Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Kelly Fordon Discusses The Witness

[trigger warning: child abuse]

The Witness
Author: Kelly Fordon
PublisherKattywompus Press

Publication date: 2016

The Witness #2

The Witness is just like you and me.
Most days he doesn’t feel like saying
anything antagonistic. Most days
he’s happy with toast and tea, a little
bit of television, a stroll, but every
now and then The Witness is struck
down mid-jaunt. Every now and then,
The Witness tumbles down the stairs.
The water in the shower comes out
scalding hot. The Witness’s hair
falls out in clumps. The Witness
can’t remember his name, he can’t
even get out of bed. Shake it
off? There is nothing he would like
more. If you run into The Witness
at a dinner party, he will not bring
it up. He’ll listen to your suburban saga
politely. He’s been known to suck
down a shot of vodka, a snort or two.
In other words, he could be you.
If you had witnessed it. If you
were on your merry way one day
when you were very small and everyone
around you was very very tall.
The Witness can not talk about this
like a normal person, which is why
they sometimes lock him up,
they keep him under observation.
Like a faucet that’s lost a clot,
he can’t seem to make the images stop.

originally appeared in Mudlark

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Prior to writing fiction and poetry, Kelly Fordon worked at the NPR member station in Detroit and for National Geographic magazine. Her fiction, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Review, The Florida Review, Flashquake, The Kenyon Review (KRO), The Montreal Review, Rattle, Red Wheelbarrow, The Windsor Review and various other journals. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, On The Street Where We Live, which won the 2011 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, which was published by Kattywompus Press in May 2013 and The Witness, released by Kattywompus Press in January 2016. Her short story collection, Garden for the Blind, was published by Wayne State University Press in April 2015 and has been chosen as a Michigan Notable Book. She works for the Inside Out Literary Arts in Detroit as a writer-in-residence.

Author website:

Author Facebook page:

LinkedIn profile:



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[This interview was conducted via email in March 2016.]

Please tell us a little bit about The Witness.

KF: This book was written in response to my personal experiences as well as the 10,000 pages of testimony provided by survivor’s of sexual abuse at the SNAP  network ( , as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights (

As the title suggests, these poems, written in response to the testimony of those abused by Catholic priests, bear a lyrical witness. Please tell us a bit about your process of creating poetry out of another person’s story or testimony. In her essay “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art” (Poetry, May 2011), Carolyn Forché wrote “In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation.” Is that the case for you?

KF: Generally speaking I would think twice about co-opting another person’s experience, even if I felt I was doing it with the best intentions. In this case, I am very close to the material because I was raised in the Catholic Church and I was an altar girl. However, this chapbook is not about “me” in particular or my personal experiences, and I don’t want my personal experiences to cloud anyone’s reading of this work. Anyone who wants to read about the genesis for these poems should refer to the website and the Center for Constitutional Rights website.

You also mentioned that a good number of the poems are written in the voice of a “witness,” and it got me to thinking about persona poems. In a March 2015 Girls Write Now post “Challenges & Rewards In Persona Poetry: A Mentee-Mentor Perspective,” Katie Zanecchia writes: 
At its core, persona poetry forces poets to better identify themselves in order to take on another’s perspective. After all, how do you become someone else without defining who you are, in addition to who they are? While poets construct poems from the view of their chosen characters, the resulting poetry is their own. Whether through use of vocabulary, syntax, or punctuation, poets shape others’ voices into wholly unique works of art. Therefore, persona poetry says as much about the poet as it does her subject. The way that personas are presented on paper provides great insight into poets’ sense of self. 
 Did you find the above true for you? Please tell us a bit about voice and persona in your poems.

KF: I wrote an earlier chapbook called On the Street Where We Live which includes persona poems in the voices of imagined women on “my” street. They were not, in reality, the women I knew, but an amalgamation of all of our experiences—divorce, abuse, loss, career aspirations, motherhood, etc. In those poems I had the sense that I was writing someone else’s story and trying to ascertain what it felt like to be going through the experience of domestic abuse or estrangement etc.

In this new chapbook, I was overtaken by the witness; I felt completely merged with the witness, and the voice materialized out of that rage. I hired Laura Van Prooyan as a manuscript consultant (she is excellent by the way!) and she said “Did you mean to mention the white robes and the penitent’s belt so many times?”

I did.

If I had been writing the poems with my poet hat on I would have looked for different images, but it is true to this witness that the white robe and the penitent’s belt come up over and over again. The witness is obsessed and the repetition is organic to the voice.

What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems? Have you given a public reading of the work? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

KF: I have not had a problem publishing the poems. Both William Slaughter at Mudlark and Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus Press have been very supportive. I have only read the poems once at a conference in Windsor. Several people who were affected by the scandal came up to me afterwards, including Mary Ann Mulhern, a former nun and poet, who published When Angels Weep, a poetry collection about the Father Charles Sylvester sexual-abuse case in Canada.

That being said, I feel tentative about presenting this work in public and if/when I do readings, I always begin with a content warning in order to allow people to leave the room if they need to—it can be very hard to hear. It’s also difficult to broach this material with my Catholic friends and family some of whom may see these poems as an attack on the church. There’s nothing I can do about that, unfortunately.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

KF: I like "The Victim’s Testimony." It’s one of the more graphic poems, but it illustrates how I feel about the whole debacle—angry, frustrated, violated, and dismissed. The image of the filing cabinet door closing on all of the 10,000 pages of victim testimony (some estimates are now at over 100,000 victims worldwide) felt like an apt metaphor.

The Victim’s Testimony

I’m stuck in this file cabinet.
Who wants to finger me?

My words are onion paper thin.
Easily crumpled, easily tossed.

In French class I say,
“S'il vous plaît ne faites pas ça.”

Shower me with holy water
and I scream like Asmodeus.

The first robe is always white
but the outer one changes

like his performance. It was purple
that day to remind us of our sins.

As if I could forget.
As if God could. The light

above my box is always red,
which means stop, a word

I use more than any other.

(published in The New Poet and Mudlark)

Please discuss the choice for a chapbook. For example, why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?

KF: I wrote these poems in a very short period of time when I was immersed in reading the SNAP testimony. When I was finished, I had around twenty poems. I have published with Kattywompus before and so I naturally sent the work to Sammy. She said yes right away and I was happy they found a home and an advocate. I am still working on the full-length collection, but I have had to take some breaks along the way because the material is hard to face day in and day out. There have been periods when I can’t do it and then I come back to it a month or two later.

What else would you like readers to know about you or your chapbook?

KF: I would like the survivors who have given testimony to know that they have made a real difference in people’s lives. I for one, will keep advocating. The film Spotlight highlights how many people were complicit in the cover-up—no one wanted to challenge the Catholic Church, even though there were children’s lives at stake. How scary is that? Hopefully now people realize silence is reprehensible.

What are you working on now?

KF: I’m working on a full-length poetry collection and a novel.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Janet MacFadyen Discusses In the Provincelands

In the Provincelands

Author: Janet MacFadyen

PublisherSlate Roof Press

Publication date: 2012

The Future Melts by Janet MacFadyen

You could hold it in your mouth
like chocolate.
What comes of this is desire, and if you taste it
what comes is plenty, it is so sweet.
Then what comes
is that point of stillness inside the body.
That is why cats are so liquid.
That is why the leaf
floats down and down in the warm air though it is fall,
and thoughts slow like a train
coming to a halt in the middle of a cornfield,
at night, in October, leaves glinting on the ground.
You could get off here in the darkness with the
others, quietly talking and looking up at the stars,
whose light has traveled from so far away
and so long ago.

originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette

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Janet MacFadyen is the author of three works of poetry, including her Slate Roof Press chapbook, In the Provincelands, a full-length work, A Newfoundland Journal (Killick Press), and an earlier chapbook In Defense of Stones (Heatherstone Press). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has published widely, including in Poetry, The Atlantic, The Southern Poetry Review, Rosebud, and Malahat, and is forthcoming in Crannóg. Janet has held a seven-month residential fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, as well as writing residencies at Cill Rialaig (County Kerry, Ireland), and at the Fowler and C-Scape dune shacks in Provincetown. She lives in woods of Shutesbury, MA, with her husband, the photographer Stephen Schmidt.

