AL YOUM, GEORGE ABRAHAM
NP: Thanks so much for writing Al Youm and doing this interview – as a Palestinian, reading this chapbook hit home for me in so many ways. Something that really struck me in the very beginning of Al Youm is the use of erasure in many of the poems. Since Al Youm discusses LGBTQIA issues, as well as Palestinian rights, how is the use of erasure a symbol for the oppression these two groups oftentimes feel?
GA: Erasure plays a large role, both thematically and visually, in my work. As a Palestinian activist and author in the United States, I am constantly facing threats of censorship, not only in a white-dominated literary world, but in more intimate facets of my life like social media. In creating erasures of my own work, I hope to not only bring awareness to the nuances and ramifications of living under modern surveillance and erasure, but to also subvert these methods, and use them to reclaim my narrative, and Palestinian narratives. The Palestinian narrative of 1948 is largely erased from history and public conscious. I hope to re-insert this narrative into the public view with my work, as it deals a lot with histories (of the body, of ancestral memory, of my family, etc.).
NP: I know that you’re currently attending Harvard University for biomedical engineering, and you’re a poet, so basically you must be a superhero or something! I really liked the use of biomedical terminology in Al Youm, as well as the use of footnotes throughout the poems (and they, too, are like neat little poems). How does the world of biomedical engineering and the world of poetry come together for you, and how were you able to fuse the two in such an effortless way in Al Youm?
GA: I actually don’t really view al youm in a technical light, truthfully. I have used math as a language and mechanism of getting to the core essence of many poems I write, but this work isn’t as explicitly present in al youm (but is something I’m exploring for future projects ahead!). I think that the fact you were able to discern biomedical and mathematical language in al youm, despite the lack of intentionality, is definitely an insight into my thought process as a writer. My mind is always working as both poet and engineer, and poetry is a form of engineering; a mechanism of giving language to that which we have no language for. Being a math double major has also given me the ability to think abstractly, and assign structure and symmetry to abstract phenomena, and that process of giving structure to chaos is very similar to my own thought process in giving my voice a language through poetry.
NP: Al Youm talks a lot about “inherited traumas,” and DNA almost synonymous. The concept of inherited trauma is very real for those of us who’ve grown up with refugee parents, or parents who’ve faced a lot of oppression. How is Al Youm a way to cope with these traumas by naming and defining them for what they are?
GA: I think you answered a large part of this question yourself, actually: naming and giving a language to a trauma, for an oppressed individual, is in and of itself, a way of dissecting the trauma, and hence subverting it. We cannot unlive our own traumas, or the traumas of our inherited history. But we can create (for lack of a better word, because I realize the following word has dangerous connotations) dialogue, with other diasporic movements, and uplift each other as a community of individuals who live similar experiences, and are trying to work through and subvert the oppressive systems around us. This type of “dialogue” is NOT the type that asks marginalized people to justify their existence to their oppressor, or explain and defend their own humanity. The dialogue I am seeking to create, within Arab/Middle Eastern communities and queer communities of color, is a dialogue we don’t see in academia; a dialogue in which we have control over the platform and language we use. Only by subverting and rebuilding the current system can we tackle these difficult intersections of identity, and give our repressed, erased histories the voice they deserve.
NP: In the poem “Inheritance” you write: “even when the land was ours / it wasn’t. // (this is how i feel about my body sometimes).” These lines draw a link between the colonization of the Palestinian people and sexual assault. How does the personal and political come together for you in your own life?
GA: Being in the body I was born into means I cannot separate the personal and the political. The fact that I published a book is political, even if it weren’t to be as explicitly anti-occupation or pro-rape survivor or take any other firm political stance. That said, my own relationship with my survivorhood and my Palestinian and Queer identities/histories, while having striking intersections, must be given the attention and space they each deserve. When I speak on these intersections, I hope to give light onto the insidious natures of rape culture, occupation, and homophobia; I do not hope to create a general narrative that is applicable to all survivors, nor do I aim to take up too much space within this dialogue, or invalidate the multi-faceted beast that is rape culture. That disclaimer said, my own experience with sexual assault was inherently tied to my queerness, my body image issues, the fetishization of my body in America, and my mental health. The oppressive systems that exist behind these forces produced the mindset that gave another permission over my body, and that is a very specific narrative, because the subtleties of rape culture in our society is even more insidious, and allows it to manifest in a more widespread manner. This goes back to the original point I made about the personal being political; the current system we live in allows our identities to become politicized without our consent or agency, and regardless of our control, the subliminal perception of our bodies are political.
NP: Section four of the poem “Inheritance” is titled “[ZIONIST NOTES & REVISIONS]” and exposes the idea that there are two sides to every history. I think the way you balanced this idea is brilliant and creative, especially because you used erasure against your own poem. What was it like creating this section of “Inheritance” and why did you choose to do so?
GA: “Inheritance” centers the Palestinian narrative, which is the more authentic narrative in the respect that it names the demons that need to be named, and tells the oppression exactly how it impacted human beings, regardless of intent. This is why I present the more authentic narrative first, and then afterwards, in order to demonstrate the continued hurt and insidiousness of zionism in the media and in academia, I made the zionist edit appear later in the sequence. My intention was to expose the hypocrisy of the zionist narrative, in implementation, via their own tactics, which is as much a subversion of oppressive tactics as it is a subversion of an oppressive system itself.
NP: Part three of Al Youm begins with an Audre Lorde quote that reads “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” How is your poetry a form of political activism?
GA: Again, any time a Palestinian speaks is, itself, an act of political resistance. Our very existence is resistance to that which seeks to destroy us. Hence, any and all forces that are designed to nourish us and keep us alive are, themselves, acts of political resistance, something Audre Lorde and many others before me have articulated. My aim with al youm was to begin the process of giving a language to my demons, and the significance of this is personal, and important to oppressed communities. I do not think that my art, alone, can save the Middle East, and that any artist who identifies as an activist needs to pair art with action, and realize there are many sides to this equation. I do think, however, that art gives oppressed communities a language, and mechanism of taking back space that was stolen from them. The dialogue and language this art creates works on a more subliminal cultural level to facilitate the dissolution of our oppressive system. But my point is, there needs to be many sides to this equation: the dialogue, the action and protest, and the legal and administrative work resisting from the inside are just three of many facets to this equation that all contribute to the cause. However, working from within academia, or within the system in any way, alone, cannot work to cause radical change, so I think it is also necessary to remove oneself from these settings and contribute towards action and causes working outside the system as well. Otherwise, it devolves into a sort of intellectual masturbation that exists in an inaccessible, theoretical bubble, and gets us nowhere.
NP: It was really great seeing you perform your poetry at AWP17. I know that slam poetry has been a huge part of your experience as a poet. I also know that in the Arab world, all poets are considered performance poets, meaning, the delivery of the poem is just as important as the poem itself. Through your slam poetry and performances, as well as the use of the ghazal form in the poem “Ghazal of Ash” how are these ways for you to call back to your heritage and culture?
GA: This is such a brilliant question, and I’m so grateful you are giving this discussion space here. I think that spoken word and slam poetry are, often, erased from academic dialogue on poetry, and while al youm was published in a page format, the community that built al youm was the slam poetry community. Growing up in this community has given my work the velocity and urgency it needs to subvert academic constraints that hold poets of color back, and are a form of censorship in and of themselves. I think, in an ideal world, all poets would be in conversation with both page-based poetic craft, and spoken voice. These are two sides to the equation that is poetry, and so much of the poetry I’ve encountered in classrooms has lacked the voice and urgency seen in spoken word poetry, so I think that academic poets have a lot to learn from us. I am very grateful to the Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Poetry Creative Writing professors, for fostering creative writing atmospheres that give priority to voice and urgency, and always incorporate spoken word and performance in their curriculums, despite the overall condescension of this type of poetry I’ve experienced within academic communities at large.
