Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Lloyd Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memorious Speaks: Nicky Beer Reads “Cathy Dies”

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

Read the full text of “Cathy Dies” here.
 

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

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Poem: Michael Bazzett, “Icarus”

For Father’s Day, we bring you this new poem from contributor Michael Bazzett:

 

ICARUS

The wings were indeed a cunning invention,

not bird-like

as most supposed but sweeping and feather-light

with a clear

understanding of lift and drag.

Daedalus knew what was up.

There would be no white legs

          disappearing into green water

this time.

No, he would use woven hair

instead of wax and let

the lad get singed, if need be.

   Nothing like the acrid scent

of burning hair to pull the body of a boy

     back into himself.

Daedalus said the myth

would still prove useful.

           A bit more laconic, perhaps. Its heavy

hands now softened inside gloves.

              The two of them

would live

 

long enough to sit quietly through the evenings,

     watching swallows

looping manic over the pond

while they sipped their whiskey, without a word.

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Think Music: SJ Sindu

Sindu-5-3-300x248When I talk about music I listen to during writing, I’m really talking about two things—the music I put on while I’m physically writing at my desk, and the music I listen to for the duration of a project. In other words, there’s the writing music, and then there’s the other music—the stuff I listen to while driving, cooking, exercising, and dancing with my partner. The first kind I call sustenance music; the second, inspirational. Both shape my writing process and voice.

My novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, began with a Coyote Grace number called “Forever’s Song.” I started with images produced by these lyrics:

This life ain’t going no one’s way

Sweet Goddess, she’s gonna do what she do

Miss fickle rolls with God in the hay

And leaves him sleeping under the moon

The harvest is done and she ain’t coming back till June

In these lyrics are images of autumn, and a strong woman who has little use for a man. These images turned into a short story about a young South Asian American woman who runs away from home. But the story grew and grew, and pretty soon I was writing about the woman’s sister, the kindred spirit she leaves behind, the one who dreams of escaping but is too bound to her family. This is how I met Lucky, the protagonist of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.

1497235All through the writing of this novel, I listened to Coyote Grace and Chris Pureka on repeat. Coyote Grace is an indie roots band made up of Joe Stevens (guitar and vocals), Ingrid Elizabeth (cello and vocals), and Michael Connolly. The band is trying to reinvent and bring a radical progressive perspective to roots music. In their work, Coyote Grace often explores queer sexuality and gender transition with nuance and insight. Chris Pureka is a guitarist and vocalist whose work is inspired by bluegrass and folk music. Like Coyote Grace, she also explores queerness and gender in her music.

 

Where Coyote Grace brought me inspiration with their poetic lyrics, Chris Pureka brought me sustenance. There’s a hypnotic quality to Pureka’s music and voice that helped me into the writer’s trance. I can’t help but think of her when I think about my protagonist Lucky’s internal mindspace—alternatively zen and energetic melodies that simmer over a painful, roiling interior.

But the actual rhythm of Lucky’s voice was inspired by Bharatanatyam beats. Lucky’s passion in the novel is dance—specifically, an Indian classical form called Bharatanatyam, which she and her lover Nisha have danced since they were little. Their whole relationship is based around this dancing, and Lucky muses on it often.

When I met Tony Amato, an author and writing coach in Boston, he offered to read the novel in its mid-stages. I remember meeting with him in his study in Somerville to discuss the manuscript. I sat curled in an armchair with Tony’s ancient cat on my lap and a cup of coffee (which I’d defiled, as Tony called it, with sugar and cream). We talked about a lot of things, but my most vivid memory of that afternoon was when Tony turned to me and asked why the voice wasn’t taking its cues from Bharatanatyam. It was one of those lightning-strikes moments.

I went home and started listening to Bharatanatyam songs. Bharatanatyam music is normally headlined by a miruthangam—a double-sided drum that produces a large variety of tones. The thaalam (rhythm) of the beat can be slow or fast, but may sound chaotic to an untrained ear. There is also a certain amount of improvisation. The central thaalam forms the foundation of the music (which often has accompaniment from vocalists, violins, and other instruments). And for my protagonist Lucky, who was trained in Bharatanatyam from the time she was little, it makes sense to me that part of her internal music would be formed by a foundation of this same thaalam.

sindu-white_1000-2I compiled a list of traditional melodies, and re-wrote every single line of the novel with those beats in the background. A lot of things fell into place—Lucky’s voice, her personality, her longing. All the things that seemed barely in my grasp before came into clear focus. If you read closely, you can hear the thaam thakka tham of a miruthangam in the cadence of the novel, but ultimately that’s not the point. The point is to infuse the book with the music that rules Lucky’s life. Without this music, Lucky’s interiority would’ve never fully developed.

