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

“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

me_gloucester_inplace

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.

book trailers, times three

There are three Women Write Resistance events coming up in the next few days. If you’re in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Lincoln, I hope to see you there. The bookstore for the Lincoln event is donating a percentage of all WWR book sales to a local women’s crisis center.

Reading of Women Write Resistance in Lincoln with Grace Bauer, Jennifer Perrine, Marianne Kunkel, and Sara Henning
7 pm, September 5, 2013
Indigo Bridge Books, 701 P Street #102
Lincoln, Nebraska 68508

 

Reading of Women Write Resistance in LA with Kathleen Tyler, Cati Porter, Alexis Krasilovsky, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and more (editor in absentia)
8 pm, September 7, 2013
Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

 

Reading of Women Write Resistance in Sausalito with Rebecca Foust, Judy Grahn, Judy Juanita, and Andrena Zawinski (editor in absentia)
Sunset Poetry By the Bay Series hosted by Marin Hickel
7 pm, September 11, 2013
333 Caledonia, Sausalito,CA

My presale period for my forthcoming chapbook, Stranger Still, finished up this weekend. Thank you to all of you who ordered copies! It’s much appreciated and determines the press run at Finishing Line PressThis little book of Martians will ship October 25th, just in time for Halloween. Trick-or-treat!

Finally, just out is my new chapbook First Wife from Hyacinth Girl Press. Yay!

 

the chapbook interview: Margo Taft Stever on publishing and mentoring chapbook poets

In Ordering the Storm Liz Rosenberg writes in her essay a “Journey without a Map” that she likes collections of poetry “to open outward. The more personal and particular poems tend to come at the beginning of my books, and the more public and larger poems toward the end” (17). I’m curious about the personal and confession in poetry and why there is a tendency to talk about poetry and poems as “truth,” fact, and/or autobiography and not as fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or creative exploration. I think of how often I hear interviewers ask interviewees—Sherman Alexie and Li-Young Lee visited here this past spring at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and I asked my students to read/listen to several recent interviews they’d given; likewise, Richard Blanco was interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” after he gave the inaugural poem—to talk about their personal life and especially their childhood as they way to talk about their poetry. Why is that? Does the audience for poetry interviews expect “truth” as a way to understand poets? Is craft a too difficult topic to address in such interviews? As the editor of the oldest chapbook press, how do you approach the truth/persona aspect of presenting a chapbook you’re publishing?

With all due respect to Liz Rosenberg’s essay, I do not believe that following any particular recipe or dictum can lead to a good collection of poetry. At Slapering Hol Press, the editors search for the most compelling work based on a holistic vision which includes meaning, spirit, and art.

In the history of the English language, the words “shaper” and “maker” stand in for the word “poet.” What the poet shapes or makes is a container for a refined linguistic expression of the truth, very different from prose narrative or dramatic literature. All poetry tells a truth—about the spiritual world, dreams, visitations, the souls of the dead, enlightened communion with nature.

Craft—the shaping and making of the creative container—is critical. At poetry conferences, poets may attend endless talks about craft, but craft and artifice are useless if the poet has no truth to communicate. The poet must have something to say. The poet must write out of passion and necessity rather than an attempt to showcase the latest craft trend.

Often, the poet’s childhood provides the key generative force for creativity. As one of our editors, Peggy Ellsberg says, “Literature does not exist in an existential void—it is an organic manifestation from an organic creator.” In my view, the greatest poets work from childhood memories and experiences generally inaccessible to most people. Many poets use these memories as a springboard to assist them in transcending the purely “confessional,” to write about more than themselves alone, linking their vision to the broader world.

Poetry should inhabit a wider field accessible to general humanity as it has through most of human history. Many poets today, relegated to the university and coteries, become like twins talking to themselves in artisanal languages comprehensible only to themselves.

