Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jennifer Moore

JenMoorepicJennifer Moore is the author of the newly released The Veronica Maneuver (University of Akron Press) and the chapbook What the Spigot Said (High5 Press). Her poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Best New Poets, Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, and elsewhere, including  Memorious, where the poem The Veronica Maneuver first appeared. A native of the Seattle area, she holds a B.A. in English from Mercyhurst University, an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is an assistant professor in the department of English at Ohio Northern University. She generously answered a few questions for Memorious poetry reader Sarah Green.

You seem interested in nested phenomena. I’m looking at “ear inside your ear”; “inside your cough a million coughs”; “husks”; “seeds”. You write in [I Went To the City…], “Doesn’t each history contain another, possible body?” There’s this idea that the seen or heard object contains/hides private versions of its same self, either biologically or fantastically. As your reader I find this upsets my equilibrium regarding my assumed landscape, while at the same time stirring some kind of maternal “aw.” Do you find it soothing or disturbing (or both) to meditate upon latent and/or unseen inhabiting?

As a reader, the poems (or songs, or works of art) that get me going often work like matryoshka dolls—those elaborately painted nesting figures which are opened further and further until some kind of interior core is discovered. I’m drawn to texts that continue to reveal as they are read and reread. The kind of “nesting” imagery you point to might emerge from my interest in frame tales, “play within a play” kinds of structures I relish in a lot of writing that I find myself coming back to.

A preoccupation with “unseen inhabiting” also might emerge from my interest in the relationship between exteriority and veroniamaneuverpicexteriority and interiority, or between a speaker and her psychic space. You mention the disruption of an “assumed landscape”; I think of “Lines Written on a Grain of Rice,” which began with my fascination with the Indian art of rice writing, but transformed into a hyper-metaphorical exploration of the claustrophobia I often felt living in the massive urban environment of Chicago. When I was writing some of the poems in The Veronica Maneuver I’d sequester myself in my teeny, tiny apartment in order to avoid being swallowed up whole by the buzz of the world. So the grain in the throat is the girl in the room, the room in the home, the home in the city in the Midwest (contained by an ocean on both sides).

I’m also really drawn to recursion—endless mirroring, replication. The “Corridor of Infinite Regress” in the “Gallery of Unrecoverable Objects”; the twinning in “On Symmetry.” But it can’t just be an interest in that, right? For me this fascination arrives, again, at the likening to how poems can continue to reveal—more and more, little by little—associations, echoes, resonances. I guess every poem’s an ars poetica. I’m drawn to language that captures that sense of enclosure and containment, but also unfolding and uncovering—language that draws us into the heart of the artichoke.

You also seem interested in miniatures: “Lines written on a grain of rice”; “Lines written on a drop of milk”; “Lines written on the back of a tooth.” What is exciting to you as a poet about the constraint of scale?

Ah! Everything is exciting when thinking about scale, which for me often boils down to considering the relationship between extremity and restraint. This often arrives in the form of emotional extremity and formal restraint—moments of flamboyancy or despair or anguish or giddiness which are carefully structured in order to make sense of them. My go-to poet for these kinds of questions is Dickinson, the master of, as Bachelard calls it (in a different context) “intimate immensity.” Her seemingly innocuous, often visually and rhythmically graspable poems reveal immense worlds.

I want the miniature and the immense; I want the immense to be possible via the miniature. Hamlet’s infinite space bound in a nutshell. For me this is what the best poems do: create a world from scratch, a “diction universe” (to quote Anne Winters), something from nothing. All of this together sparks a thrill of formal invention; a glee for what might be possible. But you asked about the constraint of scale…my mode of composition is rarely maximal. Instead I prune away, condense down, and chisel to get to the essence of a thing. Tinkering at such a minute level often leads to a thematic fascination with fragment or smallness in the content of the poem itself: grain of rice, drop of milk. But all of this is to say that no matter the relationship between the extreme poles in terms of scale, the seduction arrives in asking: what impossibilities can I make possible? How do you balance a poem between the intimate and the immense? Scale ends up being a central element in creating that balancing act.

What would a poet’s version of a Veronica maneuver be? How do poets (or if not all poets, you yourself) employ stylized distraction in order to stay in the hair-raising ring while avoiding a mortal wound? What is our bull?

I’m hesitant to outline too carefully the bullfighting metaphor, partly because the other resonances of “veronica” are so much a part of the book and its origins: the historical significance of the “holy shroud” of Saint Veronica; the etymology of the word itself (vera, meaning “true,” and eikon, meaning “image”). The poems pivot around these associations in different ways, but all explore the nature of perception, perspective, truth and invention, actuality or illusion.

But in regard to the matador’s ring. The collection’s intensely focused on the relationship and dynamic between audience and performer, and how that dynamic is mediated. When I was writing many of these I was studying the sublime—particularly, Barbara Freeman’s notion of a “feminine sublime.” She writes that one of its central features is the ability to “blur distinctions between observer and observed, reader and text, or spectator and event.” This really struck me, and in some of my poems—particularly those which feature the veronica maneuver explicitly—I’m working with that idea.

This preoccupation might be the result of my background in musical theater, opera and vocal performance; as a young person a lot of time was spent on stage, off stage, backstage—performing, rehearsing, the whole shebang. As a result, in my poetry I think a lot about attention; not only about poems as ways of paying attention, but how as viewers our focus shifts depending on the medium. For example, how the intimacy of a viewer and a painting is radically different from the spectacle of an operatic performance in a space built for thousands. That impulse to create a magnetism, a tug, a beeline between these two poles—viewer/ listener/reader on the one hand and artist/musician/poet on the other—heightens, for me, the necessity of making something worth paying attention to.

Were you thinking of Hopkins’ Margaret when writing “I Went and Caught a Falling Leaf”? If so, I’m curious why your poem’s Margaret-equivalent (the mannequin) mourns for a “you” and not for “Margaret”? Feel free to skip this question if I’m off-base in the association.

