. All the poems that grew out of Eve Remembers and are included in Poems from Paradise were written during the same period I was working on Nothing Between Us, between 1994 and 1998. During those years I was painfully examining love relationships on many levels, aware of attempting to revision that primal love story set in the Garden of Eden. Not surprisingly, it was in 1998 that I divorced my then husband of thirty-six years. Shortly after, I joined my life with Steve Kellman, whom I married in 2005. The last poem in Poems from Paradise, “If a God,” was really written for Steve, and is the only poem in the sequence for which I had him in mind.

Now as for the poems in Things of the Weather (and again, Madeline, I’m thrilled you like the collection), I wished I could have kept the series going! As I explained in my response to Question 4, those poems were written around 2000-2004, but then my interests shifted to earth and its colors—where various colors originate, how they’re manufactured for our use, what they suggest. During that time I also wrote a group of ekphrastic poems. My recent poems, begun around 2007, about teaching, literary texts, and my experiences in the classroom, obsessed me for about six years. I’m currently circuating a book-length manuscript of poems on those subjects.

What is inspiring you these days?

And what is inspiring me these days, other than reading so many marvelous poets, too many to name here? I subscribe to numerous journals, and try to follow the work of poets whose work I particularly admire.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

As for how I try to become a better poet, I would simply say I work at it. I read and read and write and revise and send my stuff to other poets whose advice I trust and revise and rewrite some more. Over and over I ask my patient husband’s advice. The process is never-ending! And it’s rich, it’s what keeps me going. I adore exchanging poems with other writers—it’s one of my favorite things to do in life.

Number of chapbooks you own and number of chapbooks you’ve read: I’m not sure how many chapbooks I own. Among my two or three thousand books of poems by British and American poets, collections of translations from languages other than English, and anthologies of poetry, I’d say only about a hundred are chapbooks. It’s a wonderful format—perfect for a long series, with a length perfect for reading at one sitting.

Ways you promote other poets: I hope I promote other poets in several ways, including my eagerness to exchange poems with other writers and my propensity to purchase collections of poetry. Here at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I’ve been active in bringing poets to our campus (and raising the funds to do so) since 1983. I also make sure that, for every poetry workshop I teach, the students buy at least seven or eight poetry collections published within the past few years. And in my position as poetry editor of Persimmon Tree: An Online Journal of the Arts for Women Over Sixty (edited by Sue Leonard), I orchestrate twice-yearly contests judged by other poets whom I select. The journal is a quarterly—so the other two annual issues feature a well-known poet of my choosing. I have a large correspondence with poets from all over the United States and beyond, and I cherish those friendships, even though many of those folks I seldom see outside of—thank goodness for the conference—AWP.

Where you spend your poetry earnings: Poetry earnings? What a question! The occasional $50 or $100 for a poem, or an honorarium for a reading, simply contributes to the “general fund.” Maybe I should put those modest earnings aside, but so far, they’ve simply gone to help keep life going.

Inspirations and influences: As for inspiration and influences, they are too many to name. But I must start with the brilliant poet, teacher, and critic Sandra M. Gilbert, who, at the University of California at Davis (where I received my Ph.D. in English), mentored me and supported my work in ways I can never repay. And Ruth Stone was a terrific poetry grandma to me. It was Ruth who said to me after I’d asked her if my early poems were any good: “Well, Honey Baby, can you stop?” That was the most important question of all, and of course, my answer was and continues to be “No.” Alicia Ostriker has been a giant support and inspiration also—I think of her as my “Poetry Auntie”—and I am deeply grateful for her own marvelous work and wisdom. These three women have, at different times and in very different ways, through their mentoring, their writing, and their examples, all been giant influences and have provided major inspiration.

My readings have changed, of course, over the years. I know the poems in the collection currently circulating, The Teaching Poems, were influenced by the work of David Kirby. Poems I’m writing now about my mother’s family have been energized by the work of Martha Collins and perhaps also by Kevin Young’s poems. But again, there are too many great poets to mention—past and present—whose work has fed me and continues to

Your own chapbooks, for instance, which I’ve just received, are a delight, and are serving to get the juices going in new, exciting ways. My colleagues Catherine Kasper and David Ray Vance provide support and inspiration in ways too numerous to name. The ongoing work of the poet-friends with whom I regularly exchange poems proves highly influential even if indirectly—friends Ralph Black, Kevin Clark, Jackie Kolosov, and Hannah Stein all provide not only encouragement and necessary valuable feedback on my own poems but also much food for new work. And I must add that I show every piece I write to Steve, whose advice is always spot on.

Residence and Job: I live in Shavano Park, northwest of San Antonio. Steve and I relish our two acres of live oak, mesquite, juniper, Mexican persimmon, and sumac, where we are visited by dozens of species of birds, and, often, by deer. I moved to San Antonio in 1982, to accept a teaching position at the University of Texas at San Antonio where I’m now poet-in-residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing.