NP: What were some of the challenges you faced while writing Al Youm, and how did you overcome them? Do you have any advice for people working on their first chapbooks?
GA: My biggest piece of advice to those trying to publish their first chapbook would be to stay open-minded, and be willing to accept change and criticism. Trade manuscripts with poet friends whom you respect, and select poems and edits very carefully. al youm took nearly 1.5 years of edits after my first submission/the first time I considered it “done” in summer of 2015, before finally getting accepted. There is practically no overlap between the first draft of al youm and the published draft. Being in a Brooklyn Poets workshop last summer with Danniel Schoonebeek helped significantly, in terms of pushing my craft forward and giving me the space that allowed my voice to grow and give al youm the justice it deserved. Definitely seek out poetry workshops outside of school who are rooted in communities you care about. Other than this, trading my manuscript with other Arab authors was the best thing I could have done for it.
NP: Is there a specific event in your life that made you want to pursue poetry?
GA: al youm was the result of existing in the body I was born into. There is no single event that catalyzed my poetry, and I do not buy into that narrative personally; I believe all poems are the culmination of the histories the poets are born into, and are hence, systemic and communal.
NP: Lastly, what’s next for George Abraham?
GA: I am expanding al youm into a full-length collection, tentatively titled Birthright : instead of an apology. This collection continues the conversation started in al youm in terms of giving a language and structure to trauma, and confronting difficult intersections and cycles of inherited trauma. I don’t want to say too much, but if you were a fan of al youm, stay tuned for Birthright and more nerdy/sciency poems forthcoming in different literary journals!
Buy Al Youm here.
View my review of Al Youm here.
(photos courtesy of The Atlas Review and George Abraham)
MANNISH TONGUES, JAYY DODD
NP: So first off, I’d like to congratulate you on a stunning debut collection. Reading Mannish Tongues is exhilarating – thank you for writing this! The first question I’d like to ask is what provoked many of the poems in Mannish Tongues? What inspired these poems and what inspires you as a writer?
JD: I would consider myself a responsive writer, hopefully more than exclusively reactionary. I am consistently piqued & spurred by conversations bites or headlines. I am fascinated with all that language reveals, both intentional & otherwise. My poetic sensibility is to re-dress language, to set a scene, or perform a kind of illusion that ultimately reveals itself. I refuse to ignore the gaze of the reader, but that rarely implies a pandering or compromise. These poems are a collection of things that have lingered in my mind over the years, the frequencies that were keeping me up at night. This collection is amalgamation of histories I’ve been waiting to sift through & a refining of how is see the present / futures.
NP: In the poem “Human / Error : For Tamir” the speaker says “if killing was human error, / who made the error: the boy, the bullet, / the residue on fingertips?” (lines 1-3). The speaker mourns Tamir Rice, and this poem is beautiful in its protest against police brutality, and in honoring Rice. How do you use poetry to process these tragic events? Similarly, how do you use poetry to protest injustice?
JD: It’s funny, there is no protest in those poems. It’s a mediation on an actual headline claiming that Tamir’s death was “human error” which is in one way factual but also dangerously inaccurate of the situation. I don’t think a poem is a form of protest. It can document protest. It can frame, illuminate, fortify — but I don’t write poetry simply for the politic. None of my poems are protest poems. They are declarations or confessions. I consider the language, experiences, references I make (John Keats, straight men looking for gay contact, sexual assault, African demigods, etc.) they can exist without the pressure of protest around them. The speaker interrogates, not every question is a mourning. Some questions are only mourning. What I mourn most in my poems are the bodies I can hold. I leave protest to the streets.
NP: One of my favorite poems in Mannish Tongues (“Mr. Tournament: at the pool party or, young negro in Connecticut”) reads “Not all of us are scared of water, // or drowning, // most know we are never far from it, / how we are constantly swimming anyway.” With the current political climate, and all of the fear and hopelessness people are feeling post-election, how can we keep swimming and stay optimistic?
JD: I have no optimism for AmerikKka, because Amerikkka has no optimism for me. I am swimming in these same waters, there is rarely meaningful clairvoyance in art. This poem, which is based on true events from my high school days, resonating so dearly today I believe speaks to how minuscule perceptions have changed. This country post-election has been psychological terrorism on all fronts. From the administration to civilians, revealing the ever expanding limits to their empathy & actual commitment to combatting injustice. I am making work for Black people, for Black Queer folks, for Black Trans folks — I can only document our reality before we’re taken out or some rapture occurs.
NP: I love that you say “I am making work for Black people, for Black Queer folks, for Black Trans folks.” Can you tell me a little bit more about your purpose as a poet? Why is poetry important?
JD: Though wildly reduced, the maxim of poetry being everywhere is arguably a true fact. Yet, we can’t see the world & ourselves as poetry by giving it a language. I believe the poetry of Black lives has been / is too often read through or qualified by a canon that leaves us either monstrous beast, or fascinating exception. Black poets have confronted / resisted this canon & our culture has survived & progresses because of it. That’s what I hope to do, continue constructing new codes for everyday Black life.
NP: What was it like assembling Mannish Tongues? What triggered the title of the collection, and how long did it take you to write Mannish Tongues and get it published? What are some of the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
JD: The original title of the manuscript was The God of Garbled Messaged, based on the poem “Hyel’s Zumbi” from the collection. Early on, I was considering the sections of the book & the order as it’s own narrative or emotional set; with that the sections or the varying kinds of “messages” manifested (Confession, Eulogy, Myth etc.). I was reflecting on advice from my undergrad poetry professor who said, “write your poems like you are demigod, what you say goes, but there are also consequences”. I have been approaching each singular or development session with that mindset. Still, I am fascinated by the fallible divine & that sort of omniscient yet tenderly human voice is one I hope to cultivate. I ended up switching the title because I felt weird claiming “god”-hood on my first full length collection. When Kanye did it, folks seemed to get offended so….
In terms of process, I began writing the book shortly after my first chapbook [sugar in the tank] (pizza pi press 2016) was accepted. I knew I wanted a full length work & because a bulk of my my chapbook was older poems form college I realized I had a body of work to build. Luckily I was slamming at the time, so writing was a main practice. I also began participating in workshops with Winter Tangerine & really challenged myself to submit rough poems to take a risk on myself. So as I began getting published I really zoned in for about a years time & crafted this collection which feels as much of a debut as time capsule.
My biggest challenges were waking up in the morning & wanting to be alive or having language for doing so despite myself.
NP: You talk about the advice you received from your undergrad professor. Aside from this, what is the most meaningful piece of advice someone has given you about your writing? Are there any collections you’ve read that have helped you as a writer?
JD: I’m not sure this counts explicitly as “poetry” advice, a rapper once said “ain’t shots if they not direct,” which is similar to what my mom a former deputy in Texas told me growing up, “don’t pull out your weapon, if you not gone shoot.” This for me translates to don’t expose yourself if you aren’t willing to be intentional. While I don’t have a necessary opinion on guns, the metaphor for staying ready & being intentional deeply influences my practice. I don’t like extra fanfare, meaning each embellishment in my work is suppose to be there.
My mom’s sermons, TV, & queer theory books are actually my biggest inspirations in terms of how I use language. Though Ai, Essex Hemphill, Morgan Parker, & Danez Smith are contemporary writers who deeply push my work.