You’re totally right on Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” functioning as the launching pad for that poem. I admire his ecstasy, his formal precision, his experimental leaps; his love for whatever is “counter, original, spare, strange.” In talking back to that poem I wanted the tone to sound radically different, but the metaphysical punch at the end to have the same feel: “it is Margaret you mourn for” becomes “the mannequin mourns for you.” The reader’s implicated in the scenario directly. In Hopkins we’re kind of overhearing the interaction between the speaker and little girl; I wanted my reader to gulp at the realization of her own impermanence. That’s done in the Hopkins, too, of course, but indirectly; I hoped to point a finger, to direct the gaze of the poem to the reader herself.

Because so much of your book is taut with form and wit, I was especially touched by the breezy, simpler respite of “After All That, There Is This”, “Ghost Limb”, and “And Did It All Go.” These three poems strike me as especially, to use therapist-speak, “undefended.” They’re beautiful in a different way than their sharp-tongued siblings. How do you see them fitting alongside the others?

These poems, as well as where they are placed in the book (mostly near the end), play important roles—they act almost as foils for what precedes them. A few moments of silence; of stripped down, open, available emotion. “Undefended,” for sure—nail on the head. Earlier pieces in the collection revel a bit in their own spectacles, and this serves one kind of purpose for one kind of poem, but I didn’t want to build a one-trick pony. Pattern and variation is so crucial for me as a poet, and the kind of variation I wanted was emotional, textural, and that had to come late in the game, and sparingly, in order to (hopefully, possibly) achieve the kind of effect the book might elicit.

I’ve talked with a friend about the idea that, for some books, there can only be a handful of moments which are purely emotionally available. For me as a writer and a reader, moments of acute emotion are often only acute if they’re laid bare here and there—the less pronounced, the more powerful. I didn’t want to pitch the “undefended” tone too high; those three poems offer a sense of necessary quietness. And—even though it’s carefully scaffolded—“The Quiet Game” does a similar thing: tries to lay bare a certain kind of emotional abandonment, though for me the only way to do it was through metaphor. Some things you can’t approach directly—“Success in Circuit lies.”

Interviewer Sarah Green is a poetry reader for Memorious and is the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press), as well as the forthcoming collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).

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

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Patrick Phillips: An Interview with the National Book Award Finalist


Congratulations on the publication of Elegy for a Broken Machine, your third book of poems, and for its being a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. It seems to me that both topically and stylistically the builds impressively upon the accomplishments of your two earlier books, Chattahoochee and Boy. As the central speaker, who appears to be consistent throughout the three books, moves forward through time, experiencing youth, fatherhood, the jarring experience of losing a father, the poems reflect (to mention just one thing I’ve observed) ever-more movingly on the passage of time. What continuity do you perceive between this book and your earlier works, and what if anything has changed or evolved?

Thanks, Aaron. I appreciate you doing this interview, and thank you for the generous read. In answer to your question, I think there certainly are continuities between the books, in that I have always written about family. That’s a word that has shifting definitions in mid-life: I started out writing about the family into which I was born, and then in my second book I wrote a lot about becoming a father. Much of this new work grows out of my experience watching my parents age, and watching some of the strongest people I know, and some of those I love most dearly, grow weaker.elegycover

I should add one more thing, which is that my father is alive and well. I hope that doesn’t sound like a refutation of your generous, smart reading of the poems, because I think it is natural to understand the book in exactly the way you have, and the way it’s presented: as a son’s lament for his father. That’s how I hoped it would be read. Some of the poems in the book are about my father, who has survived major heart surgery and a couple of grave illnesses, and some are about my father-in-law, who we tended at home as he died of metastatic prostate cancer. At various points in my life they have both been fathers to me, so I hope no one feels tricked by this intrusion of autobiography into the book. One of the poems says “Patrick Phillips is dead,” and that isn’t the case either—though it is one of those lies that will come true!

If anything has evolved in my work, I think it’s that I have tried to let more of the world in, and to relax the filter on what does and doesn’t belong in a poem. In this new book there are traffic jams and Kool menthols. There is a poem about my son’s diorama made of Legos. There is a poem with a “loud, horrendous fart”! At one time I don’t think I’d have let that kind of thing past my internal censors, who used to worry a lot about being taken for a redneck… about not being taken seriously. But now I find myself wanting to write not just about the noble and the timeless and the archetypal, but all of it: the whole messy, mutt world in which our lives occur. 

Reading these poems, it seems to me that you’ve found ways for the noble, timeless, and archetypal to exist side-by-side with our messy actual lives–which is of course the only they way they can exist at all! I’m thinking of your poem “Mattress” in which you describe how a place “where we’d dreamt, and read, and made love–” has become “a map of old stains” destined to be hauled to the dump. What a metaphor for our lives!  To what extent do you see these questions about content (what does and doesn’t belong in poems) as also being formal problems? I ask because your poems really do contain a lot of this messiness of life–and without being cast in what we’d call “traditional” form, they do so with a great deal of formal rigor.

I guess I always want to do something to save a spare, heartfelt poem from sounding like cheesy bullshit! After all, it’s pretty late in the game to use certain poetic devices without an awareness of just how many times readers have heard that shtick.

It makes me think of what happens to the Italian sonnet tradition once it gets to Shakespeare. All those Petrarchan love poems are impressive and elegant… but so, so played. So instead we get “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and the lover swooning not over perfume, but “the breath that from my mistress reeks”!

He saves it at the end, of course: “And yet I think my love as rare / as any she belied with false compare.” And that’s the kind of engagement with form I’m interested in—putting on the handcuffs, and then finding a way to free yourself.

All just to say it feels better, to me, to dirty things up a bit… to write a love poem set at the Freshkills Dump, through the eyes of a gull shitting on our hideous old mattress. I don’t mean it’s not a love poem, but I’m not interested anymore in the version that pretends we live forever.

