Thursday, August 20, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Ruth Foley Discusses Creature Feature





Creature Feature

Author: Ruth Foley

PublisherELJ Publications

Publication date: 2015












Dear Maria by Ruth Foley

I used to think it was your fault, sinking
      blossom, for being kind, for being naïve,

poor child, dripping limp as lake weed
      across your father's arms, your limbs

swaying in the watery air—this is where your
      power lies, where you might have grown

from peasant girl to peasant wife, your
      own children playing near the dappled edge

—but dead, your power forces men to
      their knees, and then their feet; dead, you torch

every cold club. Dead, you can make an entire
      village swarm and bellow against the night.


(Originally published in NonBinary Review and featured on Extract(s), along with several other poems from Creature Feature.

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Ruth Foley lives with her husband and two retired racing greyhounds in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Antiphon, The Bellingham Review, The Louisville Review, and Sou’wester. Her poems have been included in the Best Indie Lit New England anthology and nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and she is the recipient of a finalist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She teaches poetry workshops in various locations around New England. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can sometimes find her elbow-deep in a bee hive or neck deep in the water. Her first chapbook, Dear Turquoise, is available from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review and blogs at Five Things.

Author blog: Five Things

Twitter: @GrainOfRuth,  https://twitter.com/GrainOfRuth

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/foley.ruth

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/foleyruth/

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

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Creature Feature.

RF: Creature Feature is a collection of epistolary poems, letters written to the various actors and characters (and one director) of the early black and white Universal monster movies. The films range from The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney (1925) to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but is focused on what I think of as the big three: Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man.



NCL: As a guest blogger on Lisa Romeo Writes, you wrote:
I became obsessed for a time with the archetypes—the mad scientist, the specific visions of some of the monsters, the villagers—developed in those films, and with the actors who helped create them. This is, in some ways, the most complicated of my series, because it's most at risk for misinterpretation.
Please speak bit more about that obsession, e.g., how came to be; why those archetypes; what drove the interest in the *actors* who portrayed the creatures; unpack, or expose a bit of what underlies, the phrase “risk for interpretation.”

RF: I have loved those movies since I was a kid in the days before cable. A local UHF station played a double feature of horror movies on Saturday afternoons—B movies from the 50s and 60s, the Hammer horror movies with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, that sort of thing. They also played all of the Universal monster movies, and while I learned later that it was because they were shopped around as a package deal, so they were really cheap, I didn’t know that then. As a kid, I was taken in by the otherworldliness of them, how completely we were asked to believe in the outlandish. I came back to them as an adult by way of an Ursula K. LeGuin essay, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction,” in which she says, among many other wise and wonderful things, that Frankenstein’s monster walked his way into our collective unconscious and refuses to leave.

I thought about that a lot, about the way that you can walk into any store around Halloween and what you see isn’t just Frankenstein’s monster, it’s the monster that Boris Karloff created. Other versions didn’t sink in the way his did. And every vampire since Bela Lugosi played Dracula reacts to or against his version—everything from Count von Count on Sesame Street to Count Chocula cereal to the vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight or anywhere else you find them. They are all aware of Lugosi’s Dracula, and all the creators of the vampires since have to make decisions with that character in mind. That’s the power of archetype—when Boris Karloff first enters the room in that first Frankenstein and the camera holds on him, switches to a different angle of his face, holds again...they’re creating that archetype right there on the screen, and you can watch it happening. That realization was very powerful for me. Even the fact that the Frankenstein’s monster you see in your local grocery store is green comes back to that film—Karloff’s makeup was green so that it would read as corpse-like on the screen in black and white. That blows my mind because it’s a fact from reality that doesn’t appear on the screen and still made it into our idea about what the monster is. How many people knew Karloff’s face was green? A couple of hundred? And how many people think of that green now when they think of that monster? All of us.

The “risk for interpretation” I was talking about with Lisa Romeo was that these poems would be dismissed as “monster poems” or as basic treatments of popular culture. And they do stand as those, and I’m fine with that. But it was important to me that the poems be about more than the monsters or the movies, that they maybe serve to highlight a little bit what the films were trying to do: talk about where the monsters really lie (inside and outside of us), about how we recognize and fear the ugliness in ourselves, about how to find beauty there. That might be how I came to include the actors, too—I began researching the films to get insight into the characters in the hopes of discovering a bit of why these particular interpretations of the stories resonate with us so deeply, and in the process, I learned quite a bit about the actors themselves, and one of the major directors of the genre, James Whale. Whale’s story is covered in part in the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters, and with sympathy and empathy (and a dose of fiction, of course), but if you go into, say, The Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man knowing that Whale was gay and was telling stories of outsiders and of hiding and of fitting in, it adds yet another layer to the films. I wanted to capture a bit of that, too, that masking and mystery-making, because every human being I have ever met participates in that as well in some way.