 

Now, as I work on a new novel, I’m always thinking about inspirational and sustenance music. There’s a lot of jazz, Fleet Foxes, and Ravi Shankar in my life right now, and I can see those beats and codas working their way into the voice of my current novel project. Of course, the process of writing transforms this music, just as the music transforms the writing. It’s a beautiful, wild cycle.

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Her work has be published in Brevity, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches and writes in Tallahassee. Marriage of a Thousand Lies, her first novel, is out now by Soho Press.

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

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Literary Ventures: Acre Books

For our latest installment of Literary Ventures, our new column that highlights new presses, magazines, literary organizations, and other literary adventures,  we spoke with Nicola Mason, editor of the new press, Acre Books, born out of The Cincinnati Review.

Tell us about Acre Books.

Acre Books is the newly established book-publishing arm of The Cincinnati Review. We plan to fill our lists with high-caliber poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and hybrid forms. The brilliant Danielle Cadena Deulen is our poetry and nonfiction editor, I’m the fiction editor, and we have a designer nonpareil in Barbara Neely Bourgoyne.

What inspired you to move from managing Cincinnati Review to creating a small press?

It seemed like a logical leap. CR has only been around since 2003, but despite its youth, we’ve developed a reputation for being a magazine that is well and truly read. Over the years, our subscription and submission numbers just kept mounting. Not only were pieces from CR’s pages getting regularly tapped for inclusion in prize anthologies (including Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Anthology), the authors of those pieces–many of them young writers with no “names” to speak of–were winning first-book prizes. Agents began subscribing to CR and asking us to put them in touch with various contributors. I started thinking that we should capitalize on our own strengths, publish not only single pieces by the wonderful writers we were discovering through our submission pool, but their books as well. In other words, that we should rely on our reputation and further develop the relationships we struck up with these undeniable talents—people the editors of Southern Review used to call (when I started out there years ago) “comers.”

What can we expect from Acre in its first year?

Our premiere publication is out now! It’s a themed anthology titled A Very Angry Baby. The work included—from twenty contributors—runs the gamut in form, setting, tone, and angry-baby-induced trauma. Not all the babies are young, not all are small, not all are real, not all are human. But there’s an emotional center there, in the idea. An angry baby really can’t be ignored. Well, it can . . . but there are consequences. I rustled up some truly inspiring work both from writers who are well established and from those who have yet to crash the scene. Contributors include Julianna Baggott, Brock Clarke, Rebecca Hazelton, Andrew Hudgins, Erin McGraw, Jamie Quatro, and Josh Russell. All the pieces but one are unpublished, and a number of them were written specifically for the anthology. Though the volume is rather thin—130 pages—the content feels really full. Rich. Not to mention . . . fun. We even created a trailer for our YouTube channel. Check it out here.

The anthology will be Acre’s only spring offering, but we plan to bring out three or four books for the fall season. Our hope is to release one title per month starting in August.

Where can our readers find out more about you?

Our website is acre-books.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Writers of every stripe should feel free to send book-length work via the website. Submissions are wide open—and free!

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Derrick Harriell

Derrick Harriell’s third collection of poetry, Stripper in Wonderland, dances. Recently released from LSU Press, Harriell’s collection explores music, religion, and racism while continuously twirling readers through past, present, and future spaces. Influenced by Funk and Funk culture, his poems grip us with their musicality, an undercurrent that keeps us hungry for the next moment, the next image, the next tune. This collection threads a narrative that cannot merely be read, it must be felt. From the first statement that there is “not enough to hold all this     wonder” to the brief images of the hauntingly beautiful final poem, Harriell captures our pulse. Worlds combine, brush against the edges of each other and we are carried along in a world full of wonder that keeps shifting as we move.

In addition to Stripper in Wonderland, Memorious contributor Derrick Harriell is the author of Ropes (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2013) and Cotton (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2010). Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harriell directs the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Mississippi, where he is also assistant professor of English and African American studies. A two-time Pushcart Nominee, his poems have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. Harriell also received the 2014 Poetry Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

Throughout the collection you play with form and space in interesting ways. In the opening poem, “17 Floors,” the internal spacing within lines adds a rhythmic, musical element, and then there are poems such as the final poem, “Ascension,” which use / within lines instead of spaces. How do you see internal space working in your poetry versus the / ?

