Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jill McDonough

Memorious contributor Jill McDonough’s latest poetry collection, Reaper, takes war poetry to new places: computer screens far removed from the action. With elegant, conversational free verse and surprising, deft villanelles, McDonough ruminates on drone warfare, one of America’s more controversial war tactics. In chatty meditations on drones’ names, McDonough reveals what their makers might have been thinking. In tragic scenes overseas, she taps into the helplessness America’s “enemies” internalize daily. Perhaps most importantly, McDonough reminds us that while war is almost always painful to confront—whether up close or on a screen—“if we are willing to look at it, we can end up seeing it more clearly.”

Reaper meditates on drone warfare and America’s drone program. Often, this meditation centers on the names of the drones or other weaponized machines, from things like “Firebee” and “Cardinal” to “Predator, Reaper. Dominator.” Why did the names of these objects play such a big role in this book, and what are these poems saying about the power of language and naming?

I think of the naming as a kind of tell, a bit of subconscious coming through. Like how we all learned Rick Santorum wants to have sex with a dog when he said gay marriage will turn into man-on-dog—who the hell thinks of that? So “Firebee” and “Cardinal” reveal what the makers were thinking about those drones: they were proud they were making things so animal-like. Now we give these kinds of things these crazy names like Reaper and Hellfire and it seems childish to me—I say “My drone’s tougher than yours times infinity,” thinking of what the namers wanted to accomplish: my dad could beat up your dad, et cetera. But the people who actually get killed by these things probably don’t have much of a chance to be scared by the name—the name is for the namer, not the person whose house is enveloped in the sound of them hovering. And a name like Reaper or Hellfire takes the agency out of our hands as much as the distance of the tech does.

With drone warfare, we see a blurring of man and machine, which makes us question who is really in control. Reaper also questions who or what we can trust—humans or robots. In “Negative Obstacles,” the speaker says “the author suggests / we can’t be trusted, but robots probably could. / We could program them to always be good guys.” How do you think this trust—or lack thereof—in humans or machines plays into the poems in this collection?

I think it’s the kind of question we should be engaging with as a country, as we let the technologies seep in, become an unquestioned part of our lives. But at the same time we see these technologies becoming more advanced, and we take them more and more for granted, we also have more objective proof about how people in authority—in our police forces, in our government—reveal themselves as racist, as having poor judgment, as making decisions for money or power instead of for the greater good. The machines’ lack of self-interest helps us see ourselves better, you know?

In the current political climate, the issue of American exceptionalism is a source of tension. Our current president ran his campaign on an “America first” agenda, and many people disagree with this view of our “place” in the world. Several poems in this collection directly or indirectly question how exceptional America really is. Can you talk about this idea a little more and how it helped shape the poems in Reaper?

When I was a kid I saw Platoon on a school trip, and it completely blew my mind to realize that maybe Americans weren’t always the good guys. But we fought Nazis! So we had to be good, right? We still think we are the good guys, which is really sweet, but thinking we are in the right leads us to some pretty dark places.

One American idea I really struggle with is Freedom. We love Freedom! It has to do with eagles and flags and is super American. I have no idea what it means. We are more free to criticize our leaders than people living under Putin? Okay. But it seems to mean something bigger, something less specific than that, to the people wearing eagle hats. I think it’s another tell, another indication that we’re trying to forget we were made possible by slavery and keep profiting from prisons. Freedom! Love it or leave it! What the hell?

I really appreciate that you don’t shy away from highly politicized subjects, including, for example, gun control in “I Dream We Try Gun,” and income inequality in “The Money.” Do you feel that writers today have a duty to directly address issues like these? Why did you choose to write about these subjects? What do we lose if we don’t face these subjects head-on?

“Duty” is such a funny word. I could never tell someone “it’s your duty” with a straight face. I also don’t believe in telling other people what to write about. I do talk to my students about the importance of stakes in a poem­—we should feel a need to read it, you know? If it’s too slight it can feel pointless. Of course, a poem can also be too plodding or too boring or too shrill—it’s just one of the potential pitfalls, that maybe nobody cares about your poem but you. Writing about real stuff in a real way is more interesting for everybody. Even if the real stuff is an imagined Age of Giant Squid.

