Poetry Spotlight: Maggie Dietz


Poet Maggie Dietz is one of Memorious‘s first contributors, having appeared in Issue 1, and the University of Chicago Press has just released her second collection, That Kind of Happy. The collection manages to feel deeply personal without being limited to the interior concerns of just one self. Dietz’s gaze is alertly trained on the wide world, and her speaker’s entanglement in it—its strangers, links on globalization’s unwieldy, unjust social chain, its hillsides and music and hospital rooms.  “Mankind cannot bear much Reality,” Eliot wrote, but Dietz’s poetry seeks it, passionately.

Dietz is the author of a previous collection, Perennial Fall, winner of the Jane Kenyon Award and a Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. She is the recipient of a Grolier Poetry Prize, a George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, and fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. With Robert Pinsky, she coedited the anthologies Americans’ Favorite Poems (1999), Poems to Read (2002), and An Invitation to Poetry (2004). She teaches at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

dietz cover

“Kempie” is one of the poems in the book I loved immediately on first reading. It’s eerie and wonderful the way you shadow-puppet childhood snapshots and leave the reader to figure out that these are just wishful imaginings, for the time being (if I’m reading right.) I love the metrical/maternal certainty of the ending: “You’ve got a mother, / Kempie, and you’ve got a name.” But I have to admit: I’m baffled by the poem’s first sentence! Would it ruin things if you were to give me a few clues here?

“When I was like you no one/spoke to me…” The poem presents the problem of how to speak to a person who doesn’t exist. Maybe that is helpful? The line break may offer a clue as well. I guess I don’t mind it’s being mysterious, although it’s never my intention to baffle anybody. The distinction between mystery and befuddlement is something I bring up often with my students—the one being desirable, the other not so much.

Probably my favorite “move” here is the tempering of longing with sharpness and sass (“Remember / when you didn’t have the croup? / I stayed up all night making steam. / Remember when you didn’t win / the spelling bee? / We were so proud.”) There’s what you could call a Syzmborskan resilience-by-humor in there. Were those negations—we didn’t, you didn’t— there in early drafts, or did they come later? 

Those “Remember when you didn’t…” formulations were part of my initial thinking about the poem, the kind of almost subconscious writing that happens before anything is written down. I guess there’s a dream-as-wish-fulfillment thing happening there. It’s as if those things—the croup, the spelling bee—both did and didn’t happen. This poem and much of the book take up dream and imagination as equally real and sometimes more significant that what we call “real life.” In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück examines the distinction between what is actual and what is true. I love that essay. The statements “I stayed up all night making steam” and “We were so proud” mean to be true.

In “Thin Ice,” your lines  “The frozen river’s like a place / in me I mustn’t go”makes me think of Frost. What is your favorite Frost poem, and why?

I have several—“‘Out, Out—,’” “Directive,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,”—and Frost has been important to me, and influential. “Home Burial” is the poem that above all others feels endlessly complex and difficult. Frost never read that poem aloud—there’s no recording of it—because he said it was too sad. There’s nothing quite like listening to students who’ve encountered the poem for the first time discuss it: the initial impulse to take a side (the husband, the wife) usually dissipates, and the talk turns to different ways of grieving. I won’t write an essay about it here, but I’ll say that what amazes me most about the poem (beyond the brilliance of the conversation fitted so naturally to blank verse) is the physicality of it. There’s the movement on the staircase, of course, but most striking to me is the moment when the wife, Amy, recounts to her husband the act of his having dug (“With your own hand—how could you?”) their child’s grave:

Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And run back down the mound beside the hole.

You can hear her mounting anger there, and also understand that she is physically mimicking the act of digging. It’s as if she demonstrates the catharsis her husband may have experienced in that physical action without understanding it’s possible that’s what it was.

I have a question about the poem “Another Day, Another Dolor,” which includes the lines

we angled in to hear if he’d say something
wise—and he did he said ‘I guess
you’re wondering why I called this meeting’

Why no comma in “he did he said”?  (I love the rush the commalessness creates.) Was there ever a comma? Did anyone ever suggest one? Tell me the story of this comma-lack.

The absence of commas imitates, I suppose, the breathlessness of story-telling in a poem that is a conversational retelling of several family anecdotes. There are some commas in the poem, but many of them, those that would introduce dialogue, for instance, I left out. Denise Levertov likens punctuation to a score for the reader’s breath, and I’m with her on that. The omission you mention is probably the boldest one (in terms of ignoring grammatical rules), and that has to do with momentum for me. If someone had suggested I stick a comma there, I’d have ignored them. But I don’t remember that happening.