NP: You also mention slamming. How has that inspired and influenced your writing style?
JD: I’m a failed slammer. I hate competition. I have never published a single poem that I wrote for slam & have lost with page poems I tried to slam. I have mad respect for those who can navigate both. It not me though.
NP: What’s next for Jayy Dodd? What are you working on now?
JD: Got some wild writing projects I’ve been able to take on & commit to as of late, but I don’t wanna jinx anything. I think my next manuscript is metastasizing. I’m working on an album & a play about zumbis.
Buy Mannish Tongues here.
View my review of Mannish Tongues here.
(photo of Mannish Tongues courtesy of Platypus Press)
UGLY TIME, SARAH GALVIN
NP: Reading Ugly Time has been so delightful. Thank you so much for writing this collection and sharing it with the world. I love the humor in these poems. The poem “Human Bubble Bath” says “sometimes I feel like a human bubble bath, / and sometimes I feel like a priest.” How are you feeling right now? Human bubble bath or priest?
SG: I definitely feel more like a human bubble bath at the moment. The past two years have been the best and worst of my life. Bad: my mom had a stroke, two of my friends died, my best friend stopped talking to me because I tried to help him. Oh and you know, the whole fascist coup thing, that happened. Good: I’m on a fantastic new press, Gramma, which is putting my third book out on March 1st. I’m going on tour in Europe early May. Writing is…one day you’re eating out of the dumpster, and the next day a press is supplying a bounce house made by Mungo Thompson from my book release (MARCH 17TH! WOOOO!) I’m glad I made it past the dumpster part, I just hope I can keep it that way. And I met the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, that happened. I feel hot and amorphous like a bubble bath, and full of love and pain and possibility.
NP: What was it like constructing Ugly Time and how do you personally define poetry?
SG: I know some people outline and plan everything—that works reasonably well for me when I’m writing essays, but poetry has to just accrue. When I have time, I write about a poem a week, with no theme or objective in mind besides that specific poem. I just write whatever is most exciting to me at that moment—usually it’s a phrase or image I remember from conversation. Basically, when it works, poetry is layers of meaning interacting to produce something more than the sum of their parts.
NP: What inspires your sense of humor?
SG: “A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book,” is what Hemingway says. Though Hemingway and I, uh, disagree on certain points—for instance, because I have no cock he would be mystified that I am “male identified,” and my whole weird aversion to domestic violence, I agree with him on humor 100%. Humor was a coping mechanism for me growing up—I used to anticipate the Simpsons coming on our tinfoil-covered shit box TV for HOURS. And then when I discovered I could create humor, that I didn’t have to rely on an exterior source, I was addicted. I seem to be one of the very few who didn’t get the antisocial gene in my family, and I think it’s largely because riffing is enticing enough for me to overcome my social anxiety.
NP: With Ugly Time being your second collection, do you have any advice for poets working on their debut collections? Is there anything you wish you had known before starting your first book of poems?
SG: I would say don’t rush—make sure that thing is polished as fuck before anybody sees it. My thesis advisor and mentor Heather McHugh went over my first book with a kind of attention to detail that I only learned by watching her. Have at least one trusted literary friend, a good reader of your work who knows what’s inside you, give editing suggestions. Look at the suggestions once when you get them and once a week or so later, to see if they feel right to you. If you feel like a part of a poem that no one else likes is important, think about that—it might be there’s something crucial to your project as a writer that you just haven’t manifested effectively yet. Put it aside if it doesn’t serve the poem, and revisit it later. Also, do lots of readings, and WORK on your presentation—it’s the best way I’ve found of attracting the interest of presses. Rich Smith has a great essay on delivery style I would recommend to any poet.
NP: Favorite food to eat while writing poems?
SG: It’s boring, but dried fruit and nuts—it isn’t distracting and won’t get all over your notebook.
NP: Favorite song?
SG: It changes all the time! I prefer high energy music for writing—punk, metal, rap, disco. Lately I’ve been listening to “Fuck You Up and Get High” by the Dwarves over and over again. I seem to write more “serious” things while listening to say, the Germs or Venom, and grotesque dark humor-y things while listening to saccharine, well-crafted pop (which I enjoy equally) like Abba or Hall and Oates.
NP: In one of my favorite poems, “Everyone’s Sexy This Month” the speaker suggests using your family’s 12 most dysfunctional moments as themes for an erotic calendar. It reads: “The time your mom hit your dad in the face with a liquor bottle, then in a fit of remorse retrieved it and bashed herself until she got a concussion could be great for July, because of the barbecue and the smell you remember that might have been fireworks.” Since we’re in March, what dysfunctional moment could we use for this month?
SG: Ahh, March—flowers are blooming! Animals are mating and nesting! How about the time your nephew became frustrated the hummingbirds that normally nest under his eaves were taking too long, decided it was because they weren’t pregnant, and was arrested in the arboretum while trying to impregnate a variety of birds?
NP: What are you working on now?
SG: Right after the election I was so depressed I got writer’s block for the first time in my life. Interviews like this are helping, and I wrote an article about Pop-Up Magazine yesterday that was the first I’ve been able to do for a while. You can’t beat yourself up about that stuff though. I’m just focusing on planning my release party, my tour in Europe (April 27th-May 11th) and some secret things you’ll find out about soon.
Buy Ugly Time here.
View my review of Ugly Time here.
(photos courtesy of Sarah Galvin and Gramma Press)
FLOWER POEMS, KATIE MERTZ
NP: First of all, congrats on the chapbook! How does it feel to have all of your poems under one roof? What was it like working with Frontier Slumber and do you have any advice for people working on their first chapbook?
KM: Thanks so much, Noor! To be honest, I still have a hard time believing that my little poems wound up in the hands of a team of people who had enough faith in them to make them a book. It’s totally surreal, and really really really (x infinity!!!) cool. Still so strange to see my book on our bookshelf at home.
I think what makes it even cooler, at least in my eyes, is how it all happened. Generally, chapbooks are chosen by presses via contests—ie, you write your chapbook, pay to submit the manuscript, then wait to hear if the editors want to publish it. I had lived this process before, and always came up empty. But that’s the grind of it, you know? As writers, we just expect that most of what we do is going to be difficult, and nabbing those rare publications make it all worth it.
My experience with FLOWER POEMS was totally different, though. The chapbook didn’t even exist when a guy named Josh Johnston—an MFA candidate in the program at Indiana University—introduced himself to me online and said he and his friends were starting a small press. He told me they’d read some of my online publications and really dug them, then asked if I’d be interested in publishing a chapbook.
I said yes immediately, of course, because these sort of gestures are so few and remarkable that it’s impossible to say no. It didn’t even occur to me (or them, probably) that I didn’t have a chapbook to give. I was actually in the middle of the all-too-familiar post-MFA writing drought, where everything I tried to put down felt really forced and inorganic. But the pressure of the thing is a big motivator, and, somehow I cranked out fifteen pages of poetry in a little over a week. Those, combined with a few pages of previously-written work, turned into what is now FLOWER POEMS.
The folks at Frontier Slumber are a dream. Josh and Paul and Kaylin. They trusted the work, edited very little, and turned it into something that looked well cared for and made by hand. From the screen-printed cover and hand-sewn binding, to the interior design, layout, etc—I am still amazed at how lucky it was that my poems fell into the hands of such skilled, passionate people. I will send them so many virtual hugs, forever.
