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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jill McDonough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Lloyd Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memorious Speaks: Nicky Beer Reads “Cathy Dies”

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

Read the full text of “Cathy Dies” here.
 

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

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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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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Michael Bazzett

BazzettMHeadshotWithin the poems of Michael Bazzett’s new collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief), you may find yourself in conversation with a man who “specialized in enslaving the wind” or watching a bison leap a fence. You might observe a woman slipping into another woman’s life—“an older version of herself”—as she tries on a coat in a second-hand store, or arrive in a paradise, where “the work week is fixed at thirty hours.” What all of these scenarios have in common is a storyteller’s wit and alertness to the surreal and mundane truths and coincidences of human interaction. The wind-enslaver falls in love with his listener because she begins “repeating back the last three words of / every phrase he uttered” (what woman doesn’t know that trick?), and the extra hours of leisure in Paradise are spent, in Beckettian fashion, waiting for a no-show God. The woman with the coat luxuriates in the “cool silk lining” of her fate, while the bison inspires awe with its leap because it seems to have momentarily “torn itself loose from the earth.” But Bazzett is advocating for connection, not departure, in his poems. His tales ask us to look intently at the many “lands” in which we live—historical, mythological, physical, imagined—and to wrap these “well-wrought layers” around ourselves as if each were a coat we could try on, catching sight of a “different” person in the mirror, to whom we say “Yes.”

Michael Bazzett is a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. His work has appeared in Issue 23 of Memorious, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review, among others. His debut collection, You Must Remember This, received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions, and his second poetry collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different, was recently released from Horsethief Books. His third collection, The Interrogation, is forthcoming from Milkweed, as is his verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.

As I read through the book, I was struck not only by the many stories contained within the poems but perhaps even more by the different types of stories you tell. Poems such as the title poem and “The Problem of Measurement” seem to present a sort of alternative reality or history, others could be fables (“The Anecdotalist,” “Hedgehog,” “Verisimilitude”), and still others present a realism that is both terrifying and deliberate (“Coming Home” and “There Is Nothing”). And, of course, you include an actual “Parable” and a retelling of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Do you consider yourself a storyteller, and can you discuss your approach to narrative in the book?

I do consider myself a storyteller. Absolutely. I think the impulse runs deep in us—as both tellers and listeners. It’s one of my pet theories that what primarily distinguishes Ourlandscoverhumans from other high-level primates is our ability to inhabit symbolic frameworks—in short, to live inside of narrative. So the words “Tell me a story” have a sort of yearning spell inside them. We’re looking to belong, to feel the invisible syntax of connection. No four-year-old ever climbed into someone’s lap and said, “Deconstruct my narrative.”

I probably read as many novelists as I do poets—I love to get lost in the dream, transported—particularly with someone like Ishiguro or Saramago, where one fantastical element is introduced, and the rest of it is played very straight. Part of the reason I gravitate toward poetry is that I can actually finish poems. Even when I’m not working in a straight narrative mode, I often idly wander, like a dog nosing the grass—it’s just my restless aesthetic at work. And I like to delight, to amuse, to be amused, to feel—stories are a good way to spur that.

Many of these poem stories, different in approach though they are, contain recurring images—wind, pianos, “hair,” to name a few. I thought of the natural world, which can be quite threatening in the “lands” of this book, and perhaps music as an attempt at organizing or playing back to that threat. Hair seems to implicate the human as animal, messy and chaotic. Do you see these recurring images as being connected to or signaling particular themes throughout the book? Are my interpretations anywhere near what you’re hoping to evoke?

You’re dead-on. And I love that observation about music serving as an ordering impulse.

Confession time: I wrote poetry for many years (my first book wasn’t published until I was 47) in the thrall of the idea of the reverential observer, cultivating this chiseled aesthetic that was part Basho, part Mary Oliver, part someone in a robe proclaiming, “We cannot see the wind, only its evidence.” As if one could just be a transparent eyeball strolling around, busting epiphanies. Tiresome stuff. But the poems kept offering these sardonic reminders that we’re not just heads floating above it all, we’re hugely destructive and implicated in this time where being alive means being at odds with nature, with our own bodies—and the work became more fraught and complex and weirdly funny as it mirrored that.

