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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.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt

Jacques J. Rancourt is an Issue 26 contributor and winner of the Pleiades Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. His debut collection, Novena, is a coming-of-age and a coming out. Wresting a fractured identity from the past and making of it a gift for the beloved—and for the reader—Novena seeks redemption, wholeness.

Strapped to the “[c]lutched mast” of his ship, Rancourt’s Odysseus in “Song for the Homebound Men” is restrained against the allure of naked male sirens. The tension between the boat’s orientation (the straight, homebound narrative) and the sailor’s orientation (a queer veering, homosexual) runs throughout the collection. It’s dominated by the speaker’s outdoorsman father, by a patriarchal violence the speaker feels exiled by even as he resembles and reveres it. The product of such bound longing is song, of course, “a music box the wind tips open.” But what kind of song? Faith and prayer, myth, nature, role models, and all the other “standards hitherto publish’d” (to quote Whitman)—none of it will do, yet none of it can be done without.

Novena forges a new, unsanctioned song from the materials. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalms decree. In the first of two “Novena” cycles, the speaker prays to a drag queen Mary to “[m]ove my lips until I believe / a man can kiss a man like this.”

Can you talk about your need for and use of neologism, at least in the sense of using conventional words unconventionally? Might this be related to the speaker’s acknowledged lack of adequate language with which to say what he means? I noticed neologism especially in the “Novena” cycles, such as “a sprout clouts her cleft” or “pummel and surge coarse my throat.”

My father is Quebecois, and my early introductions to language were garbled with roughly-pronounced Franglais phrases. Even to this day, lines come to me from the occasion of mishearing bits of dialogue or misreading lines in novels. I’m intrigued by what I think I hear or see that the actual meanings of these sentences often disappoint me. This is an experience I’ve tried to replicate in my poems. It’s a way of allowing sound to drive sense, despite having a narrative backbone to most of my poems. It allows a bit of my private world into the poems.

Can you talk about your experience publishing and the journey of the first book?

Like most poets, I sent my book out too early. I felt that because the poems themselves were done that their sum meant the book was publishable. I had no sense of the book’s structure, of the story it wanted to tell, or how to tell it. The first time I sent it out, I had the weird luck of being named a finalist for a dream contest. And then for the next two years, I received nothing but a solid flow of form rejection letters. It wasn’t until after that—after I had written some better poems, took out others that I was holding onto for superficial reasons—I went back to ground zero and restructured the whole book. Only then did I finally understand what each and every poem accomplished in the greater movement of the book. I read somewhere that you know a book is done when it feels that if you were to take out or add in just one more poem, the whole structure would topple; I think that’s as good as any advice I’ve heard on the matter. It would take another three years for the book to be taken, but I knew that it was done and that if I made any more drastic edits, I would only end up dowsing its spark. I had to trust my gut—and not the contest model—that it was done and to give myself permission to keep working on the next project.

The speaker in Novena grew up in what might be called the country. Where, specifically, did you grow up, and to what degree do your neopastoral motifs come from actual experience with “nature”? Part of the reason I ask is because, as you’ve probably noticed, foxes, wolves, and horses seem to show up in everybody’s poetry these days, country or no.

Before I was born, my father built an off-the-grid cabin in western Maine, and so I spent many of my formative years on the foot of a mountain playing by myself in the Appalachian woods. When I give readings, I do sometimes feel a compulsion to clarify that once a baby fawn really did lick my hand while I was jogging through the forest, or that one winter we really did find a barred owl frozen in the rafters of our wood shed. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for Novena, is how far removed the speaker is from an urban gay utopia. He is isolated spiritually in a dangerous pastoral that’s rife with animals and hunters. This lens is key to understanding not only Novena but also a part of the larger gay narrative that’s spoken less of these days.

There’s a different type of closeting that occurs in the rural parts of America, which feels mostly like they’re held back in the 80’s or 90’s still. The media and even the gay narrative wants to propose that we (the queers) have been pushed beyond that and assimilated fully into the fabric of the mainstream. And yet, you go into the outreaching places of the country, and more than just the fact that coming out is still a life-risking act, there’s the pervasive toxic masculine culture that prevails there. In poems such as “American Shrapnel” and “Field,” I wanted to write toward that toxicity, to the places that have been left behind, and the sharp shred of fear implanted in all the young people who grow up there. My hope was that Novena would capture both the beauty and tenderness and oppression and fear that coincides in these communities far from the cities.

Who is the Deerman? He seems somewhat demonic, satyrlike.