The compression, economy, and precision that has always been a staple of your poems seems to lend itself extraordinarily well to elegy, a form that involves material that’s difficult to handle for all sorts of reasons, personally as well as aesthetically. The care and reserve we see in the poem’s forms and language (which almost reflect a certain distrust of language) seem especially apt for material of such intense and potentially overwhelming personal importance. What special challenges did you face as you took on the elegy?

There’s no rush when someone dies, right? Especially after a long illness, death is not a beginning of talk, but an end to it—an end to the planning, the work and tedium of caring for someone, the interminable, terrible coping. It’s over. So the prevailing mood, at least in my experience, is quiet: a kind of astonishment and disbelief. And yes, relief.

I think we all know that one enters the death house quietly. It calls for a kind of Roman decorum that I have always admired in poets like Donald Justice, Kay Ryan, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Stanley Plumly—and especially John Keats. Keats writes an elegy for his brother who has died, but never mentions the brother at all, not the deathbed, not the blood-cough, none of it. Only the stubble plains, the gathering swallows twittering in the skies. There is a restraint there—and yes, a distrust of language—that breaks my heart. The quietness of “Autumn” seems so much more accurate and significant as a representation of grief than “all that blab about death,” as Alan Shapiro puts it.

So I hope the spare sound of my poems comes across not so much as a style as a necessity. It wasn’t that I set out to write in a certain way, and many of the poems started out three times as long. But those poets gave me faith that it might be possible to speak of the beloved dead in a way that felt worthy. Or at least not recklessly unworthy.

That leads to spare, quiet poems, which is a risk, of course, since it’s so hard to pick out any one voice in the chatter and din of America in 2015. That makes me even more grateful to the National Book Foundation for the nomination. I’m delighted, and still amazed, that they heard me.

Thanks for doing this interview. The book is wonderful, and I’m sure I speak for many readers in saying that we’re grateful to have it! It may be too early to say so soon after Elegy for a Broken Machine‘s publication, but any sense of what’s next? Future directions in the work? New books?

For the past ten years I have been working on a non-fiction project, and I’m coming to the end of the story. It’s called Blood at the Root: A Lynching, A Racial Cleansing, and the Hidden History of Home, and is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2016.

The book tells how in 1912 bands of violent white men drove out the entire black population of Forsyth County, Georgia, where I was raised. They declared Forsyth “all-white,” and imposed a racial ban that their decendants enforced for nearly a hundred years. When I grew up there in the 70s and 80s, it was still known all over Georgia as a “white county.” As a kid I heard a kind of mythic version of the expulsions, stripped of names and dates, and any details about the vanished black people of Forsyth.

So for the past decade I’ve been tracking down descendants of the families forced out, and digging in census records, land deeds, and newspaper archives, trying to find out the real story of what happened. It’s a very different kind of work from poetry, but fascinating, and related to a lot of my obsessions in the poems. This book also grew out of a kind of astonishment and wonder at the past.

Interviewer Aaron Baker is the author of Mission Work (Houghton Mifflin), winner of the Katherine Bakeless Prize in Poetry. He is an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago.

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

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Big Loves: Howard Axelrod on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Axelrod_Howard-264x264Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Howard Axelrod. Axelrod’s memoir The Point of Vanishing was recently published by Beacon Press. The memoir traces Axelrod’s movements, internal and external, and his sense of self and place in the world, after he loses vision in one eye. The book is a luminous reflection on solitude, nature, and the act of seeing. Here, Axelrod shares his love of Elena Ferrante.

No one knows if Elena Ferrante is a tennis fan. No one knows much about her at all. The identity of the author of the wildly popular Neapolitan novels remains a useful mystery—useful because it reveals the poverty of our literary-critical apparatus: without the usual cues of biography and author appearances and interviews, critics have been tripping over themselves to place her work. Feminist. Post-ideological. Neo-neo-realist. They’re not wrong, exactly. But to understand Ferrante, it might help to be a tennis fan—or, at least, to be a fan of one particular match. Krickstein vs Connors, U.S. Open, 1991.

You may have already seen it. Every year during the Open, if a rain delay leaves the commentators scrambling to fill time, the TV producers air the match again. The storyline is a sports cliché, a tennis Rocky. Jimmy Connors, lion in winter, age 39, grunts, staggers, and bullies his way to victory against rising star Aaron Krickstein. Age over beauty, grit over finesse…etc. But what’s riveting about the match isn’t the storyline. I was 17 when I first saw it, live on CBS, and what I felt was a kind of gravitational pull into the television, into the court. Connors was nowhere else. Nowhere else existed for him. In the final set, Krickstein kept glancing over to his player’s box, to the sky—you could almost see him imagining the post-match interview, the uneasy ride back to the hotel. But Connors had nowhere else. His entire life was cupped inside the stadium. Granted, he was a boor: he sat in the flowerbed, hammed for the camera, played to the crowd. Not a good sport, possibly not a good person. But judgements meant nothing to him. He had nowhere else to exist, it seemed, at least nowhere else to exist as fully. And so he was playing with his entire life—for his entire life, that is, for the possibility for his life to be expansive. His intensity was impossible not to watch, impossible not to admire.

That’s what Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have. That’s why critics praise them as fierce, unapologetic, relentless. Her narrator, Elena Greco, a writer, has nowhere else to exist but in the pages she’s writing, nor does her best friend, Lila Cerullo. Nowhere else is capacious enough; nowhere else can offer their lives meaning. But Ferrante’s work isn’t only a display of that need—and this is where she goes far beyond what Connors hamy-brilliant-friendd to offer—but also a dramatic investigation into where that need comes from, and how it both rewards and punishes the woman who follows it.

Growing up in the nineteen-fifties in a neighborhood of Naples where husbands routinely beat their wives, where boyfriends routinely beat their girlfriends, and where families nurse feuds for generations, Ferrante’s narrator needs not just to escape but to escape with her inner life intact. Like Lila, who is more brilliant and more brash, she excels in school, hopes to be a writer, and knows herself most clearly through her instinctive detachment from the neighborhood: both need the neighborhood to know themselves, but to know themselves both need to know the neighborhood from a distance.