We’re imagining animals. We don’t need to transcend that. We need to own that, mine that, relax things with a little humor or absurdity, then prod a little deeper once those abdominal muscles relax. Because that’s authentic to the moment we find ourselves in—where our impoverished relationship with the natural worlds stems, at least in part, from the fact that we literally can’t imagine things otherwise.

I was struck by your focus on the human body, and in particular its potential mutilation—for example, the three poems in response to the car accident of “Coming Home,” the figurative “shrapnel” lodged in the brain in “Thought Grenade,” or the man who “unzipped himself from navel to sternum” in “The Dinner Party.” To me, these images sound a warning, reminding us of the damage humans can do to one another and to ourselves. How are you thinking about the body in these poems and throughout the book?

Slamming into a concrete divider at 70 mph is certainly instructive in teaching one about the fragility of meat and bone. The poems gained a sense of the body’s vulnerability from that moment out on the interstate, which was unfortunately an all-too-real occurrence. Yet we’re reminded everyday that our limbs can be awkward and imperfect and broken. We need to be careful with one another. As every year slips by, I value intelligence less and kindness much more. Kindness is the best way to liberate the wonderful stuff inside us without breaking the vessel open.

The title Our Lands Are Not So Different obviously has resonance in the current political climate of exclusion and division. How did you come to choose it, and how would you describe its reflection throughout the book? Has it changed at all in the months since you chose it?

I wrote that poem and chose the title nearly a decade ago, in the wake of a year where I lived with my family in central Mexico. It was a place where I spent a lot of time inside a new language and I was certainly culturally dislocated—yet I also felt inside my skin there and at home in a deep way. A lot of the work came out of the space, that straddling of home/not home, where it becomes clear that lines on a map are essentially false, arbitrary projections, yet they have utterly real consequences. We live in palpable unrealities.

Which is why in this current moment I think certain elements of our cultural mythology are in the midst of being resuscitated, interrogated and—perhaps—rewritten somewhat. It’s perhaps fitting the book’s coming out in this particular now, where for a lot of people what once felt like home has come to feel like an alternative reality or history, yet on the other hand we’re simply confronting things we should have always known about our country.

I see that you have a translation of the Mayan creation epic The Popul Vul coming out with Milkweed Editions. Did this project change your approach to your own work at all, particularly with respect to this book? If so, how?

That was a wild, wonderful, unexpected project that took me the better part of six years. I’ve always had a fondness for work in translation, the slight strangeness one can sometimes sense in the syntax or the language. Yet until I started doing it, I had no inkling of what I was getting into. I simply wanted a lucid verse translation of the myth that I could teach to my high school students. Immersing myself in it became a real joy, a slight obsession, and a total education—I ended up taking an unpaid leave from my teaching job for a semester to finish it.

One way I think the project did influence me is in how comfortable the myth is with burrowing back through time. It has no interest in being overly linear; instead it offers a sort of Russian-nesting-doll sort of structure, implying that straight-linear narrative structure is just false. Instead, you’ve got to find the beast, track it, and follow its print as it doubles back and perhaps begins stalking you…

The book ends with the poem “June,” which describes a woman trying on a coat in a second-hand shop (after first removing a stray hair belonging to the previous owner from its lapel) and imagining “an older version of herself walking through a park—.” The narrator of the poem provides a parallel description of the woman who last wore the coat before it came to the shop—“the face with the furrowed brow / that could fold and break into a lightning smile.” This seems to me to be a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship? What were your thoughts regarding ending the collection with this poem, and does the book’s ending point you toward a new project?

“…a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship.”

What an absolutely lovely reading! Slipping into a coat someone else has worn. Inhabiting it. Making it one’s own. Knowing it hasn’t always been so, knowing that it can’t be forever…

Your insight makes me feel like maybe the book has done its work. I won’t spoil the moment by saying more…

Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions!