Author's LinkedIn profile:

Slate Roof Press Collective Facebook page:

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[This interview was conducted via email in February 2016.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook.

JM: In the Provincelands is the fruit of my work with Slate Roof Press, a small western Massachusetts publishing collective established in 2004. Somewhat like Alice James, or Sixteen Rivers in San Francisco, collective members work for several years before, during, and after the publication of their chapbooks. The poems are vetted by the collective in advance (these days we run an annual chapbook contest). Also we are fortunate to have a wonderful letterpress printer as a permanent member, who works with each of us in the production of the book. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say my chapbook is a beautiful object. In addition to the special papers and hand-sewn binding, the cover has a die-cut sliver moon, which grows to a full moon on the fly leaf and title page, behind which is a full-color impressionistic photo, shown here:

Photo credit: Stephen Schmidt 

You mentioned to me earlier about the themes of the book, “…food, the body, animals, and merging of self/confusion of self.” Having read in your speaker bio for the 2015 Massachusetts Poetry Festival that you were dubbed the Vegetable Queen of Poetry, I had to smile when you told me you identify with root vegetables sometimes more so than you do with being human, which I think I see reflected in your poem “Fetch” (, the last poem on the page.) Could you expand on some of the themes of the chapbook a bit more for us? And I’m curious, about your title Vegetable Queen of Poetry, and especially curious: Why root vegetables?

JM:I have never fully disentangled from the sense that vegetables are not so different from people. If you look at DNA, we share much of our genomes with vegetables and are a lot more closely connected to a cabbage than we might wish to think. But I also am playing out an old family drama in my poems set in the kitchen, where I watched the food getting chopped, diced, boiled, roasted; and witnessed the power that women wielded there (I grew up in the 50s, when the kitchen was a female domain). It seems to me a grotesque system that nature has put into place, where we must eat other living plants and animals in order to remain alive. So I have always wanted to know why: why, in order for some people to prosper, do others have to be destroyed? Why are some people in charge, and others under the boot? "Fetch," "For a Dog," "Your mission," "Through the Eye of a Potato," and "Night of the Mushroom" all explore these ideas in one fashion or another.

Tying into the above, much of my early and middle life I spent trying to escape depression and underlying feelings that I did not have a right to live — I was underground, underfoot. I have mostly thrown the depression off, but many of my poems still start in the dirt. I may approach the subject with humor or whimsy (as in "Through the Eye of a Potato"), but the subject itself is not funny. So when you ask Why root vegetables?, the answer is because they are tough-skinned, live in dirt, and survive the winter; humans consign them to the dust of cellars, but they still sprout and grow furiously. They are also rib-sticking food; you might not describe them as delicious, but they will keep you alive if you are starving.

At the same time, my other poems —fully half of the chapbook — explore journeys through dreamscapes or landscapes in which I am either disoriented or — amazingly and gratefully — grounded in my own body, in love with the world, my mate, and myself. I am 63 years old but in some fundamental fashion I still don't know who I am, or where I am. I find it completely disorienting to walk around in this world as if I belonged here, as if it made sense for us to be here, on this piece of rock flying through space. I have a hard time calling one's dream life at night "false," compared to the waking life, which most everyone would consider to be "true." Or at least, the waking life is so amazing and bizarre if you really look at things, that it does not seem so very different from dreams.

You also said that you used to play the flute. Ezra Pound once wrote:
Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. Poets would will not study music are defective. (Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, New Directions Publishing, pg 437)
What impact to you think being a musician has had on the way you write and/or read poetry? What are your thoughts on what Pound said?

JM: Ooof, Pound is awfully judgmental in the quote above. I have read and heard poetry that was not based in musicality and took its punch from voice or integrity. For example, Adrian Oktenberg's The Bosnia Elegies do not strike me as being musical, but her book brought me to a full stop into an understanding of war that no other poet has done for me—and she achieved this by being so amazingly blunt and unwavering about what happened in that conflict. However, I do believe musical resonances in poetry exponentially expand its impact, and can take a poem that reads like gibberish and give it some wild integrity apart from meaning. My poems oftentimes start with a semiconscious rhythm, though not necessarily from music; it can be the thump and thud of boulders in a current of water, something that's under my skin that becomes audible, and I'll think: what's trying to surface, what's trying to be heard?

The other sonic devise that is really important to me is the breath, and how the line follows the impulse of the breath. In my poems focused on journey I wanted the lines to roll in one after the other like breakers ("Florida Revisited" or "In the Provincelands (I)", both of which appear in Sweet.)

I did play the flute when I was younger, but I was too shy to perform so I turned to writing, an easier art to do in solitude. The flute brought me a visceral sense of creating a complete musical phrase, of using your breath to propel an idea, melody, or tone to fruition. Added to this, as a teenager I believed the flute would bring home my absent father; it had a siren song quality about it that I thought no one could withstand, not even the hard rock of my father. Something of that feeling of loss gets translated into my poetry via the incantatory sound of words and lines.

You’ve got a full length book out, A Newfoundland Journal (Killick Press), as well as third, In Defense of Stones (Heatherstone Press). For In the Provincelands, what drew you to the chapbook form? If I understand correctly, some of the poems took years to write. What’s the oldest piece in the book? the newest? How did you know you had chapbook? Was it difficult to integrate the poems?

JM: I don't actually favor either form, the chapbook or full-length work. I think they are haphazard categories, and what matters is whether the length fits the material. In my case, I joined the Slate Roof collective when I had two potential manuscripts in process — one was A Newfoundland Journal, a short work by full-length standards which I considered trimming in order to publish it via Slate Roof. But I was glad when I got the offer for a full book from Killick Press in St. John's, Newfoundland. The other manuscript could also have been full-length, but the process of putting out the chapbook forced me into choosing poems that I felt were both my best work and fit together in some intuitive way. I wanted the chapbook to be a showcase of what I could do and possibly be a teaser for a later, longer work; it didn't matter to me if the poems were old or new. I have worked the same material over and over in my life with newer work sometimes gaining insight that wasn't to be had earlier, and older work sometimes nailing an issue in a way that I could not recreate now.

My chapbook In the Provincelands alternates between the "in the dirt" food poems, which can be stanzaic, and more surreal, free-flowing dreamscape or journey poems; and I have had that same oscillation now for forty years. If I am lucky enough to have a poem that lives on past me after I die, no one will care whether I wrote it early or late in life. Out of the 20 poems, eight of them were old, with "Your mission" being the oldest; about the same number were new at the time of joining Slate Roof (the newest being "Fetch" and the two title poems). "The Luna Moth" I began in the 90s, radically rewrote it in 2011, and published it in 2012. Does that make it an old poem or a new poem? It only matters when people try to judge whether an artist's career is on the ascendency or descendency, with some kind of an assumption that only the new work matters. But to me, we are simply following our life's outflowing, and our work reflects that flow.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

JM: My favorite poems vary, but "Through the Eye of a Potato" is — at the moment — the most important poem to me because it most directly expresses the issues I described earlier in the second question above, about feeling buried, about my right to live and grow. It is told through the point of view of a potato, and I read it as a call to arms, as a liberation poem, a resurrection poem about potential rebirth. (The birth is not actual because in 2012, at the time I published the chapbook, I did not understand the roots of my depression as well as I do now.) Like "The Luna Moth," its genesis was decades ago, and it took about 10 years to get it into shape, with its final form happening only in 2012.