As the founding editor of Slapering Hol Press, the oldest chapbook press in America, I can state that there is no easy formula to determine what makes the best chapbook. In my experience, a body of poetry, well-shaped and well-made, which communicates something fresh and true deserves the attention of the widest possible audience.

In a recent issue of Poets & Writers in his article “The DIY Author Tour: How to Sell a book in America,” Ron Tanner describes his process in managing his CNF book tour, that included hiring an assistant, buying and outfitting a camper van, sending queries, networking, publicly and developing “a comic monologue” because as his subtitle notes “readings aren’t sexy” (80). He asks “Do people go to readings anymore?” and “the question we must ask ourselves is, How many people do I need at my event to make it worth my time?” a question he follows up with “How many books did I sell?” (81). Certainly memoirs are different genres than poetry collections and chapbooks, but I wonder if chapbook poets ask (or should be asking) the same questions as they give readings. Sherman Alexie spoke/read here at UNL in late January at a free event at the Mary Ross Theater. It was snowing. It was cold. At one point the event was listed to take place in the student union. At some other point it was moved. It was a Tuesday night. The tickets were free, but the theater filled up so quickly people were turned away and half the audience was quarantined in a second theater where the talk that was happening a few hundred feet away was projected onto the movie screen. I was in that theater—it was live, sort of. People obviously go to see/watch Sherman Alexie. Did he consider the readings successful? Likely. Did he sell books? Certainly the campus bookstore had a table there with books and merchandise. But for an author whose primary “ware” is chapbooks, how many people have to attend an event for the event to be successful? How many chapbooks must the poet sell? Or are these the wrong sort of questions? Is a chapbook poet’s goal something other than attendance and sales? Isn’t reading aloud enough? Isn’t sharing poems enough? Isn’t the microphone (or bull horn) and stage (or music stand) enough? If as Bryan Bower says in his American Book Review article “Articles of Chap” that “the chapbook is simply a tool for the poet, which ultimately becomes inconsequential if the poet fails,” what counts as failure (and success) for a chapbook poet—audience, sales, a following? As the editor of a very important chapbook press, what do you tell your poets?

With all due deference to Ron Tanner and his ideas on how to promote his memoir, I am concerned that this kind of commercialization of the poetry chapbook would portend its death. If poets are not visionaries, seers, makers, shapers, then they are nothing; they should not be salespeople. Centuries ago, itinerants in Scotland, England, and later in America, carried the first chapbooks filled with stories and news of the day from place to place by horseback. Building on Tanner’s model, harkening back to the chapbook’s past, and ratcheting up opportunities for collaboration, I would suggest that chapbook poets form small groups with musicians and tour the country or the world as modern troubadours. Performances would be pre-arranged, and to create greater potential for connection with audience, I would also recommend teaming up with local poets.

Po biz, the celebrity poet, the poet as promoter—all this mimicry of a larger, meaner society—can add only to the meaninglessness of poetry. Rather than viewing the chapbook as a commodity, I would suggest envisioning it as a gift. In the late 60s, when I took a poetry workshop at MIT with the great poet Denise Levertov, she published a poem about each of the workshop participants in her chapbook, A New Year’s Garland.

On first holding that chapbook, and others that Denise shared with us, I understood the tactile sensation of the paper and type and the potential for shared textual and visual artistic expression. The chapbook of today remains an object of art transcending the quick fix of the convenient e-book. In our high tech world, the chapbook is quirky and “high touch,” often with embellishments such as hand-stitching and letter press printing. This is the anti-mass market where print runs typically number only in the hundreds. The most compelling element of the chapbook is that it is not bound by strict definition. More than anything, the form is defined by its length, resulting in structural requirements that can produce a work more concisely wrought and more crisply to the point than a longer collection; the compressed form encourages innovation.