In the final scene of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, which takes place at Lila’s wedding to the neighborhood grocer, Elena remarks of Nino, the intellectual boy she has a crush on, “He could enter and leave the neighborhood as he wished, without being contaminated by it. He could do it, he was capable of doing it, maybe he had learned years before, at the time of the stormy move that hand nearly cost him his life.

I doubted that I could make it.”

Not being “contaminated” by the neighborhood isn’t just a drama of the moment, of their adolescent selves; it will become the drama of their lives. The question isn’t just how will Elena escape, but how will her identity survive? How will she make sense of the divide between her life and Lila’s? Between her past and her present? Between her outer life (eventually beyond the neighborhood) and her inner life (eventually containing it)? The drama isn’t just in the bildungsroman Elena is telling, it’s in the telling itself. She needs the telling to unify, without dishonesty or simplification, the disparate elements of her life, the elements no other forum can hold.  She needs to make a place to live fully—and a place for Lila to live fully.

Which brings us to what is hardest to talk about in Ferrante, and what I most love about her. The story of the artist born into a family hostile to art—Kafka, Joyce, Rilke—is nothing new. But for the focal point of a novel (or, indeed, a series) to be a friendship rather than one gifted person’s development, for the existence of an inner life and the necessity of its preservation to be expressed as matter-of-factly as the violence in nineteen-fifties Naples—this is new, and it keeps the writing deeply private. There’s the privacy of Elena’s experience—in which she admits to fepoint of vanishingelings, particularly in her complex friendship with Lila, most people wouldn’t admit to themselves; there’s the privacy of her need to understand her experience—which few writers would focus on as a drama as significant as the outer drama of the neighborhood feuds; and, perhaps most poignantly, there’s the privacy of Elena’s address—which, although not directly made to Lila, can be read as an appeal to her as a kind of projected conscience, as Lila is the only person Elena thinks might understand her, the person she hopes both to save and be saved by.

Privacy. Interiority. Literature as matter-of-fact tool for survival. All evoked quietly and fiercely, in our hyper-connected age, when our sense of privacy, of interiority, and of art as a necessity for nurturing the two is eroding. There’s no such thing as a literary rain delay—no act of God that would sweep rain across the pages and Kindles of everyone in the country on a given day. But perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if there were. The producers in the truck could cue up Ferrante. A classic, they might say, is a match that helps us to see all other matches, a book that helps us to see all other books. It reminds us of what we’ve been searching for all along.

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Ada Limón: An Interview with the National Book Award Finalist

ada-B-W-high-rez-1Ada Limón  is the author of Bright Dead Things (Milkweed 2015), a current finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, as well as three previous collections, Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press 2006), This Big Fake World (Pearl Editions 2006), and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions 2010). Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review among other publications. She has contributed essays and articles to a variety of publications, such as Oxford American, Guernica, Poetry, and American Poetry Society. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky. The following conversation took place with poet Sarah Green over email.

Congratulations on being named a finalist for the National Book Award!
Can you tell us about how you found out, and what your reaction was?

Thank you so much. To be honest, I’m still in shock. I shouted so loud and told my partner and then my Mom. And after I hung up and was alone for a little while, I actually started crying. I mean, as poets, this is not something we’re used to, right? We’re used to plugging away, keeping our head down, doing our day jobs without anyone noticing that
we secretly love poems, and quietly doing the work alone. So this sort of public recognition is rather earth shattering. I was such a mess. I had tears streaming down my face and then I just crawled into bed and let myself sort of cry it out. Then, I got up and had to go get my work done like any other day; but, as you can imagine, I could barely write a sentence without buzzing. This has been the biggest honor of my life and it’s hard to believe it’s true. I’m grateful for this moment and each day I’m trying to breathe through it so I really appreciate the gift of this bizarre and amazing thing.

 Your poem “The Problem With Travel” contains what seems to be a playful allusion to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” You write, “Every time I’m in an airport, / I think I should drastically / change my life” (88).The speaker here sounds both sincere and ironic, both self-aware and oblivious—a wonderful tonal paradox this book produces frequently. But this poem diverges sharply from Rilke’s famous charge to do just that, “change your life.” Instead, “We’re small and / flawed, but I want to be / who I am,” your speaker resolves.

In what ways do you see Bright Dead Things circling a theme of what might be called anti-grandiosity? Or, if that’s not the right phrase, what would you call this kind of peace making with the “live things” the speaker loves in “The Long Ride“ although “what they’ve done / is terrible”? Surrender? Maturity? deadthings

What a wonderful question. That poem surprised me when I wrote it because I was initially leaning the same way Rilke was in his poem—go ahead, change your life—but then as I got to the conclusion, for the first time in a long, long while, I didn’t want to. I wanted not to change (at least in that moment). I was writing the poem in the lobby of an airport at the time, waiting for my friends Adam Clay and Michael Robins to join me for a poetry tour. I was feeling the palpable thrill of having a real home, and a place to return to after the travels were done. It’s hard to explain, but I felt so grateful.

This was just one of the poems that became a seed for the whole book. I realized that this making peace, this surrender was the only thing I was interested in. However, I wasn’t sure if that feeling could make interesting and engaging poems. I thought perhaps, if you took out that thrilling engine of desire, damage, and rage that well, what was the point of a poem that sought out happiness and ease? Then, I realized that that’s what my work is…life’s every day work and the work of each poem…was just to try to get to that place of surrender. Even when rage, and desire, and self-hatred, and shame, and ugliness, and jealousy, and political outrage, and societal insanity were trying to get the better of me, I wanted to work toward something, a life, that felt live-able, that felt like more than just survival, but a life that was actively thankful and held within it a radical hope despite the darkness all around. I felt I owed that to those that couldn’t go on living anymore. It was my duty.