My advice to writers looking to have a chapbook published is going to sound really cheesy, and probably not all that helpful: Don’t Stop. A lot of the writing and publishing process can wear on you, but it’s so important to just keep going because the work itself is too important to give up on. So you put yourself out there, submit the work, and see if someone publishes it. Chances are, they will. Even if one person lets it pass, someone else will find worth in it. Even if it takes a few tries. If you stand behind your work, others will, too. Also: Be Persistent. When you’re waiting to hear back, be active in other ways and an advocate for the work of other writers. Remember they are going through this process, too. Be easy on each other. Be easy on yourself.
Maybe that sounds naïve, but it’s worked for me so far.
NP: I love that the beginning of the chapbook starts out with the following lines: “my friend the lesbian/ the black guy the bad feminist/ walk into a bar/ fuck yes I drink to them” (lines 17-20). It’s such a strong beginning, especially because it raises the issue of social justice and advocacy. How can poetry be used to spread social awareness and protest injustices?
KM: When I wrote “It Was a Good Year,” (the poem you’re referencing, Noor) I was beginning my last semester in my MFA program and, as a poet, felt very drawn to slightly-irreverent, political works by writers like Dorothea Lasky, CA Conrad, Patricia Lockwood, Eileen Myles, Melissa Broder, Jericho Brown, and Roxane Gay, to name a few. I was also actively engaging with the news every day (which I hadn’t always done), and it had become impossible to ignore the fact that the world was visibly falling apart. It wasn’t just about bad people anymore, but this was around the time it was confirmed that the damage we’d done to the planet was irreversible. Basically, we were all doomed.
Rather than give into fear, I read poetry, and the more poetry I read, the higher I got on the energy of these writers. As someone who has always been a little insecure to say what she feels about controversial subjects, I so admired their ability to use language to bring to light all the wrongs of the world, to point fingers and say: “This sucks. This needs to change.” While poetry is an art form often linked with politics, a poem can be passive by itself, offering protest and nothing more. But the words of these writers together seemed to create a larger conversation, and then a movement, that felt productive and could spark the change people were desperate for. In writing “It Was a Good Year,” I was attempting to contribute something to the conversation, to be productive alongside.
And that’s the beauty of poetry and writing, in general, I think. One voice alone is fairly small, no matter how important the message. But one voice hits home with another, and that one with someone else’s, again and again, over and over, and that one voice, the first voice, has turned into something much larger, as it confirms in others that they are not alone in what they feel. It allows us to start finding the right words, the wrong words, the ones in between. And factor in that writing is fluid, that readers will pull from a poem what speaks loudest to them, will create meaning where they see fit. With these different angles, the message can take a fuller shape, can become the impetus for real change. At least, that’s this idealist’s view.
NP: I can’t stop thinking about the line “I am growing/ one existential moment/ after another” in the poem “From Insomnia” (lines 6-8). I really love the humor in FLOWER POEMS, as well as the speaker’s stubborn attempt at finding the silver lining in every situation. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspires you and where you find these incredible images?
KM: I am most inspired by what I don’t understand, and much of what I don’t understand found a home in FLOWER POEMS. I was struggling when I wrote these poems. I was grieving for a few different things, in a few different ways, and felt forced into a situation where I had to come to terms with a lot of heavy things about myself, the world I had created that was falling apart, and the world in general.
That’s where poetry comes in. For me, poetry has always been an outlet for exploration. Taking on the unanswerable questions of life and, rather than fear them, write around and into them. This is how I come to find how I feel about love and life and death; fear and loss and forever. My whole world revolves around the significance of small things and moments. This is where I find beauty. These small spaces are where I find true joy.
NP: Can you tell me a little bit about the BIG BIG MESS Reading Series? What does it take to create a successful series like the BIG BIG MESS, and what are you trying to accomplish through the series?
KM: BIG BIG MESS in the brain-child of Nick Sturm, a poet who created the reading series nearly six years ago, when he was a graduate student at the NEOMFA. Currently run by Mike Krutel (friend & fellow poet) and I, BIG BIG MESS is a monthly hosting of both local and national poets and writers out of Annabell’s in Highland Square. We take our name from “Big Mess,” a song written by the NEO-based band, Devo, and it’s this Akron-ness that we try to maintain as we continue curating, as Akron continues to imagine and reimagine the thriving arts & culture scene.
In the beginning of the series, it was a lot of outreach on our part. A lot of, “Hey guys, we are a thing that exists, come hang out with us!” I came into the fold as a curator around our third birthday, and even then it was a lot of research and sending out emails to our favorite writers, hoping they would respond. Now that we are more known and have been consistent, most of our readers are reaching out to us first. We also keep a strong relationship with the NEOMFA (Mike and I are both alums), and try to host as many of those students as we can.
I want to have a lot of smart things to say about how to run a series, but the series almost runs itself at this point. Which means, I think, that the majority of what it takes to make something like this successful is consistency. Bringing in good people that jive well with our audience, and trying to do that every month. If I had any goal, it is simply to be an outlet for others—for writers who have just published a book or chapbook and are looking for some publicity, and for listeners who are looking to take a breather from the world to grab a drink and, maybe, be inspired in some way. I want visiting writers to come to my city and to show them what we’re about. And, most importantly, I want to be a contribution to the rich arts culture here, to be a thing that makes Akron a bit messier.
Buy Flower Poems here.
Check out my thoughts about Flower Poems here.
(photo of Flower Poems courtesy of Frontier Slumber)
PORTRAIT OF THE FUTURE WITH TRAPDOOR, ELIZABETH ONUSKO
NP: So much of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor is an exploration of the body. I also loved the weaving of medical terminology because it paved the way for so many unique images. What was the inspiration behind this collection?
EO: A few years before I wrote this book, I struggled to receive a diagnosis for what turned out to be a chronic illness — endometriosis. Knowing something was wrong yet not being able to prove it to doctors, to get them to take me seriously, was terrifying and exhausting and frustrating. It was surreal, to be honest.Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor came out of this experience.
NP: How long did it take you to write Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor? What are some of the challenges that you faced, and do you have any advice for poets who are working on their first collections?
EO: It took me a long time after completing my MFA to reach the path that led to my first book. Once I was on that path, I wrote the book in about a year. After graduation, I was focused on establishing my working career (so that I could pay my student loans!), and I was also in the midst of a big style transition. I had to be patient and let that unfold. Still, I didn’t push myself soon enough.
My advice is to put just enough pressure on yourself that you’re engaged and learning and moving forward with your manuscript while still working on it for the right reasons, not because you think it will establish your reputation or help you secure a teaching job. The poems should be the priority.
NP: Is there an event in your life that made you want to pursue writing?
EO: I can’t think of a single event, but I have always been interested in making art and studied everything from painting, drawing, printmaking, and clay to playwriting and fiction. I was, briefly, a terrible violinist. Poetry fit best.
NP: Do you have any book titles or poetry collections that you would recommend to young poets?
EO: Yes! Reflexively, I would recommend books that have shaped me as a poet. I have learned so much about the possibilities of the imagination, the power of word play, and the uses of humor by reading the work of Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Charles Simic, Matthea Harvey, Matthew Zapruder, and Bob Hicok, among others.
Several stunning first and second collections have recently come out, including those by Phillip B. Williams, Ocean Vuong, Lo Kwa Mei-en, and Wendy Xu.
I would also recommend a few craft books, especially Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, and Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. (Graywolf’s entire collection of “The Art of…” craft books is worth checking out.)
Lastly, I would suggest reading by press, especially if you are on the cusp of sending out your first book. Get to know their lists. Some of my favorites are Graywolf, Wave, Copper Canyon, Tupelo, and Cleveland State.
