Poetry Spotlight: Dave Harrity interviews Adam Day

89o0Y5TV_400x400I first met Memorious contributor  Adam Day at Louisville’s InKY Reading Series where we shared the stage for an evening at the Rudyard Kipling, a dive tavern in town known for gathering fringy bohemians, intellectuals, and artists. Cheap beer and decent food made for a perfect place to hear poets, hometown and far a-flung. Just before Adam took the stage to read, I spilled an entire glass of water on his manuscript. Embarrassed, I apologized emphatically, and he was gracious, though—justly—a bit disoriented from the fumble. His pants and shirt partly soaked, he stepped up to the mic and read, holding up wet pages by the corners, still dripping. He read with command from a poem now titled “Diorama—(Scarlet and Liver)” which appears, varied from my original listen, in his first full-length collection, Model of a City in Civil War, winner of Sarabande Books’ Linda Bruckheimer Series in 2014.

That poem stuck with me and I was glad to encounter it again in this new book. Day’s poems are animal with lucid fixations and powerful fires—elemental intuitions woven through fragmentary micro-narratives that traverse personal, historical, and cultural experiences with bewildering range of voice and ironic, not insincere, balance. Whenever I would recall Day’s poems in the years to come after the first time hearing them that evening at The Rud, I could easily intuit the stark utterance and tonal shifts between restrained and flagrant violence, Day’s code-switching composites in language and picture amid discrete, original descriptions. I’m glad his poems are just as alive on the page as they’ve been in my head all those years since I first heard them.

Model’s potent lyrical renderings are typical of Day’s manifold voices, which are sweeping, but without ecstasy, and vivid, though without the ostentation that often categorizes such variety. The book is diverse and complex, effortlessly navigating the peculiarities of the broken and breaking incompletenesses of personhood, family, marriage, and society. Pitting the peculiar against the political, Day is aware of the tensions inherent in human obscurity, our potential to act and damage, debilitate and unadorn. As readers, we are looking into a model of a world born strange and familiar, with Day’s speakers soberly articulating the tragic and comic via the eroding material of language alive to it’s own paradox, modulating between failed shots for salvation and flourished reaches into humane insignificance.

The following is a series of questions I pitched to Adam, hoping he might discuss some elements of his process and style, the writing of his new book, and some of his experiences that brought him to the place where he is now. In it, he discusses his views toward writing and experiencing violence, reading widely with depth, and the challenges of writing contemporary lyric poems.

Day.MODELCITY.webModel of a City in Civil War is filled with poems of intense violence written in a restrained, distant, and otherwise detached voice/s. It is one of the trappings of the book I like most, I think. Can you talk a little bit about how you write violence into poems and what might account for that vivid detachment in your work?

Well, the human body is a huge source of engagement for me, and Merleau-Ponty has always been influential for that reason, and that engagement is probably linked up with how I write violence into poems. Kafka imagined the multi-layered horror of the human waking to the body of an Ungeziefer, but imagine the horror of the “verminous insect” waking to the body of a human. A body at loss of definition. Merleau-Ponty, Rabelais and others, as a corrective to the philosophical history of finding consciousness to be the seat of knowledge, placed the body as the fundamental site of discerning or knowing the world, and insisted that the body and that which it perceives cannot be extricated from each other.

My sense is that the world is violent, though that’s relative, of course, and I don’t think of violence pejoratively. But whether it’s accidentally running over a raccoon, breaking up with a lover, integrating mutually enjoyable rough stuff into one’s sexual relationships, instigating a coup, giving birth, going to war, tearing out the evergreen shrub in front of your home, giving a patient stitches or your kid their insulin shot, &c. it’s everywhere, and more often than not it’s interesting and nuanced. The Greeks and Romans certainly found room for violence in their poems and plays. In any case, I do feel that (American) poetry too rarely reflects that kind of content. And, too often, when it is addressed it is done so in a way that memorializes, sentimentalizes, or prettifies it. Though, my inclusion of violence in my poetry is not part of some polemic or mission. These thoughts are only retrospective.

Rabelais, Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek, Jean Genet, Pinter, Pynchon, Kafka, Chaucer, Ellison, Jakov Lind, Ionesco, Sterne, Joyce—there is a compelling viscerality, an urgent grotesque, an engaging grittiness that isn’t stunt or shtick, but rather a more objective, and fuller reflection of life. I think poets like Dan Chiasson, HughesCrow and Prometheus on His Crag, Catherine Wagner, Ikkyū, Sandra Simonds, Aase Berg, Berryman, Gro Dahl, Phil Levine, Fred Moten, D.A. Powell, and others work to speak to the violence in our lives, in the world outside of our own lives.

My restrained voice is probably related to my sense—though, again, I’m thinking of this only after or outside of writing—that violence is not strange, or unusual, or inherently personal or dramatic. Alternatively, part of what is compelling about it, is that it can be both everyday and of magnitude. It seems difficult to do justice to the magnitude of something if you can’t address it with some objectivity and distance; otherwise you take something you care enough about to write about and simplify it, leak it of its subtlety and complexity.

I grew up in a part of Louisville that was relatively run-down, had a low-education rate and a healthy jobless population, but was otherwise was very working class—picture mullets, professional wrestling, Quiet Riot and Trans Ams—with the requisite trailer park up the street, and where there were some gangs. My neighbors belonged to one. And I’d see or hear about fights involving table legs, bike chains, pool balls in tube socks. Some of that was racial violence, though most of it wasn’t. One of my aunts and her sons lived in some projects a few blocks from our house, and those were the most racially diverse place you could find in that area of town. Though it was an area that also attracted a lot of immigrants new to the States—Vietnamese, Laotians, then Central Americans (many escaping U.S. proxy wars: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, &c.), then people from the former Yugoslavia, then Sudan – you get the idea. It was more of a simmering to boiling pot than a melting pot, I guess. Walking home from the bus stop was often an “adventure.”

As I got older—by middle school (about 1989)—I was skateboarding and going to local (punk and hardcore) shows, two things that went hand-in-hand, and skateboarding gets you fucked with a lot. Or at least it did then. And the shows were going at an historical moment in American sub-culture when (racist) skinheads were coming back to prevalence in the scene, and the straight-edge movement was strong, and you also had S.H.A.R.P.s (skinheads against racial prejudice). That’s all a way of saying that it wasn’t unusual for shows to turn violent. But because back then very few kids of color were going to shows, it was mostly the skinheads versus anyone they felt like going heads up with, often straight-edge kids or S.H.A.R.P.s, but just as often with anyone for no good reason, at all. Later, very ironically, a lot of those same guys who were skinheads at 14 years old, were listening to hip-hop, wearing track suits and wife-beaters, selling crack and blow, and flashing guns at 18 years old. What didn’t change was their penchant for violence. This was crucial for me, though, this time—I became so aware of social issues and politics through that music scene. I was listening to music—much of it local, but also bands like Born Against, Minor Threat, Big Black, Operation Ivy, Bad Brains—that spoke to sexual violence, U.S. intervention abroad, racism, the monotony of a certain kind of adult/domestic life, poverty, corporate exploitation of the environment, &c.