NCL: In a 2011 essay “Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript,” April Ossmann writes “[T]he biggest mystery to emerging and sometimes even established poets is how to effectively order a poetry manuscript.” How did you order Creature Feature? Was it something you had in mind early in the writing process, for example or did you write the poems with a strategy in mind? What were some of your considerations?

RF: I might be breaking the Poet Code when I admit I had zero strategies when it came to writing these poems. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing—I didn’t know it was going to become a series. I wrote “Dear Bela” first, for Bela Lugosi, who had such a tragic life in a lot of ways because of addiction. If you had asked me at the time, I probably would have told you that I’d write a poem for Bela Lugosi and one for Boris Karloff, and then maybe be done with it. I started watching the movies, though—it was September and Netflix was streaming a lot of them because Halloween was coming up in a couple of months. I watched the precursors to those movies, too, the silent films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where I could see the roots of the films I found so captivating. Once that happened, I was lost—the series just sucked me in and I wrote drafts like a fiend, sometimes one or two new poems a day. It took a long time for me to revise, but that came later. In the beginning, I was just trying to make sure I didn’t miss anyone.

When it came to arranging, though, I had something of a strategy. It was a balance between letting the poems echo in and off each other without any group of them getting so heavy with a certain theme that they landed with a thud. Some of the poems—one for Lon Chaney, Jr. as himself (as opposed to in character), for example—didn’t make it into the chapbook. Those poems hit the same themes too hard or didn’t seem to discuss their issues as well as I would have liked. “Dear Lon Chaney, Jr.” does plenty of things on its own, but also covers much of the same territory as the poems for the two halves of the Wolf Man, so I relegated him to the cutting room floor. As it were.

Another consideration was the weight of the films, how many poems I had written for each one. The Frankenstein movies in particular take up a lot of space—Boris Karloff, the creature (which I had to call “monster” in the series to avoid confusion with The Creature from the Black Lagoon), Doctor Frankenstein, Maria (the little girl who drowns)...the list goes on and on. When I teamed those up with the poems to the villagers and the ingénue and Dwight Frye, who plays the Igor-type character under different names in various films, it all just felt like too much, especially since there are movies in the chapbook which only have one poem. I decided to move thematically in some ways, but in others, I was aware that some of the characters in the poems needed to have some grounding—the gypsy woman in The Wolf Man, for example, is better served by having her poem placed in a context where it’s clear that’s the film to which she belongs.



NCL: In a recent interview of you by Linda Sienkiewicz, you said “Poems are where I explore and understand and interrogate.” What are you exploring and interrogating in Creature Feature?

RF: Well, the archetypes, certainly, and the way they resonate with me and, I think, with a lot of us if we allow them to. The human beings in these movies do not come across well—the good people are flat, as if their goodness is all that matters (and in terms of moving the plot, I suppose that’s the case). At the same time, most of the “evil” people are simply misguided—obsessed with knowledge or consumed by the belief that they are above needing to face the consequences for their actions because their motives are pure. And then the monsters are the most human of us all. They’re misunderstood, their otherness is seen as ugliness instead of beauty, they’re punished for their aberrations. Well, except for Dracula. Dracula is a jerk. But I love him anyway. And he, unlike the scientists for example, didn’t ask for what he became.



NCL: 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?

RF: Oh wow. I think if you asked me this question every day for a month, I’d rotate through all the poems with my answers, based on what’s happening that day. All the female-centered poems are important to me, and “Dear Maria,” which you link to, is certainly right up there in terms of me coming to grips with myself as a feminist and poet, and as the key to seeing where the monsters really are. The Bride is on the cover for a reason, and I became more and more aware as I was writing of how very un-represented women are in these films. But what resonates with me right now is “Dear Larry Talbot,” because of the work I’m currently doing and discuss in another question below, but also because of how it ties a bunch of the themes together. I’m supposed to root for Larry Talbot, but instead I root for the wolf because at least I know what I’m getting into there. Talbot is supposed to be the safe one, the solid one, the man who doesn’t want to become the wolf. Yet he ruthlessly pursues a woman he is interested in. He looks in her bedroom window with a telescope and then uses the information he discovers as a pick-up line and it WORKS. She turns him down for a date (she is already involved with another man) and he responds by telling her what time he’ll come by for her. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and this is supposed to be appealing. Really, though, it’s just creepy. He is supposed to inhabit Love—capital “L” intended—but he represents himself with force instead. It might have played okay in 1941, and I certainly didn’t notice it when I was a kid, but it sits badly with me now, and adds to the horror factor for me. At the same time, it weaves right into my thoughts on power, love, romance, and the ways in which we are beautiful, ugly, and misunderstood.