Most poets in America do not make a profit from book sales. For better or worse, they make a living through teaching, or like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and uncounted others, they earn their keep from professions and write poetry at the same time. If books sales and profits comprise our highest expectations, then the airport novel would be a better risk. I would suggest that rather than scoring sales, the point of a chapbook reading is to hear the poet’s voice, to meet the poet, and to appreciate the chapbook. Poetry readings, with some notable exceptions, are generally small gatherings. For many years, poet and former NEA head Dana Gioia, Bob Holman, and others have suggested including music to enhance audiences’ appreciation.

Of all the many cities where I have lived over the years, perhaps, the most exciting one for poets was Washington, D.C., during the late 70s and early 80s, when the poetry community was open to and interested in new voices. My own involvement with the Bethesda Writers’ Center, at that time located in a dilapidated amusement park, and my yearning to create a similar community, inspired me in 1983 to found the Sleepy Hollow Poetry Series; in 1988, The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center; and in 1990, Slapering Hol Press, the Center’s own small press imprint.

From its inception in the 1990s, the mission of Slapering Hol Press has been to publish emerging poets and to provide them with as much knowledge as possible about how to develop an audience for their work. We encourage chapbook authors to become engaged in the process of getting their chapbooks out in the world through poetry readings, conferences, and reviews. This creates a balance between the inner and outer world, sharing wonder and delight in the ordinary and extraordinary.

Your chapbook Reading the Night Sky—winner of the 1996 Riverstone Poetry Chapbook Contest—and your chapbook The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012) both give readers a vision of motherhood, the latter Denise Duhamel calls a poetry that is “brutal and tender” and the former, the late Denise Levertov notes is from a “gifted and serious” poet. I’m wondering if you can talk about mothering, about care. How does caring for those in your life translate into nurturing your own poetry, supporting The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and Slapering Hol Press, and guiding young poets into the wider world of poetry? You write in your poem “Stepmother” that “a stepmother is always evil” (Hudson, 29) and in the poem “The Cello” you write, “How everyone is looking for love” (Reading, 17)—I want to know about that balance—the evilness of certain mothering and the lovingness of other mothering and how the poet goes about loving well what is important to her.

Denise Levertov and Denise Duhamel for different reasons have exerted powerful forces on my life as a poet. When I entered Harvard as an undergraduate, in keeping with the national trend, I was an alienated, idealistic adolescent with rebellious and semi-feral instincts. After cross-registering at MIT and getting accepted into Denise Levertov’s workshop, I encountered a set of paradigms that would change the course of my life. While I had served as co-editor of my high school newspaper, president of my senior class, and mainly expressed myself artistically through photography, I had never thought of myself as a poet.

My own mother, a beautiful, intelligent manic depressive, had managed to accumulate six of her own children and after my father and a stepfather died in a space of six years, and she married a third husband, she added a total of nine additional stepchildren. Her last husband, Robert Taft, was my father’s cousin and a U.S senator. By everyone’s account, my mother was not a “good” mother, and she was an even worse stepmother. Throughout my adolescence, I lived in a laboratory of bad mothering. Nonetheless, since she was my mother, my observations were necessarily subjective. Multiple factors propelled me to write about my experiences as a backdrop for commenting on the broader issues of humanity. My youngest brother would later die of a drug overdose, and all fifteen children and stepchildren moved out of Cincinnati at their earliest possible convenience.

Denise Levertov mothered her own son, Nick Goodman, and also embodied a powerful mentor and role model for me and others in the MIT workshop. If I had not taken that workshop with Denise, I would never have become a poet. She instilled in me the belief that I could write a poem. I was also involved in the anti-war movement, attended many demonstrations, and got arrested during the Harvard Strike. Visiting us in Maine and staying with us when we lived in D.C., Denise remained a close friend and corresponded with me until her death. Her views on the life of a poet, the poet as witness, the poem as prayer, all combined with her boundless energy and sense of wonder, her anger at injustice, her light and airy humor indelibly etched her spirit upon my own life. She is the rare kind of person who can never truly die, so strong are her power and abiding presence. Denise read for The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and she served as a contest judge for one of our Slapering Hol Press chapbooks.