Anyway, the common theme throughout all I’ve said is, primarily, financial disadvantage. You got low-income kids, with parents who are frustrated because they can’t pay the bills or afford their families the lives they wish they could, and that frustration gets taken out on their kids or is simply present for their kids to stew in; and because their parents are also working their asses off and/or are under-educated, and because their local schools blow (as is common in low-income areas), their kids are largely mentally unengaged and bored, and all of that frustration and anger is going to find an outlet somewhere: whether it’s through starting a band, finding a cause, dealing, moving to California to turn pro with Blind, beating the crap out of someone, or becoming a poet.

These poems also draw on discrete historical narratives, events, and various contemporary media (books, articles, etc.). With all this compositing of texts, stories, and ideas, what kind of work do you do in your writing process to keep the voice unified, exacting, and clear? From where do you draw the impetus for the occasion of a poem?

I seem to have worked in bricolage for some time now. I suppose it’s fitting, given how much I value the work of artists like Schwitters and Rauschenberg. I’m not sure how I keep the voice unified; I seem to assimilate the language pretty thoroughly, because honestly it doesn’t occur to me “how” to utilize those other texts (using the term broadly) in my own. They tend to stick with me long before I try to write with them; that may have something to do with that assimilation at the time of writing.

I’m actually just finishing up work on a book-length site-specific poem that utilizes a travel article from the New York Times: “36 Hours in _____” series as its template, over which is written a confusion of that article’s geographical context with an alternative geo-political context. There is a central character/speaker, but overall the poem is spoken in five different registers.  Within the poem, concepts and ideas function with as much import as traditional aesthetic and content concerns. And I’m just beginning a longer “poem” that reworks the really, just laughably horribly-written sex scenes penned by authors like Updike, Roth, Franzen, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Styron, Brodkey, and others, in the context of a few things: the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK (1981-2000), protesting American nuclear cruise missiles being based there, as well as in the context of two great, radical art house films; the former French, the latter Belgian: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975), and in the context of the visual art of Justine Kurman, Laurel Nakadate, Robert Melee and others. Further contextualizing the “poem” is work from Ikkyū, an iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist Monk who wrote eccentric, often crude and sexual poetry; the “Circe” section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which usefully confuses gender and sexuality; and Rabelais’ intelligently, flagrantly vulgar, and scatological, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

As far as my impetus for the occasion of a poem, I have no idea. I don’t have a writing schedule, but neither do I believe in some kind of divine inspiration. I don’t really write if I’m not reading or consuming film. Though, I rarely write in reaction to poetry. I certainly almost never use language from the poems of others. That is one instance where I find it impossible to assimilate the language of an other.

These poems, it seems to me, work against both the ironic and sincere conventions that are often characterized to be separate streams in contemporary American poetry. Whether they’re lyrically rendered persona poems or sweeping and engaged narratives, they seem to be trying to resist both cynicism and epiphany at once. Could you comment a little on this aspect of your work, whether or not you feel that’s a fair categorization? And how you see your work resisting this classification?

Yeah, that feels like a fair categorization. Some of the poems in Model of a City are older and some of them are relatively new, so the book probably captures an evolution away from a certain kind of earnestness. I like this idea you’ve put forth of the work being neither maudlin nor glib. There is definitely irony in the poems, but it is, I hope, born out of engagement rather than detachment. A good deal of irony in contemporary American poetry is simply a way to avoid actual confronting of difficult experiences and ideas, or a way to simply entertain. It bugs me. The funny thing is, the Brits are always complaining that Americans don’t get actual irony, and it’s pretty true. Danes, Argentines, Indians get genuine irony. It’s easy to be glibly ironic. In turn, the epiphanic/cathartic/revelatory poem feels just as naïve, one-dimensional and disingenuous. If an idea, event or issue really seems worthy of memorialization or capable of bringing about catharsis or epiphany—clearly, complex experiences, in themselves—then it must demand sophisticated engagement and writing. One of the reasons that Carl Sandburg is little read today is that while he wrote about important class and labor issues, he did so with a sentimentality and simplicity that likely did not do those issues justice. Oppen or perhaps even Levine, on the other hand, seem to have written with a nuance and complexity about those issues.

I wonder how you might feel about that tricky and commonly discussed idea that poetry is a political act, or an act of witness to the death and chaos in the world. Do you feel any political responsibilities as a poet? If so, to whom or what? If not, then what/who should a poet have allegiance to?

I feel kind of ambivalent about that. Also, it’s hard to answer those questions without sounding preachy. In any case, holding a protest in your family room is a political act, but its effectiveness is suspect, to say the least. Writing poetry is a political act, but on a spectrum, and also within a matrix where context matters a great deal. The act of poetry in Zimbabwe is not the act of poetry in Finland. The family room protest is less politically effectual than the act of poetry, obviously, but those two things are far closer on the spectrum, to my mind, than say community organizing, or working for the ACLU. That’s not to say, by any means, that I don’t think the teaching of, learning about, reading of, and writing of creative writing isn’t or can’t be politically impactful. That seems obvious, of course, but I feel like a lot of poets are pretty defensive about the whole poetry/politics thing. No one wants to think that their life or work is effete. Of course, we also live in a culture where most poets, or very many, seem to think that teaching at the post-secondary level is the primary way one might spend one’s life as a writer. I think the art and the politics of our country would be greatly enriched if there were more poets who pursued work as therapists, gamblers, engineers, journalists, attorneys, stockbrokers, &c.

I feel political responsibilities as a person, regardless of being a poet, to what? I was a political science major, as well as a creative writing major, in college, so maybe political and social issues are more at the forefront of my mind than for others. I don’t know. I suppose I don’t think about who or what I’m “politically responsible” to. But class, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, power, immigration, geopolitics, &c. are things I see in the news, books, films, and art I engage with, and those issues find their way into my thinking and writing. And they would be of concern to me even if I weren’t a writer/poet.

I do think if you spend a life writing poems and aren’t actively engaged by, and engaging with, politics, social issues, &c., then, yeah, I mean, I don’t really know how that’s possible. I’m sure many would argue that practically every poet, at some points, does take on such issues. I’m not saying you have to write agitprop—some of the worst poetry is concerned with political and social issues, because it reads as one-sided, polemical and pedantic. But Thomas Sayers-Ellis, George Oppen, Laura Sims, Brian Teare, Fred Moten, John Yau, Phil Levine, Timothy Liu, Juliana Spahr, Catherine Wagner, Nathaniel Mackey, Jason Schneiderman, Sandra Simonds, Douglas Kearney, Fanny Howe, among others usually do a great job of tackling such issues. I’m simply saying that I don’t know how you could be thinking analytically about your experience of life and the world and not find yourself actively coming to terms with larger political and social issues. Of course, this engagement doesn’t have to take place in the arena of one’s writing, necessarily.

Contributor Dave Harrity’s work has appeared in Memorious, Revolver, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, Softblow, and elsewhere. His first full-length book of poems is Our Father in the Year of the Wolf” forthcoming from WordFarm in 2016. He teaches at Campbellsville University and lives in Louisville.