When I think of traditional war poetry, my mind goes straight to the trench poets writing about their experiences in World War I. Their physical proximity to death and destruction was often the core of their poems. One of the unique and frightening facets of drone warfare is that we can be so far away from the places we’re bombing—further than we’ve ever been before. Does this physical distance make writing about drone warfare more complicated? How? 

In a way, the distance makes it more real to me. I was never going to be in a trench, but I am one of the millions of people who own those drones. The tech makes it easier to ignore, but if we are willing to look at it, we can end up seeing it more clearly. Those WWI poems are the closest we can get to the trenches, but we can go on YouTube and see the same screens our drone operators saw when they decided to sparkle a target or pull the trigger.

While many of the poems in Reaper are written in whip-smart, conversational free verse, there are several poems written in form. There are two series of three consecutive villanelles that really stand out amongst the free verse of the collection. How do you think the themes and subject matters of these poems lend themselves to the villanelle form? Why did you choose to group these poems the way you did?

How stoked was I to realize my notes on the drone operators’ experience was starting to sound like a villanelle? The looping repetition of the form enacts some of the everyday twelve-hours-on, twelve-hours-off all-screens rut of the drone pilots’ experiences. This made me think about how you can watch the same place for twelve hours at a time for weeks and hope you get to bomb the place because what’s it all for if it’s just some innocent family you’ve been watching? It was useful to realize it’s not necessarily a relief when it turns out there’s nothing to worry about with that house . . . which helped me understand some of the thinking that lets innocent people get hurt.

The first villanelle section is a kind of warm-up for the Lt. Col. Matt J. Miller poems, a way to introduce the concept and the subject so the reader is ready for Miller’s perspective. I wanted all of Lt. Col. Matt J. Miller’s villanelles together, for company, and to draw focus to how useful his book was to me. He actually wrote to me when one of these first appeared online, “Still Death”—it ended “I work on forgetting the two boys” but he emailed to say “One slight point of contention—I’ve never tried to forget those two boys. I remember them often. I’ve done my best over the years to make sure we operate with greater discipline, restraint, and ability to avoid making those same mistakes. And I think we’ve made a lot of progress.” So I changed the poem.

One of the most heartbreaking emotions I felt at the end of some of these poems was helplessness. “In the Next Chapter” paints a picture of a world where humans eventually give up because of their powerlessness against drones. In “Stoning the Drone,” we see Afghans throwing rocks at a fallen American drone in a futile clash of man and machine, as the reader understands that this one failed drone will not make a difference in the big picture of war. In the former, I felt helpless as a human and an American who is against these practices and yet cannot stop them. In the latter, I see the helplessness of nations who can never compete with America’s war technology. Did this sense of helplessness and futility affect the writing of these poems? How so?

Yep. My first book was all sonnets about executions in American history, and since it came out I’ve given readings and people often ask what I thought sonnets were going to do to end the death penalty. And I’m all, “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” But it has to do more than not writing them at all, right?

So too with these poems—things bothered me, so I wrote about them. The poems helped me think. The helplessness helped me see what I wanted to think about.

Jill McDonough is the author of Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and Reaper (Alice James, 2017). The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford’s Stegner program, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for thirteen years. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, Memorious, and Best American Poetry. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fifth poetry collection, Here All Night, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.

Interviewer Susan Elliott Brown is the author of the chapbook The Singing Is My Favorite Part (Etched Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry blog, Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among others. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama and works in advertising.

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

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Big Loves: Devin Murphy on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children

DevinMurphy-300x200Every so often a book I have yet to read makes me nervous. I think this is a self-defense wall my writer-self intuitively constructs to steer wide of new voices that may influence me when I already have my own narrative voice locked into a project. This is why I circled Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I was afraid it would contain some sort of tick-like voice that would burrow under my skin. When I finally opened the novel, I knew I was right to be cautious.

This book makes us all culpable. We consume news, culture, and images that touch us but we swipe them away, or turn the page. We have our own lives. The image of some other life in the news may be poignant, but on the other side of the world, they seem so far removed it may as well be fiction. These photos may even become iconic but rarely cause us to act. Think of the naked girl in Vietnam running after napalm stripped off her clothing. Or the stirring green eyes of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic whose life had been upturned by invading Russians. These images keep coming. In The Small Backs of Children, the central image is a picture of a girl in Eastern Europe being uplifted and tossed from an explosion at her back, an explosion that atomized her family and thrust her into a cold, brutal life.