Denise Duhamel is a friend whom I met at the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program in the early 80s. I watched her persistence and hard work take her from a graduate student to a well regarded poet. Her desire to be a poet was so great that I remember when she lived in the Lower East Side, when it was quite dangerous, and she put a neon sign—POET—in her window. Denise was the first employee of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and we would work on grants together in my family’s attic. When the phone rang, we would try to intuit when to say “Hudson Valley Writers’ Center,” and an important funder was calling, or when it was the school nurse calling about one of my children. For many years, Denise helped run the HVWC reading series, and years later, she was the second master poet whom Slapering Hol Press published in the “Conversation” series. In this, a well-known woman poet chooses an emerging woman poet to appear in the same chapbook with poems in conversation and a conversational interview at the end.

These two poets exemplify for me the nurturing feminine spirit in that they have served as mentors for many people, and they have had the courage to shine a beacon on the path of poetry, which is often shrouded, a place difficult to otherwise find for poets living in America’s consumer and celebrity-driven society.

Throughout my life, one of my principal endeavors has been riding horses in the hunter division of competitive horse shows. So many principles apply to the disciplines of riding and writing such as “less is more,” “seeing a distance,” or “getting into the zone.” When jumping a course of fences, the possibilities abound for losing balance through lack of vision, inadequate collaboration with the horse, and/or allowing external stimuli to interfere. When a rider and horse are perfectly balanced, the sense of union, of being one with the horse, offers the same kind of exhilaration as writing a good poem.

Just as a rider can become as one with the horse, so a poet can become one with the poem. But as Denise Levertov pointed out, the poet must be the medium through which the poem comes forth; he or she must also allow the poem to take on a life of its own. Creating a balance in the process of mothering so that the child is supported but has the freedom to become an independent being in this sense is similar to the writing of a poem, or the bringing of a poem into the world. The poet must nurture the poem, but must also allow the poem to stand and breathe on its own.

In my poem, “Stepmother,” I engage the various mythologies that have described the pitfalls of a fraught relationship in which the stepmother must begin as a failure, since she will never be the real mother; but to become a good stepmother, she must eventually evolve out of the failed state, or she will remain in the mythological abyss. “The Cello” was written about my first son when he began to study the cello, and it is an allegory for creativity.

After experiencing what it is like to live the poet’s life in America, to understand how few people read, comprehend, or have any interest in poetry, and how difficult it is to get one’s poetry published by any kind of press, I developed a desire to provide publishing opportunities for emerging poets. My first intention was to found a press, but I never discovered any grants for small, small presses. In 1983, a grant of $3000 from Arts Westchester (then named Westchester Arts Council) allowed for the beginning of the Sleepy Hollow Poetry Series which later morphed into The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. It would take ten years of planning before it was possible to found Slapering Hol Press, the Center’s small press imprint.

The main way that I have attempted to find a balance in my artistic life is to alternate writing poetry, which is solitary, with engagement in creating collaborations through readings, workshops, special events, and the Slapering Hol Press. Balance, which is an illusory goal, provides a mirage of hope. To my surprise, more times than I anticipated, the effort to find such equilibrium brings out the instinctual energy of that person who first fell in love with poetry, to whom Denise Levertov first provided a place for validation, where Denise Duhamel brought insight and humor to persevere in making a place for writers out of a family attic.

 

Slapering Hol Press produces beautifully made and varied chapbooks. In my short stack are Katie Phillip’s lonely and reflective Driving Montana, Alone, (2010), Mary Armstrong’s honest and working conscious Burn Pit (2011), Michele Poulos’ lyrical and mystic A Disturbance in the Air (2012), and Lynn McGee’s fierce and narrative Bonanza (1996), though I’ve also interviewed other SHP poets here—Susana H. Case and Liz Ahl. I’m wondering if you could talk about the materiality of these chapbooks. Size, shape, layout, design, binding, paper, cover art—there is nothing cookie cutter, nothing a reader could point to and say, “Ah, this is a SHP chap,” unless of course that is what makes SHP titles so unique—the individual, material creation of each book. Though I run the risk of asking what you’ve likely been asked before, I’m going to ask it: Why recreate the template with each new chapbook that SHP publishes?