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Poetry Spotlight: Jill McDonough Interviews Todd Hearon

Exeter, N.H., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015: assorted  (Cheryl Senter for Phillips  Exeter Academy)

Exeter, N.H., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015: assorted (Cheryl Senter for Phillips Exeter Academy)

Contributor Todd Hearon recently published his second collection of poems, No Other Gods (Salmon Poetry 2015). His first collection of poems, Strange Land (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), was selected by poet Natasha Trethewey as a winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, and Hearon’s poems and plays have appeared such places as Ploughshares, Agni, Harvard Review, Poetry, Literary Imagination, Poetry London, Salamander, and Slate. He is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award, a Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine, the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, the Rumi Prize in Poetry, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin.  You can sample some of Hearon’s poems in our pages, where you’ll find poems from Strange Land in Memorious 11, and No Other God’s significant monologue in verse “Persephone in Half-light,” which first appeared as “What Ghosts there Were” in our second issue.

Contributors Jill McDonough and Todd Hearon agreed to have a virtual chat about No Other Gods, and here’s what they had to say.

McDonough: This one isn’t a question, just the start of a conversation about Pasiphae. There is so much remarkable, surprising insight in “No Other Gods,” the title poem: I find it moving that it offers so much tenderness for Pasiphae, comparing “her desire for the Cretan Bull” to belief.  Not just belief=desire, but belief=desire for getting bull-fucked, getting not just “the mythic cock,” but “mastered, humiliated, inhumanly undone by a bruter force than our desire could dream of.”  

When I think of the myth and how it works in your poem, I’m drawn to the work it took to get bull-fucked—I see the contraption, “the magnificent and terrible apparatus,” as the visible equivalent of all the work we do to believe in our own lives.  Whole cultures built around prayer and faith and believing our beliefs are better than somebody else’s—and all the smaller things, the leaps of faith and the shreds of superstition.  So the tenderness for Pasiphae becomes a tenderness for anybody who wants to believe.  That’s how big hearted these poems are—they see the lady bull-fucker hot for bovine balling and say, “But aren’t we all like her, really?”  It reminds me of Mark Doty’s “Tiara”—

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it—
when all he did was go down

into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk

or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,

ravishing music of their hurry.

I get distracted by placing the order with Daedalus.  “So, I’m looking for a sort of cow outfit?  Something I can get inside and put my vadge up to a hole and then a bull will be like, ‘oh hey, a cow to fuck,’ and then I get fucked by a bull?  How much would something like that run me, anyway?”  But you connect it to belief, not the kinds of inconvenience we are willing to endure to get truly fucked.  Can you talk more about the kinds of belief you feel are represented in this smart, thoughtful, crazy-ass poem?

Hearon: I think what drew—and draws—me to the Pasiphae myth is its brute insistence on physicality as a conduit to the transcendent, to something beyond us, through its expression of taboo desire. And its suggestion, when coupled with belief, that you’d better be very careful what you ask for in matters pertaining to the god. The poem quotes Yeats, “Belief comes from terror and is not to be desired.” Virtually every experience with the god in myth is one of ravishment and undoing—you can no longer be the you you were after such an encounter—so it’s not my connection at all, bringing belief and sex together (Catholic mysticism is full of the iconography of ravishment and penetration). None of this is news. But our contemporary experience with religion or the divine or the spiritual—and I’m thinking mostly of the American protestant tradition, the tradition I come out of—has become so sanitized and sentimentalized and stripped of its carnality—a carnality that, despite its repressive puritanical roots, flares out in its poetry (think of Donne’s holy sonnets and Wesley’s hymns—heck, think of Emily Dickinson, whose thunder-hurling god “scalps your naked soul”—and apropos Pasiphae, there’s her god with the terrific “metallic grin . . . who drills his welcome in”). I love your connection, which I hadn’t considered, between Pasiphae’s apparatus—the cow disguise that she commissioned from Daedalus—and the structures of belief we construct to climb inside. But I think that often, these days anyway, we expect too comfortable a ride. We desire belief that will confirm our lives as they are, as we want them to remain, but the myth says, “No. You are going to be fucked. You are going to be ripped apart.”

McDonough: I love the Manwich memo.  It’s goofy and specific and charming and playful.  There’s a milk drunk badger.   It makes me happy that it’s not for anything.  It just likes itself.  Why do you like it? 

Hearon: There was a temptation when working with the material of this book, with its pantheon of mythological and literary figures, to drift into the esoteric, the somewhat remote, “the god who dreams the universe” and so on. But then a voice would interrupt and say, “Remember the Manwich. Remember Ohio. Remember Bobbi Jean Allsup, purveyor of Manwich product at the 7-Eleven in East Toledo.” The “Memo” voices, and others like the intransigent, stunted hick-voice in “Backyard Jesus,” I see primarily as sonic correctives, things akin to what Geoffrey Hill has called his “inner heckler.” They’re goofy and irreverent and playful and warped and provide an antidote to the otherwise rarefied experience. I guess in a way they’re meant to fill out the book’s collective consciousness.

McDonough: Can you talk about the inception and development of the central thousand-line verse monologue, “Persephone in Half-light”?  How do you see it working differently on page and stage?

Hearon: Memorious printed this piece some years ago under a different title, and it was staged at the Boston Center for the Arts back in 2000 or 1999. So it’s been knocking around for a while without a collection to give it a home. It was written at a time when I was active with a theatre troupe in Boston, writing and directing plays, working with actors, and I wanted to write a dramatic piece in which essentially nothing happens (a la Beckett)—in which there is no action except the inner movement of imagination, which to me constitutes an action, figured in the Nude who forms her own conceptual portrait for the reader/audience, which the artist painting her does not have access to (she’s been told, “Lie still. Don’t talk.”). I guess I was interested in all the unseen reality that the visual arts can’t capture, or that they try to capture in different ways; I was also just taken with this character and her story—was a little possessed by her, in fact: I remember catching sightings of her when walking around the streets of Boston; I had a real sense of being haunted. The hell she inhabits was an analogue to a hell I was personally in at the time, and she helped me give voice obliquely to that experience. The Persephone story lives in her, along with many, many others, as she is being painted in that pose by the artist—she’s making the momentary connection between that myth and her own life—and I myself was living something out through her. As to your question about the page and the stage, a good director will find compelling ways to make the inner world of the Nude’s silent reverie an objective actuality. I think film could go a long way towards taking us into her imagined, remembered world. In our production, we “liberated” her from the static pose the artist had placed her in and let her roam around the theatre, interacting with the audience, sharing her story with them, while the artist dumbly continued painting, fixed on the space where she had been.

McDonough: Your fellow-teacher at Exeter, Ralph Sneeden, talks about finding your Memo poems nailed to his classroom door. I feel like your friendships with other writers in the close-knit community of Exeter has to be good for your writing.  Tell me how.

Hearon: I think generally it’s just good to be around creative people and the irreverence they bring to stuffy institutional pieties. That’s certainly one of the things I love about you, Jill, and part of what I value about our friendship. I’m very fortunate not only to be married to a marvelous poet, Maggie Dietz, but to work with other fantastic poets here—Ralph Sneeden, Matt Miller, Willie Perdomo—and fiction writers whose styles and voices are all so distinct but who share this deep commitment to making. It’s funny, we rarely ever talk shop with each other, never “workshop” pieces together. There’s just this expectation that the good work is getting done and the toast to occasional successes. Mostly we just get together to play music and drink.

McDonough: What do you think are the pros and cons of being married to a poet?