DEAR LARRY TALBOT

I used to know a man like you: the scarce
veneer of skin across the beast, the claw curled

in a hand. I used to wait for him to snarl
or snap, to say I drove him to it like your

autumn moon. I recognize your startled heat,
your palm against the scrabbled bark of a tree,

the furring edge of a french cuff, the unraveling,
the woman backed against the trunk, the duff

at her feet. I used to know the woman too:
the way she likes to pretend she doesn't hear

the howling, the way she lifts her hand,
tugging her collar closed against her throat,

the blood bruising her temple from within,
the beating pulse of her. The call. Dear man,

she knows you're hardly man at all, despite
your polish and your shoes. Despite the hollows

at her clavicle and the way her marrow
holds her scent, begs you to unmake her.



NCL: 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)?

RF: I can’t imagine a full-length book of these poems. For one thing, I deliberately kept the subjects limited to a specific cast, to narrow the viewpoint to a particular time and place. I could have found room for Vincent Price or Alfred Hitchcock, for example, and I know both of their work well, but they tell different stories. I could delve into the minor characters, the less well-known movies and monsters, and maybe I will eventually, but many of them don’t have much to say to me. That may be my own failing. The only poem I wish I could have written is one to Zita Johann, who plays the ingénue in The Mummy and is the least ingénue-y of the bunch. She smolders. But I couldn’t figure out what to do for her, what to say, and so that poem hasn’t been written and maybe never will be.

I have been very vocal about not including them as a section in a book—I just can’t imagine the shape such a book would take, in the context of another work—but a couple of poets whose advice I respect have been talking to me recently about the ways in which these poems might expand in the presence of other poems, and the ways in which my other poems might also benefit from rubbing up against these, so I could end up including some of them as part of a larger collection. I haven’t made up my mind there yet, but I’m thinking.

As I said above, I didn’t have a plan when I started writing, but once I saw I was in the midst of a series, I did think it would become a chapbook one day. I didn’t compose drafts to that end, but as the series wound down, I realized that I should go looking for holes or for places where I might expand or define the scope of the series a bit more, and then I watched all those movies again with that specific goal in mind. A couple of the poems, like “Dear Ingénue,” didn’t arrive until that second, deliberate viewing. I wrote most of the first drafts of these poems over the course of about a month, and then spent ages in revision. Some of them took much longer than others, which is just how these things tend to work, and then I didn’t even put them together into a chapbook for over a year because I got caught up with a different project, which became the chapbook Dear Turquoise and then grew from there.



NCL: While the common understanding of ekphrasis is poetry in response to visual art, in a 2008 essay “Notes on Ekphrasis” by Alfred Corn, Corn mentions that poetry in response to “works of music, cinema, or choreography might also qualify as instances of ekphrasis.” Do you consider some of the poems in Creature Feature to be ekphrastic? If so, to what extent is knowledge of a film, character, or actor, necessary in order to “get” the poems?

RF: I absolutely think of the majority of the poems as ekphrastic—all the poems that cover characters, certainly, but also aspects of the poems to the actors, many of which make reference to their characters, might also qualify. I don’t think it’s necessary to know the films—even if you’ve never seen them, you likely know the basic idea behind them, and that’s where the importance is for me, is in that grounding in the collective imagination. I’ve had a couple of people tell me the poems sent them looking for information, and that’s great. I’ve had others ask me to watch a movie or two with them, or tell me the chapbook made them watch the movies, and that’s also great. I guess the short answer is that nobody needs to know the films in order to get the poems, but the more you know, the deeper you’ll be able to get. Isn’t that true of everything?



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

RF: I just read from the work in July at Classic Lines in Pittsburgh, and it was really well-received. The reception of this chapbook has surprised me—I was surprised to have it accepted in the first place, even—because I know that my love for these films strays into the obsessive and I didn’t know that anybody else would ever care about them or the poems. It’s been gratifying for me to get the responses I’ve had so far, notes from people who understand what I’m doing, or questions from people who want some clarification but whose questions indicate to me that they do in fact get it. That’s an amazing experience. I’ll be reading from it again in October, at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, NH.



NCL: When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

RF: I have a group of poets with whom I gather every year for a week of poetry and discussion and laughter (and wine), and I’m lucky enough to get to see most of them in between times as well. I often revise with them in mind, with what they have raised as issues in their own work or in mine. When I’m in the composition process, that earliest of stages when a poem hasn’t yet told me what it’s going to be and I’m still just working with the impulse, I sometimes have one specific person in mind as a reader, often as a spoken or unspoken “you” even, but that person can change from poem to poem, and does. Sometimes that person is a specific person I know, but sometimes it’s someone I create out of parts of different people. I’m tempted to put a Frankenstein joke here, but sometimes you need to let readers fill in their own blanks.