The main challenge for Slapering Hol Press is to publish the best, most artistic chapbooks. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies, and the visual part of chapbook publishing has always been of interest, riding just behind the meaning and music of the text. Over the years, the literary leanings of the co-editors have been eclectic, and SHP contest winners are sometimes traditional and other times experimental.

Several years into the Slapering Hol Press publication cycle, I invited Robert Creeley to serve as a member of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center Advisory Board. Having met Creeley through mutual friends in Cambridge during the 60s, I reconnected with him when I invited him to give a reading for the Writers’ Center. In our consultation, he eloquently stressed the importance of choosing type and design to showcase the text, the poetry, without creating distraction with what I have termed “ornamentalism.” While Creeley was not opposed to using visual elements or experimenting with different design or designers, he strenuously emphasized the text as the most significant element of the chapbook. After our discussions which spanned 1999-2001, we changed from stapled to hand-stitched chapbooks; we started using more vivid visuals; and we moved to a different designer.

Another consultancy in 2000 which changed the course of Slapering Hol Press was one that Stephanie Strickland and I initiated (through the Council on Literary Magazines and Presses) with Coffee House Press. Before that, SHP had invited guest editors including Denise Levertov, Billy Collins, and Dennis Nurkse to choose the winning chapbook. To create more identity for SHP rather than having the winner reflect a totally different aesthetic each year, the co-editors decided to become the final judges.

The choice of the designer is critical, and during the entire history of SHP, the press has contracted with only four: Dean Bornstein, the late James Laird, Dave Wofford of Horse and Buggy Press, and Ed Rayher of Swamp Press. For the annual Slapering Hol Press chapbook contest, the design element that has represented the greatest continuity is its standard chapbook size of 6” by 9”. Because 2010 represented SHP’s twentieth anniversary and because Katie Philips had shot exceptional photographs of her trip through Montana (alone), we decided to deviate from the usual format to create a photo diary to accompany the poems.

For The Scottish Café, by Susana Case, Dave Wofford chose the visual of a composition book for the cover to represent the very kind of notebook in which the mathematicians who met at the Scottish Café wrote their theorems which they buried during World War II to save their intellectual property from the Nazis. About SHP chapbook design, Lynn McGee, SHP’s 1996 chapbook contest winner stated, “Bonanza looks like a book that a publisher took really seriously. It looks richer, with that contrasting matte and foil cover, than many perfect-bound volumes out of big publishing companies.”

Our designers or co-editors have researched the visual element for the cover of SHP chapbooks, but in one exceptional case, our most recent SHP contest winner, Michele Poulos, author of A Disturbance in the Air, suggested the stunning photograph by the well-known photographer, Kiki Smith, and Poulos obtained permission for its use.

The artist we chose for the cover of the second “Conversation” chapbook, Enjoy Hot or Iced, is the late Kentaro Fujioka, a brilliant young Japanese-American artist whom I had met while working with him on a photographic exhibition. His painting, “Elements,” provided the perfect backdrop for the collection. The designer Ed Rayher featured the painting through die cuts, several windows and layers unfolding, which brought textural quality and a sense of mystery to the narrative course of the poems.

For our special chapbook series, we have published two “Conversation” chapbooks and one chapbook, Hudson River Haiku, to celebrate the Hudson River Quadricentennial. For this project, we disbanded restriction and have published chapbooks with widely divergent sizes. One of the main ways to create a unique chapbook is to find the right visual for the cover, which can often end up as a treasure hunt. For instance, after receiving the manuscript from the first “Conversation” chapbook by Elizabeth Alexander and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, I went to the library and checked out a book of paintings and prints by Romare Bearden and with a tremendous amount of effort, tracked down how to gain permission to reprint “Reclining Nude,” which is also one the titles of the poems.