Through the Eye of a Potato

Lying there in a black furrow I saw
how sunlight lit the hard earth, stroked the brown
wrinkled face of my grandfather dozing beneath me.
Sooner or later his head would flower: already

he loved burlap and brown paper bags and in my greening
I mimicked him, brushing marl and peat from a dozen eyes.
I sensed an uprising out of everything dark
and underfoot, and possibly out of my own heart

if only I knew how to see. My grandfather wheezed.
He said, "Study it, girl, it's there for the taking."
I copied his dusty squint, lying motionless by the hour
until rain burst open the green heart of the ground,

and I knew I loved water and round,
ugly things: puffballs and toads grunting in litters.
Everything living was demanding its right
to grow round and fat and put down roots.

My grandfather drilled frilly corkscrews in fields and in
my mind, reeled out vine after vine of pale fuzzy
leaves until he was wreathed in them like a happy
harvesting god. And though I was full to bursting,

I knew nothing of the blossoms that on moonless nights
potatoes dream of, clustered together in clods of dirt—
and nothing at all of roots, except how to hold tight
to my grandfather as he tightened his grip on the earth.

You were a poetry finalist in the 5th Annual Contest with your poetic sequence "Five Ghazals from a Provincetown Dune Shack." Please tell us a bit about writing in form. Do you do it frequently? Were these poems experimentation with the ghazal or do you write in that form often? Tell us a bit about the deviations from the standard form that you took in some of the ghazals in "Five Ghazals from a Provincetown Dune Shack."

JM: I don't frequently write in forms, though I am drawn to internal and end rhymes, and use them whenever they present themselves. However — now I will contradict what I said earlier about working the same material over and over — in 2011 I started a totally new collection inspired by ghazals and drawn from many years of keeping trip journals. The core poems came into being after a residency in a Provincetown dune shack. There I rode out a powerful October storm — the rain and sand blew sideways, a window flew open in the night, the walls vibrated as if the shack was about to take off, and the woodstove howled like a banshee from wind across its vent pipe. And there was no road out — only a three-quarter-mile footpath over open dunes to get to town. I thought I was going to die. The experience galvanized me in a way hard to describe. I had been reading Robert Bly's ghazals, Aga Shahid Ali, and Allen Ginsberg, but Bly's 12-syllable triplets were etched in my mind. (Classic ghazals use 18-syllable couplets, but both formats work out to 36 syllables per stanza.) I now have a full-length manuscript of what I dub "American" ghazals," which do not employ the refrain nor the repeating word at the end of each stanza, but do feature stanzas which stand thematically and emotively alone — with greater or lesser intuitive leaps between them. Some of my poems are quite narrative and others much more leapy; some are more true and others less so to the conventions of the ghazal. I have used the poet's signature in the ultimate stanza when it moved me to do so, and overall I tried to remain true to the ghazal's implied dialog between the speaker and some external presence (lover, spirit, reader, friend); and the key elements of longing and intoxication.

What poets did you look to for inspiration?

JM: Aracelis Girmay is currently the poet whose work I return to when a poem-in-progress is too directive or constrained; or if my tendency to tie up the ending in a pretty bow has gotten the better of me. I love how her work just unfurls in this glorious stream of ideas and images so grounded in physicality. Her poems have helped unblock me numerous times. Audre Lorde and Adrian Oktenberg (mentioned above) also have influenced me in giving me courage to speak out and in my slow evolution towards the more political writing that I am doing now. Oh, who else? Robert Bly influenced me hugely in recent years, as has Allen Ginsberg. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and Walt Whitman were old influences. Blake and Keats. I return to all of them.

What are you working on now?

JM: I view my chapbook as a preliminary, veiled exploration into power dynamics, both the survival of the fittest imposed by nature, and power dynamics imposed by human society. I am currently working on this theme with much more clarity in a full length manuscript (different from the manuscript of ghazals described above). A lot of the new poems start in the dirt, but my dream is to have them fly by the end.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Robert Walicki Discusses The Almost Sound of Snow Falling

The Almost Sound of Snow Falling

Author: Robert Walicki

PublisherNight Ballet Press

Publication date: 2015

First Snow by Robert Walicki

Even when it came and afterwards, it hits me like a surprise wind.
The last clothes of the summer on a line:

Transparent flowers on my sister’s spring dress still wet and swinging,
or the long threadbare robe of my fathers’ that finally tore itself free,

hung there in the air is if weightless
held by something I couldn’t see.

A waiting, something slow like that.
Pausing and stopping, like music gone quiet

and starting again. Cool as a fridge door opening,
a breeze when a car is moving. Watching children run in a soccer game.

And cheering. Pizza so hot it burns the roof of my mouth, that walk over frozen mud
to get a bottle of water

to cool it and I am suddenly alone with what I’ve taken, what I can’t leave behind.
Not even that small boy covering his ears outside, the woolen hands

that hold the wind back to stare at something so large and black above his head,
while the pieces of something keep falling as if torn,

pages from a book that sat open by his parents’ bed:
In the beginning, God created the heavens, and the earth

was formless and void
Words I never got close enough to read or understand,

only that whiteness.
That miracle of 2 am when the roads have no memory.

Sidewalks, unbroken by footsteps.
And no one awake at this hour to sweep it away.

from The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press, 2015)

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Robert Walicki is the curator of VERSIFY, a monthly reading series in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in HEArt, Stone Highway Review, Grasslimb, and on the radio show Prosody. He won 1st runner up in the 2013 Finishing Line Open Chapbook Competition and was awarded finalist in the 2013 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. He currently has two chapbooks published: A Room Full of Trees (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press, 2015).

Author Facebook page:

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[This interview was conducted via email in January 2016.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook.

RW: The Almost Sound of Snow Falling follows my last collection, A Room Full of Trees, in a fairly chronological way, moving from the inevitable acceptance of loss as a state of existence, but then moving past that aftermath to explore identity and self. I think more so than anything, it's about growth, a trial by fire so to speak and the transformation that occurs as a result of these experiences.

Some of the poems in The Almost Sound of Snow Falling touch on issues of masculinity and gender identification. Could you speak a little to this aspect of the book?

RW:  I had been interested in challenging stereotypical roles of masculinity after working for years in the construction trades industries. Society in general, can be very judgmental to individuals that don't fit into the expected or preconceived gender roles.When one is ostracized for their personality and make up, or even what they look like, it can be a very painful experience. This applies to many people and in many different fields and walks of life. The makeup of identity was something important to me and something that I wanted to understand to a deeper degree. Combing through hurt feelings and taking a candid look at what it means to be a man, and that being sensitive and caring didn't make you less masculine, was something that appealed to me a great deal.

The poems in this collection read as explorations of memories. Here are two considerations of memory in poetry:

[M]emory is unstable and idiosyncratic, and follows a structure and procedure much like narrative … [E]motion is the basis of long-term memory, and our reactions to the world around us are a complicated concatenation of the narratives we’ve written and continue to write in our brains in conjunction with reactions to new stimuli, which is often interpreted according to old patterns. Everything we 'know' is a narrative construction based on sometimes idiosyncratic interpretation.
What is the role of personal memory in your poems? When you’re writing your poetry, do you find memory to be something more solid, like Roberts examined the first quote—an inseparability between self-identity and the past? Or is it more permeable, as discussed by Heywood?