Spacing in this collection was extremely important to me. “17 Floors” ironically was the first poem I’d written for the collection. I wanted to push the musicality in my writing, as well as push the way I presented ideas, images, impressions. While I choose to mostly write narrative, I wanted to complicate my presentation of the narrative. Right. So, when I think about the way our minds work and how in our daily lives we consider our day-to-day narratives (e.g. taking out the trash, going to work, going for a run, having a glass of wine), rarely are the images of these narratives as neat and perfect as we might present them in writing. For example, rarely do I think “I’m going to take out the trash and then make breakfast.” Rather I think, “The trash is full, there’s a woman I used to know, is there food I can make for breakfast?” It’s this internal dialogue and the messiness of it that I wanted to convey in Stripper. Ideally, I wanted to create an imperfect kaleidoscope of images, narrative, and song to leave a more immediate impression on the reader. To this end, I saw the use of the caesura and the virgule as most effective options. How I decided which one to use was a real spontaneous part of the process; meaning, the poem just naturally moved into its form.

The poems overall are very musical with a wide range of sonic devices from consonance to repetition to form. The musicality hums like a ghostly undercurrent and adds emotional depth to the poems that clings to a reader even after the words have faded. Jumping off the poem, “Rapping with Ghosts,” could you discuss the role of music in poetry? Were there any musical influences, or ghosts, you found yourself going back to as you worked on the collection, and if so, who?

What a musically delivered question. Music has always been important in my life and in my writing. For many years when asked about my first poetic influences, I often mentioned Black canonical writers because I thought that I should. And while so many Black literary giants did have a huge influence on my writing, I was equally influenced by the poetry of the emcees (Tupac, Nas, The Roots, No Limit, etc.). In fact, I spent about four or five years in a very successful hip hop group, Black Elephant. To this end, I’ve always been fascinated by the delivery of our great emcees and their ability to manipulate language and to play with consonance, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, etc. For this ability always added an additional layer to the poem (the emcee’s poem that is). For me, good writing is all about delivering layers and creating depth. I see the musicality of language as a tool by which we can do this as writers. This stated, I’d never felt more free to explore my fascination with sound in any of my books. Writing Stripper was the most freeing experience I’ve had writing a book because it’s the first collection I wrote for me. My first collection I attempted to demonstrate my influences. My second collection I wanted to write a book on historic Black boxers. This book was in many ways self-indulgent. I wanted to only write a book I wanted to read and use every writing talent I’ve garnered in all my years of writing. So I intentionally pushed the music. Furthermore, I wanted to play with the idea of Funk culture and Funk poetry. For most of my early career I’d be labeled a Blues poet because I wrote Blues poems. I started to imagine what a Funk poem might look like: what a Funk poem might sound like. Essentially, I wanted to write a Funk collection. And we all know that music is at the center of Funk and Funk culture.

You give us surprising imagery in the collection which shakes up the known world and places us in a wonderland. For example, in “Lifetime of Lap Dances,” you have these beautifully odd images and descriptions such as “I’m burying / a shadow in your collarbone” and “drunken fairy like // you look down,” and yet the language stays down to earth. Could you discuss your use of language in the poems? What is gained when poetry keeps closer to an everyday language?

I find the way we use language so fascinating; and even more so, at what moments do we decide to employ which aspects of the language resting in our language toolbox. Embarking on this collection, I found myself interested in my own everyday language and how I talk. Again, in my previous collection, I’d spent years trying to mimic the language of Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson and hadn’t played with “my” own language in quite some time. For Stripper, I wanted to pursue a language that mirrored my everyday language but pushed, or on steroids. I mean, I wanted to incorporate my own everyday lingo but not abandon the imaginative impulse associated with art. This is how I pursued the idea of a wonderland. I hoped that my reader would feel both stable and unstable. I hoped that my reader would feel undermined any time she tried predicating what’ll come in the next line, hell, which word might come next. And this is how I’ve grown to speak naturally. As a graduate student, I didn’t appreciate the nuances of my everyday language, the language of inner-city Milwaukee, and did a lot of code-switching in my writing. Now, I still wrote Black stories about Black people but my language felt more standardized. In Stripper, I wanted to embrace the diction of Black Milwaukee while embracing all of the nerd artistic aspects of my language toolbox, and now, even some of the southern vernacular that’s starting to be added. I wanted these poems to be an amalgam of all this. I wanted the authenticity of my everyday speaking life: one minute I’m open to discussing Foucault using theoretical terminology and the next minute I’m on the phone with an old friend using Milwaukee hood terminology that you wouldn’t understand if you not from there. And sometimes I’m doing both in the same conversation. This is the complicated nature of my own language I was interested in pursuing.