Small Backs of ChildrenWith this upheaval we begin to see the world this girl is thrust into. Yuknavitch writes, “This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield—the territory of all violence—all power—all life and death.”

The girl also enters into the consciousness of a woman on the other side of the world who is dealing with the paralyzing loss of a stillborn child. The grieving woman cannot let go of the image of the girl launched into the air and is so empathic that she is willing to sacrifice and act because of the photo. She looks at the fire-rimed girl and feels hurt. The woman decides the image is worthy of trying to make another’s existence less tragic, and sets out to save her.

Yuknavitch’s novel does not let us turn away from this image. She is fearless in her gaze and delves into all the cultural and personal culpability such an image masks. In doing this she slips into the grotesque, overtly sexual, and dislodged longings of her characters. The characters don’t have names. We know them as The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer, The Widow, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, and the Writer’s Husband. Maybe real names bring accountability and hold us back from revealing our vulnerabilities, our deep, dark truths. Those truths are what this author spills onto these pages.

Boat Runner

This is at times a shocking book. Though what shocks us these days? Pictures of dead children don’t seem to. Bleeding children? Angry white men hoisting old Confederate flags? Black men being choked to death? It is all at our fingertips. We have a smorgasbord of suffering to tune out, to block away. Yuknavitch confronts us on this: “All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood.”

Reading this book, we realize that it cannot be good for us to harden and remove ourselves from the lives of others outside our lanes. This book wants to swerve in and out of that mindless traffic, to disrupt, to raise the heartbeat of everyone nearby, to remind us that we are human and messy and so are those depicted in flat images we so easily swipe away. This is a book that aims for a difficult goal: To make us really see.

Devin Murphy‘s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

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

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Literary Ventures

Rochelle Hurt, the founder of the new poetry review website The Bind, kindly answered a few questions for us about this new literary venture. Hurt is the author of two books of poetry: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (2014), a collection of linked prose poems and verse selected for the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.

Tell us about The Bind.
The Bind is a website that reviews recent books of poetry and hybrid work by women and nonbinary authors. We post a new review each week, and many of our reviews are creative.

What motivated you to start a site that both focuses on work by women and nonbinary poets and creates a space for new kinds of reviews?
I think creative responses and unorthodox reviews can make the work of reviewing less daunting, and the work of reading reviews more rewarding. I’m especially interested in the ways that creative reviewing can draw out a reviewer’s excitement or obsession with a particular thread in a book, which I think is more engaging than a simple overview and evaluation. At The Bind, we like analytical reviews that take this approach as well.

As for the focus women and nonbinary authors: It seems that these books still sometimes get ignored or forgotten in conversation, especially by men. I hope that The Bind, as an online conversation about new books, can serve as small gap-filler.

What exactly is “creative reviewing?”
Our creative reviews have included lyrical responses, drawings, calendars, centos, games, quizzes, and plenty of other forms, usually accompanied by critical explications. Many of these forms remix an author’s lines in order to draw out a critical point the reviewer wants to make. I see this process as not all that different from the critical review process of collecting significant quotes and then linking them together through your own lens as a reviewer. In creative remixing, however, there may be a higher risk of misusing an author’s words, so a creative reviewer has a responsibility to remain aware of this and write consciously in service of the book being reviewed.

What can we expect to see from The Bind in the year ahead?
We’ve just added a few folks to our team of occasional reviewers and our submissions are increasing, so we’ve got a lot planned. A few reviews in the works right now: a natal chart, a lyrical index, a guided tour, a shopping list, a roadmap, a family tree. In the future, I’m hoping to incorporate more digital media like videos, games, and Twine stories. I’ve also been thinking about adding a feature on classroom exercises or pedagogical tools to accompany some reviews.

How can reviewers, or authors, become involved?
We post a new review every Thursday, and readers who sign up for our email list can get that review delivered directly to their inboxes each week. In addition to our weekly reviews, we sometimes have extra features, like Katherine Webb’s Bad Drawings for Good Poetry. We’re always looking for new features and creative reviews, so I encourage readers to submit. Anyone (of any gender) can submit reviews or pitches to the.bind.reviews@gmail.com. More guidelines and examples can be found on our website: www.thebind.net.