Through use of the same designer and through keeping the contest’s winning manuscripts to the standard 6” by 9” chapbook size, the editors have attempted to create continuity. Beyond that consistency, to which we do not adhere for the special chapbook series, we view each chapbook as unique with distinct possibilities for visual expression. SHP chapbook contest winner David Tucker said about SHP, “Slapering Hol Press has a national reputation for doing it right. The editing of manuscripts is as professional as that by big publishing houses…, the presentation is elegant and meticulous, and the advice and support for writers are extraordinary…,

 

I love the idea of poets talking about their work, perhaps that’s why I love Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics, Menacing Hedge’s Poet-on-Poet interviews, and interview features in other literary journals. So of course I adore the SHP series “poems in conversation and a conversation,” especially Enjoy Hot or Iced (2011) by Denise Duhamel and Amy Lemmon and the inaugural chapbook by Elizabeth Alexander and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon in 2008, chapbooks where Clief-Stefanon says she’s trying to “write towards mystery” (26) and Lemmon talks about writing “with my students” and the importance of “deadlines” and of “being in a poetry group for several years” (28). Why did SHP decide to inaugurate such a series, a series that makes real for writers the writing life and how poets make time and space to make their poems.

When I first proposed the idea of the “Conversation” series, I already had Elizabeth Alexander in mind for the first “master” poet who would choose an “emerging” poet for the same chapbook with an interview at the end. Alexander was clearly a good choice since President Barak Obama, following our lead, picked Alexander soon after the chapbook publication for his first inaugural poet. Alexander and Van Clief-Stefanon decided on the title, “Poems in Conversation and a Conversation,” which became the title for the series.

Rather than imposing our own standard for what comprises an “emerging” poet, the SHP co-editors decided to allow the master poet to create her own definition. Because we believe that opportunities for women poets still lag behind that of our male counterparts, we decided to create the series only for women poets. This is a women’s own series, one to provide space and time for women to show how valuable their relationships are to each other as poets.

One of the current SHP co-editors, B.K. Fischer, has said about the first “Conversation” chapbook, “When Alexander and Stefanon scrutinize the variegated surfaces of Romare Bearden’s art, the intensity of their gazes give way to speech. In the blues of “Reclining Nudes,” Stefanon’s speaker discovers, ‘I could hear / her breath.’ Alexander finds images that transmute into sounds: ‘Flowered dresses. / A woman’s holler. River of guitar.’ In the hands of these poets, ekphrasis is an act of inquiry, a mode of poetic transformation as well as cultural analysis. For both, lacunae inherent in acts of reading and looking are openings for empathy, uncertainty, discourse.”

For Enjoy Hot or Iced: Poems in Conversation and a Conversation,” Denise Duhamel, instrumental in the early Writers’ Center history, proved an exciting choice for the second “master” poet, and she selected the poetry of the talented Amy Lemmon to publish in the same chapbook. Duhamel said of their “Conversation” chapbook, “At the humble beginnings of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, before the train station restoration, before Slapering Hol Press and the chapbook series, before the workshops, and before email, when the Writers’ Center was located in a small attic room, I was one of the first workers for what has become one of the amazing art centers of America. Now, after so many years, I am delighted to be one of the first in the Slapering Hol Press Conversation Series for a small, small press that has accomplished much more than its size belies.”

Second to none, the most exciting aspect of serving as the SHP founding editor is the possibility of providing a small stepping stone for young and/or emerging poets, and to mark the growth of their careers after the publication of their chapbooks. The “Conversation” series has allowed us to broaden SHP’s impact by sticking within our mission of encouraging emerging poets, but providing another avenue for discovering and showcasing the mentor/mentee relationship for women poets. For this series, the poems themselves, and the interview at the end, give the opportunity for the reader to understand the poets’ writing processes and some of the issues inherent in their writing.