Bio: Here’s an “official” bio much longer than you ever wanted: My poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, Mid-American Review, among other journals. A poem of mine is included in Best American Poetry 2013, and two have been reprinted on www.versedaily.com, as well as in numerous print anthologies, including, I’m thrilled to say, Women Write Resistence (2013), your fabulous collection. My books of poetry include Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years (runner-up for the Del Sol Prize, Del Sol Press, 2009), Poems from Paradise (WordTech, 2005), Way of Whiteness (Wings Press, 2000), Let the Ice Speak (Ithaca House, 1991), and Winter Chickens (Corona Publishing Co., 1990). Chapbooks include Eve Remembers (Aark Arts, 1996), Between Frames (Pecan Grove, 2005), and Things of the Weather (Pudding House, 2009). I’ve also published a selection of poems accompanied by autobiographical essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002). My translations (with Saranindranath Tagore) from the Bengali of India’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (George Braziller, 2001), received the Sourette Diehl Fraser Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. I’m the author of Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987) as well as co-editor (with Sandra M. Gilbert) of The House is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Recipient of an NEA fellowship, a Rockefeller residency fellowship at Bellagio and the Mary Elinore Smith Poetry Prize from The American Scholar, I serve as poetry editor of Persimmon Tree, An Online Journal of the Arts for Women Over Sixty. My work has been translated into Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Bulgarian.

“Like some sort of intervention”: The chapbook interview: Jenn Monroe on readings, publishing, and prose poems

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In the July/August 2013 Issue of Poets & Writers, Kevin Samsell coordinator of events at Powell’s books asked several of his favorite readers how they’ve gotten good at readings. You’ve organized and hosted countless readings, some of which you published in the “In Place” feature of Extract(s): Daily Dose of it. First, I’m wondering if you can talk about some of readers you’ve had that have given excellent readings and what was it about their readings that made the audience respond so positively. 

This is such a great question because often I book writers whose work is fantastic on the page, read in my own head or voice, but I have no idea whether or not they are good readers. And I know this is risky because there are many well-respected and loved writers who are notoriously “bad” readers. But when I fall for someone’s work I forget all about that, and hope it will all turn out well.

What the best of the readers in my series have in common—and I’m thinking right now of you, Ruth Foley, Carol Berg, and Paul Hostovsky—is their very obvious pleasure at being able to read their work to people who are interested in listening. There is this authenticity about them—a real expression of gratitude that I think is hard to fake. They are sincerely grateful to have the opportunity to share their work. An audience can sense when they are being manipulated, I think, and the best readers are those who are honest in their work as well as talking about the work. Even though poetry began in the oral mode, to tell stories, it has become so private. If you consider it honestly, it is weird to stand up in front a room filled with strangers and read it to them. Like some sort of intervention. But that is the beauty of readings, and poetry especially—we rediscover our commonalities as humans. And if the poems are truly honest, and delivered honestly, everyone in the audience will find a connection. We will all be in that poem, in that emotional space together. That’s powerful.

 

Second, in the Samsell piece, Michael Herald talks about introduction: “Writers aren’t comedians, and it’s important to remember that distinction, but if you’re reading something brutal and depression it’s not a bad idea to say something funny while introducing yourself. It’ll help you relax and keep people on your side while you wade into this brutal, depressing stuff” (76). Can you describe some of the ways you’ve heard good readers introduce themselves and/or some of the ways you’ve introduced yourself on stage and the effect such introductions have had on the audience?

I think I disagree to some extent with Herald, although I understand his sentiment. As poets reading we are performers—actors and entertainers to some extent—and for me this means we are whatever the poem demands. Each poem has its own persona, and to share that with an audience requires the reader to take on that voice.

That said, I think everyone says something light before they read, especially if they give some sort of “road map” of what will be coming. Often it’s inclusive, such as “we’ll get through this together” or reassuring “but I’m here to share them with you.”

For me, I don’t do much on the front end of the heavy work. I will explain the nature of the situation from which the poem(s) arose, but I don’t try to dilute the emotional weight of the work for me or for the audience. If the room seems need to breathe, I’ll save the “laugh” for the transition and say something like “Okay, now for something much less dark,” or “so you don’t all go home feeling terrible about the world,” and then read a funny poem. Pacing the entire set is more effective, I think, than trying to set a mood at the beginning. I want the audience to take the ride, and that is tough to do if they have certain expectations at the outset. I think that is more useful in keeping people “on your side.”