Speaking of allusions, “The Other Wish” offers a feminist Icarus, cosmically matrilineal; this heroine falls from the moon and not the sun. Your heroine wants “to fall from the terrifying height / of her,” and it is implied that this fall itself would be an honor. The speaker is able to maintain her association with lunar (divine feminine?) power through the worshipful act of attempting connection, as if failing is not antithetical to connection. It’s impossible not to think here of Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying”; however, where Gilbert’s Icarus was “not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph,” your Icarus-figure describes “the victory of my disastrous flight.” Once again in this book, failure is reframed, even admired. Would you say there’s something feminist about this poem’s—this book’s—take on failure? If this question resonates, how so?

Yes, I’d absolutely, 100%, say that the whole book is a feminist book with a feminist outlook—because it’s my book with my own outlook. I always say that my two favorite “F-words” are feminism and forgiveness. I’m interested in your phrase, “feminist take on failure,” that’s not something I’ve thought about, but “The Other Wish” does play with the idea of celebrating the failed attempts, recognizing “shooting for the moon” as something worthy in and of itself of deep, deep praise. I love Gilbert’s poem (of course) “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” but actually this poem was a response to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, “Waiting for Icarus” which is (as my students know), one of my all time favorite poems. It’s a feminist retelling of what it would be like to stand on the shore and wait for Icarus with the amazing last two lines, “I would have liked to try to those wings myself./ It would have been better than this.” My poem, “The Other Wish” wants to be in conversation with those stunning last two lines.

But the sun has historically always been such a dominating male symbol, so I wanted to play with what it would be like to make my female Icarus fly toward the great feminine metaphor in the night sky, to want her (the moon) to be the thing the flyer would fall from. Failing and falling, in this poem, are both the attempts at redemption, connection, and forgiveness. I wanted that “going down in flames” image at the end of the poem to be almost ecstatic rather than dreadful. As if our female Icarus was wide-smiling like a she-wolf all the way down into the dust. There’s a lot more I could say about this poem about failure, shame, sexuality, but I feel like that’s just giving it all away. Sometimes you have to let the mystery be.

This is your fourth book. It takes intentionality and ambition to draft, complete, and place one manuscript with a press, let alone four. Yet this book contains lines like “that tree… saves by not trying” and “racing no one / but ourselves.” Is it possible, do you think, to maintain a healthy relationship with both striving and stillness? Is it ever the case for you that spending time in one of these two modes can further your reach in the other?

Oh I think it’s not only possible, but absolutely necessary to keep the balance between striving and stillness. This is poetry after all. You can’t strive all the time. Striving is what you do when you send your poems out, or read your poems, or lug your books to your readings like a Willy Loman of poetry, or make rent, or kill yourself at a job when all you want to do is write poems. That’s striving. But poetry, poem writing, can only take place in stillness. It has to come out of that quiet place where you can hear the self beneath the self, rising up and out. You might laugh at this, but this book came out of the period of time when I was writing my first novel. All I wanted to do was finish a novel and be proud of it (sure I wanted to publish it too). I worked so hard (strived!) at it, so hard, for three years. And when I was done, the best thing I had created were the individual poems that began the manuscript of Bright Dead Things. I wasn’t rushing to write them. They were the things I made on the side that brought me joy, what I did to survive. The book is a culmination of five years of work. I took my time. I edited. I published here and there, but really it came slowly and quietly until it snuck up on me and stood on my chest like a beast ready to brawl. It licked its gums and said, “And you thought you were writing a novel.”

What I mean by this is, poetry wants you to live your life and find happiness, and breathe. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work incredibly hard at each individual poem, I do. But I don’t think about them as books until they start to come together way down the road. When I’m writing, it’s just me and the poem at hand. Nothing else really matters. I think it’s always more important to care about the poetry than it is to care about the career. That’s easier said than done, but just caring about the craft and art of the poem is a lot more fun then wondering what’s going to happen next. I don’t think art should be suffering. Life has so much suffering. Art should be a gift.

In the poem “Someplace like Montana”, the speaker narrates a phase of life “when every shirt I bought at the secondhand store / would turn out to be see-through, / but I wouldn’t know it until I was out,” and says, “a lot of conversations would start, Is this shirt see-through? And it was.” (16)

I love so many things about this image: the funny/unfortunate repetition of wardrobe malfunction and what it says about the speaker’s dreamy, trusting lack of vigilance. The squirmy headline of “and it was”—its similarity to the seemingly universal naked-in-public dream. The way time passing turns what may have been embarrassment into humor and even pride or this time conscious repetition.

When it comes to the “reveal” of autobiographical poetry, have you ever exposed more than you intended? Do you ever find yourself consciously “confessing” but performing obliviousness for artistry’s sake? Would answering this question give too much away?

That’s funny that you quote this poem. Two days ago I bought a dress at a secondhand store and as soon as I saw my mother, I said “Is this dress see-through?” And I think we agreed it was only a little see-through and therefore I was safe to continue walking through town. So it’s still happening to me (and I still primarily shop at secondhand stores).

I do confess and reveal a great deal in my work. And I don’t think I have ever confessed something that I’m later ashamed of, but I have confessed things that surprise me. “Service” is a poem that I was surprised that I wrote, and equally thrilled at how many women have been moved by it when I read. (Thank you, Jennifer L. Knox for encouraging me to write it in the first place.) Mainly, I’m interested in saying something honest and figuring out what I think I need to say, for myself as a writer and as a human. I’m at a point in my life where I’m less concerned about obfuscating the truth or feigning obliviousness for the sake of craft. I want to write poems that engage with other people and to do so I want to speak the truth and say things as honestly as possible without losing the music and the lyrical tension of the lines.

Finally, my friend Kathryn Nuernberger asked me to ask you a question about horses. She writes: “I’m reading [Bright Dead Things] this morning. I’ve never been so into horses in my whole life. Can you turn “thank you for horses” into some kind of smart question for me?” Please answer the following question: Thank you for horses?