In the second section of the collection, “Astronauts in Mississippi,” Mississippi plays a role, not just as setting, but almost as an entity in the mystical world you’ve created. At times the repetition of Mississippi in poems such as “Space Cadet” and “Mississippi Striptease” even gives the word a mantra-esque or spell-like quality. Could you talk about how Mississippi—where you currently live—plays a part in your poetry and in this mythical world?

Yes! I don’t believe I could’ve written this book without Mississippi. What is there not to say about Mississippi? I’ve been living in Mississippi for almost five years now and if ten years ago you told me that my first child would be born in Mississippi, I would’ve called you a damn lie. I moved to Mississippi to teach at the University of Mississippi and not necessarily to live in Mississippi (see how much I’ve already repeated the word—it is a spell). I kid.

Before moving here, the only thing I’d known about Mississippi was what I saw in old Civil Rights documentaries. Mississippi was hot, backwards, and racist. This stated, Mississippi did have this mystical quality to it that I was somehow drawn to. I knew that Mississippi was the home of the Blues and that the South, as a whole, was home for Black people in this country. While I may not be able to name the country in Africa my ancestors are from, I can tell you that I have a great-this or a great-that from Alabama, and that both my wife’s mother and father were born in Mississippi. I hadn’t stepped foot in Mississippi ever until I did five years ago. And while I was initially resistant to fall in love with this place, this place immediately took a hold on me. It’s a bit hard to quantify, but there’s that ghostly past which ironically has made me feel empowered and creative. The air and the land does seem to be haunted but not in a negative sense (at least in my experience). I can’t help but feel the presence of courageous Black folk who believed that through love and perseverance, I was possible in the future. In many ways coming to the South feels like a reclamation project: that we as Black folks have unfinished business down here. As aforementioned, I think about my child being born here, and what that means for him. I walk freely around campus and think that just sixty years ago, I wouldn’t be permitted. I may be negotiating my feelings about the South and Mississippi for quite some time. I know that I’m currently enjoying the rollercoaster of experiences, both seen and unseen, of a Midwest boy from Milwaukee. Mississippi is an active character in Stripper. The question becomes, is speaker in Mississippi or is Mississippi in him?

In “Thursday,” your speaker says, “don’t ask me about futures,” but I can’t help it. The speaker often seems to be coming from combinations of past, present, and future which complicates the idea of life as a clear narrative. The final section of the collection in particular seems to merge memories with present moments and imaginings of possible futures. In poetry, is it possible for a speaker to speak from only one place and time or is the past, present, and future always there even if it’s not acknowledged? And how do you balance these three temporalities in your own work?

Damn, you really read my book, great question! I’ve been interested in the scientific ideas of quantum theory and of string theorists for quite some time. And while I don’t understand the equations and the entire scientific lingo, I’m often interested in the ideas and the dumb-downed explanations of some of these edgy hypotheses. The idea of time is one that I’ve been interested in for years after hearing so many quantum theorists propose its illegitimacy. I won’t bore you with a bunch of sloppy science talk from a writer guy, but I knew at some point I wanted to pursue this in my writing, I just didn’t know how that might look. Stripper, a collection in which I visit some aspects of my past initially, seemed like the right opportunity. Additionally, I felt it could add to the boldness of Funk and Funk culture (I’m thinking of Funk musicians like Sun Ra who claimed to be from another planet and who also questioned many of our standard universal assumptions). I knew I wanted to write about Mississippi too (which in many ways is a present rendering). I then started to play with the idea of the ever-present Now (meaning there is no past, present, and future, there is only Now and all things are happening in that Now). If this is true, I thought, then what’s happening right Now in my own “future:” perhaps my son is getting married, perhaps I’m celebrating thirty years of marriage at this very moment. Expanding on these ideas and fleshing them out further, I labored over the manuscript to ensure that every aspect was connected. And if all of these narratives exist at the same time, how are they informing and affecting one another? This is the question I complicated throughout the revision process. I labored over this question at nauseam until each poem felt, both contextually and spiritually, connected.

