Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Dana Levin

Dana Levin’s fourth book, Banana Palace, has recently been released by Copper Canyon Press. The collection rings with immediacy, drawing readers in with poems that float through nearly apocalyptic landscapes, then zoom in to rest on the bodies within, grounding readers in living, breathing imagery. Levin explores a world after “the bees collapsed and the seas rose up” to speak to us. A world full of hunger, consumption, destruction. But also hope. These striking poems call for us to listen, to look, to see again—before it’s too late.

In addition to Banana Palace, contributor Dana Levin is the author of Wedding Day (Copper Canyon), Sky Burial (Copper Canyon), and In the Surgical Theatre, which won the APR/Honickman Award in 1999. Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry 2015, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry magazine, Memoriousand The Paris Review. Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation. A teacher of poetry for over twenty years, Levin splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence.

The poems in this collection are futuristic and yet grounded in the familiarity of contemporary society. They explore a world in which bee colonies have collapsed, ice has melted, oceans have risen, and where lack of food is a big fear—environmental topics that are particularly timely. How does ecology play a role in this collection?

Well, I do think climate change poses the most profound threat to civilization as we know it; we’re already seeing its effects in terms of drought, flood, storm surge, sea rise, animal and plant migration: it’s happening. And I’m a pessimist in this regard: I don’t think humanity has it in it to put aside greed, will to power, love of convenience, and tribalism in order to make a unified and resourced effort against the industrial practices (global and local, from factory to household) that have heated up Earth.

But this is an analytical response. More intrinsic to Banana Palace is that, in the wake of my parents and sister dying between 2002-2006, something in me broke open to feeling this ecological change. I’d find myself standing on my back deck, weeping in grief for my loved ones, and then suddenly I’d be weeping for the trees, feeling the stress of drought and climate change upon them. Perhaps this was just a projected feeling, but I felt it nonetheless; this feeling drove a lot of the poems in the book.

Some of the poems even feel prophetic in a sense. The haunting opening poem of the third section, “Fortune Cookie” reads as a statement of fact, but holds an eerie feeling of being about more than fact, something akin to prophecy. The title poem, too, has moments that read oracular. Is poetry a type of prophecy? And if so, in what ways is poetry similar to prophecy and the poet to a type of prophesier?

I love Ginsberg’s answer to this question, in a 1965 Paris Review interview. He says prophecy is not knowing such and such a thing will happen on such and such a date, but rather feeling into the future. “HOWL” presents us with the damage mid-20th century American norms inflicted on artists, gays, eccentric thinkers, men who didn’t want to put on a suit and tie and go to work for IBM; Ginsberg offers in this poem, published in 1956, a cure that won’t become a cultural movement for another 15 years: love. Love the one you’re with, love your brother (physically, spiritually). This to me is poetry as prophecy. Pound says poets are the antenna of the (human) race: I think if you’re open to the Muse, messages sometimes arrive that are transpersonal, atemporal, and can seem, in hindsight, quite prescient.

There is play between the mind/body connection and the desire for a disconnection between body and mind in poems such as “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” and “Across the Sea.”  In the latter poem, the speaker wonders, “Was that the soul, wishing // we would invent the body / out of existence.” And then there are poems like “Murray, My” which feels very embodied in its motions and preoccupations. How do you see the role of the body and mind—and the mind versus the body—in your work? Can we have one without the other?

The birth of art and religion begins with the first human confronting the first dead body: where did that person, or animal, go? Something animating used to be inside that sack of flesh; now the flesh is left but the spirit is gone. This is the beginning of knowing that flesh and spirit are separate in some mysterious way, yet irrevocably joined in order to be what we call “alive.”

We can’t have one without the other, as yet, though some try, like the Russian billionaire Itskov. To me, this drive is the very reason why the planet is in such dire trouble: if you can’t stand your own body, if you don’t want to tend it, if you feel outraged by the reality of aging and death, why would you be concerned with tending any bodies? You wouldn’t. You’d want to trash the whole body thing altogether, or let its appetites rampage with impunity.

I’m at peace now with being embodied, in a way I really wasn’t as a younger person. My body was such a source a physical discomfort, shame, and humiliation, a lot of it due to the internalized fat-shame, female-shame, generated by media and cultural norms. I lived from the neck up. It’s taken a concerted effort, and the help of some amazing body workers, and aging, for me to find this peace.

Hunger, consumption, and destruction are irrevocably linked in this collection. The speaker of “At the End of My Hours” is aware of this when she comments on “the wheel of appetite” and the cycle of “eating to live to kill to eat.” In a way, poetry is a hunger which may result in consumption and destruction. Can you discuss the relation of hunger and destruction in poetry? What did you consume while writing this collection? Was anything destroyed in the process?

Wow, what an interesting question! Well, I sure consumed a lot of chocolate and coffee while writing Banana Palace; I’m a slave to the bean.