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

RF: I’m way funnier than I seem to be here. WAY funnier. And the chapbook is more tender than I think one might expect from the way I describe it. There’s a lot of love in there, admiration for the actors and their choices (I could watch Boris Karloff all day long, I find him so fascinating), appreciation of these movies as films of importance rather than cheesy horror movies. I am trying, in these poems and maybe in all poems, to find humanity. That brings a little bit of sweetness, and if that accentuates the horror, then I’m just fine with that.



NCL: What are you working on now?

RF: I think I might be, finally, figuring out a way to get my sense of injustices out into the world. I’m a political person and a feminist. I have deep, solid beliefs about the ways human beings should treat each other, and I have been trying for years to find a path toward opening my poems to more of that without crossing over into lecture or didacticism or rage. There’s a place for all of that in poetry, maybe especially for rage, but I am not comfortable with my poems hanging out there. I want to find a quiet outrage, one that builds and maybe one that resonates by bringing that sort of simmering heat. Angry people are often very, very placid on the surface, and I grew up knowing that sort of anger, and I’d like to see if I can tap that in a way that shows it for what it is. I’m not there yet, but I am working on ways to get it in there without abandoning who I already am as a poet. It’s too new for me yet to know if I have another series on my hands, but I suspect it will color whatever I end up doing next. We’ll see.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Lisa Wiley Discusses My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School





My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School

Author: Lisa Wiley

PublisherThe Writer’s Den

Publication date: March 2015












In The Junk Drawer by Lisa Wiley
— after Charles Simic

A little red spool
full of thread
for a ladybug costume
forgotten long ago.

I unwind the plastic cylinder
to feel those autumn days
coil around my finger.

“In The Junk Drawer” © Lisa Wiley, My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School, (The Writer’s Den, 2015)

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Lisa Wiley teaches creative writing, poetry, literature and composition at Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY. She is also the author of Chamber Music a chapbook of 21 villanelles (Finishing Line Press, 2013.) Her work has appeared in The Healing Muse, Medical Journal of Australia, Mom Egg, Rockhurst Review, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine among others.

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

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School.

LW: The nucleus of the chapbook is motherhood and generational love. While my daughter is mentioned in the title, I include many nods to my mother such as in “Why My Mother Won’t Attend My Poetry Reading,” and to my maternal grandmother in “Making Split Pea Soup.” Although we are not Greek, my mother brought back an evil eye charm for my daughter from a trip to Tarpon Springs. The chapbook is dedicated to my grandmothers who both did not go gentle and taught us all many life lessons. My paternal grandmother is not directly mentioned, but my love of putting pen to paper came from her.



NCL: The bulk of poems in chapbook are themed around parenting and domesticity, childhood and raising children in contemporary American society. What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

LW: Yes, the bulk are about parenting and domesticity, childhood and raising children. I am also inspired by travel. Every time I step out of my immediate world, I look with new eyes. Trips to San Francisco and New York City last summer inspired a travel motif in some of the final poems including “My Own Private Alcatraz,” “Dim Sung at the Yank Sing,” and “Feng Shui.” I hope “New York, In My Ballet Flats,” captures a dreamy quality associated with many poets, dancers, artists and mothers: those desires we have for our own future and then for our children.

Food is another theme prevalent in the chapbook because so many of our memories are grounded in the kitchen or in the field such as “Strawberry Picking” which was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s childhood memories in his poem “Blackberry Picking.” Set in the kitchen, “Farmer’s Sink” is a romantic speculation of the future based on the ordinary object of the sink. “Store-Bought Cookie” is a reflection on being a working mother and not always having enough time to bake homemade cookies, and all the guilt that goes along with it. I teach English at a community college and was thinking about one of those days when I used up all my patience in the classroom.



NCL: . In a 2012 conversation-interview in The Believer, in which Rachel Zucker, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Matthew Rohrer discuss domesticity as a taboo subject in contemporary poetry, Matthew Rohrer writes:
Well, I’ll start, because maybe it was my griping that made this conversation happen. I was thinking about some of my recent poems that are very “domestic,” and I was feeling uncomfortable about it a bit, thinking it would be something people would object to, or that I should have edited that stuff out before it even got to the page. Then I started thinking about how we live—especially those of us who teach in MFA culture—in this poetic culture that says there are no rules. But then I thought, The one thing you can’t do is be domestic. You can write about anything you want, but the domestic is attacked by everyone from every side. Experimental people consider it too pedestrian, and I guess that’s the epitome of the bad workshop poem: “I’m looking out into my backyard and there’s a bird and it makes me feel transcendent.” Even more narrative, lyrical people think it’s the most debased form of talking about yourself. That made me more willing to do it, actually, because if everybody hates it, there must be something interesting about it. 
Did you have any hesitation about domesticity or parenting as a subject? What are your thoughts on what Rohrer’s comments above?