Hearon: Great metaphors. Awful puns.

McDonough: “What Happened Next” is a nightmare of eyeless children who don’t recognize you as a parent.  “Aboriginal” ends with “Where were our parents?  Had we eaten them again?”  You have plenty of loving family poems, but these short sharp familial nightmares are particularly scary.

Hearon: Yeah. I was trying, in fashioning the different voices in the book, to give every voice and figure its counterpoint and complement. So the sacred will be hooked by the talons of the profane; the warm memory of childhood with the nightmare vision of your children who cannot recognize you, who have brutal designs on you. Mnemosyne, mother of the muses, comes twinned with Cookie, a toothless whore from Waco.

McDonough: How has having kids changed or not changed your writing, or your writing habits, or your focus, or anything about writing?

Hearon: What was the question?

It’s evening, and my seven-year-old daughter just walked into the room. She says she can’t sleep, can I come give her a snuggle?  There’s your answer. Life calls. Gotta go.

McDonough: Can you talk a little about how you decided which poems to include in this collection?  What got saved for the next book?  Which ones got written just to fill its poem-sized hole in the manuscript?

Hearon: Some of these poems have been with me for years—material I had imagined would form part of my first book.  But then the first book, Strange Land, took a life and shape of its own, and those other poems got orphaned for a while.  I had to conceive a shape that would contain them, and No Other Gods was it.  Once I understood what the new book was going to be, there was certainly a lot of “writing into it,” writing the poems that would comprise it.  But there was simultaneously the writing with the idea of containment in mind—how to find a shape that would contain the older poems that I wanted to keep.  Nothing got saved for the next book.  “Everything Must Go.” The next manuscript, Crows in Eden, was a completely different vision, is finished now and out making the rounds.

McDonough: So much cock, Todd.  These poems have bull-fucking, well-hung imaginary sons, “the phallus,” “testicular dreams”—I particularly like it when you pair genitalia and the MLA: the contrast of the vulgar and the tedious makes me happy.  Why do you think you’re so cocky in these poems?

Hearon: The real answer is I was working on a new version of Lysistrata at the time, and all the phalluses in Aristophanes’ play just took over—starting cropping up everywhere in my own work. What can you do when that sort of thing starts to happen? More cock! I just went with it.

McDonough: Your poems on your teachers made me want to make out with Christopher Ricks and David Ferry, but not at the same time.  I imagine your work as a teacher has kept those amazing four teachers particularly present in your mind since you were their student; can you talk about some of the ways you find your own teaching experiences keep them walking around with you?

Hearon: Your great teachers never leave you.  They become part of the way you think, the way you experience and articulate the world.  And, if teaching’s what you do, the way you teach.  That’s certainly true for me with Geoffrey Hill, Rosanna Warren and Christopher Ricks.  I came to Boston University at just the right time, a little Golden Age, when they all centripetally were gathered—though none of them in the English Department: another story.  I never had David Ferry as a teacher—I just know him as a friend and inspiration—though we had him here at Exeter some years ago to work with the students, and I loved sitting in on his classes on Horace and Virgil as a student myself. Maggie and I met in Hill’s course on Poetry and Religion. And I believe the three of us were enrolled in Rosanna’s translation seminar together, right?  That’s a class I’m always going back to. I teach the Shakespeare elective at Exeter, and I’m constantly having to edit myself from quoting Christopher (I was his TA in the Shakespeare course for years at BU).  Talk about honey in the rock.

McDonough: You know I admire that 19-line sentence that provides the runaway momentum in “Sail Away Ladies.” Can you talk about other places where you found a satisfying fit between form and content?

Hearon: I’m hoping I found that satisfying fit in every poem in the book.  That’s certainly what I’m trying for every time I write.  It’s different with every poem, you know?  And there’s the abiding question, does the content find the form or vice versa?  I love working with a long sentence, trying to stretch it as far as it will go and still hold up and bear its weight, for an entire poem’s length if possible.  I remember consciously working to stretch the line itself in some of the poems in this book—the title poem, for instance—to test the limits of what it could hold and still retain its integrity and remember being amazed at how that formal decision opened up unforeseen registers of voice, even content.

McDonough: “Palimpsest” and “Epilogue” both deal with “there are no words for the things we want the most to say,” while the rest of these poems deal with extraordinarily specific, even previously unimagined things, with great precision.  I think you are choosing plenty of the right words.  Why you got to beat yourself up?

Hearon: Well, you know if you’re honest with yourself, that you’re only scratching the surface of the total range of consciousness and human expression, no matter how long and hard you try, no matter how long and hard the book.  And even if there were some Shakespearian sui generis who was able to tap and articulate the total range, there would still be things left unsaid and unsayable, because those, too, are part of the human experience. The things we have no words for, that are “the things we want the most say,” those are the things that keep us writing and talking, right?

McDonough: And drinking.

Hearon: Right.

NoOtherGods HighResCover

Interviewer Jill McDonough‘s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012). Her poems have appeared in several issues of Memorious.

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For original poetry, fiction, art song, and interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Sean Hill

BF5B8618-e1418436328365-300x300Contributor Sean Hill’s notable second collection of poems, Dangerous Goods (Milkweed 2014), won the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry in April 2015, and he was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Hill, whose previous collection is Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008), has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bush Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, The Jerome Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, and the University of Wisconsin, as well as a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.

Hill kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Dangerous Goods.

The two poems that appeared in Memorious, Postcard to Wrong Address,” which is the first poem in Dangerous Goods, and “Postcard to Eduardo,” are part of a thread of postcard poems that stretch through the collection. They move between being addressed to and from people, inanimate objects, and states of being, and then turn to “Postcard with Blood Stain” and “Postcard with Bloodstain Received.” Where did these postcard poems begin and how did they evolve?

Thank you for giving those two poems a great home. The postcard poems started in 2005 on a slow meandering late summer road trip from Bemidji, MN to Vancouver, BC and the ocean with the fiction writer Lauren Cobb. I’d never been a sender of postcards, but for some reason when I saw a couple of common nighthawks flying low over some railroad tracks in Hartline, WA one evening, I felt like that was some sort of gift, and I also felt the impulse to share it with the poet Nicky Beer. So that night at the hotel I wrote a poem and bought a postcard and mailed my first postcard poem the next morning.

I like to work in series; I like worrying through and working out things across a group of poems, so I thought that this postcard poem could be the beginning of a series. And because I’m a casual birder, I’m often seeing birds (even when not looking for them); I mean I notice them the way people notice the things they have an affinity for. So I decided that each poem in the series would have to take off while on a trip from a bird sighting that I felt moved to share with a friend. And I’d have to write it and mail it before I returned home. The thing of it was trying to capture the place and the mood and the import of the moment and the relationship with the addressee—trying to figure out how to make an epistolary poem out of a postcard.

After three or so years, Lauren or I had the idea that I should write postcards to and from abstract concepts, states of being, and inanimate objects. These poems began with a list of titles and my working out the thought problems that the titles presented to me. They were engaging because I had to imagine the physical, emotional, and psychological lives of these things, and then I had to work out the relationship between the speaker and the addressee. In the cases of the “from” poems where the thing is the speaker I had to imagine its linguistic life. What would Destination say and how and to whom? Once I got on a roll making up titles, dramatic situations like “Postcard with Blood Stain” and “Postcard with Blood Stain Received ”came to me. Most of the postcard poems that ended up in the book were from this phase of the project. Ultimately, they were the ones I felt were most compelling as poems and would be most compelling for a reader.