I’d like to quote from Marie Howe’s poem “Pain” (from What The Living Do):

… a day came when he said, Marie,
you know how we’ve been waiting for the big pain to come?

I think it’s here. I think this is it.
I think it’s been here all along.

And he did take the morphine, and he died the next week.

The 90%-iamb “he did” is satisfyingly percussive, of course, but I’m wondering if (you think) both of you were drawn to the assertion of “he DID” as defiance toward, in each case, a deathbed?

That’s a powerful Howe poem. Hmmm….it’s hard for me to see or hear defiance in it. I hear anapests in her construction with the “ands,” and a sense of acquiescence in the sonic echo there, a rhythm of attrition: “and he did…and he died.”

In my poem “he did he said” is more iambic (“and he did he said ‘I guess / you’re wondering why I called this meeting.’”) If there’s defiance in the assertion, I think it’s the speaker’s defiance: an insistence on humor as a kind of wisdom, maybe even especially in the darkest and most serious moments. Is humor in the face of death a kind of defiance? Yes—I’d not thought of it that way, not in the “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” sense. Another way to look at it is that humor is a way to accept and acknowledge death without making the people who have to go on living discomfited. There’s wisdom in that—a kind of wisdom only the dying have access to—and, as I’ve experienced it, tremendous generosity.

I first read the poem “Zoloft” in Threepenny, and was so excited when I learned it would be part of a new book. I got glasses for the first time a year ago, and was stunned like your speaker, for whom: “where the branches had been a blur / of fire, now there were scalloped oak leaves.” That stanza begins “it was October and I could see the edges / of everything” and adds, “It was wonderful. It made me / horribly sad.” This contradictory emotional simultaneity feels *true*, but I’m wondering why it’s true. Is it that the rush of heightened awareness of one’s sensory environment is unavoidably paired with the poignancy of not being able to hold on to it? Or am I just projecting?

I’m glad it feels true to you, and I don’t think you’re projecting. But I do think it’s an impulse to try to align one’s own experience with the experience of a poem—to summon or recall some parallel or similar if not life experience then emotional circumstance. Your association—having gotten glasses—seems only natural. People seek solidarity in art even if there’s not so direct a connection.

I wasn’t thinking of Keats and negative capability when I wrote the poem, but it’s always knocking around up there and it’s what you’re describing, I think, in pointing to the simultaneity of opposing emotions. Paradox is often at the center of truth, because nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and two truths can seem to contradict each other. Kids even understand this. Not long ago my daughter looked up from what she was doing and said, “Mom, you know that yeah-no feeling?”

I can only guess what readers might draw from that stanza: the rush you mention and its connection to loss, a sense of what one’s missed, of what one doesn’t get to keep, a sense of the fragility of the body, the reliance on technology as we age, the notion that the world’s available beauty can be veiled to some of us. And perhaps things I can’t imagine as well. If some readers find something true there, as you say you have, than the poem has done its job. What more can we hope for?

Interviewer Sarah Green is a reader for Memorious and the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and the poetry 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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Fiction Spotlight: Ranbir Singh Sidhu

rsnewheadshot-smallWe were lucky enough to snatch up Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s hilarious short story “‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe Hits The Mark” for Memorious 25. Though he has spent the better part of the last two decades in Brooklyn and Crete, Sidhu is a writer with California in his blood. This is a component of his backstory—Sidhu was born in London and raised in the Bay Area—but also a central focus of his remarkable debut novel, Deep Singh Blue.

Sidhu, the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press) and a recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, presents us with a version of Northern California in the mid-80s as experienced by Deep Singh, a complex and highly-charged narrator. At the start of the book, he has transferred out of high school to enroll in a community college, hoping to put some distance between himself and his suffocating home, where his parents, first-generation Indian immigrants, subject him to their own ideas of the good life. Indeed, the California of Deep Singh Blue, with its cheap motels, liquor stores, and rent-by-the-hour hot tubs, seems a place where ideas of the good life have festered and soured, a place that contains within itself many of the forces that would come to characterize the country in the decades that followed. Kirkus calls the novel a “heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale in which survival depends more on compassion than rebellion.” Sidhu was kind enough to talk with Memorious fiction reader and contributor Chris Arp about his writing process, the state of the novel, and his weird home state of California.