NP: What are you working on now? Can you tell me a little bit about Foundry Journal?
EO: I am wading into my second collection. On any given day, the book can feel like it is cohering or it can feel like a bunch of strangers are sitting in a room, staring at each other. I suppose it is where it should be at this point.
When Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor was in production, it was miraculous to me how many people were coming together to help bring the book into the world. I felt immensely grateful. When the book was finally out, I had more time on my hands, as well as a desire to give back and be more engaged with the poetry community. I had co-founded Guernica and was its managing editor/publisher for several years. If you had told me earlier this year that I would be going down that road again, I wouldn’t have believed you. But together with some dear friends who are also poets, I will be launching Foundry, an online poetry journal, in September. We have a stunning first issue. I am so excited to bring these poems to readers and to put together the next issue. Our website is foundryjournal.com.
Buy Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor by clicking here.
View my review of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor by clicking here.
(Photo of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor courtesy of Red Paint Hill Publishing)
[INSERT] BOY, DANEZ SMITH
NP: I’m in love with this collection. In love. And I haven’t felt this excited about a collection since reading Jamaal May’s work. There’s an energy and movement to [INSERT] BOY that shows from the very first poem in the collection, “Black Boy Be.” While doing research, I realized that you are a spoken word poet. How has your background as a spoken word poet influenced your strong style and voice?
DS: I don’t know. I’ve never not been a poet doing what we call spoken word as long as I’ve been a poet and I don’t see much of a difference. I write poems and I care about how I read them. I think this question has ceased to offer me useful answers. In all art making I think we have to circle back to questions about audience and what we are finding necessary to say to them and how we bridge the work to the witness. Spoken Word has taught me that audience is always present and that artist are always existing in community with other artists, other people, and all the citizens of the living and the dead, but who knows if that is something through spoken word or something I’ve learned through being an artist point blank period. I have a lot of problems with that label, “spoken word poet”. Being a poet is a amorphous and slippery enough thing, the extra bit seems less and less useful to me. Shouldn’t all poets have a strong style and voice? Isn’t that what we all are trying to reach towards? I read my poems out loud and I try to do it well. I also try to write the shit out of them too. I think those are too basic goals we all can have as poets of any breed.
NP: Can you tell me about the cover of the collection, as well as the interior art? Both are beautiful, and I also really like the size of the book. What was like when choosing the cover and design? How does the cover and interior art represent the poems in [INSERT] BOY?
DS: They are both pieces by Jonathan L Chase. I was introduced to his art by a friend and I feel in love with it. It wasn’t hard. I knew I wanted something from him, a fellow black queer, and thankfully he was down. As for how it represents the poems, I’ll leave that to you to think on. I think the juxtaposition between the art and the poems offers something new depending on what angle you look at it from and who it is doing the looking, though I see something about man-ness, about softness, about growth, about vulnerability.
NP: How long did it take you to write [INSERT] BOY? What were some of the challenges that you faced?
DS: The oldest poem in the book was written in the summer of 2010 right before my forth year in college. The last poem to go in the book was written the summer of 2015. I don’t know if the challenges I went through were very different than what anyone goes through trying to write a book, mainly figuring out what the hell it really is. Maybe the biggest challenge was making the decision to share so much autobiographical work, but maybe it wasn’t a challenge because i can’t image doing anything but that. There is great fear and great bravery in writing, and that might have been the biggest and still most constant challenge, to stand up to myself and get out of the poems way and be a channel for something honest and beyond me and of me.
NP: What does your writing process look like? What inspires you, and what do you do when facing writers block?
DS: I don’t really believe in “writer’s block.” Sometimes the poems don’t come as easy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write. I try to write as often as possible, usually for at least 10 minutes everyday in a little notebook or on my phone on the bus, whatever. I don’t know if I have any one process. I write at home, in odd places, on planes, in the grocery store, wherever the language finds me. In a perfect world, I’d wake up everyday and walk around my garden and then dictate my poems to a nice lad from the village. But I don’t. I try to write when i get up in the morning or for an hour when I go to sleep or for the 12 minutes on the bus to work or while I’m waiting for a sandwich. My process is to live and make sure I’m writing down and through that living.
NP: After reading [INSERT] BOY, I feel really excited about your upcoming collection Don’t Call Us Dead. What can readers expect upon opening that collection? How will it be different than [INSERT] BOY?
DS: Don’t Call Us Dead explores alternate heavens and surreal earth bond moments. It meditates on mortality and how black men dance across lines that separate living & dead, myth & mortal, ever aware of slipperiness of living. The books meditates on police violence, HIV, racism, love, tenderness, sex, joy, forgiveness, and how all those things have touched myself and my witnessing. I’m really proud of the book. I think I’m a stronger in my understanding of what I’m up to than when I wrote [insert] boy. I’m a better poet. I’m really hype for it to be in the world, tho it seems like a really long time until next fall and I’m already working on book 3. It will feel good to send this child into the world.
Buy [Insert] Boy by clicking here.
View my review of [Insert] Boy by clicking here.
(Photo of [Insert] Boy courtesy of YesYes Books)
MAMMAL ROOM, KRISTEN EVANS
NP: After reading Mammal Room, I think one of my favorite poems is “That You Came to Help Us Is a Strong Thing.” I love the line “And while we’re at it, I’d like to confirm you are 11% my enemy.” I appreciate the subtle humor in the collection, as well as the overall voice in Mammal Room. How and why did you choose to incorporate humor in Mammal Room?
KE: Thank you! I often think of MAMMAL ROOM as a sad, self-contained book, so it makes me happy to know that you find humor in the poems. While I would like to say I was always trying to be funny, I don’t think that’s true – that is, the intention to be funny isn’t the mood or mode I sallied forth with when I sat down to write.
Sometimes the humor came from juxtaposition after the fact, like in “SORRY I MISSED YOUR MOMENT OF GREATNESS.” The first line of that poem is “It was raining.” Such a pathetic excuse for missing something! I would take advantage of opportunities like that during the revision process, shuffle lines around to make a satisfying combination, a joke that was also an opening into something more serious.
In other poems, like the one you mention, humor comes from contrast – for instance, the speaker’s dissatisfaction with physical intimacy in “THAT YOU CAME TO HELP US IS A STRONG THING.” She’s longing for emotional or intellectual connection instead. On the surface, it sounds like the speaker could easily belong in a world where matches are determined by algorithm (like in an online dating service). The line winds up to be an absurdity that stands in for a lot of other feelings: loneliness, alienation, yearning, uncertainty about other people. How well can you really know someone? What does it even mean to be at odds with someone – but only up to a point? Only up to 11%? What a crazy thing to proclaim, OKCupid! But maybe it’s a little bit true, too.
Some of the poems that came later in the writing process were interested in absurdities like these, so humor started to creep in that way. Both “WOMEN” and “KENNETH & THE MOON” are poems that are interested in anger and frustration and the absurd – humor’s right around the corner from those emotions, at least for me.
I was also lucky enough to take a workshop with James Tate while at UMass – Jim was the king of mixing absurdity with humor and pathos. He could make you laugh and weep in the same poem. I love that quality of his work, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get close to mastering the skill. I’m just going to say that I probably never will. His poems were and are special for this reason.
NP: How long did it take you to write Mammal Room and do you have any advice for anyone in the process of writing their first full length collection?
KE: Oh! It took the entire three years of the MFA program, and some poems were written in the year after I left, too, as I was revising and sending out the manuscript. Four years sounds like a lot of time, but think of all the other things that are necessary in life besides writing: you have to go to work, you have to take care of yourself, you have to find time to read and think and walk. You take care of your family, such as it is. You remember to have fun. Four years goes by pretty quick.