RW: I think for me, it's a combination. It really depends on the poem and the voice that leads me. I'm very much a believer of letting the poem determine what it's going to be, so in that sense, I feel memory is a very fluid thing. For example, there are poems like "First Snow" or "Ostaria" that attempt to capture the uncapturable or indescribable. Memory, when layered with emotion, often gets very complicated. There can be a lot to unpack and equally, so much of what I remember is colored by emotion and shaped by it. Truth, or what really happened, changes when I write, because what is more important to me, is whether a poem is "emotionally true" and not necessarily 100 percent factual. I'm fascinated most of all by concrete imagery as a doorway into memory and emotion. It's almost involuntary for me, like Proust. It's a very serendipitous thing. A shirt ripping on a nail reminding me of the loose buttons on a mother's coat in a photograph and suddenly, I'm writing the poem "In The Years Before Color," and everything a simple black and white photograph evokes from the past, and the future.

Why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?

RW: In general, I find it easier to focus on a chapbook length collection. I'm very attracted to shorter length formats in terms of a sharper, thematic focus, although I'm currently working on a full-length. I don't think I ever sit down consciously and say "I'm ready to write a chapbook." It happens organically and I think the best ideas come from that aesthetic. I never stopped writing after my first chapbook came out and in a very fertile period for me, I suddenly had a lot of poems that I felt were speaking to each other. My style was, and still is, evolving, especially from A Room Full of Trees, my first chapbook. I felt I was loosening up, was more frank in my language and was moving on from many of the things that I was obsessed about in the first book, namely my father's death and how that changed me as a person. However, one could make the argument that a few of the early poems in this collection could fit right in thematically with that first book.

What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? Why is it important to you? How did it come to be?

RW: That's difficult,but for me, the most crucial poems in this book are the work poems, because they were the hardest to write and the most important. As I've said before, I feel this book is about growth and I think these poems illustrate that process in a profound way for me. Those experiences changed me and forged me into the person I am, worlds away from the person I was before these events happened.

It took years to write this one in particular (it's not quite a year old), mostly because it was extremely difficult for me to find the poetry or "music" in these hard experiences. I also needed some emotional distance from what happened and perspective so I could write with the clarity and the restraint necessary to do justice to the material. I finally came to the conclusion that a simple frank and matter of fact tone was the best approach in writing about this kind of work. This poem is called "Rain Leader."

Rain Leader
(on running storm pipe under a bridge near Akron, OH, 1997)

When the only heat is from the coffee
at 5am, and less than 4 degrees outside,
you'll learn to wear enough layers,
or better yet, keep moving.

Some biker dude will laugh, blow frost,
Marlboro smoke in your face.
First day, it's "Hey rookie" and "Don't look down"
It's lift this 8 inch, cast iron pipe.

First day, It's " Go down to my truck and get
my pipe stretcher" ,and then you'll realize
there's no such thing 4 stories down.
First day, men will want to break you,

Like they've been broken, their riverbed faces,
grizzled beards twisted like dry rotted wire.
Last night's whiskey, sweating from dirty skin.
You will nearly lose your finger, when the ice forms

on the pipe, straps loosening, metal slamming flesh.
If you can make it past this, there's a Miller Genuine Draft
There's a welder sitting next to you, buys the first round,
lays his steel hands on your shoulder

Like the father who couldn't bear it.
If you can make it past tomorrow,
you'll have to trust the pig iron,
this foot width of rust,
and walk this I-beam,50 feet of cross cut steel
falling into nothing. There's a strap that holds
your waist, a broken man who leads you.
he'll walk like a free man across 4 inches of steel.
He'll never look back.

originally appeared in The Kentucky Review

You curate a monthly reading series for poets. How do you feel about spoken-word or performance poetry versus poetry on the page?

RW: I have learned from personal experience that when preparing to do a reading, I choose work based on readability and my audience. Knowing one's audience as well as having a balanced set list of poems is a real key to a successful reading. There are beautiful poems that I've never read for example, because I feel that they are either too "quiet" or "contemplative" or better on the page than ones that either have more movement in them, or are more accessible to a wider audience.

Regarding performing, I've had a few poets who qualify as performance poets in my series and I am always in awe of the energy that's brought to a poem by a gifted performance poet. It's a different aesthetic than more traditional poetry,but I often think that traditional poets could learn from performance poets in terms of being better presenters of their work, and performance poets could learn from the traditional poets as well. However, everyone has a unique gift to share with the world, and my goal is to celebrate that, give them a platform.

What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems? in publishing the collection?

RW: There's always a fear that certain poems can be misinterpreted or something may offend someone, but I made a decision while writing my first book: Do I want to be a truth teller, or I do I want to play it safe and write pretty, lyrical poems for the whole family? Being a "tell all" kind of poet can be very difficult and a sometimes painful road to go down. It's something I continue to struggle with, although I've made peace with who I am as a poet.

Have you given a public reading of the work? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

RW: I recently gave my first reading from the chapbook in Cleveland for my press, Night Ballet, at the wonderful Max Backs Books. I love to do readings in general, but this was a special night and the crowd was warm, attentive and engaging. I'm looking forward to going back!

What are you working on now?

RW: I have several projects that I'm working on currently, a full length manuscript, as well as another chapbook which is going to be a big departure. All of the poems will have or be inspired by pop culture references, so that's going to be a fun project when it's finished.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Kelly Nelson Discusses Who Was I to Say I Was Alive

Who Was I to Say I Was Alive

Author: Kelly Nelson

PublisherMinerva Rising

Publication date: 2015

Going Unsaid by Kelly Nelson

A man walks by carrying a table.
I say, you are carrying a table. He ignores me

on about his business, the reckless
secrets he must be keeping, his legs

sudden twitching in the moments
before sleep. When a man passes

with a rug I say, you are carrying a rug
or, you are wearing wing tips

to a man in a suit
or, to my brother’s found body, your skull

is in pieces on the floor.
And here, in the churchyard, saying the floor, his skull

to nobody who asks.
I jolt awake

early dark—things could be happening and going unsaid.
Hours spent listening

a window fan drawing in air
the inaudible air going out.

Originally published in Another Chicago Magazine (summer 2015)

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Kelly Nelson is the author of the chapbooks Rivers I Don’t Live By (Concrete Wolf, 2014) and Who Was I to Say I Was Alive (Minerva Rising, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in RHINO, Verse Daily, Prime Number, Tar River Poetry, Another Chicago Magazine and elsewhere. She has performed her poems at the Houston Poetry Festival, Phoenix Art Museum and on the Phoenix Light Rail as well as in book stores, coffee shops, galleries and diners. She serves on her city’s public art commission, volunteers as a gallery docent and teaches ekphrastic poetry classes at her local library. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and teaches Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University.

Author website:

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[This interview was conducted via email in November 2015.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Who Was I to Say I Was Alive.

KN: It’s a short collection of 20 poems that explores the themes of loss, love and the things that go unsaid. While losses and silences pervade this book, there is also a strong undercurrent of persisting, of continuing on, of being present and alive.

Why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for these poems? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook?

KN: With my first chapbook, Rivers I Don’t Live By, I very intentionally set out to write a chapbook around the themes of location and dislocation. I’ve lived in nine different states and wanted to explore both the lack of and the longing for a connection to place. This second chapbook snuck up on me. One day I printed out a dozen or so poems that had been recently published and starting reading them as a set and was surprised to find they held together. The poems were written over a concentrated period of time so my preoccupations and concerns at that time—the suicide of a friend, my own turning fifty, the ongoing gun violence in this country—created unifying threads in the tone and content of these poems.

The chapbook is titled after a line in one of its poems. Why did you select a line as the title?

KN: Once I realized I had a chapbook, I started holding auditions for the title. None of the individual poem titles seemed encompassing enough to stand alone on the cover (although Going Unsaid was a strong contender). Next I pulled out eight or ten individual lines from different poems and considered the sound and feel of each one. It came down to The Inaudible Air Going Out and Who Was I to Say I Was Alive. I love that the title I chose has so many shorter titles within it: Who Was I; Was I to Say; To Say I Was; To Say I Was Alive; I Was Alive.