Readers can also follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. Look for us using the handles @thebindreviews and @bind_reviews.

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

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor and former Memorious Fiction Editor Ian Stansel

Ian Stansel’s debut novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is fire, smoke, and bursts of illumination against the open sky. It’s classically American—a Western with some serious literary chops—and it’s everything it should be considering the July 4th, 2017 publication date. Critics and readers alike have showered the novel with praise, which is a follow-up to his 2013 PEN/Bingham Prize–nominated collection of short stories, Everyone’s Irish. Stansel has published stories in Ploughshares, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, and many anthologies, and his nonfiction has appeared in Cutbank, Salon, and The Good Men Project. Memorious had the honor of publishing the title story from Everything’s Irish in Memorious 19. Stansel also later served as Memorious Fiction Editor. Suffice it to say, we jumped at the chance to talk to Ian about his new novel, alternate endings, reader appeal, and willfully committing the biggest writing sins.

The alternating point of view is a driving narrative force, an unlikely dance between predator and prey. It generates tension and deepens characterization—the kind of win-win that’s hard to come by. Most importantly, perhaps, seeing this landscape from the perspectives of both Silas and Lena affords the reader a greater understanding of the Van Loy brothers’ relationship. Did you begin the novel with this structure, and how hard was it to pull this off?

First of all, thanks for taking the time to read the book. As far as structure, etc. goes, something I’ve said many times to my students is that story, plot, character, and structure are really indistinguishable. We separate them for the sake of workshop conversations, but when it comes down to writing a novel, these things are so overlapped that you can’t say one is doing this and another is doing that. In the case of this book, I came up with the Lena character and the idea of an alternating structure and the overall story of the chase simultaneously. Without the alternating structure (or something like it) there is no Lena, and without Lena there is no story, just a situation.

The alternating POV allows a certain level of dramatic irony because the audience is aware of things that the characters are not, but the narrative also does not reveal everything to its reader. This is something I struggled with. I was trained to front-load everything. To withhold information is about the biggest sin a writer can commit. But at some point you have to say, Okay, I’ve internalized all the workshop training I can retain—now which rules do I need to follow and which might I need to break in order to tell this story most effectively? Whenever I see rules that say don’t do this or don’t do that, I always imagine a little asterisk next to each one with a note that says, “Unless it works.”

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo comes in at a slim 200 pages, and this reader got the sense that you wouldn’t dare waste a word. Tell us about the words you had to scrap; for example, what was the hardest scene to lose?

The only major deletion was the original ending, which was very different and very weird. It was a strange experiment that didn’t really fit with the rest of the book. My agent rightly pointed this out and it was not too difficult to cut it and write an ending that makes more sense. Other than this, the revision process was more about adding and clarifying. This is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t envisioning this as a novel through most of the writing process. I had set out to write a novella, aiming at seventy or so pages. This, I suppose, goes to show that you need to be open to what the story you’re writing wants to become.

In 1993, I gave a book report on The Red Pony. Since, I’ve had little-to-no experience with horses, literary or otherwise; even still, your novel never made my lack of equine knowledge an impediment to connecting and engaging. What challenges did you and your human characters face in sharing the page with their animal companions?

The specifics about horses and horse life are, I suppose, a bit about establishing the world and some semblance of authority for the narrative. But they are more about being true to the characters and their passion and expertise. I was aware, though, that I was not writing solely for horsey people, and that there was a balance I needed to strike. I don’t expect the average reader to know every particular term—horse breeds or uses for pieces of tack—but hopefully those moments of detail, one, don’t distract or confuse, and two, serve to communicate how deep into this world the characters are and how much they care about the animals.

The other challenge I faced was how to make the horses feel like actual characters, albeit secondary ones. I think I succeeded most with the horse called Disco, who carries Silas. Their relationship evolved on the page mainly because through a large chunk of the book, Silas and the horse are alone. Lena has her riding companion, Rain, to talk to, but Silas has only Disco, so their bond needed to be a bigger part of the narrative than the bonds between the women and their horses.

How did you so deftly balance literary and commercial/genre appeal?