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 and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Leslie Harrison

LHphotoLeslie Harrison’s second poetry collection, The Book of Endings, part of the Akron Series in Poetry, takes place in a space between the real world (where it’s usually winter), the imagination, language, art, and myth. The poems seem always to be trying to get to the bottom of things, and one of the pleasures of reading them is never knowing where they’ll end up, feeling the mind thinking as you go along. Lines often stutter and re-start: “For I have loved the blade with all my crippled / with all my awkward soul”; “for I have loved / Leviathan for being only for being exactly / what god hated” (“[Wilt thou play with him as with a bird]”). Haunted by ghosts, a mummy, Jesus, a lost mother, a lost love, and pre-lost children, The Book of Endings gives the sense that we need all of the answers—many truths as opposed to the Truth—to make sense of anything at all in this cold world; I kept thinking of Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” By the end of the book, the speaker, for better or worse, is setting sail.

Harrison is an NEA Fellow and the recipient of the 2008 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in poetry for her first book, Displacement (Mariner). Her poems have been widely published, in journals such as FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Memorious. A long-time resident of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, she now lives and teaches in Baltimore.

To me, the poems in The Book of Endings often seem like incantations, a way of killing the silence, staving off absence. They seem constantly struggling against confusion and unknowing—struggling to make the world mean. Would you describe them that way? Is there a better way?

Incantation—from the Latin incantare—to cast a spell upon, or to bewitch; it shares a root with enchantment. So wow, I hope so. I love that this is a word you want to use to describe the poems. I hope it is a true word, that they are even a little like that. So many poems have spellbound me. Ambition and generosity—what others have done I wish to do; let me give to you, dear reader, what someone once gave to me.

And yes, I’ll talk more in a bit about trying to make the world mean, but first the silence question. There are different kinds of silence. Some of them I love. I don’t have TV in my house, and lately I’m not listening to music. I live with two dogs, one of whom is deaf. And one of the things I struggle with now, living in a city, is how damned noisy it is all the time. Sandisfield was so quiet you could hear a raven flying overhead from inside your house. I love that kind of silence.

But when someone dies, a very particular silence infects your life. My mother was in pain toward the end of her life, and mostly confined to her house. So she and I would talk nearly every day, sometimes for hours. We probably spent 10-20 hours a week on the phone toward the end. I grew up with a single parent. My father vanished when I was a baby. We were poor—on welfare, living in the projects. She kept us safe and fed and entertained and taught us to read and bake and ride bikes and play poker (which we did, by the way, with Tootsie Rolls or pennies). My mother was my whole world, and we were close for all her life.

So one way of thinking about the way the poems work is that her death brought a kind of inhuman (and inhumane) silence into my world, and I think the poems are indeed trying desperately not to end, not to fall into silence, even for the space of a period, a comma. They’re me talking into the void, trying to calm myself, trying not to panic.

And yes, the poems absolutely do want to be stays against all sorts of things—confusion, grief, silence, and the terrible sense I have that the world is arbitrary and random and does not mean, in fact, can not mean.

I gave up writing poems in college in part because language seemed so useless, so completely inadequate. When I came back to writing, it was with full knowledge that I would fail, that language is inadequate, that the most I can do is hold back silence, stay confusion for a moment before it all collapses back into chaos. But if I could create moments of trying to make things make sense, or at least make music and beauty and consolation, then it was worth the daily failures.

So even if the world is arbitrary and random, we, the world’s artists, have to try. That is, I think, the work of the artist—to try to speak the world into moments of sense or order or beauty. I think of Olena Kalytiak Davis quoting Vincent Van Gogh, “I have tried / to express the terrible passions / of humanity by means of red and green.” Language is red and green.