Three of the poems in this chapbook are found poems. Please tell us a bit about your use of found poetry in the chapbook.

KN: I’m a big believer in cross-genre borrowing. One of the main moves in journalism is to insert the voices of others by using short quotations. This creates a sense of being closer to the event: an eye-witness is lending us her eyes. I make this same move in the poem “Stampede” where I embed quotes by people who have survived deadly human stampedes and in the poem “Look,” where I borrow lines from pundits talking about gun control on a radio show.

The poem “Brotherless” is a cento, the oldest form of found poetry, in which I’ve created a new poem by stitching together individual lines from seven “Brother-less” poems written by Marge Piercy. I like using found poetry techniques because they widen the sound field of my poems by adding different voices and tonalities. Working with found poetry techniques also injects a delicious element of surprise and discovery into the composing process.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

KN: The title of the chapbook comes from the poem “The man I nearly married.” I wrote this poem in bed with laryngitis in a hotel room in Seattle where I was for AWP in 2014. And yes, my ex called me while I was there. This poem has become one of my signature poems when I do readings. People comment on it; people remember it. In part I think it’s because it provides an opportunity to smile and laugh after hearing darker, heavier poems. And I see it as an affirming statement on coping and moving forward amid losses and deaths.

The man I nearly married

calls years later
He said it sounded
like I had died, like it was

my ghost
speaking to him.

Who was I
to say it wasn’t.

Who was I to say
I was alive.

So I tell him the afterlife is good
free trains always running

on time, plenty of noodle shops
and ripening mangoes.

And he says, all right, okay
I’m so glad I called.

Originally appeared in Red Booth Review, May 2014

What else would you like readers to know about your chapbook?

KN: I feel super fortunate that I’ve been able to pick the cover art for both of my chapbooks. I volunteer as a gallery docent at the Tempe Center for the Arts so I get to meet a lot of Arizona artists. I’m thrilled to have the artwork of Monica Martinez and Clare Verstegen on the covers of my chapbooks.

What are you working on now?

KN: I’m currently writing a lyric biography of an uncle of mine who was a minor outlaw in Minnesota in the 1950s. I never met the guy and I’m recreating his life using his 500-page prison record. You can read more about this project in Rappahannock Review and Prime Number.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Catherine Moore Discusses Story


Author: Catherine Moore

PublisherFinishing Line Press

Publication date: 2015

Gazing by Catherine Moore

Draco, Canis Minor, Sagitarreous, Orion…
as a child I could identify them by name.
Once, on a really dark night, I counted 1000 stars.
Tremendous, though less in number than the grains
of a cold dune where my grandma and I sat looking east.
We’d stopped for a great deep chart with no meaning,
since the constellations are imaginary things
made up by poets, sailors, and old astronomers.
Still, she pointed and spoke, and you’d remember
that Orion's hunting dogs are always nearby,
hovered at his left shoulder, or resting at his foot.
You’d draw the image on your hand. That’s the way
mnemonics works, reminding how the unrelated fall
into place. There’s no value in knowing the North Star
or watching craters on the moon, still here I gaze.

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Catherine Moore’s writing has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Southeast Review, Cider Press Review, Southampton Review and in various anthologies. She won the 2014 Gearhart Poetry Prize and has work include in “The Best Small Fictions of 2015.” Her collection Story is available with Finishing Line Press. Catherine earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Tampa. She lives in the Nashville area where she enjoys a thriving arts community and was recently awarded a MetroArts grant. She currently teaches at a community college and reviews poetry books for literary journals.

Author blog:

Twitter: @CatPoetic,



Amazon author page:

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[This interview was conducted via email in September 2015.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Story.

CM: Story is a series of narrative poems that explores resilient stories found in seemingly quiet moments. This collection seeks to observe the small but significant things around our world and in our own lives, and to record it in variety. From a tea room, to a laundromat, to home, these story poems mark moments as intimate as a dream or a conversation, and as universal as star gazing.

If I understand correctly, Story originated from poems you wrote in your journal or notebooks—you weren’t looking to form a collection, such as a chapbook. Tell us a bit about how you came to realize that you might have a chapbook and what you did to shape the poems into a cohesive whole.

CM: Yes, the poems were written over a span of years and I did not set out with the intention of writing this chapbook. The collection originated by finding a similar narrative voice within my notebooks when I noticed a pattern of menial tasks or places, and an expression that in these moments that we still find poetry around us. This broadened into more poems about the small and significant, until I eventually reduced the collection into the poems I felt did a unique job in distilling variations on the theme ‘story.’ I arranged individual poems to complement each other and to hold their own, as if everyday the book can beckon, “come here and let me tell you a story.”

Narrative seems to be a foundational characteristic in this collection, beginning with the title itself, Story. In addition, you also describe the collection as a series of narrative poems that arose from day-to-day “menial tasks and an expression that in these moments, we still find art and poetry around us.” I took that to mean that the collection is a sequence of poems that explored experiences in daily life. In her essay “Eloquent Silences: Lyric Solutions to the Problem of the Biographical Narrative” (The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents, ed. Steven P. Schneider), April Lindner writes of the tension between lyric and narrative impulse within a poem, saying, in part: “While any long narrative presents challenges for the poet, … the biographical sequence [is] the epitome of those problems, since its author must distill something as complex as a life into a poem and in doing so provide moments of lyric payoff as well as plot.” (105) How did you navigate between the two impulses of lyric and narrative? Being a prose writer as well as poet, did you find it difficult to move to the lyric end of the spectrum? What is your experience with switching between genres?

CM: Each genre puts a different pressure on language, which I like to use to my advantage by intentionally switching genres. Sometimes the process of moving between them adds an interesting element, or allows less focused material to fall away. In the past, I structured the switch between genres. If I had writing that seemed bigger than a poem, I’d write a longer prose version of the piece, and often then combine the two with their best moments. Likewise, if I had a narrative poem that became too prose-like I would re-write it in a stricter form, like a sonnet. This reduction in line space requires poetical devices and forces a more lyrical mode. Lately, I’ve been writing unidentified written objects. The freedom of not declaring genre was game changing for me. When I revise the unidentified then I decide genre direction. This method has become highly productive.

In the end though, the specification of genre may really be in the eye of the reader. “Not About Liz” from Story, is a prime example of a versatile piece— published as a prose poem, and flash, and now included in the Best Small Fictions of 2015 anthology.

What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? Why is it important to you? How did it come to be?

CM: The most lyrical poem in the collection, “The While,” is unique in that it’s about the absence of story. It may be a misfit of sorts but I felt this meanwhile period should be included. It came from my own experience of feeling life as a holding pattern, when life moves around us not through us. Sometimes no story is the story. Months that appear frustratingly empty are often a time of hibernation, rejuvenation, and recovery.

The While

Now, unbearable.

Still life harvested from its branch sway, while broken free, no longer inching.

Child hands match its slow swing, tock back, wait while ticks metronome my hours.

This mockery of a dream while spades and aces slough off our face cards.

In this while: everything a question, every event a direction.

Moves paralyzed— deep while each pit roaring in the silence of a swing.

Scaitheamnh, yes spells, wound over tea pots or some while pints in lieu of answers.

We sleep, meanwhile ravens and crows cast a mid-point pause on wind thermals.

Every while, tick, tock.

You mentioned finding beauty in the quotidian as being one of the purposes of Story, that “the collection seeks to observe the small but significant things around our world and in our own lives, and to record it in variety.” I was reminded of what Jane Hirshfield wrote in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, "The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look" (12), and I pictured you writing the poems almost as form of spiritual practice. Please tell us more about the importance of “small and significant” to you. Do you have a daily writing practice of recording observations?