I wasn’t thinking so much about commercial appeal as reader appeal. That might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but what I mean is that I did (and generally do) think a good deal about how a reader would engage with the book, but I didn’t think about how a potential editor would. I think this is the way to go. After all, editors are first and foremost readers, right? So you might as well just write for readers. That said, I did understand that I was writing something with a lot more “plot” than previous projects, and plot, in general, is more commercial. I wrote a novel in grad school that never even got to the point of being “shopped around” because everyone who saw it said the same thing: love the writing, love the characters, but there’s no story. I did not want that to happen again. And, honestly, the older I get the less tolerance I have for plotlessness. I love stories and I wanted to write one that readers could really get into. You know those moments when you’re reading and the story is really running along and you’re so wrapped up you kind of forget that you’re in a chair in your living room or whatever? Hopefully there are a couple moments in this book that do that.

What overlapping obsessions, themes, similarities between The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo and your PEN/Bingham Prize-nominated story collection, Everyone’s Irish (the title story appears in Memorious 19), most surprised you? (I love, for example, the way you incorporate landscape—whether it’s the lapping of the Chicago River or the “shush of the wind purling over the grass.” I also noticed your characters’ yearnings for justice despite the overdetermined nature of blame and the strained choice between solitude and distraction. What, if any, would you say are the constants in your writing?

I don’t generally think of my writing as being that concerned with landscape, but I do spend a lot of time on it, probably because I’m insecure about my ability to fully convey this place or that. So in my collection, most of which takes place in Illinois, I did labor over ways to show the flatness of the cornfields or the river running through Chicago. I tend to focus on what I feel are my deficiencies, and I don’t think that’s a terrible habit for a writer. With the novel, so much of it depends on the landscape that I spent even more time obsessing over phrasing.

I think the most direct connections would be between the novel and the last story I wrote for the collection, “Introduction by the Author.” Both stories involve two brothers, betrayal, and an overabundance of ambition. I find ambition fascinating and dangerous—which are two good starting points for a story. I also find myself coming back again and again to sibling relationships. And grief. And betrayal. And regret.

Some people have asked me what writers I felt were influences on this novel and many assume I’ll say Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry—Western writers. And they’re right. I was influenced by them, as well as a number of other Western writers (Paulette Jiles, for instance). But it was just as influenced—perhaps even more so—by books like James Salter’s Light Years and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and others that tackle the inner turmoil associated with those themes I just mentioned: grief, betrayal, regret.

Would you be willing to tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

I have a number of things started, but nothing I can say is my “new project.” I’m confident there will be another book in the not-too-distant future. I just couldn’t say right now what it’ll be.

We’re grateful for the work you did as a former Fiction Editor for Memorious; you have a history of supporting writers and championing new writing. What great work have you recently read, and what’s in your reading queue. Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?

Honestly, I’m often woefully unaware of what is coming around the bend. The vast majority of my reading is determined by whatever I’m working on or teaching or just obsessing over. So I just bought a book about oyster farming because I like oysters. And I’m reworking my advanced fiction workshop wherein we read linked stories, so I’m reading books like Nami Mun’s incredible Miles Form Nowhere. I am excited to read N.J. Campbell’s Found Audio, which just came out. And Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives looks cool. So, yeah, those and the oyster book.

Assistant Editor Wendy Oleson is the author of Our Daughter and Other Stories, which won the 2017 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (Map Literary). Her stories, poems, and hybrid text have appeared recently in Cimarron Review, Calyx, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. She teaches for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the WSU-TriCities English department. Wendy lives in Eastern Washington with her wife and their irrepressibly-delightful dog, Winston.

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

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Memorious Speaks: Jennifer Tseng Reads “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.”

Welcome to “Memorious Speaks,” a new corner of the blog, which features authors performing poetry and prose published in Memorious. In this edition, Jennifer Tseng reads “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.,” her stunning poem from Memorious 27.

Read the full text of “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.” here.
 

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Lloyd Schwartz

Acclaimed poet Lloyd Schwartz’s long-awaited fourth full collection of poems, Little Kisses, has recently been released by the University of Chicago Press. From the opening title poem, he again proves himself to be, as the New York Times has praised him, “the master of the poetic one-liner.” The journey of Little Kisses is a constant discovery of the lost and found: conversations between the poet and his mother, who no longer recognizes her own son; the study of a forgotten family history through the inspection of a photograph; the loss and near return of a favorite object; the recollection of puzzling dreams (or of a dream within a dream); questions demanding more bewildering questions; the reprieve of unexpected jokes. Schwartz’s poems are as unsentimental as they are heartbreaking—and with an ample amount of serious humor interwoven throughout. Little Kisses also includes a section of translations: a meditative and timely selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna. (Another selection can be found in Memorious 5.)