Horses! Yes, I’m so glad Kathryn is feeling a connection to them. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in animals. I think horses for me have this spiritual strength in them that always stuns me. They are so powerful and gorgeous and capable. I admire them so deeply. My mother is the ranch manager for a forty-acre ranch in Sonoma, and for a long time they housed retired police horses there. I was so in awe of them. But also scared. I’ve never been one to want to approach a horse as if it’s a pet. In Kentucky, where I live most of the time, I stand at the fence line, at a safe distance and wave. For me, horses (and all animals really) symbolize the unknown, the deep wordless power of being, and I love to think of those great round eyes watching us from the fields, don’t you?

Interviewer Sarah Green is the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and the forthcoming collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).

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

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Big Love: Chaitali Sen on Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Chaitali SenToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Chaitali Sen. Sen is the author of the novel, The Pathless Sky, which was published by Europa Editions this month. The novel tells the story of one couple’s quest to sustain their marriage when political violence strikes their unnamed homeland. Kirkus calls her book a “poignant and sophisticated work couched in lyrical, effervescent prose.”

I haven’t seen a real snowfall in ten years. In 2005, I left the winters of the north and landed in Texas, and when someone told me I would miss a good snowstorm, I insisted I would not. I was wrong. I have dreams about my college campus where it snowed from November to April, and every winter here in Austin, when the sky is gray and it’s cold enough to mimic a promise of snow, there is a book that I crave. I open to a random page and read until I’m sated.

I have no memory of where I was when I first read the Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993). I must have been in my early twenties, and someone must have given it to me because I would not have chosen it on my own. It had the look of a typical genre trade paperback, with a bold silver and black cover and the eye of a woman peering out from a small frame in the center. It was very unlike the version I read now, a twentieth anniversary edition with a more elegant font and a picture of snow-laden branches that more accurately captures the mood and beauty of this novel.

Like most mysteries, it opens with a death, this one during a Danish winter. The victim is a six-year old Greenland Inuit boy named Isaiah who has fallen off the roof of his Copenhagen apartment building. As an adult, I have not been an avid reader of mysteries, but the mystery in this novel is not what kept me reading the first time, and certainly not what keeps me going back year after year. I go back for a sense of winter, and for Smilla, a misanthropic woman in her late thirties who cannot help infusing herSmillia narration with warmth and nostalgia. She is half Inuit, the daughter of an almost legendary female hunter and a Danish doctor who fell in love with her while on a medical expedition to Greenland. Smilla’s sense of snow comes both from her nomadic childhood in North Greenland and her studies in Glaciology as an adult. Smilla reads the footprints leading to Isaiah’s fall and begins to investigate his death. What is most interesting about the plot of this novel is how strongly it is contextualized by the colonial relationship between Denmark and Greenland, the exploitation of Greenland’s native population and resources, and the oppression of Inuit immigrants within Denmark. In my opinion, embedding a plot in its historical and political context always enriches a narrative, but is not used often or well enough in modern literature.

In a way, Smilla’s Sense of Snow was a return to my first love. As a child, I read Nancy Drew books almost exclusively. Then I read the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. These books were sent to me from India, where they were wildly popular and made many an Indian girl long for adventure in the English countryside. I read these books for the mood they evoked, for the feeling of being on holiday and coming across something slightly dangerous, slightly urgent, adventurism with time for a picnic. In adolescence, during the years that I began to think about what it meant to be a brown girl in America and to be considered foreign in the only home I knew, I read a few Agatha Christie books but found the genre no longer had anything to offer.

But Smilla’s Sense of Snow is not, at its heart, an adrenaline-charged thriller. It is an exploration of the trauma of displacement. There are long passages in which Smilla remembers her childhood with her mother in North Greenland:

She never kisses me, and she seldom touches me. But at moments of great intimacy, she lets me drink from the milk that is always there, beneath her skin, just as her blood is. She spreads her legs so I can come between them. Like the other hunters, she wears pants made of bearskin given only a rudimentary tanning. She loves ashes, sometimes eating them straight from the fire, and she has smeared some underneath her eyes. In this aroma of burned coal and bearskin, I go to her breast, which is brilliantly white, with a big, delicate rose aureole. There I drink immuk, my mother’s milk.

the pathless sky coverAnd from beginning to end, there is snow, ice, winter: “… I’m happy because I know that now the frost has gained momentum; now the ice will stay, now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree though which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it’s one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways.”

I read passages like this with a sense of mourning. Will I ever again see water freeze into sheets of ice? My mourning is particular to my choice to leave the north, but it is similar to the mourning Zadie Smith describes in her essay on climate change, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.” It’s possible Smilla’s Sense of Snow describes a Danish winter that no longer exists. In that case, this novel is also a eulogy.

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Contributor Spotlight: Richie Hofmann

Richie Hofmann (Photo Credit Perry Guevara) COLOR CROPPEDRichie Hofmann’s forthcoming poetry collection, Second Empire (winner of the 2014 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books), is ripe with beautifully confident lyric meditations. Formally adept and precisely phrased, these delicate poems allow the reader to consider the weight of loss, desire, and the shifting nature of empire alike. This is a collection that addresses both the personal and the historical, blending that binary and ultimately arguing the self is more communal than it is solitary.

Hofmann is the winner of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MFA program, he is currently Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University. hofmann-richie-second-empire-cover

I’ve always admired how the line breaks, whitespace, and short declarative sentences in your work carefully slow the reader down. Why are you drawn to this particular pacing in a poem?

One of the things I love about poetry is that it demands a particular kind of attention—and rewards attention. I think that’s rare in our world, in which everything feels so fast-paced, so abbreviated and truncated, so multi-tasked. It’s probably impossible to control how a reader reads your poem—every one reads differently, or imagines the voice of the poem differently—but the features you mention are tools I hope ask a reader to pay closer attention. I like to think of poems sometimes as objects for contemplation—I imagine an exhibit at a museum, in which the elements of display around it—the kind of pedestal or vitrine, the color of the walls—all contribute to how you might apprehend and understand the object. White space, punctuation and line breaks (which are also a form of punctuation) help define and create the space in which a reader comes to the poem.