CM: I love the writings of Jane Hirshfield and I’m tickled that you quoted her in this interview. I think of my poems as inventories of fragments: objects, narrative and people in word paintings, written photographs, and other literary inventions. Even in the simplest form, they are crafted to question our
making of the world through language and bias.

I've always enjoyed writings that explore the vagaries of situation and choices for women. Some may see it as domestic concerns, but I find the significant hidden in the smallest detail. Often times how I explore these themes is by combining mundane domestic narratives juxtaposed with unflinching poetics. A recent piece that comes to mind here is “How to Summons the Blues” published in Cider Press Review, Volume 17, Issue 3.

I make an effort to maintain a daily practice of free writing— observations, prompts, object descriptions, dream recordings. Any type of writing can be fodder for larger works; I try not to get rigid about how I come into the writing process since that tends to bind my thought process. It may be written in a journal or on a grocery receipt, but I hardly go three days without sketching a poem even if I’m knee-deep in some other sort of writing.

What poets did you look to for inspiration?

CM: It is tempting to answer “the Pulitzer and Pushcart prize winners” because that is often true, even if highbrowed. Then I’d confess that inspiration comes from everywhere. This collection contains a brief appearance from the B-52’s, and I have a poem currently circulating that features Batman, and had one published about Dr. Seuss Sneetches. Along those lines, I admire poets that combine the formal and the familiar. A few go-to poets for me include Barbara Hamby, Lucille Clifton, and Kay Ryan.

What are you working on now?

CM: I am working on a collection that is a sequel to another chapbook, “One February.” It is a long narrative poem written in Ginsberg American Sentences, with Southern Gothic under tones. So for right now, I’m into longer thematic works that span a bridge between poetry and prose. We’ll see where this new hybrid writing takes me.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Jessica Cuello Discusses My Father’s Bargain

My Father's Bargain

Author: Jessica Cuello

PublisherFinishing Line Press

Publication date: 2015

Worn-Out Dancing Shoes by Jessica Cuello

My sister’s hair
as she walked in front,

had light metallic strands
she couldn’t see. I knew
her colors intimately,
and our silent footsteps.

At Christmas we gather,
our children run out back.
When I mention the stairway
and the boats we rode across,
middle sister leaves the room
and eldest laughs,
I remember how we played—
we knocked on the bedpost,
pretended it opened
like a door.

The shoes were proof;
I’m the only one

with memories. Each night,
last in line, I learned
by heart their shoulder blades,
part butterfly against blue
crepe and yellow silk.

It seemed to happen at once—
my sisters forgot,
were distracted if I spoke
of the boats in darkness

outside the lit dancehall.
We spun with our weight
flung back, holding tight
with sweaty hands.

(Originally published in Rose Red Review.)

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Jessica Cuello is the author of the chapbooks My Father’s Bargain (Finishing Line Press 2015), By Fire (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013), and Curie (Kattywompus Press 2011). She was the winner of The 2013 New Letters Poetry Prize and the recipient of the 2014 Decker Award from Hollins University for outstanding secondary teaching. Jessica was selected as a Juried Fellow by the Saltonstall Foundation and will be a Writer-in Residence in summer 2015. Her first full-length poetry book, Pricking, is forthcoming from Tiger Bark Press in 2016.

Author blog:

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[This interview was conducted via email in September 2015.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook My Father's Bargain.

JC: The poems are inspired by fairy tales, in particular the vulnerable experiences of women and children.

How did you arrive at the title?

JC: It’s a line from the poem “Rumplestiltskin.” Bargain is connected to the idea of the body as capital—that her body (in the poem) is not her own; it is to be traded by her father. In many of the fairy tales, fathers are either malignant or clueless. In fact, men are often unaware of the plot itself like the bridegroom in “The Goosegirl” or the father in “The Dancing Princesses.”

Manipulation and trickery, which we view as negative qualities, are often the only means for women in the tales to escape abuse. We need these traits less than women in the past, but I do think we’ve inherited these kinds of survival skills by necessity. The title points to the character’s awareness of how she is both part of a deal and also excluded from the deal at the same time.

Diane Green wrote in a 2007 Rhizomes essay “Exploring Border Country: the Use of Myth and Fairy Tale in Gillian Clarke’s Poem Sequence, ‘The King of Britain’s Daughter’”:  “[M]yth ... is such a familiar tool in the work of female poets writing in the latter part of the twentieth-century, particularly in its feminist revisionary role, as advocated by Adrienne Rich, and especially where nationality is an issue.” And in Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990, Ian Brinton writes “[A]n interest in myth and fairytale is a recognisable attempt to remove the poet s self from a lyric expression into an embodied narrative. Traditional fairytales have a residual power of rethinking the roles of women and the ways they are represented within society.” (49)

Could you speak a bit about your use of myth and fairytale in your poems and your response to one or both of the quotes?

JC: Fairy tales are powerful for women. The domestic realm possesses its own terror. Domestic violence means that the very place where we expect safety and rest is the place where we are most vulnerable. Childbirth hurts. One of my friends said that her experience of childbirth was like volunteering for a car accident. Sexual violence, marriage, the powerlessness of being a child in a family you can’t leave—these are unspoken kinds of pain and fear, even the tedious work that women do every day that is unpaid and unacknowledged, like feeding, clothing, and cleaning others. The other part of it is the responsibility for the bodies of others, particularly children. Many women who have grown up being careless with their own bodies suddenly find themselves responsible for the bodies and safety of others. That particular responsibility is primal. We see it on the faces of the refugees trying to enter Europe, holding their children in their arms. There is a negation of the father and mother’s self in that kind of crisis. Rumplestiltskin has this chilling theme. How can she save her child? How can she keep her child?

Certainly myth is a way to absent the personal self from the poem while retaining all the emotional connection to the poems. I did not choose to do so consciously. I never said, I don’t want myself in these poems, but unconsciously it began when I first read fairy tales at age 5. We negate ourselves and latch onto these stories; it is a way to cope with pain. I think an underrated quality of literature is its ability to comfort and soothe us, to literally help us survive. I think there is a self that exists in a story when we read—whether a self that identifies as the protagonist or a self that accompanies the protagonist. I watch my children do this. My 9 year old daughter writes journal entries in the voices of characters from her books.

While My Father’s Bargain is your third chapbook, from what I understand, the poems in it are the first poems you wrote that you intended to publish. How long did it take to write these series of poems and what, if any, was the impetus to start writing them? What’s the oldest piece in this chap? How did that timing come to be, e.g., that it isn’t the first chapbook that you published? When you started writing these specific poems, did you intend to create a chapbook or collection?

JC: I had always wanted to be a writer, but for years I spent far more time reading than writing. When my daughter was born, I felt a sense of urgency. I learned what time truly was for the first time. I wrote these poems then—intending them to be part of a full-length. I kept cramming them into books where they didn’t belong. I published two unrelated chapbooks and had a full-length accepted (forthcoming in 2016) before these poems found a home. A smart editor told me to take these poems out of my book and put them in a chapbook. Though my style has evolved since I wrote these poems, I still value them and wanted to see them in the world. The oldest poem is probably “Rumplestiltskin.” It was one of my first acceptances—published in Copper Nickel when Jake Adam York was editor.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

JC: The first poem in the book is important to me—I think because it is the only poem that addresses the idea of hunger and the importance of hunger and food in familial relationships. If a mother cannot feed her child, does she abdicate her identity as mother? I am still writing poems about this idea, nine years later.


Where to put our bodies?
We knew how to sit

and pretend we didn’t want
to eat. Our hunger grew

into our skin. We fit
inside a hollow tree. Branches

were the ceiling
and we played in a second house

where I served up
a feast of dandelion and rock.