It’s a pleasure to read your poems in Something More Like Love (Finishing Line Press, 2012), in the prose poem form and otherwise. In Michel Deville’s essay “Stranger Tales and Bitter Emergencies: A Few Notes on the Prose Poem in An Exaltation of Forms (2009) edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes, he traces the origin of the form to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) and notes how the form uses “virtually all the devises of poetry” (262) as it “tends to include or exclude, subscribe to or subvert” (263) the genre. He writes that “the prose poem has transformed the concerns of contemporary poetics by focusing attention on consideration of form, mode, genre, and representational strategies” (266). Though he notes the difficulty of such delineation, he divides the form into two camps, the “narrative” and the “language-oriented” trend (262). Can you talk about what camp your prose poems lean towards and why?

I get the “prose poem” question all the time, even though just about every line in every poem in my chapbook is deliberately and, more often than not, painstakingly broken. I never intended to be someone who pushed the boundaries of the line and I find most of my energy in revision goes into making my line breaks as successful as possible.

So I’ve been forced to think about this, what to do so as not to be too possessive of these poems and my “intentions” and this is where I’ve landed: I write prose poems with deliberate line breaks. In essence, I’ve added another poetic device to the prose poem.

I usually find myself working in this mode when the poem does not have a specific story to tell, but begins already in scene. They lean much toward the “language-oriented” trend, although I don’t experiment much with language. At least I don’t think so, but perhaps the long phrasing is an experiment of a sort. I guess the question would be, if I don’t want these to be considered prose poems, why not break the line sooner? I find I slip into longer lines when my poems get more surreal, more dreamlike, and rely on images more than narrative. These poems capture certain moments and evoke a mood while avoiding sentimentality. I like to use the prose mode to explore–I have an obsession with Love and a desire to look at it from every angle–and I find it is such a fine vehicle for exploration because it invites (requires?) progression, whether narrative or lyrical, without necessarily having to worry about line breaks (unless you are me). My guides in this mode range wildly and include Charles Baudelaire, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, David Shumate, and Rosemarie Waldrop among others. I’m constantly inspired by their work.

Beyond this interview and the last time we spoke in person, one of the things that really struck me about our conversation was the ways you talked about the publishing industry today. Rather than lament as so many do about ebooks, Amazon, the digital revolution, etc., etc., you talked about how you saw today’s publishing world as exciting, more akin to the world F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Earnest Hemmingway would have experienced. Can you talk about your sense of publishing today for poets and why it is an exciting time to be a writer today?

My enthusiasm for the publishing world today comes from the vast number of publishing opportunities. This has come from the tremendous growth in the number of literary journals–both online and in print–and the growth of small independent presses. One of the reasons why my colleague Christopher Anderson and I started Extract(s) and wanted to have an “Excerpts” feature is to help people become familiar with some of (what we consider) the best of these smaller presses. And we’ve even taken it a step farther and established our own press, just to make sure the writers we love can get their work read.

It is so heartening to me that you no longer need an agent, to get published in a “top tier” lit mag, or picked up by a major publishing house to get your work out there. Writers still need to do their research, but with the growth of social media it has become even easier to find your “niche:” those editors and magazines and readers. And while it would be great to have an agent, get a poem in Paris Review or have Harper Collins want one of my books, I don’t think these are necessarily the measures of “success.” At least they seem to be less and less important. What seems to matter most, and this is where my comment about how today is more like the mid-20th century, is that what we called “networking” is exactly what those writers were doing: building connections that start with close friends and ripple out wider and wider. And that was for everything–publications, teaching positions, places to stay.

I think the growth in the number of MFA programs is probably partially responsible for this “community boom,” and then social media has allowed it to explode. I joined Facebook reluctantly and used it only occasionally until I noticed a number of literary magazines joining. Then I realized just how to use it. And then came the groups. I don’t belong to too many that are literary/writing based, and only two in which I am a stranger to most of the members. But one of these groups is for calls for submissions, and the other puts together submission “bombings” of a wide range of literary magazines, some upper tier, some not. In the early days everyone was so wary of online magazines because of quality and rights. Not so today. The internet has made hybrid forms possible (I’m thinking of MotionPoems, as one example but there are so many others). And who knows what other creative ideas will come in the next 10 years. All of this should energize writers. I know it certainly energizes me.

Let’s talk about the work of the poet. In the September/October 2013 issue of Poets & Writers and in the special section on the MFA, Michael Bourne notes in his essay “Degrees of Value: What Happens After the MFA Program” that “roughly four thousand MFA students graduate every year” and job wise AWP “reported 282 full-time tenure-track positions, 130 of which were for teaching creative writing” (111). You have an MFA, a chapbook, and have taught creative writing. You also run a press and a journal. Can you talk about what has happened since your MFA and the work you do as a poet?