 From the very first pages, the Northern California of Deep Singh Blue is an awfully claustrophobic place, both in Deep’s home and the wider environs. I’m thinking also of his driving trips, which seem to promise freedom but also an aimless kind of wandering.

 It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, in the heart of what was Reagan’s America, and even in California I think you felt the chill of that world. Certainly to me, as a recent immigrant at the time, I remember finding that world still closed in on itself and that surprised me. I knew kids in school who had never left the city limits, let alone hopped on the BART train and taken it to San Francisco or Berkeley, which was only a half hour away. And in such an enclosed world, which I think is what so much of American suburbia was back then, an aimless kind of wandering was the only real recreation, beyond drinking or making out, the latter if you were very lucky.

As far as how I approached it in the novel, I wanted Deep’s wider world to reflect his inner, and not so much as a literary device but to reinforce that this is how he sees the world because this very much is the kind of world he’s grown up in, if that distinction makes sense. He isn’t yet able to imagine a wider, more generous reading of what the world could be, even in the admittedly claustrophobic universe of the Northern California I paint here.

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-3-09-44-pmOne of the triumphs of the book, to my mind, is the way the environment can be read as both subjective and real. Deep’s world is symbolically resonant, while at the same time drab, under-stimulating, and altogether uninterested in our protagonist. And isn’t that exactly what it feels like to be a teenager?

I wouldn’t think of Deep’s world as “symbolically resonant”—I’d just think of it as Deep’s world, and painted as clearly as I can with a mind to how he interacts with it. This is his world—whether the world he sees is different from some idea of a so-called “real” world I couldn’t answer. But that particular agony of teenagehood interested me, and in particular, Deep’s teenage years as a child of immigrants and growing up in a world that had absolutely no room for that experience.

It’s an interesting tension. He is at times explicitly interested in his parents’ lives, and at times not. On the first page, he says of his parents, “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones that don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written…” Now, this is told from a position of the somewhat older Deep, and when I read it I was prepared to learn their stories. Yet Deep spends most of the novel regarding his parents through the haze of his own frustration and rebellion. Sympathy only comes at the bitter end. Why portray his parents’ experience through such a narrator?

 I wanted to anchor Deep’s voice in that moment of his teenage years, and paint the world through that lens, which seems to me very interesting. And Deep’s older voice, which only comes in a few brief times, does give a larger sense of the world, or of a person who’s come to see the world as larger, but he doesn’t yet. I don’t want to undermine how horribly enclosed his world is and how intensely he finds himself shut out from larger conversations. That’s a very real experience of the world, and I didn’t want to devalue it by suggesting it was a false experience—it’s not, it’s as real and valid as any other, just more painful than many.

Yeah, the outside world trickles in, and is somehow twisted in the process. References are made, throughout the book, to the Sikh and anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab in the 1980s. Yet Deep hears about all this through Uncle Gur, whose reactions seem as outsized and impulsive as his comical business dealings. Who is Uncle Gur? How did his character come about and why was he chosen as the conduit for so many of the larger conversations?

 He grew out of a lot of people I know personally I suppose—and his reactions don’t seem particularly outsized to me frankly. As far as this question of why he was “chosen”—I really have to say he wasn’t chosen at all. I mean he’s just one of the characters in the extended family, and he certainly has a presence and a far greater interest in what’s going on in Punjab than Deep’s father does, say, but he wasn’t written in for that reason, rather all of that grew out of his character. I never write with an idea that I have something to say about a particular subject, and any larger meanings or connections come late in the process, and are usually a surprise to me.

You must have access to more passionate uncles. The only one I’ve ever known rarely spoke above a murmur. That’s interesting about your process. Who were the first characters in the genesis of the novel? Did it grow out of the central storyline between Deep and his initial love interest, Lily, or was the family there from the start? Or both, or neither?

 It very much grew out of Deep and wanting to look at his life, and actually the relationship with Lily came in quite late in the process of rewriting. It was their relationship that catalyzed so much of the novel for me, and made it considerably stronger, and she also gave him so much to play against and allowed him to look at some really quite dark parts of himself.

She’s a dark character. In one of the novel’s most electrifying sequences, she nearly runs a car off the road. She is half Chinese—“a fucking half-Chink, half-cracker,” is how she introduces herself—and so is the family in the car. Afterwards, she says, “At least the Chink had balls…Usually they shit their pants.” Deep’s reaction is really interesting. She insists that he refer to himself as a Paki. “‘Paki,’ I agreed, thinking there it was, the cages we both lived in, for her Chink, for me Paki, like she was shining a light on the bars.” You say the relationship with Lily came in later, but she reads as essential to Deep’s development, as well as a central and uncompromising character in her own right.