LW: We are all domestic creatures who perform domestic tasks. Even movie stars raise children and cook from time to time. Everyone has a junk drawer. I think poetry should be accessible and grounded in everyday life. Clearly, I don’t consider domestic poems “pedestrian” or shy away from them. I don’t possess an MFA, but I respect those who do. A reader might not savor pea soup, but maybe my poem jars a reader to remember preparing a special family recipe such meatballs or pierogis. Maybe reading mine will inspire someone to write a process poem about the experience or at least pause and reflect on Nona’s sauce and smile. If it makes the reader turn inward and retrieve a memory he/she hadn’t located in a while, my poem is successful.



NCL: What is your favorite poem in the book or one that is important to you?

LW: One of my favorites is “Strawberry Island, Late Summer” because of its form and local color. I intended it to be a modern, unrhymed sonnet with fourteen lines and a slight turn or twist in the final couplet. The humorous twist brings my mother into the mystery of the island. I broke the poem into all couplets so the reader could absorb the vivid island imagery and metaphors for this magical place.

It’s significant to me because of that romantic quality of late summer, when you savor one last adventure before school begins and for its local color. In Buffalo, we are proud of our waterways and links to presidential history, which is why I included Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. One served as our mayor, the other was inaugurated here.

STRAWBERRY ISLAND, LATE SUMMER

We cannonball into the calm Niagara,
pirates making our way to her shore,

collecting colored pebbles, shiny sea glass
to preserve summer in mason jars.

All of us ten years-old again.
Three acres of mystery,

it’s a squeal at the end of a long boat ride,
a Malibu shot before last call.

Bald eagles reclaim her treetops;
remnants of fires dot the wooded beach,

Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt
sank lines in these waters —

my mother docked once on a date
and won’t say a word about it.



NCL: When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

LW: I’ve always enjoyed what Billy Collins said of the reader when interviewed for The Paris Review. He said:
She’s this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I’m hoping that she’ll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did. No, the reader for me is someone who doesn’t care about me or has no vested interest. I start the poem assuming that I have to engage his or her interest. There is no pre-existing reason for you to be interested in me and certainly not in my family, so there must be a lure at the beginning of a poem.
I agree wholeheartedly. There’s no reason for a stranger to be interested in me or my family, so I have to hook him or her with the title or opening lines. Then, the trick is for the reader to stick with me a little while over the journey of 20 lines or so. My reader doesn’t need to be fluent in MFA terms or versed in form. The reader is a hitchhiker of sorts who is willing to enjoy a little jaunt or cruise around the lake knowing I won’t kidnap him for long and will drop him off safely at his destination.



NCL: Are some of these poems about your own child?  If so, who is your favorite author who has written about his or her children and/or your favorite book or poem?

LW: Yes, several of these poems were inspired by my own daughter Madeline. These include the villanelle “Feather Extension,” “Taking My 8-Year-Old Daughter to Hear Seamus Heaney” “Easy-Bake Oven” and the title poem. Yes, she did wear that feather ornament in her hair, and yes, I took her to see that beloved Irish poet before he passed away. Yes, my husband caved in, and “we are the Easy-Bake house on the block.” And yes, she was tormented a bit by the boy who sat next to her in third grade and felt the need for protection by wearing her evil eye charm.

I have always loved E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake.” Of course it’s about a lake, but it’s really about the passage of time. White doesn’t identify his son by name because it’s truly more the dance of the roles of father and son and moving up another rung of the generational ladder he’s interested in depicting. I wanted to celebrate my own childhood in moments like “Making Split Pea Soup” and “Autobiography” which includes my love for reading, yet come to terms with that generational ladder in “Watching the Wizard of Oz with My Children.” My children’s experience of watching that film is so different from mine because technology has changed the world. White wrote about what changed and what remained the same on his lake. In addition, I have always adored his book Charlotte’s Web because it’s about unlikely best friends and the inevitable passage of time.



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

LW: I pared down a longer, full-length manuscript to create this chapbook. The challenge was deciding what to cut and what to keep. Likewise, in writing individual poems the challenge is always what to cut and what to keep. For example, I wrote a longer original version of “Taking My 8-Year-Old Daughter to Hear Seamus Heaney.” I condensed it to its essential core during Billy Collins’s workshop at the Southampton Writers’ Conference in 2013. I had to part with sentimental lines that weren’t pertinent to a reader’s perception of the central images.

Along those lines, I wonder what to reveal and what to leave unsaid as evidenced in “Let the Pterodactyls Out” and “Learning to Say No.” It reminds me of how we edit what comes out of our mouths in everyday conversation. Some people have stronger filters than others.