Space seems to be a major component of this collection, in the sense of time and otherworldliness, but also in the formal aspects of the poems. Many of the poems look as if they could float off the page with the spaces between lines, indentations, and even the spaces between sections within the longer poems. The forms are visually appealing, adding another layer to the complex connections of images, sight, and sound working in individual poems as well as across the collection. How does form play a role in your work?

White space is a pregnant space, a place of drama: emphatic pause, the violence of being silenced by feeling or experience, lives there. It serves as a proxy for water and air. It’s a pool of non-verbal response. It’s the sea out which written expression arises and recedes. It’s as important to me as text. It gets bigger and more prominent in each book I write.

What are you working on now?

A fraught question! I would lament: Nothing! But my sister would say: That’s a lie. Ideas for essays assail me. Let’s see if I write them.

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Eamon Grennan

In his new book, There Now (Graywolf Press), contributor Eamon Grennan gives us a collection of single sentence poems that examine, in intricate cadence and syntax, landscapes as various as a sea cliff in Connemara, a Manhattan street, post-Katrina New Orleans, a Middle East marketplace, and the poet’s back garden. The eye that observes these scenes finds their common shapes while allowing the reader to discern the emotional tenor that unites or divides them. The result is a poetry that reminds us of both the joys and responsibilities of looking, as in “winter city food market,” where we gorge on the sight of “Croakers snappers silver trout striped bass” while, in the same glance, taking in the “homeless / huddle of rags (astride the steam vent on the corner” outside the shop. In between, a woman checks “her own /thereness in…the market’s window.” The poems in the collection lead us to this interstice between beauty and need with a sureness that is both unerring and kind, as we confront where we are in time, space, and self.

Grennan, a Dubliner, taught for many years at Vassar College. He has also taught in Graduate Writing programs of Columbia and NYU. Recent collections are Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf), and But the Body (Gallery, Ireland). His volume, Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf) won the Lenore Marshall Prize. He has translated the poems of Leopardi (winner of the PEN award in translation) and co-translated (with his partner, Rachel Kitzinger) Oedipus at Colonus (Oxford). He has also written a book of critical essays: Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century.  His latest volume is There Now (published in Ireland in summer 2015, and by Graywolf in Autumn 2016). In the past few years, he has been writing and directing “plays for voices” for a small Irish theatre group—Curlew Theatre Company. He lives in Poughkeepsie and in Connemara.

I’ll start with the obvious by observing that this is a book composed entirely of single-sentence poems. You’ve used this form before for individual poems, of course, and to great effect, but an entire collection of them is a prodigious feat. I found that I needed to read the poems aloud in order to make sure that I caught all of the syntactical twists and turns. For me, the single sentence emphasized temporality—the moment-by-moment-ness of each poem, but also each moment’s place in a much larger and longer chronology, like beads on an invisible string. I’m wondering how the collection came into being, and what you were hoping to evoke with its form.

I can’t really recall the “how” of choosing the single sentence structure, nor “how” the book came into being. I suppose it grew in part out of my interest in speeding up the sense in a reader of so much data in any single observation and/or thought. I have another book in which all the poems are ten-liners, and formally I guess this was in my mind, and I tried or intended to give myself a bit more of a challenge, or a slightly different one this time. As you probably remember, I was always, in teaching, interested in the relationship of sentence to line, and the dance between the two. Cutting out punctuation almost entirely was to increase in a small way the speed, maybe the intensity of presentation. In ways too I guess I was just trying to do something a little differently. Since my range of “subjects” is quite small, I seek variety in shifting a bit the formal energy, the nerve-sense of the poem. And as you note, there’s an interest in the shaping of syntax, which is something I find in so many poets I admire. And I like your image of “beads on an invisible string.” Nice.

Continuing in a similar vein, I noticed very few, if any, commas in the book. (This reminded me of a moment years ago in workshop in which you declared that semicolons really were “disgusting,” weren’t they, and that we should all try to avoid using them. I’ve long treasured this advice!) Beyond affecting the speed at which we read the poems, the lack of pauses distills the action in each, as if everything in the poem is happening at once. Can you talk about your use of tempo within the poems and how it connects to your subjects?

I think your question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it? Fact is, I think (in a certain mood) that punctuation can be a bit artificial at times (though of course it can be a lovely presence too—think Henry James, John Donne). Yeats famously hadn’t a clue about punctuation.  But he knew rhythm absolutely, and so his editors worked it out—or that’s the story. And I always think a semi-colon in a poem is—what?—well not necessarily disgusting (did I say that, lord!), but it suggests too much calculation, or something. And as you justly say, the speed and notion of simultaneity are affected by the absence of those pauses created by punctuation. Back, so, to rhythm. And I used, far as I could without creating blur, only colons (here and there) or dashes—both of which (to me) suggest an on-going, not a halt.

The landscape of Renvyle and elsewhere, and the flora and fauna within each landscape, feel central to the book—the poems often take an image of a bird or plant as a focal point. However, I kept coming across almost antiphonal moments between animals and humans in the poems, suggesting a narrative, or at least connection. For instance, in “sand martins departing,” we see the birds disappearing into the “chambering vacancies in the cliff-face,” and then the poem on the facing page, “gone,” opens with the line “the little house grows quiet now she’s gone from it.” What is the relationship, as you see it, between the natural world and the human in the poems?