 

What is inspiring you these days?

What inspires me the most is the bravery of animals who live in the face of human predation and cruelty; and humans who support animal and plant lives. In general, I am in deep mourning because of the rapaciously destructive role of humans against nature.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

After studying with Denise Levertov at MIT and Sidney Goldfarb at Harvard University, I had the opportunity in the early 80s to earn an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and to study with many inspiring poets such as Brooks Haxton, Jane Cooper, Jean Valentine, Kate Knapp Johnson, Thomas Lux, and Michael Burkard. I also became friends with many fine poets such as Anneliese Wagner and Stephanie Strickland who were instrumental in helping to found The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and Slapering Hol Press.

Other ways that I work as a poet involve attempting to observe the world around me and figuring out ways to write about what I see.

Since Sarah Lawrence Days, I have had the opportunity to study with many excellent poets at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, including Vijay Seshadri, Li-Young Lee, and Eamon Grennan. At the current time, I am fortunate to be in a writing workshop with Sally Bliumis-Dunn, Jo Ann Clark, Peggy Ellsberg, Joan Falk, and Jennifer Franklin, all talented poets and critics. Writers benefit greatly when gifted readers hear and critique their work while it is in process.

Number of chapbooks you own: Probably around 500.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: If you include the chapbook manuscripts submitted to Slapering Hol Press over the years, I could have read 10,000, but I don’t know the actual number.

Ways you promote other poets: The prize for Slapering Hol Press is $1,000 and a reading at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. While the SHP author is in town, we also arrange a reading at Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and at other venues, if possible. During the publication year, we work with the poet to assist in arranging readings in their home and places where they intend to visit. We send out the winning chapbook to an extensive list of literary magazines for review. Our editors and HVWC/SHP staff also attend book fairs and AWP during the year where we promote new and old chapbooks. SHP chapbooks are also sold at HVWC readings throughout the year.

Where do you spend your poetry earnings: I spend my annual poetry earnings on a few subway tickets and at the candy counter on Opera Cremes.

Inspirations and influences: James Wright, Denise Levertov, Hayden Carruth, Robert Creeley, Maxine Kumin, Archibald MacLeish, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke

Residence: Sleepy Hollow, New York

Job: My current job is co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. I am also co-chair of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center benefit. We are celebrating our 25th Silver Anniversary on October 3, 2013. I am working on finding a publisher for the English language version of LOOKING EAST: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Asia (Zhejiang University Press, 2012), which I co-authored with my son, James Taft Stever, and which includes a forward by Professor Hong Shen. I am also looking for a publisher for my most recent poetry manuscript, THE CRACKED PIANO, and I am writing new poetry.

Education:

Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York. M.F.A. in Poetry, 1988.

Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ed.M. Degree.  Reading and Human Development, 1974.

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. A.B. Degree, 1972. Cum Laude.

Biographical Statement: Margo Taft Stever’s chapbook, The Hudson Line, was a 2012 editor’s choice for Main Street Review. Her full-length book, Frozen Spring (2002), was the winner of the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Reading the Night Sky (Introduction by Denise Levertov), won the 1996 Riverstone Poetry Chapbook Competition. She is the founder of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center (www.writerscenter.org) and the founding editor of the Slapering Hol Press. Ms. Stever has read at numerous locations, including the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, the Blacksmith House, and the Shanghai International Studies University.

Read two of Margo’s poems here.

 

 

san francisco bay press poetry reading

va_4

Last week, I had the opportunity to read with fellow San Francisco Bay Press poet Jeff Hecker at Cafe Stella. It was a really lovely time–great atmosphere, nice ambiance, cool setting.

va_1

Given that both featured poets have books from SFBP, I read from Sprung.

Jeff Hecker read from his book Rumble Seat.

It was such an awesome event! I’m just thrilled I had a chance to read in Norfolk, Virginia. There are a few other videos from last Thursday night on Youtube, if you want to check it out. :)

va_3