At night I pressed a stone
against my chest

like a Mother’s hand.
Not our Mother (though she was)

who whispered the fact of our mouths.
Not our Father (though he was)

who led us in the dark.
I looked back at the symmetry—

a door amid doors. A yard intimate
with metal: the outgrown slide,

rust that flowered
like lichen moss.

As we fled, I curved my neck
to peer into the other houses:

shoes lined on a porch,
meals at the times

of meals: dawn, dusk,
and middle day.

Who were you reading when you wrote these poems? e.g., other fairy-tale poems or Grimm’s fairy tales or other books of myth? Which a fairy-tale related poem written by another poet is your favorite?

JC: I was reading Jack Zipes’ translation of Grimm (not the new one just out—I don’t have that yet) and I was reading a lot of Lucie Brock-Broido. Her poems are not fairy-tale related, but the energy in them captures the kind of darkness and visceral fear I wanted for my own poems. I love all her books, but I must have read Trouble in Mind twenty times during that time period. Her poems capture the witchy darkness of childhood and I was more interested in that tone than fairy tale poems. Many contemporary poems are ironic when they write about fairy tales and I wasn’t interested in that. I mean for the terror to be real; I am in earnest!

In addition to the theme of fairy tales, what are some of the other themes, metaphors, and elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

JC: Childhood, siblings, loss. They are free-verse poems and I was thinking about line when I wrote them, particularly syntax and the breaking of it. The ideas about line were important because so many of the poems are about being mute or about animals and objects speaking.

Have you given a public reading of the chapbook? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

JC: Yes. I have given one public reading from this chapbook and the poems made me very sad. They were almost impossible to read. I’ve done lots of readings and that has never happened before. The poems are old but apparently the material is still raw. I like to be in control when I read so I may read less of these particular poems at my next reading.

What are you working on now?

JC: I’m working on a series of poems based on the absent feminine in Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a myth too—an American one—so clearly I am stuck in writing from the mythic.

Monday, October 5, 2015

An Interview With Poet Jessica Goodfellow

                               November Nocturne by Jessica Goodfellow

                               Even planets turn away from the easement of light,
                               sometimes. Night’s a rehearsal for the orb
                               and distance of winter, its map-unmaking
                               and its unmap-making, its failure to ravel
                               wander from resist. All night the night sounds
                               like children not breathing. I am afraid
                               of a thing and its opposite: leaving and not,
                               subject unspecified. The curtain stirs
                               though the window is closed. Stars flash
                               like bees abandoning the hive, humming a lullaby
                               in drone, in monotone but with the Doppler effect
                               of a death mask, coming right at you, wind
                               pulsing around the edges because there is
                               no mouth-shaped hole, no eye-sized emptinesses.

                                         - first published in Boxcar Review

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Jessica Goodfellow grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but has spent the last twenty years in California, Florida, and Japan. She received an MS degree from the California Institute of Technology and an MA in linguistics from the University of New England. Her first book of poetry, The Insomniac's Weather Report (three candles press), won the Three Candles Press First Book Prize, and was reissued by Isobar Press in 2014. Her new book Mendeleev's Mandala is available from Mayapple Press (2015). She is also the author of a poetry chapbook, A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concerete Wolf, 2006), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in the anthology Best New Poets 2006, on the website Verse Daily, and has been featured by Garrison Keillor on NPR's "The Writer's Almanac." She was a recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal, and her work has been honored with the Linda Julian Essay Award as well as the Sue Lile Inman Fiction Prize, both from the Emrys Foundation. Her work has appeared in Motionpoems Season 6. Jessica currently lives in Japan with her husband and sons.

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[This interview was conducted via email in September 2015.]

Tell us a little about your book Mendeleev's Mandala.

JG: Mendeleev’s Mandala imagines the thoughts and attitudes of different personas from various historical eras, in short different differing worldviews. I have felt bifurcated for a lot of my life, needing to balance conflicting worldviews—for example, a deeply religious, conservative upbringing and an education based on science and reason—and instead of feeling torn up about it, as I have during much of my experience, I wanted to have fun with it—to explore it playfully. The nation as a whole also experiences that kind of conflicting multiplicity of world views, and I wish as a people we could cope with it with less rancor. So that’s partly what Mendeleev’s Mandala is, for me.

I find the title beautiful and compelling for a number of reasons, one being the mashup of science and religion. The poem after which the collection is titled is fascinating as well. (Poem can be found in the March 2012 issue of Thrush, second poem on the page.) What led you to write a poem about Dmitri Mendeleev? How did you arrive at the idea of a mandala? In an interview at Tell Tell Poetry, when asked “If you had unlimited time to create, what would you make,” you said “I’m interested in weaving …” Do you carry that desire of weaving into your poetry? I’m wondering specifically about an impulse in your work to weave, braid, or possibly even integrate science and religion, or other seeming opposites.

JG: I have been moved by reading about Oliver Sacks’ relationship to both the periodic table of elements and to Dmitri Mendeleev (the ‘discoverer’ of the form of the table we use now), prompting me to do more reading about Mendeleev. My favorite podcast Radiolab had an episode about him and I was fascinated by what hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad said about his life, details in his family experience that resonated with my own—for example, a disability that occurred in both our families, and that he had a huge groups of siblings. They talked about how he rode around on trains when he had to think, and riding around on trains and in cars has always been useful for me creatively. In short there were a lot of parallels that drew me to him, even as I feel this great gap between his amazing intellect and what I am able to comprehend.

I thought about how the periodic table represents all known chemical elements, and then thought about how a mandala is supposed to be a visual representation of everything in the universe, and the parallel and contrast of these two worldviews struck me, particularly in light of the central tension in my life between the spiritual and the logical.

As for weaving, I’m so appreciative of what you said about perhaps weaving conflicting themes in my poems. I haven’t done well with textile weaving, despite my interest, and I find that disheartening, so your metaphor has cheered me up. I suppose you are right—I do often juxtapose opposites, and it’s certainly more pleasant to think about it as weaving contrasting colors into a pattern than to think of it as courting discordance.

The Motionpoem film of your poem "Crows, Reckoning" is absolutely stunning. (You can find the film here and poem here, second poem down.) How did that film come to be? What was that collaborative experience like—that experience of having other artists interpret your work?

JG: This year Motionpoems worked with VIDA to promote the work of women poets, and they put a call out for submissions. I didn’t expect to have my work selected, and it was one of the thrills of my artistic life when it was. The collaboration from my end was minimal; after having had my poem selected, I had no more say in the process, which was fine by me.

Early on in my writing career, a group of poets asked to read a poem of mine in public, and when I heard what they did with it, I was shocked—not that I disagreed with their extreme interpretation, but it was not what I had ever envisioned for that poem. I talked with a friend about it, and he said it was like sending your child out into the world, and seeing them choose a life that you never would have predicted for them. He told me that poems are going to have lives of their own, just like my children will eventually, and that I’d be happier if I just embraced that. Which I have. I’ve had a few other experiences where artists have responded to my work, or paired one of their pieces with my poem, all without any additional post-poem input from me, and I’ve written a few ekphrastic poems myself, so I’ve gotten really comfortable with non-collaborative collaborations like this, responses really.

I teach a course on Japanese poetic forms, and one form, the haiga, pairs haiku with art. The best haiga have images that don’t repeat the images in the poem, but that deepen the feeling or meaning. That’s what directors Edward Chase Masterson and Alex Hanson did with the Motionpoems film—added new imagery to mine in a way that deepens the experience. It’s really stunning work they did, and I’m so honored to have had my poem be a part of it.

In Mendeleev's Mandala, what is one of the more crucial or important poems for you personally? Why?