Of all the characters in the book, I think I have the deepest affection for Lily, and the true disaster she’s made of her life, or is making of it. Not that you can blame her, I don’t, and I find a lot of myself that lies buried is expressed rather forcefully on the surface with her. She’s obviously self-destructive, but I think a lot of people who act in outwardly self-destructive modes often understand intuitively that this might be the only viable escape route for them, by that I mean it’s almost a rational choice—whether they can clean themselves up before they do actually destroy themselves is another matter.

And what is she escaping from? We learn a good deal about her home life and her past, both of which are very hard, but is there something more? Early on, Deep wonders if it is a “rootlessness of the soul” that makes him most properly a Californian. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Lily.

 Definitely he does, and yes, to me California felt very much like a place where you wandered rootlessly to, and got stuck because often you couldn’t wander any farther. That’s not the case any longer, as it’s become so expensive, at least in the cities. In some of the desert communities you still have that feel, but it’s also a feeling of crushing economic hardship as there are few jobs. I think of this California, the 1980s version, as a last holdout of a dream California, but it was one that was already dying or dead. Then the 1990s tech boom came along and basically just tossed the body over the cliff and into the ocean. As far as what Lily’s running from, other than how it’s described in the book, I feel that’s very much the reader’s decision to ask themselves if that’s whey want to find out.

And what was the dream California? What was killing it by the mid 80s?

 I doubt there ever was such a California, thus the dream part—but there was a much more working class California, and a working class Bay Area, and a much more multi-layered city (I’m thinking mainly of San Francisco here), which was swallowed up by the tech boom. These things happen, and that city isn’t ever coming back—it’s one of the reasons I don’t live there anymore. But there was a time when money didn’t have to be such a determining factor in where you lived and who you knew and what you did with your life. I think the latter is so much the case now, and not just in large parts of California, but across this country. I miss that other world where money mattered less, even though we had so much less of it in general.

Forgive me widening the lens here, but do you think this shift in America has changed the novel? Do we need different kinds of novels? Has it changed you as a reader, or as a writer?

 No, please do. And I don’t know if it’s changed the novel, or how it would, but I do think that how we imagine America has changed dramatically. In that sense I hope the novel, for all it’s surface bleakness, brings to life a more potential time, a more possible time. I feel these days we find ourselves pushed into ever narrower realms, into ever narrower ways we are described and how we describe ourselves. This happens in fiction in the abundance of genres and sub-genres, which I find troubling, because it posits a world where we read with expectations of a particular experience, and also in the larger sense, live with expectations of how we will experience a certain moment. I’m all for cross-genre writing, multi-genre writing, but I’d much rather break the back of genre altogether and watch it happily die. I like writers who try all types of different books, and different stories, and ways of telling stories—but that’s a tough sell in the bottom line-driven world of corporate publishing.

And do you see these tropes or types cropping up in literary fiction?

 I find much literary fiction these days to be highly genre-defined. For me good writing breaks boundaries, and these days I feel few established writers, especially at the major houses, are interested in that at all—they want to rehash the same book that was written twenty years ago, maybe fifty years, or longer. That’s fine, but let’s say it’s a genre as much as self-styled romance novels are, and in the larger sense of whether it moves the form forward, then let’s agree that it most definitely does not. There’s a lot of really great writing out there—I’m currently totally hooked on Ron Currie’s extraordinary Everything Matters!—but we’ve allowed literary culture to be largely defined by the marketing departments of the big houses and the soporific tastes of pretty much universally white, privileged editors, and much of what they put out is as dull as wallpaper paste.

Amen. And aside from Currie, where else might the desperate reader turn for some originality? What other writers do you see as fighting the good fight?

 Two books I recently read that I think push hard against how we imagine modern literary fiction are Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. They’re very different works, and imagine two very different approaches to writing, but both engage with literature from the sentence level upward. Two of the writers I grew up reading are both British experimenters—Alasdair Gray and Brigid Brophy. Again, they produced very different works, and with both authors, each of their books is often very different from previous ones, but they’re enlivened by a spirit of pushing against form and expectation. They struggle with the material at hand.