Part of the project of the title sequence was to recreate a mythology: I recast the Virgin Mary as a drag queen as a way of writing a love poem that would give hope to the queer outcast but highly devout kid I was as a teenager. She represents a sort of an aloof chaste compassion, merging both divisive parts of the speakers’ identity—his faith and his queerness. The Deerman serves as her foil: a brute masculine sexuality that, at one point, literally eats the speaker up.

Where do you think you’d be as a poet without your presumably Catholic upbringing?

My family wasn’t particularly literary—or in some cases, even literate—but they were deeply religious. We studied theology in lieu of studying hard history or science (a concept that scares the hell out of me now). It did, however, instill in me the weight of symbolism, the endless interpretations and literary analysis that drives theology. When I was a teen, I used to drive hours to go to the Cathedral in Portland where in its crypt they’d hold the “Dead Theologians Society.” These conversations would be as close to poetry or literary conversations I’d have until I got to college. Even now, when I scan my lines for meter or rhythm, I trace how much I learned about syntax from these religious texts or rote prayers.

Novena’s speaker seems anxious about predecessors, and in particular about his father. He struggles to claim an identity separate from him. These concerns can’t but make me think of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (you even kill off the father at the end). Who are the poetic parents and peers you’re split from?

I can’t help but think of Bloom’s theory as being part of a queer aesthetic. In Gay World, anxiety surrounding a rupture between generations is par for the course. Coming out has historically meant estrangement, and attempting to maintain a connection or severing that connection with family is one of the defining decisions in a gay person’s life—second only to coming out in the first place. I am interested more, though, in your question of poetic lineage, which is something I always ask my students to consider. I had a teacher who found it terribly important that a poet be able to “place themselves” in the larger conversation of who came before them. I feel a strong impulse and even obligation to recognize in the work itself those who came before and paved the way, who made the work possible in the first place. There are poems (I won’t name which) that are direct tributes to other gay poets as a way of acknowledging the path they’ve blazed and the opportunity they’ve created.

Originally from Alabama, interviewer Austin Segrest writes and teaches at Lawrence University in west-central Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay (up the north-flowing Fox). He reviews poetry for Southern Humanities Review. His poems have recently appeared in Image, Ecotone, and Grist.

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

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn

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Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four seasons, it is also a love letter addressed to a daughter lost to miscarriage. The poem is vividly, beautifully awake to the world, which has been reconfigured by absence, but also by a sense of being stranded, being caught in the act of becoming. Just as the poem questions how to grieve for a child who both was and was not here, so it also struggles with the aftermath of that loss. How can someone be a parent who has never had a child? With whom can he share the strangeness and wonder of New York, if not the expected child, whose hand he will never hold? A sparrow, music from a foreign instrument, a wild creature navigating the streets of New York, a Chinese day of mourning—everything becomes a form of attention, and a kind of prayer, and everything becomes something the poem wants, desperately, to both love and share.

In addition to Dear Almost, contributor Matthew Thorburn is the author of the full-length collections This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser), Every Possible Blue (CW Books), and Subject to Change (New Issues), as well as two chapbooks, A Green River in Spring (Autumn House) and Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City). Thorburn is a former Witter Bynner fellow at the Library of Congress. His poems are widely published in journals, including Memorious 16 and 26, and his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He writes a monthly feature for the Ploughshares blog and lives in New York City with his wife and son.

My first question has to do with form and structure in your poems. Subject to Change, your first book, was as formally inventive as any recent book—stanza forms, prose poems, experimental forms, poems in sections, a section of a poem written as a numbered list. Dear Almost is a long poem in sections, and it is formally consistent, so I was wondering about how your relationship to form has evolved since you wrote the poems in Subject to Change. 

Looking back on it, 12 years after it was published, Subject to Change seems like a lot of first books in that it’s a bit of a miscellany, put together from the poems I’d written during grad school and in the years just before and after. I was definitely interested in trying new things then (and still am, though what makes them “new” might be less obvious now). I also think in many of those poems I was maybe driven more by my interest in experimenting with language than by a desire to say some particular thing, to tell a specific story or convey a certain feeling or mood.