Your lovely observations here (“almost antiphonal moments” and others) is likely enough. I can’t add much really. I like such things to be discovered and held up for inspection about what’s going on a poem. You notice what I suppose is there, but maybe as much by happy accident as anything else. Though, yes, at the centre of what I do is something about our ways of relating to the natural world. And I live out here in Renvyle where the natural world of weather, landscape of mountains, rocks, fields, sea is always pressing. I suppose there’s a sort of philosophic tendency, or meditative anyway, in the poems, their habits.  That’s a way to enlarge and deepen the descriptive tendency.  It’s why I love certain painters.

I found myself paying attention to your pronouns as I read. Many of the poems employ a “you” that feels quite intimate—the poet speaking to himself—perhaps more intimate than the “I,” which is more declarative: “I’m thinking of…” or “What I’m hearing is…” (from “flower” and “body,” respectively). There are also many poems in the third person that describe a “he” and “she,” and in places the book shifts from “you” to “he/she” to “I” in the space of as many poems. Why did you employ these differing perspectives?

 It is a funny thing, isn’t it, the way the pronouns adjust somehow the reader’s response to the material, to what’s being said. I find sometimes I use an “I” then change it to a “you” or a “he”—and they’ll all be rooted in the same observing and thing or source. But the use of one or other pronoun shifts our sense of what’s being seen and said. Sometimes things seem too subjective, so then I distance it a bit.  Nothing very profound about that. Again it’s trying to get at a right sense of “how will this work” when received by another. That imagined dialogue between reader and writer.

There are other memorable figures in the book, namely the many artists—Gauguin, Giacometti, Serra, Manet, Bonnard, others—to whom you respond. This creates a mirroring, and perhaps distancing, effect, as you observe another artist observing. What is your sense of how these ekphrastic poems correspond with the rest of the book?

Another good, testing question! Well first the ekphrastic poems are just my little hommages to the artists. Also they are attempts to capture some of their flavour and feel in the way I respond, and to get something of that into the language. Or more simply the painting has triggered something in me, in me as responder, that I want in some way to (sort of) dramatise in the poem. Sometimes it’s just that the emotional content of a painting or piece of art strikes a recognisable chord in me, in my feelings—I feel something for what’s going on in the paintings. As you can see, most of my painters are in one way or another to a greater or lesser degree representational. But I also love paintings where the abstract and the representational hover about each other. But I’m not sure how one would get that into a poem.

The title of the collection, there now, strikes me as particularly apt, both in the sense of pointing to something—a moment, an image—and as an expression of comfort. Are you hoping to comfort us in some way with this book?

No, I don’t think I’m really trying to “comfort.” I think poems are going about some other business—maybe coaxing toward realisation, or something like that. But as for the phrase, yes. I think of it as hovering between an assertion of what’s there (space) now (time).  Suggesting fleetingness, but affirming presence too. And then the comfort thing, yes.  And it’s a common enough phrase in Ireland—meaning, among other things, “well, just look at that will you…”)  It’s also, as Billy Collins reminded me, what a bar-man may say as he plants down your pint on the counter, “There now.” And I like titles, especially book titles, to look in more than one direction.

We have a tradition in this interview series of asking our interviewees for their poetic lineages. In your poem in memoriam to Seamus Heaney, “sudden dark,” you write, of his loss, that you “still have to take the pressing heft and ponder of it to heart.” How did Heaney influence you, and who else is in your poetry family tree?

Of course I admire and have always admired Heaney’s work. Its generosity of spirit, depth of responsiveness, tactility of engagement with the world of nature and things, its responsible and courageous way with vexed political matter. And of course I’d find myself attached to poets like Kavanagh, Mahon, Longley, Montague, Ni Chuilleanáin and lots of others in the Irish context, whom I wouldn’t think I am in any sort of line with, of course. Similarly my admiration for, and feeling of having learnt from poets like Bishop, Kinnell, Plath, Hass, and others in recent American context. But then there’s the mighty ones way back—Yeats, Stevens, Williams, Berryman and so on and so on.  Aside from that there are the forefathers—Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, Wordsworth—the usual nourishers. Lineage is hard to determine, that’s all. One is nourished, and one is grateful.

Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.

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

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Think Music: Elizabeth Cohen on Tom Waits

img_1797In a novel I am writing, teenagers create a David Bowie appreciation society in the early two-thousands. They get together in a dilapidated trailer outfitted with a battery operated CD player and blacklight and sit in the purple dark listening to “Space Oddity” and feeling the words rush through their blood while around them the grown-up world collapses in upon itself.