I was fortunate two publishers accepted the manuscript. Finishing Line Press published my first chapbook Chamber Music (2013) and its editors also accepted this manuscript. I had already given my word to Gary Earl Ross, a local Buffalo publisher who created The Writer’s Den. I wanted to try a more personal approach this time. I made final edits with Gary while seated on a rocking chair in his living room beside his white cat. He offered suggestions for cover shots and added the evil eye graphic to the Converse sneakers. His interest in the project was an invaluable asset, and he even read a poem with me at a chapbook launch.



NCL: What has been the reader response to your chapbook? Have you encountered anything you were not expecting?

LW:“Brave” and “bittersweet” are some of the words readers have used to describe the book. “Bittersweet” was mentioned because it is about the passage of time, and “brave” surprised me. Billy Collins declined to write a blurb, but he did say the title is “a winner.” Some readers responded by showing me their own evil eyes “matis” that they wear on necklaces and bracelets.



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

LW: I’m always trying to say more with less. The final poem is only eight lines, yet I hope to convey a poignant moment on a hike in Letchworth about a family that stays together. I think it’s clear from the chapbook that the first hat I put on every day is the title of mother. Everything else is secondary to that. My love for that role is the heart of the book.



NCL: What are you working on now?

LW: I continue to write along with my creative writing students. I write while they write. I may pursue one more chapbook before attempting my first full-length collection. My sons ask me, “Can you write one about us?” Running is a big passion of my son Max, and it may emerge as the next project’s core. My husband has a new love for boating and that too could create a focal point. Either way, my family grounds my work and inspires it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Kerri French Discusses Instruments of Summer





Instruments of Summer

Author: Kerri French

Publisher: Dancing Girl Press

Publication date: 2013











Amy Winehouse’s Husband Sends Letter from Jail by Kerri French

Yeah, I meant what I said that night on the boardwalk:
love, or something like it. Amy, these promises move too fast.
In the arcades, teenagers contort their bodies, their tongues

surging like fireworks pressing into each other.
Wasn’t that us once—the wet hair, the warm mouths?
I could tell you a story about this woman who swam naked

in the water and then told me to get lost. Her body,
some instrument of summer. What is she to me, or you?
We’ve lost the darkness that kept our movements hidden,

but honey so what? Let’s find a spot on the beach
where no one can see us. Let’s strip off our clothes
like we’re the things on fire. Let’s think of cities colder

than our own, rain that doesn’t sizzle when it falls to pavement.
Here, beneath the whistles and sirens, I find a picture
of you in the sand: shirtless and exact, thighs stretching across

the blanket, lips moving in moans to the rhythm
of my hands—touching you like we were speaking, saying oh
baby, yes, yes, yes, please, don’t hate me when I go.


(Originally published in [PANK])

*   *   *   *   *


Kerri French’s poetry has appeared in Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, storySouth, DIAGRAM, Waccamaw, Lumina, Best New Poets, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. A recipient of the Larry Franklin and Mei Kwong Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston, she holds degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, and Boston University. A North Carolina native, she has lived in Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and England. Instruments of Summer, her chapbook of poems about Amy Winehouse, is available from Dancing Girl Press. She lives and writes in Murfreesboro, TN.

Author websitewww.kerrifrench.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/french_kerri


*   *   *   *   *

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

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook.

KF: Instruments of Summer is a collection of persona poetry exploring Amy Winehouse’s life. Written in the voice of Amy and those who knew her, the poems are inspired by tabloid headlines, with each persona attempting to retell those headlines in their own words.



NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

KF: The title came from a line in the poem “Amy Winehouse’s Husband Sends Letter from Jail,” which originally was not supposed to be a landmark poem in the manuscript, but as time went on, I noticed I was always writing these poems or revising the manuscript over the summer months when I was living in flats without a/c. For me, many of the poems in the chapbook seemed to represent the urgency of summer, the grittiness, the desperation…I loved the idea of the poems serving as instruments that attempt to capture this.



NCL: What drew you to Amy Winehouse and her life?

KF: I wrote the first few poems in 2007 just after seeing Amy play live in Boston. My roommate and I were huge fans and she became a bit of an obsession for me that year. The poems started off as a bit of a joke with friends one night when we were reading articles about her—the portraits those headlines painted were such a stark contrast to the singer we had seen live just a few months before. I said I wanted to write an acrostic persona poem based on one recent headline that claimed Amy had been diagnosed with impetigo, and I ended up writing it very quickly on my lunch break the next day. That poem spelled out impetigo down the page, and I decided to write a few more acrostic poems using more headlines. I had always intended to stop after writing just a handful, but at some point writing these really opened up something in my writing that I hadn’t previously tapped into, and I soon stopped writing the acrostic poems and just continued to write in Amy’s voice. I’m always quick to point out that even though these poems started from a place of humor, I wrote them as a way of playing against the headlines, as a way of exploring the real person beneath the media’s jokes. At the time, the media turned so quickly on her—she went from being praised as one of the best voices of her generation to ridiculed and scrutinized across every aspect of her personal life. I was so drawn to this voice I imagined was there behind all of these headlines, and as time went on, I kept envisioning a recovery, a happy ending, the great comeback story. I wanted to keep telling her story until we reached that place, which is probably why the manuscript took me so long to complete…



NCL: How did the poems, or the writing of the poems, written before her death differ from those you wrote after her death?