Your epigraph is from Heather McHugh’s poem “Etymological Dirge,” which is about unintuitive etymologies, for example in the line “Calm comes from burning. / Tall comes from fast”: the word “tall” comes from the Old English getæl, meaning “prompt, active,” and “calm” from the ancient Greek kaiein which means “to burn.” Coincidentally, I’ve been walking around listening to this Bill Bryson book The Origin of Language (N.B. Bill Bryson books are perfect for listening to while walking or driving—the right pace, the right concentration of information). That book reminds us of things like the fact that the words “brave” and “bravado” mean exactly opposite things—and that both come from “depraved.” I love remembering about the mutability of language—that words are sort of there for the making and taking. It’s liberating. Anyway! The mutability, the possibilities, and the impossibilities of language come up quite a bit throughout your book, for example in “[I keep throwing words at the problem because words]” and “[What I mean].” Is this a preoccupation of yours as well? Could you speak to it a little bit? Maybe I should say it better this way: could you tell us why you chose that epigraph, or what books you were reading, or what your preoccupations were, as you wrote these poems—essentially, where they came from?

Ha! You and me and Heather McHugh—don’t you just love language sometimes? Because, yes, it might be a blunt instrument, but it is ours and it does do things.

I love that poem. I memorized it a while ago, and I say it like a rosary sometimes, quietly, to myself. It has become a talisman, a way to acknowledge language’s mystery, power, and elusive nature. A part of me just wanted to say thank you to Heather. I can’t thank Shakespeare or Auden or Berryman or Bishop or Frost or Bogan. But where I have the opportunity to tell a poet how much their work matters to me, I try.

But also (as you say below) the entire quatrain but especially the final two lines gesture quite strongly to a lot of my obsessions as they play out in the book. It says,

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

I tell my students that prose writers believe they can say things with words. They spend sometimes 70,000 or 80,000 words saying things. Poets (or at least this one) know that words can’t really say anything. Sometimes they can gesture toward capturing something, but really, language is so inadequate—it changes shape, morphs, its roots are obscured in its branches and it is composed mostly of water— and we say, “I love you” to a mother and the same thing to a beloved and we say, “I love tea.” And they’re three very different things. So yes, I’m a bit obsessed with etymology, with the efficacy and failures of language, with its shifty, clouded nature, its odd lineage.

I don’t think most of us think about it, but I’m well pleased I write in English. It is such a strange mash-up and portmanteau and thief.

Formally, these breathless, unpunctuated poems—each about a page—are pretty different from those in your first book, Displacement, which are shorter and more tightly controlled, punctuated, organized into regular stanzas (although there are hints toward the end of the book that things are trending towards entropy—not that it is ever, of course, entropy. It’s all craft!). How did you arrive at this new form? How does it function, for you?

True story: I thought I had a brain injury.

The formal change happened overnight. I woke up and punctuation was just gone. I literally didn’t use a piece of punctuation again in a poem, barring apostrophes, until quite recently, and then only once, and only a little bit. I’d write and not be able to punctuate. I’d write and not be able to stick two lines together. It made me crazy to see a string of couplets or tercets and I’d be like, NO! nonononono. If I was drafting and didn’t put the stanza break in, I couldn’t go on until I corrected it. (I’m also weirdly allergic to regular multi-line stanzas in other people’s work; I see a poem in stanzas and I have to fight my desire to stop reading.)

I’m in a totally dysfunctional relationship with punctuation. It’s just not that into me. And multi-line stanzas are over me in a big way.

It isn’t really even a choice, which is why I thought I had a brain injury. So the question of how it functions is a little like asking how my lungs work. I have no idea, but I’m super-grateful to be breathing.

And I expect it to end (the form, not the breathing thing, though, yeah, eventually that too, I guess). I’ve come to believe it is tied to something I’m working out, something I’m dealing with in both language and content.