Chris Arp is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Fiction, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation / E.L. Doctorow Fellowship. Since then, his work has been published in Storgy Magazine and the Cumberland River Review, and is forthcoming in Memorious 26. One of his stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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Memorious 2015/2016 Art Song Contest Winner & Finalist Announced

We am thrilled to announce that guest composer Elizabeth Kelly has selected Trenton Pollard as the winner of the 2015/2016 Art Song Contest! Kelly will set Pollard’s poems into an original work and the new song cycle will be premiered by Sabine Wüthrich (soprano) and Daniël Kramer (piano) at the inaugural Nott FAR (Nottingham Forum for Artistic Research) concert in the UK on November 11, 2016.
Trenton Pollard’s poems have been published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Paper Nautilus, Assaracus, The HIV Here and Now Project, Codex Journal, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships and fellowships from The New York Summer Writer’s Institute, Wildacres, North Carolina State University, and Columbia University. Originally from Michigan, he lives in New York City.


We would like to congratulate finalists Michele Battiste, Paula Bohince, Joyce Peseroff, Joshua Rivkin, Quang Vo, and Claire Wahmanholm, who have all been offered publication in the Art Song issue, scheduled for release in Winter 2016/17. Thank you to everyone who sent us poems for our guest composer to consider: it was an incredible pool of submissions.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Megan Grumbling

Bio-1Megan Grumbling’s first collection of poems, Booker’s Point, was just released by University of North Texas Press as the winner of the Vassar Miller Prize. Her work has been awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Robert Frost Award from the Robert Frost Foundation, a Hawthornden Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, and a St. Boltoph Emerging Artist Award, and her poems have appeared such places as Poetry, The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Verse Daily, and Memorious. One of her poems from Issue 14 of Memorious, “Leaving the Room,” was selected by Claudia Emerson for Best New Poets 2010 and was a finalist for Best of the Net 2010. Her latest poems in Memorious 25 are part of the spoken opera Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, a co-creation of Megan and librettist and composer Denis Nye, which will be produced by Hinge/Works in May of 2016, at SPACE Gallery, in Portland, Maine.

Grumbling serves as Reviews Editor for The Café Review, a poetry and arts journal, and has since 2004 written weekly theater criticism for the Portland Phoenix. She teaches at the University of New England and Southern Maine Community College.

Can you tell me about the origins of this book, and particularly about the character Booker?

When this book began, I thought I was compiling an oral history of the land around where I grew up. I had just returned to Maine from grad school in New York, and was feeling a prodigal’s need to reconnect with my home town, Wells, and Ell Pond, a lake down the road from my childhood house. My father introduced me to Booker, the old guy who lived across the pond who was its unofficial “Mayor,” and who I’d somehow never met, despite all eighteen years of growing up there. This woodsman, surveyor, and jack-of-many-trades knew about the pond, land, trees, stones, and everything else I wanted to know, or had never even thought to want to know. We tromped around the woods together, I helped dig holes or look for white stones, and I listened – and recorded a lot of – his stories. And I found myself unexpectedly moved in many ways by our work and connection. Soon enough I was writing a portrait, and poetry, and eventually I made my way into the poems myself.

This book exemplifies what is often called “poetry of place”– how does your relationship to your home state of Maine, and the particularly geography of where you grew up, shape this book?

Booker’s Point is steeped in the landscapes of my home state, some histories of those landscapes – the imagery of pond and wood, the former grazing lands returned to forest, the various town lines and how they were run. But I also meditated on more ambivalent or complicating factors of this place: What I didn’t know or even knew wrong, after all my years of living there; the human hand in the pond’s natural history; the challenge of holding the home of a place in the face of change. I wrote about these matters in the context of my Maine hometown, but very conscious that I was writing about wholly universal questions that I hope will resonate with many.

What led to your formal choices for this book?

Much of the book’s formalism – blank verse, sonnets, some nonce stuff in pentameter – was a very conscious nod to Frost and the heritage and grace of his conversational voices. This is the case particularly in many of the poems that center on Booker himself, his stories, or history in general. In the poems in which my own voice, experience, or ambivalence are more central, I often found style, music and lineation sometimes becoming more modern, more lyric than narrative, more leap-y and expressionistic.

And sometimes the interweaving of Booker and myself – and occasionally of multiple time frames in a given poem – gave rise to little experiments in a kind of poetic montage. Also, working with many hours of transcript from my recordings of Booker presented interesting challenges, including how to get documentary quotes into pentameter! Frost was again helpful for thinking about this puzzle, as was my work as a reporter and ethnographer, and, though this may sound weird, I kind of had Shakespeare’s myriad pentametric voices in the back of my mind, as a reassurance maybe.