Dear Almost has its roots in the opposite situation: a very particular and difficult experience—the loss of an unborn child in a miscarriage—that I wanted to shape a meditative narrative around. It’s also a book that sets out to answer a question: How do you mourn for someone you never really knew, never met or saw? In a subtler way, there is a little of that experimenter’s spirit in Dear Almost too, though. The second section of the book, “The Light that Lasts All Summer,” is one continuous narrative book-ended by two haiku. Also, though the reader probably can’t tell, I wrote the whole book-length poem in bits and fragments in a completely non-linear way, then pieced it all together like a mosaic, framed by the changing seasons, from one spring to the next. So the actual writing and construction of the poem—Will it all fit together? Will this odd assembly work?— felt like a major, multi-year experiment to me.

Dear Almost is a season suite, with each section corresponding to a season. This seems to me to be a more far-eastern approach to organizing a poem, and in fact, early sections mention Shanxi Province and Qingming. I know you have traveled in China and that your wife Lillian is Chinese American, and the acknowledgements of the book reference lessons in Mandarin. Could you talk a little about Chinese language, culture, and poetry, and how (or if) they influenced the writing and the final shape of Dear Almost? 

cover“Season suite”—I love how that perfectly captures what I’d never really thought of as a form before. Something I learned from classical Chinese poetry is how poets like Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei would write about the seasons as a way of describing their own inner weather. From what I understand, there’s almost never a first-person pronoun in Chinese poems written in that time. I talk about this a little in Dear Almost. While I didn’t try to avoid the “I” in my book, I did focus on the changing seasons as a way of amplifying or echoing emotions, and to convey the passing of time during the period of mourning the poem describes.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not an expert, not even a student of classical Chinese poetry. I’m an amateur reader who has been moved by, and tried to learn from, certain translations of Chinese poems. What I’ve learned about Chinese poetry has come from reading books like David Hinton’s wonderful anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (which I had a chance to write about here) and their introductory essays. I’ve also had the chance to talk with my mother-in-law, who is a great reader of Chinese poetry in Chinese, about different English versions of certain poems, and to hear which translations she likes better, and why—and to try to put into words which translations I prefer, as poems in English.

Beyond that, as you mentioned, I’ve been grateful to learn about and experience Chinese culture through my wife’s family, and to share that with Lillian and our son. Some of those experiences naturally found a place in Dear Almost. Qingming (or “Tomb-Sweeping Day”), for instance, is a time to honor ancestors and visit their graves, which found its way into the book pretty naturally. As for the language, I think I studied Chinese just enough to get a sense of how extremely difficult it can be to learn, especially for adults. I’ve picked up some words and phrases of spoken Chinese as my son advances in both languages (he’s three)—so that I can sometimes get a sense of what he and Lillian are talking about—but not enough to hold up my end of a conversation.

I know that Elizabeth Bishop is one of your touchstone poets—someone whose work you return to again and again. And it seems to me that you share her interest in writing about travel, her interest in place as an idea that can shape poems. Dear Almost looks, physically, on the page, very like some of Bishop’s poems—I’m thinking here of “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room.” Both depend on fairly short, loosely syllabic lines and a strong rhythm. I have a two-part question about you and Bishop. The first part is what you learned from reading her work, especially what you learned about long poems and the shorter poetic line. 

You’re absolutely right: Bishop is one of my touchstones. I admire and keep coming back to many of her poems. I love her attentiveness, her way of staying with something and looking at it from different angles, and how she conveys a sense of the mind in motion, working through things on the page. Her “Poem,” which is my favorite of her poems, is a great example of this. How she studies and thinks about this little painting, carefully, meditatively, and then suddenly: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” I love that moment of amazed recognition, and the way the poem takes a turn into more personal territory there. I had the thrill of seeing the actual painting that “Poem” describes in a show of Bishop’s own paintings and a few items she had owned at the Tibor de Nagy gallery here in New York some years ago.

I try to emulate that kind of attentiveness in my own poems, and something like that way of showing the mind at work. Her poems about Brazil, and the way her work embodies the possibilities that travel and cross-cultural experiences can offer for a writer, have been important to me too. There’s an affinity between the traveler and the poet: for both, everything should be new and strange, and require and reward careful study and consideration. I wasn’t conscious of emulating her use of short, syllabic lines, but it’s not surprising to suppose I might have done it without realizing it. I definitely do admire how that kind of tight, crisp line can propel the narrative in a poem like “In the Waiting Room.”