You conducted research at the American Antiquarian Society for some of these poems. How do historical research and the making of a poem come together for you?DangerousGoods_150dpi

I’m glad you mentioned the American Antiquarian Society. It’s an unbelievable resource for anyone interested in American history before 1876. I was fortunate enough to be awarded one of their fellowships for creative writers, which allowed me to spend several weeks there conducting research—exploring and gathering material.

I definitely think about poem-writing as an act of making. In both of my books, first in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and then in Dangerous Goods, my engagement was at turns as much with the making of the poems and the books as it was with the material I was working with. This back and forth occurs at every stage of my process; it’s the dance of form and content balanced on the edge of function that begins with the impulse to write a poem and ideally results in a poem.

With the dramatic monologues particularly in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor there was a certain mix of internalizing research, remembering/channeling the voices of the people I grew up with, listening to the new voices I heard in my head—the poems’ personae, and ventriloquizing.

When I was at the American Antiquarian Society, I spent my days reading books about the American Colonization Society and Liberia in the 19th and 20th centuries; I read period newspapers and firsthand accounts and the American Colonization Society’s newsletter, and I looked at maps 18th and 19th century maps of Africa, and I followed leads down rabbit holes.

The reading part of my research process with Blood Ties & Brown Liquor was very similar. In Blood Ties & Brown Liquor I think was more concerned with exploring history on the human scale; I mean I think I was focused more on the lives of people who preceded me—those Black lives that made me possible. Whereas with Dangerous Goods, while I was interested in the people whose lives were the history that fascinated me, I was just as interested in Liberia as a 19th century “scheme” to deal with Black folks in America in its earlier sense—a large-scale plan for achieving a goal—and its more contemporary sense—an underhanded plot. I was interested in the motives of its establishers and its colonists and immigrants. I was interested in historic sweep.

The Liberia thread in Dangerous Goods came from a brief mention of central Georgians immigrating to Liberia in a history book I read as research for Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. That book led me to letters written to the Milledgeville newspaper by two African American men who’d immigrated with their families in the early 1870s. The men represent two reactions of African Americans trying to make a home in Africa. Sandy Gannoway returned home to Milledgeville after two years whereas Allen Yancy was firm in his determination to stay in Liberia even though he had lost three of his children and his mother to disease there. It was this bit of Milledgeville history that piqued my curiosity, snagged my imagination, and stuck with me for years.

I may have ventured a little away from your question. Well, in the poem “Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports” I use the footnotes, which are part of the poem, to show some of the scaffolding—the way historical research came together with the thoughts of a poet making a poem. In the frontmatter of one of those 19th century books about Liberia there was a dedication to Henry M. Schieffelin. He had the same surname as Eugene Schieffelin whom I’d know about from researching how European starlings got to the U.S. And as luck would have it (or perhaps because they came from a prominent family) a huge copy of their family tree is kept in the AAS holdings. It’s as large as a conference table, and when I unfolded it I found out they were brothers. I started writing my exploration of their context and motives with the notion that there were resonances with the themes in the other poems in the manuscript at that point. The dates and footnotes worked their way in. Perhaps they give the reader a sense of a disorderly timeline that weaves world history with the speaker’s personal history and thoughts.

In “A Freedman Speaks of His Fellow, or From Milledgeville to New Philadelphia, 1872” I began with the historical material and a form I came up with called a three-sided dust devil. It’s a form that comes from my affection for the villanelle, but it adds a third rhyme and refrain. The poem is written in the voice of a freedman who didn’t immigrate to Liberia. This was another way for me to explore the questions I had about those who chose to immigrate.

I think this kind of writing encourages exploration into specific locales and local histories. And I think most importantly for me it becomes an exercise in understanding others’ perspectives—imagining the daily life through the five senses, through objects, through activities, through events, through relationships.

Is there anything you discovered in your research that didn’t make it into the poems that you still want to tell readers about?

It’s been my experience that there are always some discoveries that don’t make it into a poem or poems that don’t make it into the book. Those Liberia poems in Dangerous Goods came from that brief mention in a history book. Before that I’d hardly thought about Liberia in conjunction with the United States and perhaps never in conjunction with my hometown. It was this bit of Milledgeville history that didn’t fit with what I was trying to do with Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. But Sandy Gannoway and Allen Yancy seemed to fit with the book project that at some point I found myself writing toward—Dangerous Goods. So, yes, after finishing Dangerous Goods there is more I want to tell readers. There are figures and events in Minnesota history I want to explore, and I don’t think I’m quite finished with Liberia. We’ll see what happens.

This book is described as part “travelogue-in-verse,” and it does move across many different landscapes. At the same time, the poems push us to expand our understandings of places and histories; for example, the lynching in “June 1920” occurs in Minnesota and the colonization you examine involves sending African American Christians to Africa during and after slavery.  Can you talk about the role of place in your work, especially when writing in part about lives shaped by the forces of slavery and its aftermath?

History is the meaning we make of the sequence of human events that occur in a setting, a place. It’s our understanding of who we are. Place has geology, topology, hydrology, weather, climate, and geography, and people, flora, fauna and history—it’s objective and very subjective when people are involved. Place and history and where they intersect is what I explore in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor—place as natal home and identity shaper; I was thinking about the “I was born…” of slave narratives. Dangerous Goods was written as a way to explore my moving from home—Georgia and the South—to a new place—Bemidji, Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Dangerous Goods is in part an exploration of place as a space to make a home, which raises the question “What is home?” People who were enslaved here in America had to contend with that question in a serious and pressing way during slavery and after it once they were recognized as citizens. We citizens still have to contend with that question.

If you were to create a poetic family tree, which poets would have to be on there?

Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Seamus Heaney, Marilyn Nelson, Sterling Brown, and C.P. Cavafy are in my poetic DNA. I was introduced to their work in college, which is where I started writing poetry. Reading Dove’s Grace Notes and Selected Poems, especially Thomas and Beulah, were a great influence as were Seamus Heaney’s Bog poems from his early works and Komunyakaa’s Magic City and Neon Vernacular and Nelson’s The Homeplace and The Fields of Praise and The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown edited by Michael S. Harper and C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. There are many others I could name including a long list of rappers from the 80s and 90s and, of course, many generous teachers like Judith Ortiz Cofer and Coleman Barks. I’m always finding long-lost great grandmothers, cousins, and aunts and uncles, but these are the poets I immediately think of when I think about forebears the way I think you mean it here. Their works and the things they taught me about the craft of poetry and history and scope and scale and community and the individual and poetic form and so much more gave me a way to write my poems and books.

What are you working on now? And if you could travel anywhere to research for a possible future book of poetry, where would it be?

I’m in the early stages of a new project that’s historical, and I’m thinking of it as following Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and Dangerous Goods. I’m also working on poems that I think are part of a new project that’s a little bit of a departure from the other work. And I would like to travel to West Africa, in particular Liberia, and Scotland to research a possible future book of poetry. I kept this answer to what’s possible as far as I know, but if someone has a time machine I could use, I have some ideas of when and where I would like to go in the past. Strictly for research for a possible future book of poetry.