Grumbling Book Covers V4-2You do not have an MFA, but an MA in journalism from NYU, but you have published widely in journals such as Poetry and The Iowa Review, and you’ve received the Ruth Lilly Award, the St Botolph Award, and many others awards for emerging writers. How did you come to poetry, and how would you describe your alternative path of studying poetry?

I was writing and reading poetry even as a kid, but chose not to pursue it in my higher ed – I wound up studying American Studies, oral history/ethnography, and cultural reporting and criticism. While that decision means I’m not as well networked in the academic writing realm as I might otherwise have been, I think that my path has provided really interesting alternative ways for thinking about story, telling, and voice, and for working with the notion of “no ideas but in things” on very practical levels. I think there are a lot of parallels between good criticism and poetry – using the small and sensual to meditate on the expansive – and my reporting and interviewing really attuned my ear – and my affinities – to people’s tellings.

You have a few poems in the latest issue of Memorious, and I know that you are working on an opera and a book-length collection that include poems. Can you tell us about both of these projects?

The project, Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, re-imagines the Persephone myth in the age of climate change – she comes and goes between worlds erratically, drinks too much, takes a human lover. It’s essentially a story about our narratives: how we tell ourselves and what we’ve done to the planet, which I think is fundamental to how we understand, grieve, and respond. The opera version of Persephone is co-created by myself as librettist and composer Denis Nye, and it premieres this May in Portland, Maine, with a site-specific installation as set and an amazing team of artists who have been committed to its development for nearly two years now. Denis’s score is a gorgeous, post-Romantic post-Romantic chamber work for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, filtered live through a digital delay to evoke the disjunction and crisis – as well as the beauty – of our modern world; the libretto ranges from lyric verse to edgy, magical realist prose poems and an imagined Farmer’s Almanac.

Now that the artists are in rehearsals, I am trying to finish the book form of this project, which tells the same story but includes additional threads and layers. A book is the form I started in, but I finished it in libretto mode, when I had grown immersed in writing for voice and staging rather than the page. So now the challenge is to make that translation back to page, and it’s an interestingly confounding one at times. It’s really making me think about form and page space in ways I haven’t had cause to before.

For stories, poems, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Memorious @ AWP 2016


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Poetry Spotlight: Sarah Green Interviews Wayne Miller


Post- (Milkweed, 2016) is Wayne Miller’s fourth book of poetry. The collection—which covers such themes as the loss of a parent, new fatherhood, American debt and violence, and collisions of inner/outer worlds—is assertive, poignant, at times mysterious, and always linguistically muscular and controlled. “I was in this shade as it carried
you / You were in my house / as it held me. Don’t say that / means nothing, America!” Miller writes in one of my favorite of the poems, “House Near the Airport.” It’s an accomplishment of this book that it manages to reinforce the reader’s faith in meaning and connection despite—or perhaps as a powerful result of—its moments of bewilderment and alienation.

51rY3thaFfL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Wayne Miller is the author of three previous poetry collections: The City, Our City (Milkweed Editions, 2011), The Book of Props (2009), and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006). He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Literary Publishing in the 21st Century (Milkweed Editions, April 2016; w/ Travis Kurowski and Kevin Prufer). That anthology, in Miller’s words, “offers a snapshot of the paradoxical and rapidly changing world of contemporary literary publishing through essays by editors, publishers, writers, and agents.” Miller lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where he edits Copper Nickel.

How did you decide to put “The First Year,” your poem about the first year of parenthood, into third person? Does it have something to do with feeling at a remove, now, from the “I” of that year?  Or is it because this poem’s schema lies somewhere between realism and parable, the latter being served well by third person? Also: this poem follows father-loss poems. Is “the stone still with them” grief?

First off, let me say thanks so much, Sarah, for spending some time with Post- and for putting together such terrific questions. I’m really grateful for your sharp attention to these poems.

Regarding “The First Year”:  I think I was mostly interested in—as you say—the parable-like quality third person brings to the poem—more so than in having left behind that foggy, exhausted initial year my wife and I spent with our infant daughter (who’s now four). I’m generally more excited by how the imagination interacts with an experience than in direct reportage of the experience itself. In this case, third person allowed me to build a conceit through the pond and the stones that, if the poem were in first person, might have seemed too directly or personally allegorical. (At least that was my worry.) I also didn’t want to sound like I was moaning excessively about the difficulties of a first year with a baby, since there are obviously far more difficult things.