It has been terrific fun setting a novel to Bowie tracks, but my own life is most often set to the tracks of Tom Waits. It is in his world of down-and-outs and ne’er-do-wells, of back alley boozers and atomic strength love gone wrong, that I move and live. It is my primary soundtrack always, even if interstiched with Lou Reed, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith and punk rock. If I listen to classical music, it is the song cycles of Shubert or Berlioz or the strange little antic pieces of Eric Satie. In case you haven’t picked it up yet, I am a musical romantic and a romantic in every area of life. What this means is that I often make my teen daughter cringe by crying at the color of the evening clouds or sad news on the TV and that I am overcome by longing and inspiration easily.

This fall, this is evidenced by the poems in my new collection, BIRD LIGHT, a book dedicated to that very same teen, “my little bird, my light.” This book of poems is wrought with what I consider my “Waitsian” side, my inner derelict, my big, big broken heart full of wonder and ruin.

Indeed, I listened to my man Tom while writing so many of these poems that it should be dedicated to him. Spinning his CDs (especially Rain Dogs and Bone Machine) on my car player, I often pulled over to the side of the road and scribbled these poems over the years, much to the chagrin of those driving past me, who may find my sudden inspiration annoying on their commutes.

If I could pick a single song that ignites my poet brain, every single time, it is the song “Alice”:

It’s dreamy weather we’re on
You wave your crooked wand
Along an icy pond
With a frozen moon.
A murder of crows I saw
And the tears on my face
And the skates on the pond
They spell Alice.

In this song, a sad ass love song if ever there was one, a man is actually inscribing the name of a woman he loves with ice skates on a frozen pond. But it is the simple and pure poetry of the lyrics that moves me, the lyric similes and clever slant rhyming: “your hair is like meadow grass / on the tide And the raindrops in my window / and the ice in my drink / Baby all I can think of is Alice.”

front-cover-bird-light-generic-v9-0_3The poems in BIRD LIGHT are each about birds, singular or collective, and while written over the course of many years, they each reach for that same note that is hit in so many Waits songs, always in a minor key, always full of mystery, evoking scraps of narrative. Alice was the song I was listening to when I wrote the poem “Festival of the Cranes,” which is about a wildlife preserve in Southern New Mexico that is home seasonally to birds, but is also about the beautiful scrappiness of men who I have known and men I have loved—my first boyfriend who now “sells used cars on Fourth Street in Albuquerque” and “my best friend’s brother, who went to prison for a decade” and is now “a gardener for a university.”

“The world recovers,” goes this poem, “just look at this / The rise and rise of a species / like the ground itself has decided to fly. / Not far from heaven, really, if heaven is a place / where things lift up / by some internal power / and move on with their lives.”

I can summon and conjure up my poet brain with songs like “Rain Dogs,” “Christmas Card from a Hooker,” “Gun Street Girl,” or “Hang Down Your Head” at any given moment. This is the secret of music, I think. That when you find your soul, music will contain moments, like a phrase from Schubert, a refrain of Waits or Bowie—or for me, in Leonard Cohen’s desperate “I’m Your Man”—that will ever ignite you. Such songs are the spark plugs of your heart. They are your writer gasoline.

Some people, in fact many I have met, require total silence to write. They need to hear their own thoughts and music upends that somehow. Drowns out their own brainwork.

Others need music without lyrics, instrumental. A friend of mine writes to the preludes of Chopin. That would never work for me because those preludes are so beautiful and complicated and up-tempo, they are distracting. The music would eclipse my writer heart, cast it in shadow.

I need something not just beautiful, but tinged with the ominous, just weird enough to make me go and then recede into the background out of pure familiarity. I have listened to Rain Dogs so many times that it has become me. It is stitched onto me. And because it is me now, I can write from those clickety-clack rhythms (as in Bone Machine, an album almost all about metrics) as if they were my own heartbeat. Or my pulse. I hear them and they become non-sound after a time, as normal as air. And I have to breathe to live, I have to breathe to write.

Elizabeth Cohen is an associate professor of English at Plattsburgh State University, where she teaches creative writing. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road, a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and six books of poetry, most recently BIRD LIGHT (Saint Julian Press, 2016). She lives in Plattsburgh, NY, with her daughter Ava and way, way too many cats.

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

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Big Loves: Michael Copperman on Willa Cather’s Five Stories


Willa Cather’s Five Stories, is a short, strange, beautiful collection of her short fiction that spans the course of her literary career. The first story in the collection, “The Enchanted Bluff,” is written in first person. It uses retrospection powerfully and overtly; the story concerns a river and a group of boys who grow up in a small town, how they are all taken with a story of a blue mesa and a city ensconced in it, hovering above clouds, where an ancient people once lived. They will go on to be dulled by adult lives. They never live up to their promises to travel to the mesa, though the fellow most taken with it still says he will. The story is about the pull of mystery, the magic of this imagined city of an extinct people, how the very existence of it enlarged these boys’ dreams, and too how time and circumstances dulled them and kept them from seeking the mesa. It ends like this:

“Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has grown stooped and gray from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between us we revived the romance of the lone red rock and the extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.”