In “First Night in Stonington” the speaker claims, “So rare in this country to pace the streets/ of another century.” Could you speak to how American history (or maybe notions of history in America) have influenced you work?

Many of my poems are interested in history—not just the American past, but European history, as well, and the history of art and music. “Second Empire,” as an adjective or historical term, usually refers to France under Napoleon III (1852-1870), a period known for, among other things, Haussmann’s “renovation” of Paris, and the building of the Palais Garnier. While I did put a Palais Garnier poem in the book (“At the Palais Garnier”), I was most drawn to the title, “Second Empire,” because of how it suggested that even things we think of as monumental can be replaced. That there could be a second also implies (as history has often proven) that there could be third or a fourth, as well. As for America, we are living in a sort of changing empire today, and I’m interested in the way that fragility—political, artistic, and personal—affects our identities and relationships, our artists and our lovers.

So much of this beautiful book is focused on love—the joy, the erotic, the difficulty. What is it like for you to write a poem that takes love as its subject?

I love love. I love speaking to someone privately in a poem that also speaks to others. As a reader, I love overhearing that private speech. I love poems that enact desire, through their forms and withholdings and denials. The book is, for me, about the consuming uncertainties of love and sex. Most of the poems in the book take the form of the sonnet—the traditional form of the love poem. Three of the book’s elements—sex, history, and the sea—seem to be metaphors for finding connection with others that affirms the self, that reminds you you are part of something bigger, something older, something wilder.

Music—particularly opera—figures prominently in the collection. As such, it seems fitting that “Old World Elegy” won the 2013 Art Song contest and was scored by composer Brian Baxter. Could you speak a little bit about the experience of listening to your poem turned into song?

I care deeply for music—I spend most of my time listening to, and learning about music. You’re right—opera I love especially, and musical theater and vocal music. Texts are powerful and music is powerful—but in song you have both verbal and musical elements working together. To have a poem of mine win the Art Song Contest—it was an incredible experience: Brian Baxter’s beautiful setting of the poem, and the live performance of it at the Poetry Foundation, the gorgeous venue, the singer, the quartet—all incredible. People say there are “musical” elements to poetry, which may be true, but they’re nothing like real music lifting poetry off the page and into the ear. Brian’s interludes between the sections of the poem add so much to the experience of “Old World Elegy,” I wish I could put them in the book, too. “Old World Elegy” is going to get a studio recording this fall, I think. And I’ll be collaborating with Brian Baxter on another venture soon, too. Memorious’s contest not only advances the tradition of art song, but also brings together artists from realms that don’t often connect enough. That’s the best part.

What are you working on now?

I’m starting to write the first chapter of my dissertation for my doctorate in English at Emory University on twentieth-century poetry—I’m focusing on questions and texts that have meant a lot to me as a reader and as a writer, about music and opera, theatricality, lyric form, and authority. The best part, for me, is reading and re-reading poems by W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, and others.

I’ve also been working to procure interviews with poets I love and to develop classroom materials related to their work for Lightbox, a new online educational resource for students and teachers that I’ve just launched with my friend, the poet Kara van de Graaf. It’s been a lot of work, but also such a pleasure, especially to read the responses from the poets we’ve interviewed and to think about how we might approach teaching the work. We’ve been fortunate to get to ask questions to established writers, like A. E. Stallings, Maurice Manning, Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Salter, and Claudia Rankine, and to writers whose first books we’re excited to dive into, like Rickey Laurentiis, Ocean Vuong, and Solmaz Sharif. I really hope teachers will use these interviews and the accompanying in-class activities, discussion questions, and writing prompts in their classrooms, and that writers of all ages and levels can use these materials for self-study.

Interviewer Keith Leonard’s first collection of poems, Ramshackle Ode, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2016.He is also the author of a chapbook, Still, the Shore, published by YesYes Books.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Sean Singer

-1Sean Singer’s newest collection, Honey & Smoke vibrates. Like in his first book, Discography, the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award (2001), light refracts into sound, emerald and violet have tones, and all modes converge, synesthetically, into music. Both books are sonically and formally stunning; Singer’s newest book has ripened into a new idiom, through darkly funny collage. Enter here for disassembled instruments, where piano notes turn into heliotropes; for sprawling biographies of intellectuals and their afflictions (‘and the body shrinks from/ annihilation’); for films looping into jazz. The collection is daring, perturbing, gorgeous, and weird, timbre to timbre to timbre.

Singer was born in Mexico in 1974.  Discography was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize by W.S. Merwin and later won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book Honey & Smoke was published in London by Eyewear Publishing, and he has published two chapbooks with Beard of Bees Press, Passport and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water. He is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem and drives a taxi for Uber.Single_cover_Singer

Tell me about the relationship between color and sound in your poems.

I never thought about their relationship before, but someone said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” They’re conflicting streams of data. And you can’t really evoke music through language, which is static and inert. In fact, song lyrics work because their other half is the music pushing it forward. The other half of the language in a poem isn’t sound at all… it’s silence. It works by giving shape and meaning to the silence, the white part of the page. That’s what the reader has to contend with. Maybe one way I’ve tried to suggest sound is through color. Black, for example, can connect various threads of unrelated poems since they exist in related emotional spaces. My book begins with a black eyelid and ends with a black wolf exterior. There may be ways to address questions I don’t know by using color.

You summon Kafka, Camus, Freud, Bruno Schultz, Scott Joplin, Hank Mobley Ken Burns, and other intellectuals and artists into your collection. How do these particular individuals’ processes of making and thinking relate to your own?