As for the stones: I see them as something of an open signifier for the various interactions parents have with a newborn. All that seemingly fruitless attempting to connect, to instill love, to impart language—it felt to me at the time like, well, like throwing stones into water. But then at a certain point the work comes back in surprising ways as the child begins to interact, to talk, to express emotion. Part of my discovery in writing the poem was working out how—once the triggering metaphor was established—I might manage to bring those lost stones back to the parents again.

When I wrote “The First Year” I wasn’t necessarily thinking about its potential relationship to the father-loss poems elsewhere in the book. That said, it’s surely very possible to draw a connection through the image/symbol of the stone. I really like that idea, actually.

I loved being fooled when I read your poem “Marriage”; you begin I was walking away, but in the end the speaker [arrives] at the warm engine of you / asleep beside me. I realize (I think) that it was a dream, but I love the interplay of the two: title announcing one thing, first line seeming to reject it. I love, too, the playful/poignant “see?” in the last stanza; it seems to say “it was just a dream, see?” but a threat still looms over. The reader’s left to choose which perception to invest in most—departure or arrival, sleeping or waking. Can you talk about how your formal choices here enabled the “choose-your-own-adventure” simultaneity and mystery this poem offers?

My wife likes to say that people clearly aren’t meant to be monogamous, and they’re also too selfish not to be. That makes such clear sense to me—and it’s that paradox I found myself trying, I think, to articulate as I was writing the poem.

I also wrote “Marriage” while we were living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a seven-month stint. For the first two months we were there, it was 33 degrees and poured freezing rain pretty much nonstop. Spending day after day cooped up in a small apartment with a frenetic two-year-old was enough to send my imagination elsewhere at every available opportunity. Dreaming was a lovely release into other locations; just as waking was also a lovely release back into my life and family and the adventure we were on together. The simultaneity of those feelings was the trigger for the poem.

Formally I tried to capture the claustrophobia of that apartment—and, more generally, the long-term claustrophobia (good claustrophobia!) of marriage—through a sneaky little rhyme scheme that recurs just when you don’t expect it (A-B-C-D-E-C), as well as through the speaker’s relative neutrality as he relates both his imagined leaving and his subsequent returning to that space of the bedroom.

I’m astounded by the unexpected impact of “touchless car wash”—such a seemingly mundane or random thing—in your gun-violence poem, “Ballad (American, 21st Century)”. Though this poem like many of yours is about what feels like archetypal fatherhood, a man who’s lost his own father, protecting his child and that child’s mother, you manage in “touchless” an almost-sympathy (as I read it) for the shooter’s alienation or loneliness. I guess I’m wondering, were you aware of this moment of sympathy when writing the poem, and did it surprise you?

Thank you for that! “Touchless” was a moment of surprise when I was writing that felt immediately right—and for the exact reason you mention.

Though I’ve recently moved to Denver, for more than a decade I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, and commuted about 55 miles each way to the little town of Warrensburg, where I taught and where, in 2013-14, my daughter was in preschool on campus. For that year she was usually in the car with me when I commuted.

Like everybody in America I’ve heard far too many news stories about mass shootings. But that last spring in Missouri those stories came somewhat closer to home when a highway shooter in what’s called the Grandview Triangle—a tangle of highway my daughter and I drove through every time we made our commute—shot into twelve cars over a month or so before he was finally arrested. A few weeks later, a potential school shooter in Warrensburg was foiled as he tried to enter the town’s high school; he ultimately committed suicide during a standoff with police.

At a certain point I realized I had started to think of all of America’s shooters as one recurrent shooter who keeps popping up in different places at different times before disappearing back into the national fabric. The shooter is, in other words (and to paraphrase WCW), a pure American product—a nasty, unintended consequence of the American experiment. As such, he elicits from a tiny corner of my condemnation the faintest whisper of sympathy. Or maybe “pity” is the better word.

Debt comes up more than once in this book; of course in the very first poem, “The Debt”, but also in “Consumers in Rowboat” (“remember your debt.”) (When I read that, I can’t help reciting forgive us.) I can’t think of a poetry collection that’s worked with the oppressive financial reality so many of us live inside in this same way. Colloquially, of course, debt can describe a mood of grateful humility—I might say ‘I’m indebted to x for her kindness’. Perhaps “debt” in this book is what links the personal domestic poems and the more sweeping social commentary poems in the sense that all of your poems seem very aware of interdependence. In “House Near the Airport”, you write “I was in this shade as it carried you, you were in my house / as it held me
.” Would you say there is a Buddhist or spiritual dimension to the interdependence narrative in this book?