The second part is about content. She was, famously, resistant to the confessional mode of her peers. And yet her most well-known poems are her most deeply felt and personal ones—“One Art,” which tackles losing a love, “Sestina,” which seems to reference her childhood in Nova Scotia, and “In the Waiting Room,” which references places and events we know are part of her childhood. I think of her stance on autobiographical content as a kind of poise, or reticence maybe, or some sort of distillation of feeling through both craft and time. Obviously, Dear Almost is a deeply felt book, but it is also a deeply crafted book. It engages with the deeply personal in ways your previous books do not seem to. Can you discuss how you negotiated, in the writing and editing of Dear Almost, your own stance on autobiographical content, time, and craft?

I agree—I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words. That’s not something I’ve tried to emulate very much, if at all, but I admire it in her poems.

While Dear Almost is not an especially formal poem, the frame of the four seasons—knowing from early in the writing that it would take place over the course of a year, and be shaped by that progression from one spring to the next—provided some necessary boundaries to work within and against in writing about this very personal and painful experience. As I mentioned, I drafted most of the poem in bits and pieces in my notebook, because that was the only way I could approach this experience at first, in a kind of glancing way, a few lines at a time. Then I did a lot of work to fit those pieces together into a narrative within that frame. Without that frame, or some kind of similar constraint, I could see all these lines and images just spiraling out away from me.

In addition to your full-length collections, you have published two chapbooks. One of them, Disappears in the Rain seems to be your first published very long poem, though even in Subject to Change, you have a couple of longer poems—“Three Part Constructed Form / For M. Duchamp” and “The River.” By contrast, A Green River in Spring is a collection of very short poems. What draws you to the long-form poem? What does a book-length poem afford as far as challenges and rewards in contrast to shorter poems? And specifically, at what point in the drafting process did it come to you/did you decide that Dear Almost was a book-length poem?

I sometimes daydream in the abstract about books I’d like to write—a book of prose poems, for instance, or a book of 26 poems named after objects that runs from A to Z. So I had had the idea for a while of a book-length poem that follows the seasons over the course of a year, though with no idea what it would be “about.” This was a couple years before we experienced the loss Dear Almost centers around. On the other hand, I truly don’t remember exactly when I started writing about this loss, addressing lines and images to our “almost girl.” I just remember being in the midst of it. Once I got going, though, it seemed clear pretty quickly that this could be a long poem—and that the thinking I’d already done about what a book-length poem might look like, the shape it might take, could suddenly be very helpful. I wasn’t sure for quite a while whether this thing I was writing would work as a book, or even as a poem, but I could see that what I was doing would at least be book-length.

Because I had never written a book-length poem before, in some ways Dear Almost is also about writing a book-length poem, and includes some references to its own writing within the narrative. While the loss at the center of the poem was difficult to keep facing up to, the actual work of writing and revising, of shaping the poem into a four-part narrative, was something I really enjoyed. I would carry a print-out of the manuscript in my briefcase when I went to work each day, so I could re-read it and mark up line edits on my commute, and during my lunch hour. I liked the steady work of this long poem, of being able to just stay in it for so long, to live with it and within it, and keep trying to make it better. I also enjoyed figuring out how all the different pieces of the poem could work together—for instance, how variations and repetitions of certain images or phrases could create connections between different parts of the narrative.

One of the things I love about epistolary poems is that they willfully exclude the reader, putting audience on the outside of a kind of a conversation, of a deep intimacy. We are meant to overhear, to learn from overhearing, from being an audience. In this, epistolary poems seem to be closer to theatre than other kinds of poems. Epistolary poems afford access to drama, to a kind of withholding and release of information. And again, a two-part question: When did you know Dear Almost would be addressed to this lost child? Did the choice arise organically, or did you, at some point, decide to make the book an epistle? 

Leslie, that is a wonderful way to think about epistolary poems, as being like theatrical performances. Some of the earliest lines I wrote for Dear Almost addressed our lost child as “you.” I don’t think I thought about it objectively at the time—I just started writing and that was how I wrote. It felt natural to me. What I wanted most of all was to have some kind of contact with this person I had imagined and looked forward to, but would now know only in my imagining. This was my way of trying to deal with my feelings of grief and heartache over this sudden, staggering loss. I wanted to talk to our lost child, to be with her in the only way I could—in words. I knew of course it was just imagining, and possibly not a “healthy” way to deal with grief, but this was my way of holding on. Even in the short time we had been expecting, it seemed like we had imagined so much of what our life together would be like, and I wanted to keep imagining a little longer. The book is, as you suggest, very much a letter, starting with its title, which the reader gets to read over my shoulder.

Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (Akron) and Displacement (Mariner). Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Baltimore. 