JG: “Burning Aunt Hisako” was a poem I worked on for a long time, a poem about the cremation of my husband’s aunt; I knew there was something crucial in the experience, over and above the particular loss, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was the first time I had attended a post-cremation ceremony, which is described in the poem, and I thought maybe that the visceral experience of coping with the remains of a family member was what haunting me. But I continued to have trouble writing about it. Finally, when I was on vacation, surrounded by snow and consequently thinking of the death of my mother’s brother (which occurred on Denali), I had a kind of personal breakthrough. My uncle’s body was never recovered, and that is one of the reasons his death has always been so hard to talk about in my family, and contrasting that lack of a body, with all that implies, with how my husband’s family was involved actively with the final rites for my husband’s aunt’s body after her death was compelling me.

Burning Aunt Hisako

Afterward we sifted through her ashes
with long chopsticks—one bamboo
and one willow, for this life and the next.

The furnace-keeper lifted bone by bone.
“Her ankle bone,” he tendered. “Her left thumb.”
A plate-shaped bone he named “her face,”

just before he smashed it into pieces
small enough to drop inside a dull bronze urn.
“What are we looking for?” I whispered

as we sifted. “From her throat, a bone
that’s said to hold a seated Buddha.”
From Adam’s rib to this, does at least one bone

from every body belong to someone else? Never
mind—what use are their own bone Buddhas now,
to Aunt Hisako smoldering on her slab,

to my mother’s father sealed beneath a hard
and glittering snow? Bits of mica, memory
of fireflies—my own hand on my own throat—

of what use is this thirst for things
resembling other things, this endless trying
to wring milk from a two-headed cow.

(originally published in diode)

In the diode version the poem says ‘my mother’s father’ instead of ‘my mother’s brother,’ as it does in Mendeleev’s Mandala, because I was afraid to write about my mother’s brother—afraid of breaking taboo and upsetting our family. But in writing this poem , though I wrote in code for the diode version, I came to the understanding that I was going to have to explore the subject eventually. I figured I could write it and not publish it, and I thought it would be a few poems, maybe a suite, and then I would be done with the topic. But that’s not how it worked out; eventually I wrote an entire book-length manuscript. And this poem was the breakthrough that caused me to realize that I needed to do that scary taboo thing.

In fact, my mother has been fine with me writing about her brother. She showed me documents and photos and newspaper clippings and letters, and we talked about his life, the accident that took him, and she told me she hoped I would eventually write about his life, not just his death. This was not something we had ever talked about before, but because I approached her with my idea to write about her brother, she opened up. So this poem is important to me.

Your chapbook A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland was the 2005 winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award and your debut full-length book, The Insomniac's Weather Report, was the 2011 winner of the three candles press First Book award. Please give us a synopsis of each book. With either contest, were there things you thought would happen as a contest winner, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

JG: The chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland is very directly about my religious upbringing and my education in analytic fields, and about how and where they dovetailed and collided. It’s only about my experience—it’s a personal book with big themes, far less playful than Mendeleev’s Mandala, which has similar themes but includes my imagined experiences of other people thinking about these themes. Lana Hechtman Ayers, the owner and editor of Concrete Wolf, championed my work more than anyone ever has, and she made me feel like a legitimate writer despite it being my first venture in publishing. I had no idea what to expect from a press, but Lana set the bar quite high.

The Insomniac’s Weather Report is about my experiences in domesticity, in becoming a wife and mother. After it won the three candles press First Book Award, the press folded suddenly, with fewer than 100 copies in print. That was devastating, but luckily a few years later I was contacted by Paul Rossiter of Isobar Press, a Japan-based press publishing poetry in English, who offered to reissue it. Steve Mueske of the defunct three candles press was supportive, and we were able to do it. Both those publishers have been great.

Having the book go out of print within a few months of being published was completely unexpected, and so was getting an offer to reissue it. The entire experience taught me to be wary, but hopeful. You never know what’s going to happen. So just keep writing. In fact, I wrote Mendeleev’s Mandala during that period when The Insomniac’s Weather Report seemed lost, and I ended up being contacted by Isobar for the reissue and by Mayapple for Mendeleev’s Mandala within the same week, after a couple of bleak years.

If you were an animal or a place, what/where would you be and why?

JG: I am drawn to animals and plants that co-existed with dinosaurs yet still exist today in the same or similar form; for example, dragonflies, crocodiles, and gingko trees. I don’t know if I want to be one of these, but seeing them, being in their presence, always affects my conception of self and time, and just about everything.

When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

JG: I started rewriting nursery rhymes before I could actually write, asking my mother to write them down for me. I’ve been writing ever since, with a break during the years of my first graduate program and when I worked as a financial analyst—I found it too hard to switch gears from analytics in the daytime to poetry in the evenings, though there are plenty of people who can do it.

I took one creative writing class in high school, and one in college, and other than that, haven’t had any formal education in it, and no mentor. I’d love a mentor though. If someone wants to be my mentor, I’d love that. My high school creative writing teacher had also been my next-door-neighbor when I was growing up, and he and his family always encouraged me to write, and more importantly modelled for me that a creative life was a possibility—I wouldn’t have had that model otherwise. But I really would love to have a mentor.

Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices? Do you have a writing group with whom you share your work?

JG: This isn’t an original idea, and I regret that I can’t cite where I heard it, but when revising, I like to take a line and change it to the opposite of what it says, and see what happens. Sometimes I replace a line with its opposite; sometimes I juxtapose the opposing lines, for the resulting tension. Particularly when I make big sweeping pronouncements, I find this interesting and generative to do.

I work a lot with sound when revising. If something sounds clunky, then it needs work, no matter how logical or poetical the sensibility. And I try to cut as much out of each poem as possible; any word, line, or stanza that can be taken out without damaging the integrity of the poem is looked at long and hard for justification for keeping it. And more often than not, it gets jettisoned.

As for writing groups, I had a great one when I was living in Florida, but now that I live in Japan, I no longer do. I have one fiction writer that I work with sometimes, and when I’m really stumped, I use the consultations from Black Lawrence Press . Often you can pay a nominal amount to have one of their poets look at a group of poems (five poems or ten pages, or something like that), and give you their take on your work. I’ve done this three times now, and it’s been hugely useful, and a solution to a problem that those of us isolated in the non-English-speaking world face. I think they do entire manuscript consultations too (which I’ve never done), and some of the money goes to (or used to go to?) a literacy program. So it’s a win/win.

What are you working on now?

JG: Currently I am finishing up the manuscript about my uncle, who at age 22 died in one of the worst mountain-climbing accidents in US history, on Denali along with six other climbers. I’m writing about the accident, and its effect on our family, even on those born after his death who never knew him, but whose lives are both diminished and complicated by his absence, and by the absence of his body, a circumstance that has long-lasting implications.

Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

JG: Practice fearless receptivity. Notice what you notice. Of all the many words, images, thoughts, facts, impressions, etc., that rush by you in a day, notice which ones catch your attention. Then use that.

For example, today I heard a poem with the word ‘indigo’ in it. Then I listened to commentary about the poem, which mentioned how difficult it is to dye an item indigo. Later today I listened to a memorial podcast by the New York Public Library for Oliver Sacks, who recently died. Sacks talked about having only seen indigo twice in his life, and he mentioned the cultural and historical importance of indigo. Now indigo is on my mind. I might not have noticed that I was noticing indigo—I might have let it go, even if I had noticed the coincidence of hearing about it twice in one day—if I wasn’t in the habit of noticing what I notice, and jotting it down in a notebook. Eventually, if indigo is crucial to me, I’ll get around to it. But I might get there faster for having noticed myself noticing it now.

Jessica Goodfellow Online

For a sampling of Jessica’s poems, see the Poems and Prose page of her website.