That end takes on such a size as a result of the retrospection; and though there is a sadness in how clear it is they will never go, there is a sort of hope, too, in how the story has been passed on, how now it has taken the imagination of Tip’s son. I have found that though Cather’s work is fiction, it instructs me most deeply in the craft of reflection, and its importance in writing memoir—for what is the real function of memoir but to make sense of the past from the vantage of the present, enlarge it in terms of the clarifying force of the years that have come between, when small memories take on size and importance, and what was immediate has receded?

willacather5storiesThe second “story” I had already read: it is the discrete, odd chapter “Tom Outland’s Story,” which forms the center of the novel The Professor’s House, a book I read when I was an undergraduate and did not understand. I would then have recognized mostly the grace and rhythm of the prose, and certainly, I noticed how the chapter seemed to stand alone, as if Cather had wanted to construct an entire narrative around one perfect and discrete and self-contained story, as if the entire story of the Professor was pulled toward the mystery of Tom Outland’s story. Tom Outland’s story is that of a young man and his friend Roddy who happen on the Blue Mesa and go into the city to explore. To Tom Outland the mesa is perfect, sacred, and his friend Roddy, believing he is doing right, sells the artifacts they unearthed when Tom is unable to get anyone in Washington to fund their exploration. Like the first narrator, Tom is looking back both on his time at the mesa, and at what has been lost: the mesa, his youth and innocence, and by his own choice, his friendship with Roddy. For in his anger at Roddy’s having sold the artifacts without consulting him, Tom tells Roddy to leave and is never able to find him again, even though Roddy meant the money for Tom to support his education. The story ends hauntingly:

“Now that I was back on the railroad, I thought I couldn’t fail to find him. I went out to Winslow and to Williams, and I questioned the railroad men. We advertised for him in every possible way, and had all the Santa Fe operatives and the police and the Catholic missionaries on the watch for him, and offered a thousand dollars reward for whoever found him. But it all came to nothing. Father Duchene and our friends down there are still looking. But the older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I’ll be called to account when I least expect it.

In the Spring, just a year after I quarreled with Roddy, I landed here and walked into your garden, and the rest you know.”

I think about that line—“Anyone who requites faith and friendship…will have to pay for it”—for I once nearly lost a best friend, neither of us able to forgive, though the first error was mine in turning my back on her. Close friendships can be difficult to sustain—they are as essential and intimate as any romance. But I do not feel I am exempt from Cather’s observation about the price of a friend’s loss: we may get only so many people who care for us deeply and can understand us fully, and so cannot afford to betray those loyalties without suffering the loss of something essential to ourselves.

What most interests me about these two stories, the only two in the collection written in first person, are how the stories echo back on one another, the Blue Mesa as figure, and the Blue Mesa as lost paradise, a pure but only temporary mecca. The stories overlap, reflect and refract, just as Tom Outland’s story itself ends by returning to the Professor’s story in a way that changes and enlarges that narrative. The Professor, as I remember it, becomes obsessed with what Tom Outland has told him, the Blue Mesa and the life Tom Outland had and the loss of Roddy’s friendship haunting his own days, but also enlivening his dreams.

In all of Cather’s first-person, the power and size of the narration is accomplished not by lyric—and she has considerable lyric talent—but by retrospection of the sort Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby, moving through time to show us not just what has become, but the full measure of what we have been shown.

In a less generous writer’s hands, retrospection can ruin and overburden; it is a dangerous tool. Cather uses it with precision and heart.

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon for the last decade.  His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. University Press of Mississippi published his memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, Teacher, in September 2016.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor David Rivard

RivardContributor David Rivard’s sixth collection of poems, Standoff, has just been released by Graywolf Press. David Rivard is also the author of Otherwise Elsewhere; Sugartown; Bewitched Playground; Wise Poison; winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poems and essays appear regularly in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, Poetry London, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and other magazines and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the 2006 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. He graciously answered these questions from Memorious editor Rebecca Morgan Frank about Standoff.

Three of the poems from Standoff, “Don’t Doubt it,” “Here We Go,” and “Iron Rising out of Iron,” first appeared in Memorious. Can you tell us a little bit about these poems?

“Don’t Doubt It” and “Iron Rising Out of Iron” were among the earliest written for Standoff—when I read them now they feel as if they emerge out of some of the impulses that govern my previous book, Otherwise Elsewhere: there’s a certain density of sonic effect and perception, and a voice that’s recognizably a person but without totally admitting to the autobiographical. A voice that’s singular, but common?  Shared?  The person who’s being addressed in both poems has a sense of solitude and loneliness about him—a distant cousin to hopelessness. The narrator doesn’t exactly identify with this “you”—he (or is it she?) is conscious of a wider horizon line than the “you” is. She knows about the strange, slightly bewitched randomness of the daily world. She’s very gently putting her hand against the back of “your” head and redirecting “your” attention.