The best advice I ever received was during my thesis defense. Dottie Lasky very kindly Skyped in to talk about my manuscript and observed a hesitation in some of my shorter poems – a willingness to go up to certain emotional or intellectual lines but not to cross them. She told me something along the lines of, “It’s like you walk right up to the edge of the cliff, but you don’t jump. I think you should jump.” I knew exactly what she meant, and I think it’s good advice all the way around. Find whatever edge you’re beating up against and take a step off, even if it’s a wild failure.
Otherwise: while this might be impossible, try to find a way to exist somewhere between the impatience of wanting to finish your collection, of wanting to publish poetry, and the urgency that makes you sit down to write. Do the work, but don’t try to shoehorn it to fit in with a contest deadline or an editorial perspective that’s not really for you. There’s room for you. There’s time for you.
The rest is all familiar but worth throwing yourself at: read whatever you can get your hands on. Be willing to make mistakes. Don’t shy away from texts – or perspectives about your work – that make you angry or uncertain. Some poems are just there to get you to the next poem. Find your people, both emotionally and intellectually. Wake up every day and give yourself permission to write – or not write. Forgive yourself for not writing.
NP: Was there an event or moment in your life that inspired the poems Mammal Room?
KE: No, not exactly. I think this book is very much about an interior landscape – sometimes real, sometimes imagined. That being said, I can remember driving or riding on the bus and seeing something that later went into my notebook, which later made it into a poem. This book is also heavily referential, pointing to other poems or poets or films or novels or artists who made my work possible. I’m a magpie. I hope all the shiny bits of foil and string I’ve stolen aren’t too noticeable.
NP: It was a pleasure watching you read at Annabel’s Bar & Lounge in Akron. How do you prepare for your readings, and how do you choose which poems to read?
KE: Thank you! It was great to watch you read, too – you said you were very nervous, but you did great. I don’t prepare overmuch – generally I time myself at least once before going onstage to make sure I won’t take up some huge swathe of time accidentally. As a listener, I wildly resent people who go over. Listening for long periods of time is hard!
Otherwise, I try to move forward through a reading by association and energy. Some poems I’ll read close to one another because they have similar moods or speeds. Sometimes I think I know where I’m going in a reading and change my mind because the poem I’ve just read has reminded me of a different poem.
I don’t think that is very helpful advice for people who are worried about giving poetry readings. I’ve basically just written multiple sentences about how I wing it.
Can I just say, though, reading in Akron was wonderful? People heckled in a positive way – calling out lines or affirmations back to the readers. I love the Midwest. No one would be caught dead doing that in New York, which – their loss.
NP: Now that you’re finished with your MFA, what are you working on now?
KE: A novel that’s been rattling around in my head forever but never quite finds the right way out. It’s called DEAD MEN I SHOULD HAVE LIKED TO LOVE. It’s about three sisters involved in the Spiritualist movement in nineteenth-century America. And being in love with ghosts.
As far as poetry goes, I’m trying to re-learn what I want out of a poem, both as a reader and a writer. I’m reading a lot to try and answer this question, to figure out what my next cliff jump will look like.
Buy Mammal Room by clicking here.
View my review of Mammal Room by clicking here.
(photo of Mammal Room courtesy of SpringGun Press)
MAKESHIFT INSTRUCTIONS FOR VIGILANT GIRLS, ERIKA MEITNER
NP: I love the collection’s commentary about the coming of age of young women, and the discussion about sexual education that it provoked in my poetry class. Many of my peers shared funny stories about having to sign abstinence contracts, as well as the lengths with which their schools went to promote abstinence. I am wondering what inspired Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, and how/why these poems were born.
EM: I’m glad the poems in the book inspired some good conversations! Abstinence-only education around sex in schools is the exact opposite of my experience coming of age during the AIDS epidemic in New York City–we had really explicit Sex Ed classes–and so I know my poem “Sex Ed’ can seem strange to this generation of students, now that abstinence-only sex ed is the norm in most parts of the US. It makes a poem that didn’t start out to be overtly political into a much more political poem.
Since I don’t sit down and write books of poems–but, rather, write individual poems–your first question is a hard one to answer. My poems are inspired by all kinds of things, and I usually write a bunch of poems over a few years, then try to figure out how they fit together. In Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, when I took stock of the poems that went into the book, it turns out I was very interested in the pleasures and dangers of growing up female in America–and especially adolescent girlhood, which seems like the most fraught time. I was also interested in different kinds of trauma and abduction narratives, from alien abductions to testimony of rape survivors to stories of holocaust survivors like my grandmother–what makes any narrative believable or unbelievable? This question was something I thought about a lot in the poems in Makeshift.
NP: What does your writing process look like? Do you sit down with a specific idea in mind, or do you let the words carry you? Also, I love the titles of so many of your poems, as well as the title of the collection! What’s your trick?
EM: My writing process is usually pretty amorphous. I sometimes have a fuzzy idea of what I want to write about, but mostly I let the process itself–and images, or snippets of things in my notebooks–guide me. If I’m too predetermined, the poem usually turns out badly.
And thanks for your kind words about my titles! With titling, I often borrow titles from visual artists whose work I love, or use visual art titling strategies that open up a poem or move it in a different direction. I think titles can add so much to a poem–especially when they’re in tension with the content.
NP: Any upcoming projects/publications that our readers should know about? I’m really excited about reading your newest collection Copia this summer. Do you have any thoughts about that collection?
EM: I’ve got some new poems out in the latest issues of Lumina, and a longer poem coming out in September in Oxford American that’s part of a series I’ve been working on that has to do with gun culture in rural Virginia.
Much of Copia wrangles with consumption in America and Detroit and disintegrating or abandoned landscapes and desire–I’m curious to hear what you think of it as compared to Makeshift!
Buy the collection from Anghinga Press here.
Read my review of Makeshift Instructions here.
(photo of Makeshift Instructions courtesy of Anhinga Press)
GHOSTS STILL WALKING, DO NGUYEN MAI
It was a pleasure reading Do Nguyen Mai’s Ghosts Still Walking, and even more fun having the opportunity to interview her. Not only does her collection give voice to Vietnam’s history and people, but Mai is doing amazing work through her magazine Rambutan Literary, which features work from Southeast Asian writers and artists.
NP: On your blog, you mention that you identify as a Vietnamese-American poet. Ghosts Still Walking does a beautiful job of giving voice to Vietnam’s history and people. What inspired the collection, and how have your experiences of growing up as a Vietnamese-American influenced your style and subject material? What did you set out to accomplish when you started this collection and how did your ideas and opinions regarding your identity as a Vietnamese-American poet evolve while writing it?
DNM: This is probably going to sound ridiculous, but here’s the truth about the collection and most of my poetry in general. I dream things, I see things, and then I write them down as poems. These dreams and nightmares, I believe, come from the restless spirits of my ancestors. My family members are big believers in ghosts, or spirits, or that sort of thing. My mother and father both had dreamed things that led them to find the bodies of my grandfather and uncle, respectively, and they believe those dreams had come to them from the ghosts of the deceased. So that is the source of the collection – these dreams and nightmares. When I write, I am laying those spirits to rest.
And through this, I reconcile the turmoil within myself. Am I a northern Vietnamese person or a southern one? Of a Saigon family or a rural one? Am I one who supports Western dominance, or am I one who would rather regional conflict continue without outside interference? Do I hold on to my heritage, or do I let it go? I think these are questions most Vietnamese-Americans often ask themselves, but are also ones that have been answered for us by the dominant American society and the refusal of my parents’ generation to let go of their identity as South Vietnamese. Through writing, I have been able to see our history and our circumstances from a much more neutral – and therefore, probably more holistic – perspective than I was raised in.