To answer the second part of your question: I’m not sure if we as poets or writers can simply speak from only one place. Our perspective of that one place is informed by so many other experiences that invade the space of a right Now moment. I would imagine that our articulation, both contextually and emotionally, of a specific moment is a fluid thing that shifts depending on the other parts of ourselves and our histories we find ourselves accessing in that moment. For example, I can try writing about an experience, however, since I’m not writing about the experience while having the experience, how I articulate the experience will depend on where I’m sitting and what I’ve had for breakfast at the time I try to write it. I would imagine that whatever’s happened between having the experience and writing about the experience will inform how it’s articulated and what receives emphasis. If that makes sense at all? In Stripper, I wanted to collapse time so that my reader might experience reading the book backwards or starting in the middle. While we should read most collections more than once, I hoped to create a body of work that moved my reader to keep coming back for pleasure, but also, for those subtle temporal connections that are stretching across the various “past,” “present,” and “future” moments presented here.

One more future question to end on: what are you working on now?

I’m just beginning to play with some concepts in the form of notes but I’m not writing any poems at the moment. Thank you for these well thought out questions!

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, New South, Sou’wester, and Bayou Magazine, among others.

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

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In Memoriam: The Things They Buried in the Yard

hartnett-author-photoThere was a story my grandfather liked to tell, and it was my favorite one for bedtime. When my grandfather was a kid, a skunk got into the basement of The Women’s Club in town, nobody knew how. He had volunteered to help, had tried to get the skunk to walk up a ramp and out the tiny basement window. My grandfather didn’t want the skunk to be killed. He wanted to safely lead him outside. That was one reason I loved the story, because of how gentle and big-hearted it proved my grandfather to be.

But the ramp plan didn’t work, as best-laid plans never do; the skunk sprayed my grandfather straight on. He came home defeated, and his mother wouldn’t let him in the house until he buried his clothes in the yard.

Our yard?” I always asked, because it amazed me that my grandfather had grown up in the same house I was growing up in; my parents bought the house from the great aunts. It’s still in the family now. My father says he’ll die there.

Your yard,” my grandfather said. “You should dig those smelly clothes up,” he’d laugh.

I did look for his clothes, dug hole after hole after hole. Of course they’d disintegrated over the decades, but I didn’t understand that then. My mother still finds things our family buried when she gardens, glass shards mostly. “They buried everything in the yard,” she says, in a disapproving tone. We didn’t bury much when I was growing up. We buried tulip and daffodil bulbs and one deceased family pet, a rabbit. The fish we flushed, the dogs we had cremated. I wonder if my grandfather buried his dogs in the yard. Our family always had dogs.

One dog, a golden retriever named Frisky-Frisbee, got sprayed by a skunk once, and our neighbor told my dad to wash the dog with douche wash from the pharmacy. “Yes, that’s what I said,” she nodded, when he asked her to repeat herself. So that’s what my dad did, mixed douche wash with tomato juice and washed Frisky-Frisbee in the garage. My grandfather came over to help.

My grandfather was always over to help, and I wonder which house felt more like home to him: his house where he’d raised three children, or the house where he’d grown up. Of course, the house wasn’t exactly the same. My parents had the kitchen redone, a back porch added on, a new bathroom. But some of the furniture was still there, and the horsehair plaster walls still felt a little bumpy to the touch. Plus, there’s so much family history in the house. My great-grandmother died in my bedroom, I was told, and I wondered which corner she kept her bed in. I wanted my bed in the same corner, because I wanted to feel a deep connection to my family past. I believed in ghosts, but wasn’t afraid of the ones I was related to. I heard them all the time in the attic, or I did until my parents found out we had bats.

Irabbit-cake-cover’m thirty years old now, but that house still feels like home for me, in a deeply rooted way, a way that can probably never be fully replanted elsewhere.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in an apartment a mile from my parents, a mile from the yard where my family once buried things they no longer wanted, not knowing the yard and what was buried there would stay in the family for a long time coming, an accidental inheritance. My grandfather died thirteen years ago, but first he made me a dog-lover, and a storyteller too, and I learned from him that it’s better to tell a good story than it is to tell the truth. He once told a bar full of people that he was Terry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach; really, he was a mechanic.

I don’t smell skunks as often as I did when I was a kid; I think the population is down. When I do catch the scent, I hold my dog’s leash a little tighter, and I breathe in.

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, released this March from Tin House Books. She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Read more at anniehartnett.com.

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

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