I’m a weirdly intuitive writer; I don’t want to look too closely at both what I’m doing and how the poems work, because I tend to lose interest in things I think I understand. I could list current obsessions—the sea, especially shipwrecks, the photographs of Ray Collins, huge waves and the men who surf them; the pieces of language we all recognize (childhood games, the wedding ceremony, some psalms, some prayers); knives and blades of all sorts; horses, owls, all birds really; trees; really old living things; glass; rectangles; Hiroshige prints, and certain physical talismans, like a Lego minifigure I often carry around. And I can’t tell you why I love and pay attention to any of them. If I knew, they’d lose their power, like a question the world actually answered for once. And I think the form that shapes the poems is like that—a question I don’t have an answer to, though I may, in time.

I will say I have part of a collection of prose poems about a shape-shifter that has a much more conventional relationship with punctuation. So something is going on and it relates to the content of these particular poems. And when I’m done, I think I’ll be able to move on.

So far though, I’ve got another 32 decent drafts, and 26 rougher drafts toward a new book, and all of them follow the same form, though some are getting longer and some shorter.

The Book of Endings is a triptych—divided into Left, Right, and Center sections—evoking Christian art and altarpieces. Moving through the book, I felt like I was like opening up a painting: first the left panel, then the right, and then seeing the whole picture. Would you tell us a little bit about why you divided the book this way?

BofEI’m so glad the structure is visible in that way! Once I discovered the structure, the book was actually titled Triptych. It was months after it was under contract that I figured out the real title. Then I still had “A Triptych” as a sort-of subtitle. In production we let it fade away, and I was concerned it wouldn’t be read the way you read it, so I’m happy that is still visible. What is that O’Hara poem? “Why I Am Not a Painter.” It makes me laugh because I
did that—I erased almost all of the genesis of the structure of the book. Maybe the book’s real title was Sardines or Oranges.

I think a lot of writers will recognize this frustration: I couldn’t order the book. For years. Displacement was easier—there is a buried narrative in that book—a beginning, middle, and end. But it turned out that knowing how to order that book is not the same as knowing how to order a book.

How did it come to me? It feels a little like something an old photography teacher said to me when I described a classmate as lucky. The teacher said that you have to put yourself in the way of luck. Get out there; do the work; be prepared for luck, and recognize it when it happens along.

I love art, especially painting and early Japanese woodblocks. I have a weird aptitude for theory. I read philosophy. I am a little obsessed with lapis lazuli. I have a AAA membership (TripTiks!). I love architecture. I studied art history a fair bit. I am an obsessive reader. I can’t, for example, point to what I was reading during the writing of the book—on a slow week I’m reading 8-10 books at once.

All of those were swirling around. I was teaching a poetics class and thinking about the tripartite structure of argument credited most recently to Hegel (who credits Kant), but really it’s much older—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I was reading a lot of theology and yes, looking at early Christian alter pieces, which are often triptychs—threes being a thing in Christianity—and trying to figure out why Mary was often dressed in blue (lapis lazuli!).

And suddenly, I realized the book was a triptych.

Once I had that bolt out of the blue, I ordered the book in about 20 minutes. And for those of you trying to place a manuscript, I can say that I sent it out a lot before I ordered it and it was kicked to the curb over and over again. I sent it out with the final order just 4 times. It was a finalist but not picked by the judge all four times. And Mary Biddinger at Akron selected it for the Editor’s choice. And a couple of the other editors where it was a finalist lamented that it got away, which is a lovely thing to hear, even if I don’t entirely believe it.

My lesson was that, for the next book, I should not beat my head against a very hard wall in frustration, not send the book out until I’m sure it is ready. Do the work, be patient, and listen to what the book wants to be. And (not that I needed the reinforcement) keep reading, looking at art, doing research, teaching—put myself in the way of the luck, the happy insight that might make the difference.

There are many allusions to religion and Christianity throughout the book—in the epigraph, in the structure, in poems like “[God speaks]”, “[Take, eat]”, “[Parable]” (which appears twice), and many more. Greek mythology, too, saturates this book—Sisyphus, Penelope, Sirens—and your last. What role do myth and religion play in your writing process, in your everyday thinking?