NP: Aside from being a poet, your blog also mentions that you’re a musician. Do poetry and music work hand in hand for you? How do both mediums of expression help you live a creative lifestyle?
DNM: My maternal family is full of musicians. Growing up, my mother taught me Vietnamese songs about battle, love, and sacrifice. And Vietnamese verse began with songs from the fields, so all the song that has existed before me, with me, and around me has shaped – or rather, become – my poetry.
I’m also a violinist, cellist, and violist, and when I’m playing pieces on any of those instruments, the music becomes backdrop to some scene I’m seeing in my mind. I particularly am more comfortable with Baroque music, especially Vivaldi, because with the faster songs comes a sense of urgency. With those kinds of songs, all I can see is running and screaming and crying. Many of Vivaldi’s concertos have helped me focus in on what I’m seeing or have seen in my dreams and nightmares. It’s similar to singing for me – every aspect of my creativity relates back to my identity, foremost, as Vietnamese-American.
NP: Any advice for aspiring poets?
DNM: Write for what you have to write for. Whatever purpose you have – whether big or small – is more than enough. If you have a purpose in writing, then what you’ve written has purpose.
NP: Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? As the founder of Rambutan Literary, do you have any thoughts about your future goals for the magazine?
DNM: I haven’t actually started any other writing projects yet, but I’d like to at least note that now that I’ve written about the past in Ghosts Still Walking, I feel more compelled to write of the present, and perhaps later, the future.
As for Rambutan, I really would love to see it grow into a central place for Southeast Asian writers and artists worldwide to share, promote, and learn from each other’s work. But most of all, I want Southeast Asian writers to be able to take pride in our own creativity. Southeast Asians are often stripped of their identity in the war narratives that much of the Western world – especially America – has spun of the region. Southeast Asians do have greatly complex cultures, countries, and identities. I hope that through the global cultivation of Southeast Asian art and literature, the monolith of the Western perception of Asia can be destroyed, and that Southeast Asians can find more or renewed pride in their own identity as Southeast Asians.
Read my blog post about Ghosts Still Walking here.
Buy the collection here.
(photo of Ghosts Still Walking courtesy of Platypus Press)
The FATHER OF THE ARROW IS THE THOUGHT, CHRISTOPHER DEWEESE
It’s always a ton of fun getting to see one of your favorite poets read at an event. On Saturday, May 7, Deweese shared some of my favorite poems from this collection. Before the event, he agreed to answer a few questions for The Devil Strip, as well as this blog.
NP: I really enjoyed reading The Father of the Arrow is the Thought because of its use of humor. What role does humor play in your poetry? Where or who do you get your sense of humor from?
CD: I think in my poems, a lot of the humor comes from surprise. Like, all of a sudden, the poem shifts, and suddenly the speaker of the poem realizes something that hadn’t been telegraphed before. And the writer of the poem and the reader of the poem get to share in that discovery. And for me, that moment of change, of reveal, is one of the most intoxicating pleasures of being alive.
Some of the seeds of my sense of humor come from things my parents liked that I watched when I was growing up, things like Marx Brothers movies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. We used to have these books of transcripts of every single Monty Python episode, and my brother and I used to perform them, even though we hadn’t watched a lot of them (our local video rental store only carried a few). A lot of the jokes, in retrospect, I didn’t actually understand at the time, but I knew they were funny, and that seemed to be enough.
NP: I like that the cover of your collection is simple. It’s also unique that the titles, as well as the form with which you write in, follow the same pattern. How does this pattern lend itself to the types of poems in the collection? In other words, why did you choose this form?
CD: I wanted very straightforward titles. Since the title of the book and its epigraph come from Paul Klee, who wrote “The father of the arrow is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain?” I was thinking of each poem’s title/subject as introducing another physiographic locale through which to test Klee’s ideas. I also feel like the momentum produced by those long, skinny poems, full of short lines and no stanza breaks, somehow captures a kind of arrow-like energy. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but it felt real while I was writing the poems, and continues to feel right for the book now that it is a book book book.
NP: How did you start writing poems? Did you always know that you wanted to be a poet?
CD: A poet named Lorraine Ferra came into my classroom in 3rd grade and showed us how to write poems. Somewhere in my parents house, they still have the first poem I ever wrote! Lorraine kept coming in to the class each year for the next couple of years, and I felt encouraged by her, so I decided being a poet was reasonable. She has continued to be a friend, and even ended up giving me a beautiful letterpress about ten years ago!
NP: What are you working on now? Are there any upcoming publications/projects that our readers should know about?
I’m trying to finish a book called Alternative Music that I’ve been writing off and on for eight years. It has 120 poems in it, and I’m not sure if it’s interesting or really, really dumb.
CD: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
I think it is really important to not only read things that you relate to, but also to read poems that resist you, that come from vastly different places than you do, that perplex you. To read past liking or not liking. This is also advice for myself!
Read the blog post here.
Buy the collection here.
(Photo of book cover courtesy of Octopus Books)
THE WILDERNESS, SANDRA LIM
So delighted to have been able to interview the amazing Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness. I would highly recommend this book. Check out my review of it here.
NP: So far, I don’t think I’ve read a better poem to end a collection with other than “Cliffs,” which reads, “I could fill up the sea with this waking. / The outlook is thrilling; it satisfies” (lines 5-6). I love the quiet enthusiasm in this poem and the overall collection. To me, the collection is daring, yet soft and thoughtfully restrained, and I think this is what makes it so chilling. How did you balance the large, philosophical ideas woven throughout the collection with the peaceful voice of the speaker?
SL: First of all, thank you for the thoughtful characterization. I didn’t necessarily start each poem with the thought that I would have a “restrained” or “peaceful” voice, per se, but probably what you’re hearing a bit of is my goal to state a thing clearly. Maybe when the ideas or the feelings in the poem are turbulent or strange or impassioned in some way, I feel the need to be more disinterested in my language.
NP: When I first picked up the collection, the contrast between the cover of the book (the steel building) and the title, The Wilderness, threw me off a bit. I understand now that it’s not a literal wilderness, but a metaphoric wilderness that the speaker has created for herself. Could you discuss the speaker’s need and desire behind creating a wilderness for herself? In other words, what is the underlying tension that the speaker is grappling with?
SL: I do love the cover (the image is of a museum in Kobe, Japan by the architect Tadao Ando) and the tension with the title. The cover can perhaps inspire you to rethink the notion of the “natural” world and human nature. I think in the book, there are literal and metaphorical wildernesses, made and found ecosystems. Often people retreat to a wilderness to reconsider their lives; as I was writing the poems in this collection, sometimes I thought of them as little spaces in which to contemplate “What does my life mean?”—and you don’t know what’s going to happen or what you’ll come up with. There’s a kind of freedom and terror both, there.
NP: Where did you find inspiration while working on the manuscript for this collection? Was there anything in particular that you struggled with?
SL: I struggled a lot with finding the right forms for individual poems in the book, though I think this is the same struggle I have for any poem I write. An analogy I think of sometimes is one of translating something from another language that is not standard; you don’t want to make some screwed-up English out of it, but you’re trying to capture the idiosyncrasy and spirit of the poem and realize it on the page, intact.
Read the blog post here.
Buy the collection here.