Lloyd Schwartz’s previous poetry books are Cairo Traffic (2000), Goodnight, Gracie (1992), and These People (1981). An esteemed Elizabeth Bishop scholar, he is the editor of Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011) and coeditor of the Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (1983). His many honors include a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, and Classical Music Critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.

We’ve been waiting a long time for Little Kisses, your new collection of poetry—this book has been about 17 years in the making. You’ve been known to edit and revise a poem for years, so this wait makes sense. How did you realize the poems you’d been writing over such a long period of time had come together to form Little Kisses?

Unlike some poets I admire, I never know what shape my books are going to take—how the poems are going to come together—until I’ve written most of them. I started writing the poems in Little Kisses before my previous book was published, so a few of the poems are actually older than 17 years. “City of Dreams” started in the early 1990s as three separate poems that I put together under the title “Three Dreams” (published in AGNI). But when I was putting my book Cairo Traffic together, it didn’t feel right. I still needed to do something that would make the parts come together, have more resonance, and fit into the whole. It was a poem I liked to read aloud (I love to read poems aloud), but even then I could tell it wasn’t working quite right. In 2010, when George Kovach, a former student of mine, was beginning his new magazine, Consequence, he invited me to contribute something, and I didn’t have anything new. This became my chance to re-work the three dreams. The most crucial new addition was the quotation at the end from Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song”— the poem Mahler set to music in his Third Symphony: “The world / is deep—deeper than Day had thought. // I was asleep. I’ve awakened / from a deep dream. // I have to tell you my dream.”  I think it’s now one of the main connecting links between all the poems in Little Kisses.

I’m a slow writer to begin with, and there was one long poem I was working on for years that I felt I had to finish before I had a book. This was the poem ultimately called “Unexpected Oracles,” and it was mostly a compilation of things I overheard or stumbled upon, many of them hilarious, some of them heartbreaking. For me it seemed it was going to be a symbol of the whole book, a tonally complex compendium of interweaving “little kisses.” It was eventually published in the Kenyon Review—my first publication in the journal where Robert Lowell published his first poem. Finishing this poem really allowed me to see all the poems I’d written since my last book and was extremely important in helping me find a shape for the whole manuscript. As things turned out, I eventually cut the poem from the final version of Little Kisses! I hope it will be in my next book.

One other explanation for the long delay between my last two books. During this time, I was also editing two collections of work by Elizabeth Bishop: the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (which took eight years to put together), and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s centennial edition of Bishop’s prose. Aside from my love for her work, these projects were in large part labors of love and gratitude for Bishop’s kindness to me in the years I knew her. But it turns out it’s really hard to write new poems while you’re working on Elizabeth Bishop.

In your last book, Cairo Traffic, your mother is ever present. “The Dream During My Mother’s Recuperation” is a poem that documents snippets of her dialogue and written notes, such as: “Well, your mother came back.” And your mother comes back in Little Kisses, in the title poem on the first page. This time, she can’t recognize that she’s speaking to her son until the poem is about to end—the precise moment in which she also remembers the song “Little Kisses” and that she’ll soon forget all of this all over again. Will you tell us a little bit about Little Kisses and “Little Kisses”—the book, the poem, and the song to which they refer?

The first section of the poem “Little Kisses” was originally the first section of a longer poem called (not the subtlest title) “Grief.” I knew I hadn’t said everything I needed to say about my mother’s sad decline. Her caretakers in the nursing home where she lived were sure she’d reach a state of blissful forgetfulness, as many people with dementia often do. But she never did. She was always aware that there was something missing, that she wasn’t who she was. One of the most devastating moments in my life was the first time she didn’t know who I was. I was her only child—she had devoted herself to making me happy. Then suddenly, she didn’t know me. But every so often, she would have some uncanny illumination—things would come back to her in some moment of recognition. And often through music. “Gimme a Little Kiss” was a song she would sing to me when I was a child. A song she taught me. When I returned to this poem, I knew instantly what I would call it, and knew that it would also be the title poem of my next book. Maybe “little kisses” is the best any of us can hope for—“the little of our earthly trust,” as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “Poem”—“not much.” Aren’t all our poems “little kisses”? Some sudden gift or blessing from the past? So there’s my mother on the cover, in the late Ralph Hamilton’s wonderful portrait of her, giving us her benediction.