Religion, myth, and folklore are all systems of information, systems of knowledge by which cultures attempt to order and explain the world. But they’re also a weird and amazing kind of cultural shorthand. Most people know who Icarus was, who Penelope was. So it is efficient to drop a mythological figure into a poem. You don’t have to explain.

I studied Greek and Roman mythology in college. In grad school I did an independent study in folklore with a very well known folklorist. I am of course fascinated with language and with ritual. And I am obsessed with metaphor. It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, to love beauty and metaphor, but I do. Mythology is also a system of metaphor—metaphor and mimesis are why such systems persist. And sometimes they’re really plausible, like Aristotle believing in spontaneous generation.

As for Christianity, that is a more complicated thing. All of what I just said still applies—I’m fascinated by the stories of Christianity, and the ritual language associated with it. The writing in the Bible, especially the King James, is gorgeous.

My mother died. And then my grandmother died, and then my best friend. In two years. And in that time I also ended an intense relationship, and a couple of close friendships faltered. I spent nine days alone in the dark after an ice storm, and had a serious health scare. People started to joke about my life resembling Job’s. And Job is one of the strangest books in the Bible. In part, I think it is an attempt to account for suffering. So it did resonate with me. And it created one of my ongoing obsessions—Leviathan (not Hobbes’s, though that book does have a very famous triptych frontispiece).

People talk about the stages of grief, and they’re not wrong. At some point after my mother died, I found myself angry. But I had nobody to be angry at—she had fought hard to live, so I couldn’t be mad at her. So I ended up deflecting a lot of my anger toward this particular system. My thinking went like this: if God exists, he is either not omnipotent, in which case, why bother, or he is unbelievably cruel and deserves my anger. If he doesn’t exist, then being angry with him is a kind of healthy outlet.

So a lot of the poems that are directly or indirectly interested in Christianity were born out of that sea—of grief and attempts (past and present), yet again, to make things make either beauty or sense.

In Displacement, we have “Instructions to a Realtor” about moving into a house, and in The Book of Endings, we have “[Things the realtor will not tell the new owner]” (one of my favorite poems in the book). What’s with these realtors?   

They’re agents of change, aren’t they? I’ve moved over 50 times, and I am obsessed with the idea of home because, basically, I never had one. But then I bought my little house in Sandisfield.

Those two poems are sort of an alpha and omega of my time in the only home I’ve ever had. Weirdly, both poems were very late additions to the books—probably the last poem I put in each book. In the most recent one, I was in the process of trying to sell the house, as I’d gotten a job in Baltimore and had to leave. I knew I’d take so many memories, but I wondered if the house and the creatures I encountered daily would remember me. How did all my encounters with hungry bears (that is redundant, since bears are composed mostly of hunger) change the bear or live in its memory? I saw the same trees, the same creatures, windows and walls daily for a decade. I watched generations of phoebes fledge from the nest in the bathroom eaves, saw deer, goose families who came annually to the lake to raise new goslings, woodpeckers, coyotes—the list is long. And I was so damned grateful for the house, its shelter and light and quiet.

I wondered what of me the house would keep. The trees and animals and the house, which shaped my days and nights for a decade—would they notice my absence? I wanted, very much, for the house to remember me, though perhaps not quite as sadly as the poem says. There was dancing there. And gratitude. And a staring contest with a swan. Misadventures with fences and wasps. And being way too close to too many bears. And the songs of the coyotes. And the milky way overhead like I’ve never seen it anywhere else—a bright ribbon of light. Moons and meteors and a comet and eclipse and every dawn and every dusk for a decade.

And then the realtors sold my house to someone else, and for the first time in my life, I left home.

Interviewer Sarah Trudgeon is the recipient of the 2015 Poetry Society of America 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship for her collection Dreams of Unhappiness, selected and introduced by Don Paterson. Her poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, The Nation, The Paris Review, The TLS, and the anthology Eight Miami Poets. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the MFA program at the University of Florida, she serves as managing editor of Sink Review and director of the Writing-in-Schools program Mastheads Fireside.

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