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

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Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Anticipated Books of 2017

As editor-in-chief, I get the honor of bringing you the last installment of our week-long Anticipated Books countdown to 2017 and wishing you a Happy New Year– may books continue to challenge us; to bring joy, pleasure and solace; to expand our knowledge and compassion; to introduce us to new perspectives and voices; to connect us; and to call us to action in the year ahead. We hope many of you will join us and writers across the country on January 15th for Writers Resist, where  “invited speakers will read from a curated selection of diverse writers’ voices that speak to the ideals of Democracy and free expression.” Memorious is a co-sponsor of the event here in Boston: join us here or find an event near you.

Meanwhile, as you’ve seen from our lists this week, 2017 much to offer us as readers. Here are a few must-read poetry books for 2017:

41ovs9gjs1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Molly McCully Brown, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, March 2017)

Persea Books’ 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize has a terrific history of introducing new women poets, and recent winner Molly McCully Brown’s debut collection looks to be a highlight for the series. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded takes its title from an institution in Virginia that was central to the twentieth century eugenics movement: thousands of residents were legally sterilized there into the 1970’s. This collection, which imagines the lives of these residents, as well as the colony’s staff, promises to bring this terrible history to light with poems such as “The Blindroom” (the colony’s term for solitary confinement) and to bring us poems that allow for experiences of a variety of bodies in the world. Brown, a young Virginia native whose essays about moving through the world with cerebral palsy have appeared in The Rumpus and Image, is a bright new poet to watch out for in 2017.

51jilwdqncl-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Erika L. Sánchez, Lessons on Expulsion (Graywolf, Fall 2017)

There is so much to look forward to on Graywolf’s list for 2017 and beyond–contributor Sally Wen Mao has her second book coming out with them in 2019 and contributor Tarfia Faizullah’s second collection is slated for 2018! This year, I am particularly looking forward to Erika Sanchez’s debut collection, which explores her experience as the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and promises to be unflinching in its gaze, moving from violent murders and sexual assaults to the struggles of suicide attempts. The poems I’ve seen are densely image-driven and compelling. A CantoMundo and Ruth Lilly Fellow, Sánchez has also written a young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers, and she was formerly the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas. You’re going to hearing a lot about this dynamic writer in 2017.

91wqfkpnxulBill Knott, I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960–2014, edited by Thomas Lux (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 14)

One of the marvelous things about Bill Knott (1940-2014), who graced us with an interview in Issue 6 and allowed us to use one of his collages for cover art for Issue 7, is that at his readings he would hand out chapbooks, often with revised versions of poems published elsewhere. Later in life, he became determined to provide most of his work online on his blog. He was known for seeing himself as an outsider, from his childhood as an orphan through his days publishing books and teaching at Emerson College. As Jonathan Galassi says in The New Yorker, “Belonging was not his thing.” James Wright once brought him bananas on a lonely Thanksgiving: this was how they met. It seems fitting that a poet who, in his younger years, published a supposedly posthumous book under the pseudonym Saint Geraud, might become most renowned after his own death; in the case of Knott, this is somehow still heartbreaking. Here’s to breaking our hearts with this collection of this one-of-a-kind poet’s work.

Finally, there are so many great books ahead from our poetry contributors that I couldn’t choose only one or two. Please stay tuned to our blog over the year ahead for spotlights on many of these contributor books:

Hadara Bar-Nadav, The New Nudity (Saturnalia Books)

Michael Bazzett, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books)

Andrea Cohen, Unfathoming (Four Way Books)

Alex Dimitrov, Together and By Ourselves (Copper Canyon)

Jehanne Dubrow, Dots and Dashes (Southern Illinois University Press)

Leslie Harrison, The Book of Endings (University of Akron Press)

Derrick Harriell, Stripper in Wonderland (LSU Press)

*K.A. Hays, Windthrow (Carnegie Mellon UP)

Jill McDonough (Reaper, Alice James Books)

Karyna McGlynn, Hothouse, (Sarabande)

Kiki Petrosino, Witch Wife (Sarabande)

Christina Pugh, Perception (Four Way Books)

Jacques RancourtNovena (Pleaides Press)

Lloyd Schwartz, Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press)

Tara Skurtu, The Amoeba Game (Eyewear)

Jennifer Tseng, Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press)

Jessica Goodfellow UenoWhiteout (University of Alaska Press)

Erica Wright, All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned (Black Lawrence Press)

PS: And a bonus shout-out to more 2017 in poetry: Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art (TriQuarterly/Northwestern Univ. Press), Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Copper Canyon); Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This (Four Way Books); Marcus Wicker’s Silencer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

*added on 1/6/17

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Memorious. She is the author of two collections of poems, The Spokes of Venus (Carnegie Mellon UP 2016), and Little Murders Everywhere (Salmon 2012), a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her third collection, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon in October 2017. She is the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence at Brandeis University.