KF: All of the poems were actually written before her death, but I did reshape the manuscript after her death. I mostly reordered the poems to tell a slightly different story, ending with a poem in Amy’s mother’s voice rather than her own. The order that the poems were placed became a lot more important after her death. I also went back and took a closer look at line edits and played with the tone of the manuscript so that there was less humor and more sadness, more desperation.



NCL: Why did you decide to write a series of persona poems, e.g., speaking in Amy’s voice, in her ex-husband’s voice, in her mother’s voice? 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?

KF: Absolutely! Writing these persona poems really helped me gain a better sense of who I was as a writer, and the type of poetry I write today is still largely influenced by these poems. I think writing persona poems allowed me the distance I needed to try new things in my poetry, in terms of both content and style. I also think the poems provided an outlet for me to emotionally purge a lot of things that I was experiencing personally—I had just moved from Boston to England, was newly married, and had to navigate a healthcare system I wasn’t familiar with during an incredibly difficult pregnancy where I was diagnosed with a liver condition that increased my risk for stillbirth and required me to be in the hospital 3 or 4 times a week. I wasn’t ready to confront any of this in my writing, but the persona poems allowed me to express all of the fear, desperation, guilt, and grief that I was experiencing in a way that felt safe. The emotions in many of the poems very much feel like my own.



NCL: Have you given a reading of the poems in which Amy Winehouse is the speaker, and if so, what has been the response?

KF:I found the response changed as the poems were developed and especially after Amy’s death. The readings I did in 2008 when there were just a handful in existence were much more light-hearted and the audience found humor in them—especially American audiences. By the time I was living in England, the poems had taken a more serious tone. The last reading I did was around the corner from her flat in London at a bar she used to frequent. It was about six months after her death and I felt it brought out a sadness to the poems that hadn’t always been present during past readings.



NCL: What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (or what is your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be?

KF: For me, the poem that really steered this from just a fun series of persona poems to something larger was the poem “Amy Winehouse Admits to Self-Harming from Age Nine.” That poem gave me a way into the persona that wasn’t just relying on humor or trying to be clever. It was a gut-wrenching one to write—even though it was inspired by an actual headline, it was definitely one that I took a lot of liberty with, but to me, it is one of the most real poems in the chapbook. It marked the turning point where I knew I wanted to keep going with these poems and expand the series to chapbook length.

Amy Winehouse Admits to Self-Harming from Age Nine

It was like drawing a map to every room
in the body, the bitter halves of fruit
seared across the stove. It was schooldays,
bathroom stalls, the back garden under rain.
It was the way he touched me, every stone
unstacked. Oh, the world must have seen
the initials we laid, must have heard
the steps of our names. I was a cat scratching
at the window. I was the tree’s branch
breaking my fall. I was the way I wanted
to be touched. I traced my hand in chalk.
I cut paper hearts with scissors. I bled.
I bruised. I was the stem of constellations,
a pattern of snowflakes buried between each page.
It was green water calling, the scars
swimming beneath my veins. My back
swore my secrets. Doctors sewed my skin.
I threw bottles against the wall and named
each piece of fallen glass. I followed
the clouds for cover, circled words
splayed like stars across my stomach.
I was a portrait writhing, a fence
crashing, cracked edges in the porcelain.
Even then, I saw my body as a maze.
Lines gave directions. My arms told my age.


(Originally published in Sou’wester, Fall 2010)



NCL: 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: A chapbook seemed to be the appropriate choice for these poems for a lot of reasons. I didn’t feel I could really sustain this series over a full-length manuscript, and at the time, these poems were so different from others I was writing that to be a section in a full-length manuscript didn’t feel right. The entire chapbook took many years to come together, though I had some very long pauses while working on it. The first handful were written in 2007 when I was living in Boston as a fun project during the height of Amy’s fame and it wasn’t until around 2009-2010 when I was living in England that I began to focus on developing the project further. I had actually completed the chapbook the summer before her death but reached for it once again after the news broke and reworked the chapbook into what it is now. I very much wanted to get it out into the world sooner rather than later at that point, and I felt the poems needed to exist on their own together, so the chapbook format seemed to fit perfectly.