 For original poetry, fiction, art, art songs, and interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Big Loves: Antonio Ruiz-Camacho on José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert

ruizcamacho_colorToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Ruiz-Camacho’s collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs was recently published by Scribner. The linked stories, using exuberant and imaginative language, explore the fallout of a patriarch’s abduction in Mexico City, illuminated through the exile and displacement of his family. Here, Ruiz-Camacho shares his love for José Emilio Pacheco.

“I remember. I don’t remember. What year was it?” The opening lines of José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert might as well describe my own struggle trying to pin down the first time I read the book. It was in the early nineties, but the exact year escapes me. It must have been in college, shortly after I moved to Mexico City from Toluca, the small town in Central Mexico where I grew up, because reading the book felt like an introduction to the bigness of the city and the heartbreak of first loves and the ever-unfulfilled promises of a country long bound for greatness, perennially falling short. But it was not only that. Above all, Pacheco’s novella, which is revered and has been read and re-read on end by generations of young and old-and-young-again Mexicans, felt like an incursion into everything I admired and aspired to without even knowing it: prose as rhythm, the playful recreation of the past, storytelling as a way of occupying the world.

Reading whole books was not a widespread habit in my hometown–it wasn’t even something you were required to do in order to do well at school. Before my encounter with Pacheco and the big city, the only books I had read from cover to cover in my entire life were: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and La Noche de Tlatelolco, Elena Poniatowska’s account of the killing of students by military forces on October 2nd, 1968 in Mexico City. They had all fallen in my hands by accident rather than choice, and I had equally devoured them with fascination and a quiet sense of wonder about the possibilities of the written form to reproduce places never visited, eras long gone, and their unmatched ability to expose injustice in societies and countries ruled by brutes. But that was all. Not one of these books ever prompted me to read more, let alone to write. I was an oblivious boy living in the suburbs of the world who’d keep his burning desire to tell stories in the closet, as if a condition that would eventually, hopefully, go away.

Battles in the Desert affected me in a radically different way. For once, unlike the (three!) books I had read before, this one was short (it is in fact so succinct–a meager sixty-eight pages in the original Spanish version–that the English edition, published by New Directions, made enough room to also include five other pieces of short fiction written by Pacheco, which might mislead you to think that the book is a story collection). There is Battles_In_the_Desert_And_Other_Stories_something atomic, sweeping and awe-inspiring about the way short novels like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert, and, more recently, Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, manage to stunningly encapsulate and expand the larger world in just a few swift strokes.

Not only was it a matter of shortness but, more importantly, the element of breath, that made Pacheco’s book irremediable and overly affecting. Each one of the paragraphs in Battles in the Desert is a micro-story in and on itself, and this not only blew me away, it defined me.

Consider the very second paragraph of the book:

“It was the year of the polio: the schools were full of children with orthopedic devices; the year of the foot-and-mouth-disease: tens of thousands of sick cattle were being shot throughout the country; the year of the floods: downtown had once again become a lake, and the people rode in boats through the streets. They say that with the next storm, the sewage system will burst and inundate the capital. So what, my brother answered, we are living up to our ears in shit anyway under Miguel Alemán’s regime.”

Originally published in Mexico in 1981 and translated by Katherine Silver for the English edition, which was released six years later, Battles in the Desert is about a boy who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends from school; about a Mexican middle-class family’s financial woes in the middle of an era of economic prosperity known as the Mexican Miracle; about American companies taking over local industries in the incipient Third World; about kids playing Jews vs. Arabs in dusty school playgrounds at the dawn of the Cold War; about old-school politicos and their housewife-like mistresses and all the mischief and tragedy that may fit and explode in between; about growing up in the late forties in the peripheries of the Western hemisphere; about nostalgia for childhood and melancholy for a future of hope and well-being that never arrived, which is to say it is about a boy with wondering eyes coming acquainted with the ever-stretching world–a world that vanished, that was never there.

Consider the following excerpt from the very last paragraph in the book:

“How ancient! How remote! What an impossible story! But Mariana existed; Jim existed; everything I went over in my head existed even after such a long time of refusing to confront it…. They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they barefoot-dogs-9781476784960_hrdemolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?”

The desire to explain ourselves through stories is as primitive as it is untamable. Battles in the Desert aroused me to dig into the confines of my inner, unexplored writerly self and….oh, please–just say it. I simply read the book and life was never the same again. I couldn’t stop thinking, feeling that I wanted to do that. I wanted to write like that. It took me two decades to realize it, and only now that I find myself writing over and over about the same city, the same country Pacheco so perfectly captured in order to rescue it from the demolition of memory, have I finally accepted that I am, too, writing about a place that no longer exists in order to recapture myself.

 

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, visit  our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

 

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Fiction Spotlight: Benjamin Percy

Percy_AuthorPhoto

Way back in issue #7, Memorious published a knife-long work of fiction from Ben Percy. In the delightfully grotesque “Revival,” the young narrator and his friend consider what it means to be undead, and what hope there might be for a future with zombies in it. Tinged with horror and the desire for more to come, the story serves as an abstract of Percy’s larger works, of both his two short story collections, The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon) and Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf), as well as his novels, The Wilding (Graywolf) and Red Moon (Grand Central/Hachette).

This week, though, Percy releases his third novel and his most anticipated project yet: The Dead Lands (Grand Central/Hachette). The work is a raucously warped and re-imagined vision of the famed Lewis & Clark expedition west, viewed here through the lens of a post-apocalyptic and desiccated United States, one burned by nuclear war, obliterated by disease, and ravaged by nightmares of mutated beasts. But what most plagues this new America is the purulence of men attempting to exert their wills over the last settlements of humanity.

Caught in the middle of an extremely busy period in his life―his current projects include developing a crime series based around the North Dakota oil boom for the Starz Network (called Black Gold), writing for the Green Arrow comic franchise, and, of course, prepping for The Dead Lands book tour―Percy was excellent enough to recall the story he published with us eight years ago and the journey he’s been on since.

Percy_TheDeadLandsLet’s start off by tracking back to “Revival.” From what you remember, what was the genesis of this story or of similar stories you were writing at the time?

I was crushing out a lot of short stories then that blurred the line between literary and genre. Some read almost like fables. Like “The Tree” (published in Ecotone), about a ponderosa pine that falls dangerously in love with a girl, and, after she leaves for college, it pursues her with crows and wasps and spores sent to the wind. Or “Heart of a Bear” (in Orion), which was about a bear that wishes to be human; it was inspired by Frankenstein, the scene during which the creature spends the winter holed up next to a cabin and studies language and behavior through a chink in the logs, and when he finally approaches the family, they are horrified and their rejection embitters and enrages him. There were others—maybe fifteen or twenty altogether. I don’t write short stories much anymore, but I hope to one day cram all of these weirdo hybridized literary-genre fairy tale speculative whatevers into a collection.

Where “Revival” is a character study of a boy whose best friend dies violently, it’s darkly tinged with influence from the zombie and horror genres. What would you say are some good examples of short stories from other genres that writers in the literary tradition would do well to study?