9781555977450“Here We Go” was written a couple of years later, under the influence of Michael O’Brien’s poems, and maybe the aphoristic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan and Antonio Porchia. It’s quite fragmented (to state the obvious), each set of images being almost haiku-like. The movement within and between fragments in associative. The associations are reinforced either syntactically or mechanically in the last line of each unit, so that the final line folds into the first line of the next fragment in some way. It’s basic cubist form, but the prosodic effect might be more obvious when read out loud. I wrote a lot of fragments, then cut back, and arranged and rearranged to create the associations through juxtaposition and parallelism. My mind is associative by nature, and I’m drawn to non-linear logic—I’m pretty intuitive about all this. I like the way the poem funnels down to birth date—mine as a matter of fact. Then the speaker is fully present all of a sudden, and the “story” feels as though it’s on the verge of starting up again. I feel like I may have been 3-5 years ahead of myself when I wrote this.

Much of this collection seems elegiac—from the loss of your father, to a daughter leaving into adulthood, to the passing of Mike Mazur. But rather than a direct focus on grieving in this collection, there’s a sense of a speaker continually trying to find his ground in the changing order of the world. In “Arriving from a Destination” the speaker says “my father­–/do I know him at all?” and later “What is it my daughter sees me as?” To this reader, the result seems to be a book that is partially steeped in memory and partially sees the world with new eyes. Did you have a sense of this collection, your sixth, being different than previous ones, being shaped by the changes in your own life, and if so, how so?

Well, yes, my father’s death in particular, I would say—though factually he died toward the very end of the time when I was writing it. The book registers in all sorts of indirect ways his decline, but I don’t feel that I was aware of that exactly when I write it. The approach of his death, my awareness of its coming nearer, and the mix of emotional vulnerability, vibrancy, physical frailty, and willfulness that he seemed possessed by in his late 80’s, early 90’s—those things are all in the book, but not always visible. They’re hiding in plain sight. So, yes, the tone is elegiac in one sense, but it seems to open onto new, unexpected views at every instance. It’s not just a closing down. At moments like this, in anyone’s life, you’re being shown your losses with a clarifying intensity. But the grief can be bracing. You’re really awake in those moments, whether you want to be or not.

I want to say something about the aesthetics of all this. I’m not trying to record or report the details of my life “as it happened.” I’m not an autobiographical poet in that sense. I want simply that the writing of the poem be engaged with my thinking and feeling, entangled with my life as it occurs to me moment to moment. I want the form of the poem to be as close to the actual way I think and feel as it can be, an experience of such. On a day-to-day level, I don’t experience grief—or longing, or anxiety, or political outrage, or love—as if it had the shapeliness of an essay or story. My feeling and thinking is rarely insightful and almost always arrives in non-linear ways. It’s full of blank spots and inarticulate intuitions, prone to baffling surges and leaps, and often open to memory only through random, fragmented images. All of that stuff is going on constantly, along with a voice that seems to be narrating and giving it shape in my head from moment to moment. My poems are chasing after the sensation of that voice.

I have to ask about the poem “That Year,” which begins, “I meet Margaret Mead that year….” Is this autobiographical: did you really meet Margaret Mead? And study anthropology? How has that study shaped your work?

I did meet Margaret Mead, pretty much under the circumstances related in the poem: I was hired by one of my professors in the grad school of anthropology at Princeton to make slides of the Balinese shadow puppets that Mead and Gregory Bateson had collected in Bali thirty or forty years earlier. I was 23, and stayed in the program for only a year—during which time, as the poem also makes clear, I was doing things other than studying as well: i.e., selling weed and acid in the “eating clubs” at Princeton. I left school because I wanted to write poems, and sensed that becoming a professional anthropologist wouldn’t allow it. I had been showing my poems to the late Ted Weiss, who taught at Princeton then, and Ted encouraged me. He also made very clear the demands involved in being a writer. I’ve always felt grateful to him for both things. He was a fine teacher and good man.

I left the Ph.D. program, and crushed my parents really—I was the first person in my working class family to go to college, and they loved that I was at Princeton, and thought I was nuts to give up the opportunity. There was a sadness in that for me, but also freedom, and clarity—I was forced to recognize what I was giving up, and it made me take writing seriously. I highly recommend that kind of moment to anyone who wants to write!

I was drawn to anthropology because it required a “watchfulness,” and that was something I could sense very strongly in myself. It’s as much an art as a science—it requires a willingness to be baffled and clueless about what’s going on, openness to patterns that don’t make immediate sense and are often shifting. Malinowski says that the anthropologist’s job involves “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  A good anthropologist has some of the same sense of “play” that an artist or writer has.

The title poem begins, “I like reality, I like Rome….” And to me this captures a sense of this being a very urban book, set in, well, “reality.” I can imagine many of these poems beginning through observations on the streets, out in the world. What so you see as the role of the city in your work? And where do your poems tend to begin?

I’ve lived in cities all my life, and I love the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of them. Also, that feeling that anything could happen as you drift through them, and that almost anything you see—no matter how ordinary (like a plateful of sausages on a handcart, or a woman joggling her baby while ordering a coffee, or a book left on a bench)—could come to seem as if it has some secret meaning. You know, some revelation is always about to occur in the city. I love walking in cities, drifting—some of the rapidity of changes in image and tone in my poems comes from that walking, I think.