(Photo Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company)
THE ENDARKENMENT, JEFFREY MCDANIEL
The Endarkenment is one of those collections I keep coming back to. The poems throughout still resonate with me, and even months later, I oftentimes find myself thinking about their humor and honesty. A few weeks ago, I reached out to Jeffrey McDaniel, and asked if he’d willing to do a short email interview for Nervous Poodle Poetry. I squealed with excitement when he agreed.
NP: Many of the poems in The Endarkenment utilize humor. What role does humor play in your poetry and life? How can poets use humor to access certain ideas and emotions? And lastly, how can poets use humor to invite readers into their collections?
JL: I learned from other poets early on that humor was permissible in poetry. Poets like Bill Knott and Charles Simic and James Tate, and also Matt Cook and Jennifer Knox. I was most attracted to humor that was drenched in darkness. Humor can be used to disarm or distract a reader. I am attracted to humor where the possibility of seriousness still exists.
NP: I mention in the blog post that I love the cover of the collection. What was the inspiration behind the cover, the one eyed cat, and the title of the book?
JM: I ran into that cat [at] an independent art book store in the city (New York), called Printed Matter https://www.printedmatter.org. It was love at first sight.
A friend from college, the photographer Miranda Lichtenstein, actually knew the artist. The title for the collection was already in place at that point. The cat’s expression and the title seemed to be in agreement somehow, and maybe both were reflections of my mood about things happening in the US in the early part of he 20th century, like the illegitimate war in Iraq and the dubious circumstances of the Bush presidency.
NP: I’ve read that performance poetry is a huge part of your voice as a poet. How has performance poetry influenced your style on the page and what inspires you as a writer?
JM: Even in high school, I envisioned poetry as something to be presented theatrically. There’s an obvious connection between dramatic monologues or persona poems and theater. I also think that some of the poets I encountered in the spoken word scene in the mid-to-late nineties gave me ideas.
Read the blog post here.
Buy the collection here.
(Photos courtesy of The University of Pittsburg Press)
(Originally posted and written for The Devil Strip Magazine)
THOMAS AND BEULAH, RITA DOVE
A few months ago, I picked up Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection “Thomas and Beulah,” which tells the story of Dove’s maternal grandparents. My love for this collection was immediate and powerful. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Dove’s work, I reached out to see if she’d be willing to answer a few questions about the collection and her personal tie to Akron.
NP: It’s interesting to me that you grew up in Akron and that your family is also from Akron. It’s also very significant that your father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry, which was booming in the mid 1900s. I am wondering how Akron’s rich history, as well as your grandparents’ and parents’ lives, have influenced your poetry and work?
RD: That’s a book length question! I mean, it would require an entire memoir to explain the impact of my parents’ and grandparents’ influence upon me. For instance, the storytelling ability certainly comes from a legion of female relatives, and the succinct comic element would be the domain of some of my male relatives, who could tell jokes like nobody’s business. But that doesn’t get at all of the tiny moments that influenced me – my mother’s love of literature and her penchant for quoting Shakespeare during very domestic moments; my father’s chemical research and his setting, by example, a scholarly rigor that often resulted in joyous discovery; or even Akron as a city, which in the mid 1900s was a vibrant and essential link in the industrial boom felt nationwide. As school children, we felt important—Akron was on the global map because we manufactured tires that rolled out into that wide world; also, Quaker Oats had made the long journey across the Atlantic to find a home right here in our Fair City. There was irrefutable physical proof of our presence on the globe: the Quaker Oats silos, clustered in concrete in the center of town and pictured on boxes on our breakfast tables; the smell of rubber on Akron’s east side and the very tires my father helped develop in his laboratory at Goodyear.
NP: I have especially enjoyed the poems “Wingfoot Lake,” “The Great Palaces of Versailles,” and “Aurora Borealis” in Thomas and Beulah. Can you tell me what the process of writing that collection was like? How much of these poems came from rich stories you were familiar with growing up, and how much was taken from your imagination of events? Briefly, could you also touch on the decision to place these poems in chronological events, despite the poems’ abilities to stand alone?
RD: It’s interesting that you selected those poems because they are perfect illustrations of just how much a mixture of imagination and real-life facts the poems in Thomas and Beulah represent. An aurora borealis actually did visit Akron in 1943: My grandmother told me about it and described the wonder and fear that people felt upon viewing that marvelous spectacle. My mother was a seamstress and it is her memory that I have transferred to Beulah in “The Great Palaces of Versailles.” Of course, the sentiments are entirely of my own invention – or rather, a collaboration between my imagination and Beulah’s attitude! The same is true of “Wingfoot Lake.” As we know, Wingfoot Lake does exist, but for many readers unfamiliar with Akron, this name seems rather fantastical, quite mythical. I try to use both of these in the poem – the cold cut reality and Apollonian-inspired notions of flight, luck, chance. And so it goes, teeter-tottering between reality and imagination, remembrances and fantasies. By the time I finished the book, I had burrowed so deeply into the consciousness of Thomas and Beulah, I no longer had a clear idea which details were true and which imagined. The silk scarf with which Thomas woos Beulah, for instance, had originally been blue, according to my grandmother; I changed the color to yellow. The Satisfaction Coal Company did exist – you can’t make that name up! – and my grandfather did work as a janitor there during the Depression. The details, however, came from my mother, who remembered as a child exploring the offices while he cleaned; when she described the big boss’s leather chair and I asked her how many rivets there were, she instantly replied: “34.” She was as surprised as I was that she remembered. But that’s how memory works.
When it came to the chronological placement of the poems, there really wasn’t much of a decision to be made. After all, our lives transpire in chronological fashion, events following one after another. So it seemed inevitable that the Thomas and Beulah poems – those moments of their lives – would proceed chronologically. What was different was my intention for each poem to render a moment to be held intact and discrete from the next – that is, each poem is meant to stand alone for a moment in time in which the person stops to allow time to twirl around her or him.
NP: The poems in Thomas and Beulah weave together complex topics such as love, race, history, and family. I noticed how simple, yet extraordinarily both Thomas and Beulah are written about in your collection. I am curious to know how poetry can be used to open up a wider conversation about large subjects through emotional storytelling and the use of average, everyday humans that are just trying to get by.
RD: It comes down to what I tell my students all the time: details, details, details! We live our lives in details, while we contemplate our lives in the abstract. When trying to recreate an emotional memory, however, details are the only way to go – for we humans do not apprehend the world in any other way but through our five senses; it is only when we want to withdraw a bit from the tumult of life’s experiences do we begin to think about our lives rather than live them; do we try to find suitable representational extractions in our language with which to contain our emotions. Poetry is out to penetrate that protective shield, our superego, and plunge us back into emotions, and so it happens that details, sensory details – anything that engages the five senses — will help create this emotional scaffolding.
When I was writing the poems that comprise Thomas and Beulah, my surging desire was to fill in the vacuum I had felt in life and in art – that representation of black people up to that point, were mostly either cardboard cutouts or in-depth explorations of the poor and angry black man, the poverty-stricken and suffering black woman. Granted, those kinds of extremities make for dramatic reading; but what of the ordinary life? Daydreaming while dusting, going to a rummage sale, sitting down to dinner – as long as the quotidian consciousness that defines us all as human beings was missing, the mainstream (speak: majority) population could easily dismiss an entire minority race as caricatures, symbols of destitution both physical and spiritual.
In Thomas and Beulah and many other poems, I try to counter such ignorance and thoughtlessness through language – words that infuse and enlighten us, that complicate and deepen our perceptions so that even in a stranger we can recognize echoes of ourselves. That’s what poetry can do; it’s a daunting, exhilarating undertaking, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.