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

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Joanna Luloff’s Anticipated Books of 2017

At the end of this tumultuous year, it is tempting to want to move on and train our gaze onto the new. Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve been thinking about what reading and writing can do—politically, socially. To me, these seemingly solitary acts encourage empathy, curiosity, engagement, and self-scrutiny. I hope, too, that they force us to look, carefully and critically, at our present lives in the context of the past and the future. Many writers I’ve long admired and enjoyed have books coming out this year (J.M. Coetzee, Joan Didion, George Saunders, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Hari Kunzru) as well as writers newer to me whose earlier books looked thoughtfully and unflinchingly at the history and the present (Jesmyn Ward, Han King, and Viet Thanh Nguyen). I’m also incredibly excited to read books by friends and colleagues and contributors whose writing has inspired and energized me (Robert Long Foreman, Emily Ruskovitch, Marc McKee, Ian Stansel, Wendy Oleson). But I’ve chosen to focus this post on writers who are very new to me. As I looked back over this list, I saw some common themes developing. Each of these books, in varied ways, is engaging with questions of place and belonging in a quickly changing world. Through ghost stories, dystopian futures, and quieter realism, these novels and stories seem prescient in the questions they are asking about our new year. The close of 2016 also marks the end of my role as fiction editor at Memorious. I feel privileged to have been in the company of so many generous writers and readers and editors at the journal.

akkadwarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, April 4, 2017)
Akkad’s novel takes place in 2074 and imagines a second American Civil War. At its center is Sarat Chestnut, a young girl who grows up witness to flooding and a sky filled by unmanned drones. After her father dies, she grows up at Camp Patience, a community for displaced persons. Here is what Emily St. John Mandel has to say about the novel: “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.”

hanfairytaleThe Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Graywolf Press, March 7, 2017)
The description of Yujoo’s novel reads a bit like Lord of the Flies set at a Korean grade school. The story follows two girls, one spoiled and the other nearly invisible. Here is what Graywolf says about the novel: “At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence. But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years before. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.”

europa20842084: The End of the World by Boualem Sansal, translated by Alison Anderson 
(Europa Editions, January 31, 2017)
Sansal’s novel is in conversation with George Orwell’s 1984. It takes place in Abistan, a kingdom honoring the prophet Abi, where remembering is outlawed and citizens are surveilled at all times. Individual thought is forbidden, but a group of independent thinkers and outlaws live hidden in caves, where they plan a revolution. Europa describes Sansal’s novel: “2084 is a cry of freedom, a call to rebellion, and a gripping satirical novel of ideas.”

arimahskyWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
(Riverhead Books April 4, 2017)
I’m excited to read Arimah’s collection of stories that engage a range of storytelling strategies and smash fable up against realism. In one story, a woman works as a grief mathematician, whose job it is to “exorcise” trauma and grief from a client’s consciousness. In another story, a woman who longs to have a child creates one out of her own hair. Her stories are imaginative and often unsettling, but written with a contrasting matter-of-fact prose. From Aimee Bender: “How does she make these stories so distilled and spacious at the same time? They are drained of excess but still expand so fearlessly.”

the-gurugu-pledge-cover-rgb-300x460The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar
(And Other Stories, August 2, 2017)
And Other Stories press is publishing some really exciting translations, and I’m eager to read this novel crafted out of first-hand accounts of refugee migrations. Here is how the press describes The Gurugu Pledge: “On Mount Gurugu, overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast, desperate migrants gather before attempting to scale the city’s walls and gain asylum on European soil. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel has written an urgent novel, by turns funny and sad, bringing a distinctly African perspective to a major issue of our time.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin, May 2, 2017)
Ko’s novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice. The story follows eleven-year old Deming Guo who is adopted by a white couple after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, never comes home from her job at a nail salon. Laila Lalami describes the novel as “a rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”

(And briefly, because I’ve already exceeded my limit! SJ Sindu’s A Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrashnan, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Things we Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriques, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts.)

Joanna Luloff is a fiction editor at Memorious. Her short story collection The Beach at Galle Road was published by Algonquin Books in 2012. Her novel is forthcoming from Algonquin. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

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

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Filed under Anticipated Books of 2017