I am probably the only MFA-holding poet who has voluntarily walked away from a full-time teaching gig—something I did at the end of this past May despite knowing, inherently, that I am a teacher. I am driven to share my passion for reading and writing and to help uncover the poet in everyone. What is becoming clear to me, however, is that I don’t necessarily have to be in a college classroom to accomplish this. My work as a poet includes bringing poetry to my community by hosting readings and open mic nights. The press I’ve launched with my colleague Chris gives me the opportunity to put great chapbooks—poetry and prose—into circulation. Our literary blog offers daily “doses” of poetry, prose, music, art, and more. Our “lit house” business provides workshops and editorial support for writers of all levels. And of course there is my own writing. I am finding myself now more immersed in poetry and writing than I was when teaching full-time.  And it feels authentic. More like what a poet should be doing. Or at least what I as a poet should be doing.

 

In “Consociational Poetics: An Interview with Anne Waldman” the March/April 2013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Waldman explains, “No one asks you to write: You need to be lit from within somehow” (64). How do you keep your fire lit? What to you feed it to keep it burning, especially for someone who writes love poems?

I’m so glad you mentioned Anne Waldman. She was an important part of my MFA experience. I only had the opportunity to have one workshop with her, but her presence and her performances have left valuable impressions.

I’ll admit keeping that fire lit has taken some effort since I became a mom. But because so much of my work examines the different aspects of love much of it now comes from my observations of my three-year-old daughter. Watching the person you love more than anyone discover the world is unlike anything else and I’m constantly inspired by the events of our days–both large and small–and write about them when I get the chance to sit down and put them on paper. Most days this is during nap time or late at night, but it gets done. I have an amazing husband who has shared all parenting responsibilities since day one. To be honest, he has been the reason I’ve been able to continue my creative work. And now that I am no longer teaching full-time, and my daughter will be in pre-school twice a week, I think the writing time will become much more regular again. It feels as though I’m about to embark on a trip. I have no idea where I’m going, or what I’ll discover, but it feels exhilarating.

 

With a young child, is it difficult to balance family life with writing life?

Becoming a mom has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever undertaken and yes, balancing time with my daughter and my husband with the time I need to dedicate to my writing (and until recently to a full-time teaching job) has been exhausting. I had a great deal of confidence in my ability to be able to “do it all” and to do it all well, but I the end, that wasn’t possible for me. So I took an honest look at my priorities, and made some tough choices. But even through these transitions, the ideas and images keep coming, so I try to make sure I have a pen and pad of paper close by to catch them.

 

What is inspiring you these days?

In addition to my daughter, I continue to be inspired by the mystery of nature and the metaphors I find there. I’m an amateur birder—I have a number of feeders in my back yard—and am fascinated by their behavior, how they communicate and seem to “relate” to one another. Music, too, serves as a continual source of inspiration for me. I’m also quite moved by all the youthful energy in the writing world today. I took my first poetry workshop when I was 27 as part of my first graduate program (I have an MA in English as well as the MFA). I’m so inspired by kids who go all in from the start.

 

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

I read as much poetry as I can, and I read at least one poem every day. I read essays about writing poetry. And I continue to write, daily when possible.

But what I think makes me better as a poet is being an active part of the world. My daughter helps with this. It is like I am re-learning how to experience everything around me. For example we shared her first rainbow the other day and drove around chasing it, trying to get the best view, until it disappeared. I haven’t done that in years. She asked all the questions you’d expect someone who had never seen a “real” rainbow before to ask and I couldn’t answer them all. That moment will be a poem and it probably won’t end up “about” her at all. Trying to be open to finding poems everywhere—that’s how I’m trying to get better as a poet.

Number of chapbooks you own: 13

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 40+

Ways you promote other poets: Lit blog, press, reading series, & social media.

Where you spend your poetry earnings: I’d like to say I spend it on more poetry, but the truth is I use it to support my vintage dress addiction.

Inspirations and influences: There are so many and it depends on what I need at any given moment, but always Sharon Olds and my mentors Barbara Louise Ungar and Judith Vollmer. Fanny Howe inspires me to forget about genre and boundaries in general. I want to be that free, that brave. I’m also completely inspired by my friend Karen Dietrich. She has two chapbooks, makes great music with her husband as Essential Machine, and her memoir, The Girl Factory, comes out this fall. She’s a mom and a teacher too, and one of the most generous, kind, and truly happy people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

Residence: Manchester, NH

Job and education: More than 15 years teaching writing at the college level at a number of institutions including Oneonta State College, Keene State College, Chester College of New England, and the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Currently: executive producer, Extract(s): Daily Dose of Lit; executive editor, Eastern Point Press; co-founder, Eastern Point Lit House; BA St. Bonaventure University; MA, The College of Saint Rose; MFA, New England College

Bio: Jenn Monroe is the author of the chapbook Something More Like Love (2012, Finishing Line Press). A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in a number of journals, both online and in print, and is forthcoming in Tower Journal and Dressing Room Poetry Journal.