“My Other Grandmother,” the second poem in Little Kisses, explores, through a photograph of your paternal grandmother “pasted to a piece of cardboard,” an image of the other half of your family history—one mostly unknown to your readers. Meticulous observations and questions replace the interactive dialogue that makes up so many of your poems. Will you tell us how this poem came to form?

That photograph of my father’s mother had always been a mystery to me. I didn’t have a good relationship with my father (this is an understatement!). We never—ever—had a conversation about his early life, his family, his parents. I think he ran away from Romania to escape being drafted, or to escape pogroms. No one from his side of the family ever talked about their “origins,” as opposed to the vivid family history on my mother’s side of the family. That mysterious photo had always remained a mystery. So if poetry is some attempt to explore mysteries, here was a perfect subject. Maybe there are more questions in Little Kisses than answers (as in what I think is my saddest poem, “To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death”), and here was another subject that I had no answers to. My father’s three siblings were so different from one another. One aunt was even nastier and meaner than my father, one aunt was the salt of the earth. How could they be from the same family? What key did that photo of my mysterious grandmother hold? So there’s now this poem…with no answers.

Speaking of forming poems, some of the poems in your new collection are form poems. “Is Light Enough” is a golden shovel, “New Name” is a sonnet, and the end words of “La Valse” come from a sentence in a Jean Genet novel. The forms you use range from traditional to contemporary and invented. What I find particularly striking about your form poems is that they read as if they’re naturally formless. How did you navigate form in the writing of Little Kisses?

I’m an English lit teacher. I’m fascinated by form and love thinking about the form of the poems I love. One of my favorite courses to teach is Poetry and Poetics, which is all about form and meter and what happens when poets make certain formal choices and why they make them. I don’t think of myself as someone who can write poems on demand, but over the past few years some interesting formal challenges have come my way that have captivated me. I think the first one was from The Paris Review, challenging poets to write a new poem reusing an old title. One of the titles was “Howl,” and I couldn’t resist writing my own poem with that title.

David Trinidad, a poet I love, had a “bouts rimé” challenge, and “New Name” was my answer to his list of 14 rhyming words. Everyone who participated had to come up with a sonnet with the same rhyme words and it was amazing how different each poem was. I particularly relished the challenge of having the name Garbo in the poem and that became the excuse to get my favorite movie hero, Buster Keaton, into a poem. I think The Playhouse is his greatest short film, and in it he actually plays all the characters, including every member of the orchestra and everyone in the audience—even both the snooty husband and wife in a box seat. My real challenge for this poem was to get Keaton into it.

When the Golden Shovel challenge came up, I wanted to participate because I admire Gwendolyn Brooks so much (I got to meet her twice—once when she read at Radcliffe’s Hilles Library and she was introduced by Elizabeth Bishop; once when we invited her to read at UMass Boston). And since I seem to have a particular penchant for sonnets, I chose a 14-word line from her poem “garbageman” for my end words.

“La Valse” was a “commission” to write a poem about “Liberation” for an anthology published by the Terezin Foundation celebrating the liberation of the concentration camps. I was stymied for a while, and then I remembered a line from Genet’s The Lady of the Flowers that was the title of a poem I tried to write years ago, when I was still in school. Suddenly this poem came together. Some of the imagery comes from George Balanchine’s scary choreography to Ravel’s famous score, and the plumes at the hip come from another movie, Preston Sturges’s hilarious dark comedy Unfaithfully Yours.

The sestina “Six Words” was also the result of a challenge. This time from my students. I like to assign a challenging form to my poetry students, one that I hope will stretch their capacities and get them to see how much writing in a form can be a release rather than a prison. Whenever I suggested a sestina, someone would always ask me back if I had ever written one myself. I finally had to write one to avoid further embarrassment. So “Six Words” (which I also ended up translating into five other languages) was my response to that challenge. I wish more sestinas were this short. A few years ago, The New Yorker published a one-word-per-line sestina by someone who said in an interview that she had been inspired to write it because she so thoroughly disliked “Six Words.”