I don’t really identify boundaries the way some of the stiffs in Literaryland do. What makes someone genre? That they have a plot? Or some speculative strangeness occurring? Shirley Jackson, JG Ballard, Richard Matheson, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Ray Bradbury write sentences so pretty you could hang them on the wall, characters so real I’m thinking about them years later.

Getting into The Dead Lands now, you’ve spoken in other places about how you were steeped in the history of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and how that history informed the structure of the journey in the novel. What’s an example of some more subtle research you did in preparation of writing the novel that your readers wouldn’t know about otherwise?

Most of my research concerned the environmental and evolutionary effects of radiation and heat and age, since I’m leaping one hundred fifty years into the future, when nuclear fallout and a super flu have made a husk of the world as we know it. I grew up on Lewis and Clark. Stopping along the trail, visiting Fort Clatsop, reading their journals, watching documentaries. I’m no historian, but because I grew up in Oregon and because my mother is a kind of amateur scholar of the expedition, I have a deep well of knowledge to draw from, and I’ve always known I wanted to write their story, arguably the greatest adventure in American history.

In terms of process, then, what did the early iterations of The Dead Lands look like? Did one of the voices in particular seem to drive the narrative more so than the others? What decisions were you making along the way as to which character would get to run the chapter?

Road trip stories are problematic. You’d think the drive to get from A to Z would be enough to create a propulsive narrative, but so often the stories become episodic instead of causal. “And then this happened and then this happened” is how they read. (For evidence of this, see The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, Nebraska, etc.) I made a few decisions, some of them structural, to antidote this. One was varying the point of view, making it swirl among the different perspectives, each with their own competing desires. The other was to switch back and forth between the expedition and the Sanctuary (post-apocalyptic St. Louis, which the citizens believe to be one of the last outposts of humanity). So I had the quest alongside the fishbowl scenario, and I would cut away from each one right when I reached a moment of emotional or physical peril in order to create an addictive, momentum-driven narrative.

Lastly, we’re curious about what you’ve read recently that’s most surprised you or that’s just really impressed you. What’s been in your reading stack as of late that you would recommend?

I’m writing the Green Arrow series for DC—the primer issue drops in May, the first full issue in June—so I’ve been binging on comics. The Sandman, Saga of the Swamp Thing, The Massive, The Long Halloween, Batgirl, Southern Bastards, Wytches, Hellblazer, The Longbow Hunters—God, it’s been so much fun. Pure pleasure mixed up with analytical study of how all these rock stars are pacing their stories, arranging their panels, balancing exterior action with narration and interiority.

—Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor

For original fiction, poetry, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Memorious at AWP: A Guide to Contributor Book Signings

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Many of our readers and contributors are headed to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Minneapolis this upcoming week. In the past, we have hosted a bookfair table and a variety of both official and offsite events where we have gotten to meet you. Readers and contributors, we have loved seeing you every year!

But this year we want to spend more time getting out and discovering writers at readings and panels, and we want to turn our attention to what is the heart of our magazine: the work of our contributors. I’ve gone through the AWP Bookfair author signings list and created a list of our contributors who will be there signing their books. We hope you’ll find this guide useful. Print it out, take it with you, and if you buy one of our contributors’ books, I hope  you’ll tell them Memorious sent you!

See you in Minneapolis,

Rebecca Morgan Frank

Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Memorious.org

Author Signings by Memorious Contributors

AWP Bookfair, Minneapolis

Dan Albergotti

Thursday 11- 12 Table 336

Mary Biddinger

Thursday 2-3, Black Lawrence Press, table 2030

Kelly Cherry

Thursday 2-3, University of Wisconsin Press, table 507

Michael White

Friday 10-11:30, Persea Books, table 1424 and 1422

Lisa Williams

Thursday 11-12, New Issues Poetry & Prose

G.C. Waldrep

Thursday 2-3, BOA Editions, table 832 and 830

Adam Day

Thursday 4-5, Sarabande Books, table 909

Michael Bazzett

Friday 11:30-12:30, Milkweed Editions, table 702-4

Karin Gottshall

Friday 10-11, Fordham University Press, table 425

Friday 2-3, The Journal, table 1218

B.J. Hollars

Friday 10-10:30, University of New Mexico Press, table 608

Traci Brimhall

Friday 10:30-11:30, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Andrea Cohen

Friday 11-12, Four Way Books, table 1425-1423

Anne Valente

Friday 11:30-12:30, The Cincinnati Review, table 1730

Angela Ball

Friday 1-2, Mississippi Review/Center for Writer, table 924

Nickole Brown

Friday 1-2, BOA Editions, table 832-830

Oliver de la Paz

Friday 1-2, University of Akron Press, table 933

Jason Koo

Friday 1-2, Brooklyn Poets, table 625

Caki Wilkinson

Friday 1-2, Persea Books, table 1424 and 1422

Tyler Mills

Friday 1:30-2:30, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Tarfia Faizullah

Friday 2-3, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Jehanne Dubrow

Friday 2-3, University of New Mexico Press, table 608

Timothy Liu

Friday 2-3, Saturnalia Books, table 1519

Kimberly Johnson

Friday 3-4:30, Persea Books, table 1424, 1422

Sarah Rose Nordgren

Friday 4:30 PM – 5:00 PM, University of Pittsburgh Press, Table 1504, 1502

Eric Pankey

Saturday 9:30-10:30, Milkweed Editions, table 702 and 704

Cathy Linh Che

Saturday 1-2, Alice James Books, table 1009

Sara Eliza Johnson

Saturday, 3:15-4:15, Milkweed Editions, table 702 and 704

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(If you are a contributor who has a bookfair signing that wasn’t listed in the AWP directory, post it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. Contributors only, please.)

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Contributor Spotlight: Michael Bazzett

Bazzett.BWMichael Bazzett’s You Must Remember This (Milkweed, 2014) is a book of contradictions. The poems contradict themselves, negating what they have already told the reader, so that in “A Woman Stands in a Field,” the narrator implies a stand of oak trees with “Perhaps she is/ searching for acorns,” then pulls the ground out from under us with the reversal, “upon closer inspection, it turns out the trees are/ not even oaks.” This negation, or absence, is in play throughout, constantly asking readers to imagine the lack of something: ink that can’t be seen but that whispers to a note’s recipient, a divorce acted out in mime court thanks to “the unspeakable nature” of the couple’s differences, or a list of what the night is not in “Clockwatcher.” The poems’ wordplay mixes diction, juxtaposing the colloquial with the mythic, so the phrase “how// utterly it sucked” describes the situation of Odysseus lying in wait in the Cyclops’ cave, bringing the mythic closer to our own lived idioms and breathing new life into it. The poems blur boundaries between the domestic and the surreal; in “The Orangutan,” a family discovers, to their embarrassment, that their new orangutan is actually electric and not in fact alive, and has been hiding its uneaten bananas behind the furnace. In fact, orangutans make multiple appearances, echoing disturbingly and hilariously throughout the book. I loved entering the inventive world of You Must Remember This and being brilliantly conned by the speakers of the poems as they played fast and loose with the truth.

You Must Remember This was published as the winner of Milkweed’s 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. Michael Bazzett’s poems have also appeared in many journals, including issue 23 of Memorious. He is the author of the chapbooks The Imaginary City (OW! Arts) and The Unspoken Jokebook (Burning River Press), as well as the winner of the Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. He kindly answered my questions about putting together a full-length manuscript, the artistic potential of denial, and poetic family trees.