For a long time I’ve been interested in those places in poetry where the “public” and “private” intersect—on the levels of both language and subject matter. And though I haven’t thought of it quite this way before, I think you’re absolutely right that the multivalenced idea of debt—financial, emotional, intellectual, etc.—is a key link between the personal and the public throughout the book.

Whether there’s a Buddhist or spiritual dimension? In my own sense of the poems, at least, I’m not quite willing to go that far. I will say that the book was built from my belief in the power of the past to affect the present—both personally and collectively—and the simultaneous power of the present to affect the past. In the long wake of my father’s death, as well as in the context of our current historical moment—with its challenging economics and widening sociopolitical gyre—I’m persistently interested in considering how we ignore our human entanglements (again, present and past) at our peril.

That said, I’m also wary of reducing the book to a rhetorical position, since I like to think it contains more uncertainty and discovery than doing so might imply. Maybe it’s better to say: sometimes the private spaces of our lives do turn entirely on their own axes. But then a plane drags its shadow through the room, or a political demonstration starts up in the street beyond the window, or a war swallows a family member, or the next credit card bill arrives . . . These sorts of events, major and minor, encircle, contextualize, and often penetrate the private spaces in which lyric poems are typically found—which is a thought I kept returning to as I was writing the poems in Post-.

Interviewer Sarah Green is a reader for Memorious and the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and her just released (March 1, 2016) debut 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 Loves: Nicky Beer on Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings

beerauthorphoto2013Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Nicky Beer. Beer is the author of two poetry collections, The Octopus Game (2015) and The Diminishing House (2010), both published by Carnegie Mellon. In The Octopus Game, Beer’s shape-shifting cephalopods visit the reader in films, dreamlike carnivals, and all the mysterious depths of our imaginations. Here, she discusses her big love for Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings.


Friends, I don’t think we talk nearly enough about how damn funny Yoko Ono is (I initially typed “Yolo Ono,” which proves that my fingers are much cooler than I am). In 2000, Simon & Schuster rereleased her Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings in hardcover, first published on Ono’s own Wunternaum Press in 1964. The designation above the UPC code is “poetry,” and for a book whose accumulated contents were written over 50 years ago, it feels astonishingly contemporary, even timeless. But also, it will make you laugh:


     Write all the things you want to do.

     Ask others to do them and sleep

     until they finish doing them.

     Sleep as long as you can.


     Write all the things you intend to do.

     Show that to somebody.

     Let him sleep for you until you

     finish doing them.

     Do for as long as you can.

I can’t help but read “Room Piece” as a wry analog for modern dating:

     When a room is needed, obtain a person instead

     of a room.

     Live on him.

     When another room is needed, obtain another

     person instead of another room.

     Live on them.

And who knew that Ono had predicted the invention of the Internet in 1963?


Select a subject.

Write five million pages (single space)

on the subject.

Poets: Read Ono’s instructions during those times when poetry is making you feel dull andgrapefruit anxious and shabby, and you need something to refresh your palate (and isn’t it convenient that grapefruit season is at its best in February, just when the post-holiday blues set in?). Even as you hold the book in your hands—a cheerfully yellow, diminutive square—you’ll feel your attitude toward the written word recalibrate. After only a few entries, you’ll find yourself grinning, chuckling, or introspecting—in any case, you’ll find it a bit easier to get over your damn self. Treat it less as a book and more as a prescription for artistic malaise. The combination of Dadaist jokes, koans, and minimalist sketches will send you into an absurdist meditative state that you didn’t even know you needed.

People teaching poetry workshops: Use Grapefruit as a pedagogical tool. Take Ono’s impossible-to-execute instructions as imaginative prompts [“SHADOW PIECE: Put your shadows together until / they become one.”], and get your students to write their own. Give the more practical ones as homework assignments [“MAP PIECE: Draw a map to get lost.”]. Take your class outside and perform “Sun Piece” [“Watch the sun until it becomes square.”] for them. Listen to that one student get mad and ask if this means that anything can be art. Listen to that other student who dislikes him/her reply sharply. Listen to that other student who has a crush on either of them defend him/her accordingly. Allow the rest of the students to argue amongst themselves. Sneak away.

I close with an homage to Ono, written in the spirit of her own form:


Buy a copy of Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit.15_beer_theoctopusgame2

Buy a grapefruit.

Eat the book.

Read the grapefruit.


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

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