I like having all these poems that play around with form in their own section. They’re my own “little kisses.”

The fourth section of Little Kisses is comprised of translations: a selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and an adaptation of a translation of a poem by Ukranian poet Viktor Neborak. Why these poems by these poets?

I think translation is not just a literary act but a moral act, so I always want to include translations. Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna is an important and distinguished Brazilian poet and journalist whom I met on my first trip to Brazil in 1990. He’s a prolific writer and a cultural hero in Brazil. I’ve translated a bunch of his poems (several have appeared in Memorious), and he seems to like my translations. He sent me some new poems just after he returned from visiting Iran during the uprising. I was blown away by them. Just as I’ve been deeply moved by his more personal poems. For a long time, I had a long collage-like poem about 9/11 that I included in Little Kisses, and I thought these eye-witness poems about the Iran uprising would fit in perfectly with my own poem. I wanted something that looked farther out into the world than my own poems usually do. Then I dropped my own poem, which I hope will also be in my next book.

Back in 1996, the late Ed Hogan was editing an anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. A bunch of American poets, who didn’t necessarily know any Ukrainian, were each invited to choose a Ukrainian poem from a group of literal translations and turn them into “real” poems. I picked Viktor Neborak’s grim poem partly because it inspired me to write one line that really tickled me: “No fish is an island.” (Humor is so crucial to serious poems—Ukrainian poets know that.) So how could I not include that in my book?

In a recent interview for Breakwater Review, you were in conversation with poet and longtime friend Gail Mazur. About writing poetry, you said something so memorable: “There isn’t anything you’d rather be doing, even when there is anything else you’d rather be doing.” You and I have talked many times about how we can’t not write our poems—even when we don’t want to write them. So, now that you’ve completed Little Kisses, what can’t you not write at the moment?

It’s true—I have the bad work habit of resisting the ideas for poems that come to me. Then when I can’t resist them anymore, that’s when I start to write. A long time ago, before my first book was published, I was writing mainly poems about myself and my frustrating personal life. Eventually, the question occurred to me: Why should anyone be interested in reading about me? When I started writing the dramatic monologues and dialogues that became my first book, These People, I thought I found an answer. I needed to write poems, but my poems didn’t have to be about myself (although as the artist says in one of these poems, “Every painting is a self-portrait”). Since then, I’ve been trying to use the techniques of narrative and “drama” I was discovering in These People in my more recent poems, hopefully in a more sophisticated and surprising way. (I have no desire whatsoever to write short stories, novels, or plays, but I’m fascinated by how poems can employ the devices of fiction and drama—the way Chaucer, Browning, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell did.)

I’m scared to talk about poems I’m still working on. But lately, I’ve been writing poems about some of my favorite paintings—images that I can’t get out of my head. There were two sets of “ekphrastic” poems in my second book, Goodnight, Gracie—one series about Vermeer and, more sonnets, a series called “Fourteen People”—sonnet-like poems about Ralph Hamilton’s series of fourteen life-size portraits of friends and family, including some poets (Gail Mazur, Frank Bidart, Joyce Peseroff, Robert Pinsky, Margo Lockwood). These paintings gave me an excuse to write about friends I would have been too inhibited to write about more directly. When that book came out, the word “ekphrastic” was so new to poetry, the publisher “corrected” the spelling of it on the back cover to “ecphrastic.” So the poems I couldn’t not write lately are about two Vermeer paintings that have recently come to the US and Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, one of the great tragic paintings and one of the great paintings about the suffering that goes into the creation of art.

Interviewer Tara Skurtu is a Boston-based poet and translator currently living in Romania. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University and a double degree in English and Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a two-time Fulbright grantee, and she has received two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Marcia Keach Poetry Prize, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. Her poems are published and translated internationally, and recent work appears in The Kenyon ReviewPlumePoetry Review, and Poetry Wales. Tara is the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania (Eyewear Publishing, 2016) and the full poetry collection The Amoeba Game (Eyewear, 2017).

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

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Memorious Speaks: Nicky Beer Reads “Cathy Dies”

Welcome to “Memorious Speaks,” a new corner of the blog, which features authors performing poetry and prose published in Memorious. First up, Nikky Beer reads “Cathy Dies,” her stunning poem from Memorious 27.

Read the full text of “Cathy Dies” here.
 

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

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