My subject is often the meaning of creativity, or the process of making a piece of writing, or a piece of art. The figures you mention are sometimes characters through whom I can talk about the project of writing, the project of making poems, and the questions of being a writer or an artist. I resist the first person singular and would like to make a poem where there almost is no speaker at all, or a minimal one. Perhaps these figures are masks or voices through which I can let the speaker come through.

I’m interested in how bodily frailty manifests in the book — whether through illness or defect. Talk about the role of the body in this collection.

Again, you’ve touched on something I never considered. Being stuck inside a body is awful, and it inevitably breaks down. I can’t pretend at 40 that I’m the same, physically, as I was 20 years ago. I used to drink all night, stay up all night working. Now, after one or two I want to collapse. If you paid me a million dollars and gave me six months to practice I couldn’t touch my toes. Forget it. Maybe one of the reasons for a poem to exist is to try to get some permanence to what could otherwise be impermanent. On the other hand, life is almost too long for most people. Right now there are elderly people complaining about buffet tables and playing shuffleboard on cruise ships. They’re waiting out the clock. I never want to talk about myself in a poem, but Kafka, for instance, was a perfect subject through which to address it.

Newark is something of a character in this book, and also a portal into the violence and racism in America. How does Newark — as both actual place and as conceit — become New Ark in your own imagination, “the coils heat and reveal the rune: Newark renews” ?

I worked and taught in Newark for five years when I was working on my Ph.D. and my dissertation is a sort of cultural history of Newark. When I first came there, in 2008, I knew next to nothing about it. But the more time I spent there and read about it, and found many artists– Lynda Hull, Amiri Baraka, Helen Stummer, Grachan Moncur, Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, etc.– whose work was made in and about Newark, I realized that Newark is almost mythological. It’s a metaphor for everything great and wrong with America. It was deliberately over many decades made the way it is by all sorts of converging policies: highway policies, transportation policies, education policies, real estate policies, the manufacture of Agent Orange, and other forms of the apartheid system that we normally associate with the South. If people had paid attention to Newark, then the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, etc., etc. would not have been surprising. If possible, I want poems to have a moral center, and to demand an ethical reaction from a sensitive reader. Newark is one of those things that is a mirror we hold up and see the disgusting monster we’ve deliberately created out of hatred and racism. However, some of our greatest artists were from there. At the exact moment that many social scientists were saying there was nothing in Newark worth saving, the artists I mentioned were making art there. I find it ironic that Baraka, the writer who is most associated with Newark, a city that is incapable of change, is the figure who changed his entire outlook several different times. He began as LeRoi Jones, a Beat poet; then became Amiri Baraka, a Black nationalist; then a Third World Marxist; and then as a sort of elder statesman. He was capable of change and revision, which is more than most of us can do. New Jersey is sort of like Ireland– a small place, but it has a high density of artists. Baraka was one of the best, but there were many others no one knows about.

Tell me about opening, momentum, and closure in the book. How did you consider the balancing of so many different forms, including prose?  

For me, form is everything. I’m in search of the form before the subject. When I was writing my dissertation, I had to teach myself how to write academic prose instead of a poem. Academic prose is about taking things apart, and poems are about metaphor, or putting things together; so, they’re exact opposite projects. I wondered about long lines and long forms; how long could I make a line while still keeping it lyrical? I wondered if I could either destroy a genre, or create a new genre by mixing lyric poetry, essay, and long lines. I wrote the book over about 12 or 13 years, so I don’t remember exactly what my thinking was when I made some of the forms, or why. One of the only benefits to writing is having freedom. I like being able to write in whatever form accomplishes the poem, even if it’s 116 long couplets about the 19th century whaling industry. I don’t know if the book has momentum. I know it’s a dense book, and can only be read slowly and in short bursts. It demands a lot from a reader. Couplets are interesting because there’s nowhere to hide; the lines need to be balanced with each other, and need to propel the reader to the subsequent couplet. They can have horizontal energy, but the vertical energy is harder to do. The fragment and collage form work to discuss a subject like Newark because Newark has been so fragmented. It can be a way to allow divergent voices to come through and still be a whole.

In between your first and second book, you had two children. How has fatherhood impacted you as a poet?

My writing schedule before children was more vigorous. I could stay up all night and was focused on writing more. I was more ambitious. My ideal schedule was to write for hours every day. My actual schedule was probably more sporadic, but I would write poems for years, do research for poems, and read a book a week. All that’s changed because children force you to live in the present moment. However, children being happy is more important than writing a lot. The world doesn’t need another poem. But if they’re happy then I’ve done something important. That said, I would like to increase my output to one or two poems per year, but it might not be possible during this period of my life. I drive when they’re in school, then stop when I have to pick them up from school. Then I make dinner and by the time they’re in bed I have to go to bed, or if I don’t, I often drive again at night. I may make a poem again, or I may not. I always think each poem is my last poem.


Tell us what’s next. Lately, you drive a cab in New York city. What kind of sensibility from that world might find its way into your poems?  

I’m on the street driving between 8 and 10 hours a day. I drive people from all walks of life, from all over the city and the world. I never know who they are, what their state of mind is going to be, or where we’re going till the trip starts. I could end up in Greenwich, Connecticut, or an industrial part of Queens. Robert DeNiro’s taxi driver in Taxi Driver was right… people do treat you like you’re invisible when your’e a taxi driver. Sometimes I drive genuinely friendly people, and other times they can be very abusive to me, very rude or even hostile. Whatever it is, I just let it go, like the song from Frozen says. Driving is 10% physical and 90% mental. I try to focus on the job since I’m responsible for the passengers’ safety. I suppose a sensibility that might find its way into poems is one of unpredictability, danger, the motion of the city. Ultimately, the job entails smooth steering inputs and smooth braking inputs, and knowing the most efficient route to the address where the person wants to go. I’m not a chatty driver; I usually only speak unless the passenger asks me a direct question. I want to save my emotional reactions for the poems.

Our Spotlight interviewer is contributor Nomi Stone, whose first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook, was published by TriQuarterly in 2008. She is currently completing Kill Class, a collection about war games.

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

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