As someone in the process of putting together my first full-length manuscript, I’m really interested in how people structure their books. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came into being? You’ve also published a couple of chapbooks before this full-length collection. How is putting together a full-length manuscript similar or different to putting together a chapbook?YouMustRememberThis_PGW_300dpi3

My wife deserves huge credit here.

Given that the prize asked for exclusivity, and that what I considered to be “my book” manuscript was already submitted to a half dozen presses, I decided to come up with an utterly new manuscript for Lindquist & Vennum. I had a small core of what I thought might become “my second book” and I gave the pages to her, along with about 160 other pages of poetry, some old, some brand new, about 200 pages total. I included some new work almost as a lark. She spent two days reading and sifting through the work, all the while examining a number of books we admired, and then she composed the book as a mix-tape, cutting it down to 70 pages in the process. Even the title was hers.

The process was simultaneously a huge relief, a leap of faith, and a little frightening. She included poems I’d never even submitted, let alone considered putting in a book, and the truth is I felt quite vulnerable putting it out there. (Well, not that vulnerable. Who ever thinks they’ll actually win?) But it gave me fresh eyes for the work, and a lot of the juxtapositions and threads she discovered certainly helped the whole transcend the sum of its parts. She also didn’t include a handful of “solid poems” that had found homes at great journals (something which always clouds my judgement). They didn’t fit her vision, so they had to stand in the hallway and listen to the party. I think I trimmed three poems, after the fact, but other than that, the shape of the collection is her work completely.

She’s always my first reader, (she writes fiction, and I return the favor as her line editor), but this was a true gift from a true partner. At 1-0, she can now retire undefeated as a poetry editor.

The chapbook was much smaller, and I simply used the title (The Imaginary City) as the defining metaphor. I asked myself: Could this happen in the imaginary city? If so, then it found a place in the streets & architecture of my vision-world. Which is like ours, but weirder.

There’s a lot of negation and denial in You Must Remember This: the loss or absence of sight/sound, as with the silent ink in “The Sinclair Gift Emporium” and the loss of sight in “The Last Expedition” or the court case told by mimes; and the denial of existence or experience as with “Memory” in which the speaker denies having a brother he has already told the reader about. Can you talk about the creative possibilities of denial or negation?

This is an intriguing observation; I guess I’d never thought about it much before. Robert Hass does something like this in a little poem I truly love called “The Problem of Describing Trees” which starts with the line, “The aspen glitters in the wind” and then sort of revises itself into a very different space right before our very eyes and ends with the stanza:

Mountains, sky,

the aspen doing something in the wind.

I think denial is inherent in trying to use words to speak the unspeakable. Sometimes the world seems remarkably unaware of its need to be explained.

Your book plays with language and diction, moving between very heightened and musical language and a more casual/slangy expression, sometimes within the same poem (I’m especially thinking of “Cyclops,” which contains the phrase”how/ utterly it sucked the hear the oaf stirring in his stupor,” which manages to be both mythic and colloquial at the same time). What function does wordplay serve in your poems?

Often, in initial drafts, sound drives sense for me. I’ll come home from a walk with the sound of a line in the soles of my shoes and I’ll grab an envelope as I walk into the door to write it down. Often these lines don’t make it to the final draft, but serve as the pit that feeds the fruit. I usually only learn what a poem’s about once I’ve spent some time eavesdropping on it.

And it’s true I’m fond of the merging of the mythic and the colloquial. I mean, I love the idea of Athena and Odysseus sharing asides at the back of some bizarre faculty meeting. Or the Mayan jaguar-god coughing up a tremendous hairball. Or someone unwittingly bumming a cigarette from God, while waiting for the bus.

 

In your writing, how does conscious choice meet up with that idea of “eavesdropping,” or letting yourself create without knowing what you’re doing yet?

I often write poems because I want to uncover how they end. I follow the sound of the words — which become footprints somehow — and listen for a rustle in the brush. I trust that a real animal made those prints, even if I don’t fully know what kind of animal it is. When this happens, I know the poem’s smarter than I am, and that’s good. It has a life of its own that I try to glimpse with my shaky hand-held camera made of words. Sasquatch poetics.

Conscious choice comes in later, mostly during revision, where I maybe see a connection that intuition led me to, blindfolded, as it were. Then I pare away excess, and try not to do too much damage, etc.

Your poems’ use of orangutans (especially “The Orangutan,” which features an electronic version in a very surreal domestic situation) reminded me of James Tate’s ape poems. If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, what poets do you see yourself descended from? How do they come out in your work?

Oddly, I’ve discovered a number of influences after the fact. Charles Simic, James Tate, Francis Ponge, George Saunders. I actually started reading all of the above after people noted a perceived influence on my work. Sometimes, as a high school teacher, I reread texts so often I feel out of the loop, so it’s been a wonderful way to discover writers with a shared sensibility. I guess these after-the-fact influences that arrive via the zeitgeist would be the roots, feeding the tree from below.

But, as far as the tree itself:

There would be a Polish branch, where Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert would roost, with dark jackets and glinting eyes and the intelligence of crows. (I think my soul might be Polish.) And there would be a dusty evergreen Portuguese branch where José Saramago & Fernando Pessoa would settle into the lavender dusk, like owls. Virginia Woolf’s syntax would inform the pattern of the branches. Emily Dickinson would form the heartwood of the trunk, Homer the pith. (I think I’ve spent more hours reading Dickinson than any other poet.) Whitman would be photosynthesis itself, transforming sunlight into food. The Scottish poet Robin Robertson would be a broken limb, heartwood opened to the light.

And so many leaves: Langston Hughes, Antonio Machado, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Jane Kenyon, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Hass, James Baldwin, Li Po, Louise Glück, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, Don Paterson, Kay Ryan, Li-Young Lee, Delmore Schwartz, Yeats, et al., into ∞

Russell Edson would be in the tree, just sitting there, wearing a cardigan.

Novelists are big for me: Ishiguro, Saramago, Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Gordimer, Woolf, Morrison. I love the deadpan creepiness and psychological resonance of Patricia Highsmith. And Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” is a book I return to again and again. I love the imagination of Ray Bradbury. The brilliant wreck of Philip K. Dick. I’ll end with Heaney, as his three word definition of poetry is taped to my wall: Exact, Truthful, Melodious.

And finally, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’ve recently finished a translation of the Mayan creation epic, the Popol Vuh, which will be coming out later this year with Milkweed Editions; I’m finishing up the introduction right now. It was a fascinating ride, and as far as I know, this version will be the first verse translation in English.

I have little book of linked prose poems I’m polishing up about a tribe of “others” who live among us, almost invisibly – it’s part reflection on homelessness, part Jane Goodall primate study, part Sasquatch fable, part ghost story. I’m also working on a manuscript tentatively called untitled & invisible, consisting solely of poems I forgot to write. Or maybe I’ll call it Self-Portrait as Another Man. In any case, I’m planning to have iTunes download it onto everyone’s machines for free. I imagine that will be very well received.

Christina Rothenbeck is the author of two chapbooks, Girls in Art and the forthcoming Erasing Innocence, both from Dancing Girls Press. She is a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

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