My poems begin usually with some compressed sort of musical phrase. Whether it’s image or statement, I like it to sound springy—like the thought or image has been compelled by the music, called into being by it—so that I have the feeling of a thing leaping out of the background, as I do when I’m walking, leaping into some interior space, where it starts to transform itself into other thoughts, feelings, “things.”

Also, the images at the beginnings of my poems are often “abstracted” in odd ways—they’re playing with how recognizable the image is, almost as if I want the thing to seem a bit strange, unfamiliar. Philip Guston said once that he was trying to paint a book in such a way that it would convey what a book felt like to a blind man. I find that enormously appealing—as an idea about process.

This collection is populated with writers and artists; Zbigniew Herbert appears a few times and Transtromer has a poem as well. Are these two poets ones who have been particularly influential, overall, or for this collection? And who else were you reading over the course of this book?

Transtromer, yes, he’s certainly one of the most important long-term presences for me, maybe the most important. I can remember reading his long poem “Baltics” in a Tucson book store in 1979, and being completely floored. I’m working on an essay about his work—in particular, recent translations by Patty Crane and Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassi. It’s shocking to think of how long his work has remained important, relevant—he represents a sort of endurance test. He’s a profoundly political poet in many ways, but his work possesses an interiority, a transformative vision rooted in metaphor and perception, and as such it poses a challenge to the current embrace of documentary poetics in relation to the political.

Herbert was also an early influence, along with a number of other Central European poets: Milosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Salamun, Debeljak. But I think I have more arguments with Herbert’s way of perceiving the world, history in particular. You know, like that moment in “What’s It to You?” in Standoff, in which I sample his idea there are too few souls to go around—as an explanation for evil, for greed and maliciousness and obliviousness, it seems kind of shrewish, too easy. His greatness it’s clear, but after awhile it’s a little like reading Robinson Jeffers—the approach becomes a little predictable, even if powerful.

And to take that question a little further, to a bit of a regular question for these spotlights has become this one: if you were to think about your poetic lineage, who would make it on to your family tree?

My grandparents would be W.C. Williams and Frost and Dickinson (it’s a ménage a trois in the mode of Jules et Jim). If I were to state it as a formula, it would be: perception as idiom + narrational voice/tonal flux + phrasal compression/speed.

My parents would be Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin, because they were the first two people I heard read poetry, both within a week of each other. I’ve always felt that they “imprinted” themselves on me—I hadn’t even written any poetry when I heard them. They made me want to write, and they made me aware that poetry was both social and private, public and internal—if it has a purpose (which I doubt), it’s to be both those things simultaneously.

My cousins are numerous. I’ve always read and loved a lot of work in translation—Jean Follain, Rimbaud, Adelia Prado, Patrizia Cavalli, Gottfried Benn, and others, were important to me in writing Standoff. Also, a lot of writers oriented to a more “open field”/improvisational approach: all of the NY School poets, and mid-60’s Snyder, Objectivists (especially Oppen and Niedecker), and Black Mountain types like Creeley, Levertov, Blackburn, Dorn. I would make Creeley’s selected poems one of my five “desert island” books, for sure.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on altering the sense of time in my poems—not just pacing, but the plotting of time, how it composes the poem. I’m also trying to see how much explanation and rhetorical language I can strip out of the poems.

I hope that’s abstract enough to allow me not to have to talk about what the poems are “about,” because (as I think Williams says) when you know what the poems are about you’ve reached the end of your means. Anyway, really, maybe mine have always only ever been about some sweet and sour taste I got from licking something I probably shouldn’t have licked but am happy that I had the chance to and did. Lord knows, maybe that’s all anyone’s poems are ever really “about.”

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

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Memorious Seeks Assistant Fiction Editor

keep-calm-i-m-your-assistant-editorMemorious magazine seeks an assistant fiction editor who will work closely with the fiction editor to shape magazine content. The assistant fiction editor will be responsible for helping the fiction editor select submissions for the magazine; soliciting works of fiction; assisting in editing the fiction selections; recruiting skilled fiction readers; and weighing in on nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies. The assistant fiction editor will also be involved in creating and soliciting blog content to support the fiction section.

We are seeking a responsible, committed person to join our staff and to work with us in continuing to produce and develop the magazine. Applicants should have editorial experience, in print or online, and be comfortable using Submittable and social networking tools. We are particularly interested in individuals who will build relationships in the community through soliciting work and creating and/ or participating in events at AWP and elsewhere, both in the real world and online.

Like many small independent literary magazines, Memorious is a labor of love. We are an all-volunteer staff, so no stipend or salary is offered. We are looking for someone who finds reward in being an active part of the literary community, gaining valuable editorial experience, and supporting work they find exciting and necessary.

Memorious has been around for more than a decade and is one of the most highly-regarded online literary magazines. We’ve had work reprinted in the New York Times Magazine and Best American Poetry, and we’ve been featured in the print anthologies Best New PoetsBest of the Web, and Best of the Net. Previous prose contributors include Steve AlmondBlake Butler, Kim Chinquee, Joanna LuloffMargaret LuongoAmit Majmudar, Nina McConigley, Peter Orner, Caitlin Horrocks, Becky Hagenston, Benjamin PercySandra ScofieldJames ScottRicco Villanueva SiasocoAnne Valente, Holly M. WendtXu XiPaul Yoon, and many more! You can search our prose archives here. We have also published interviews with writers such as Laura Van den Berg, Sigrid Nunez, Don Lee, Jim Shepard, and Brock Clarke.

Please send a cover letter and C.V. to Brian Trapp at trapp(at)uoregon.edu by October 1st. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Big Loves: Chad Parmenter on Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters

chad11-1The first time I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters was in Ed Brunner’s wonderful class, at SIU-Carbondale, on the book-length poetry project. When I opened it up, I noticed that he was thanked personally on the back page, and I probably started to read it based on a “hey, I know that guy” excitement, not really knowing anything about the book itself. And I don’t really know how the first reading impacted me, except that it probably demanded a second reading—not only the poems’ incredibly lyrical richness, or the mix of mystery and urgency in what they said, but some combination of those and more, that simply got me going back to it, and has kept it in my line of poetry vision since then, wonderfully and importantly resisting codification and attracting repeated readings through the MFA and PhD, and many other changes in between.

In 2004, visiting Carrowmore, I had the book’s first poem, with that name, not just in mind, but printed out and maybe in my pocket—not saying that to anyone, probably, because of not wanting to seem like a poetry nerd, but being one, anyway. It’s a megalithic cemetery not all that far from Yeats’s grave, and mostly humps of stone that might seem naturally set there if it wasn’t explained that they are graves. And the poem does some scene-setting, showing lambs “blotched blue, belonging,” running a root through the Romantic pastoral mode about as far back as one can go in the Western tradition, since lambs were a big deal back then, and goes in twists both dizzying and primordial through the presentation of a sacrificial victim, the speaker’s identification with her, and the fragmentation of attention and reference that make the poem bristle with referentiality that finally floats free of anchoring in any one statement, place, or persona. It wasn’t a lens on the cemetery, of course, being both about and not about so much more, but I walked around it getting fairly soaked in the fitting rain, and the poem’s mix of a seemingly peaceful surface and intentions with everything coming undone underneath, in lines like “my belonging I remember how cold I will be,” helped me accept the mystery of where I was.

Master+LettersThe project that frames a lot of the poems, epistles mostly in prose and some in verse to a mercurial addressee who’s sometimes the Master, seemed at first like a way of reading Dickinson, until, again, those repeated readings that the poems seemed to demand, with titles like “And Wylde for to Hold” and “The Sleeping Hollow of His Face Shall be the Straight Pass of Surrendering,” with so many moments of mesmerizing lyricism within them—”fanatic against the vanishing,” “The thrushes sing at auburn dusk / Like parlor ornaments wound up,” “the fire’s leathern eye”—started to show me so much more.  Maybe I had never seen intertextuality as a strategy to both build a poem, or series of them, and to make a sound that stays both surprising and amazingly cohesive, considering the intertexts, the references that go from Sappho to a famous execution in the “chair electric with bad news.”

One voice, and many voices, at the same time. Not the one getting subsumed into the many, like The Waste Land seems to me, or the other way that Whitman goes for me, but this balance, where the speaker acts as choir without losing that sense of an identity—a mystery of one, even a lack, but there, not only orchestrating but present throughout. Cracked mask after cracked mask, and the goal isn’t for the reader to delineate a face behind them, or to trace references through to a life story, at least for me—I started to find a play with language inseparable from a play with persona, that helped me see, really see, how much fun Shakespeare may have had, and to remember how much I definitely did as a kid with shifting from game to game that had their own costumes and parts to play, not as a way of hiding or even revealing, but connecting.

That’s another wonderful thing that I get from this book, and keep getting from it—a sense that the reader matters, is present for the speaker, but not stuck in a role, not fixed in any one place. Maybe the letters suggest that the reader is master in that reader-constructs-the-text kind of way, but “My Most Courteous Lord” and other addresses like it get dynamited out of any clear power relationship by the saying of the poems themselves, by a speaker who masters and, ha, remasters that leap from one persona to another, one setting and reference to another, and one urgent emotional register to another, even in the space of a single poem like “Did Not Come Back”:

                                                                   . . . the best of them,
The slowest velvet suffocation of their kind, did not come

Whittled back by autumn, at an hour between thorn & chaff,
Not come riddled with oblivion, the crossing & a shepherd’s staff,

The moment between Have & Shall Not Want, we who have salt
Always know, that we who have—the best of us—did not come

The speaker, and the speakers, of these poems, are mastered by no one, but potentially connected to anyone, to me.  And, maybe they argue, if they do argue anything—how can I not be?

Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazyhorse.  His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published last November.

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

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