NCL: The majority of the poems are persona poems, primarily in the voice of Amy Winehouse. What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

KF: I based each poem’s title on a tabloid headline in an attempt to unify everything. I also tried to think about the voice of each persona in the chapbook and how what they sounded like would shape who they were. The voices of Amy’s husband and mother are more conversational whereas Amy’s voice is more lyrical and plays with language in more interesting ways. I also used many of the same images throughout the poems—cities, summer, fire, etc.—in an attempt to connect the poems to each other.



NCL: What are you working on now?

KF: I’m currently working on a chapbook manuscript based on the health complications I developed while pregnant that increased the risk for stillbirth during both of my pregnancies. The poems all work to confront the very real feelings of grief women experience when told their baby may not be delivered alive. My condition presented very early on, so there were many months of worry that played such tricks on my mind, and I tried to capture this throughout the manuscript.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Rachel Trousdale Discusses Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone





Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone

Author: Rachel Trousdale

Publisher: Finishing Line Press

Publication date: Sep 2015 (available for pr-order prior to publication)











Young Peggy Plays Taps by Rachel Trousdale
South Dakota, 1967

She is sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue
to take her trumpet, leave the heated car
and walk out to the grave. She has to do

this often, skip a high school class or two
and play for someone. It’s not very far,
and she’s sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue

behind the snow drifts round the lot, the blue
Dakota winter afternoon. They are
familiar: they do what the families do,

they stand beside the cut earth like a queue
for bread or for a bus. The minister
will lift a hand, and out she’ll come, on cue,

and play him down, the drop six feet into
the end of snow and trumpeting and war.
That’s all she does, and all she’s asked to do.

It’s always someone that she almost knew,
and she is worried by and fearful for.
She is sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue
and for a better thing that she can do.

(Originally published in Literary Imagination)



*   *   *   *   *




Rachel Trousdale is an assistant professor of English at Framingham State University in Framingham, MA. Her poems have appeared in Literary Imagination, the Atlanta Review, Rhino, and DIAGRAM, among other places. Her book Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010, and she is now working on a project on humor in modern poetry. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University.

Author websitehttp://www.racheltrousdale.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RachelTrousdalePoet

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rvtrousdale


*   *   *   *   *

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

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone.

RT: It’s a playful little book, containing a poem spoken by a guy building a pyramid in his back yard, a comparison of migraine headaches to yetis, and a joke about bananas. And it’s also about art and death and family and the meaning of life. More specifically, one of the things Antiphonal Fugue deals with is how our work shapes and reflects (or fails to shape and reflect) who we are. This theme shows up in three longish poems that constitute about half of the book: "Isabel and Jimenez," about the unification of Castile and Aragon and the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain; "Night Shift, Summer, 1994," spoken by four employees working late at a McDonald's; and "The Pyramid," about a man building a pyramid in his suburban back yard. All three poems are, in various ways, about how different kinds of work demand that we balance the practical, physical demands of life with our ideals—and how that balance can tip horribly in one direction or another, depending on the constraints we’re up against and what exactly our ideals are.



NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

RT: I woke up from a nap one afternoon with the title in my mind and an intense desire to write a poem to go with it. That isn’t something that happens often; I like dream-poems but don’t usually write them. When I was assembling the chapbook, I realized that the poem I had written under that impetus combined all of the things I wanted to place in dialogue in the manuscript: order and authority on one side (in this case, the dignified character played in the Marx Brothers’ films by Margaret Dumont), and humor and creative chaos on the other (the Marx Brothers themselves). However satisfying it is to mock Margaret Dumont, meaningful work (which here I guess means Duck Soup) draws on both sides. That dialogue is especially important for artistic work, which needs to make something really new and to grapple with other, older art, but I think the problem is relevant for most ambitious projects.



NCL: The subject of work and its hand in shaping identity factors into some of your poems in the book. In the introduction of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-41, an anthology of poems written by workers and published in union newspapers during the Great Depression, John Marshal writes:
As the contemporary economist Michael Zweig puts it, “To exercise power, you need to know who you are. You also need to know who the adversary is…” (74). If they did nothing else, then, these poems reminded people who they were and who their adversaries were…” (19)
And in an interview with poet Philip Levine (Fresh Air, NPR, rebroadcast on 2/20/2015), one gets the sense that his earlier work as a manual laborer, with its adversarial relationship with “management”—those in power pitted against the laborer, heavily influenced the shaping of his identity. In your poems, what role does an adversary or antagonist play with respect to shaping identity? Is there a group or person or circumstance against which the speaker rails, some power structure that needs to be overcome? or perhaps something along the lines of shaping an identity, not on what one wants to be, but what one does not want to be? How are some of the ways that work “shapes and reflects (or fails to shape and reflect) who we are” in your chapbook?

RT: In “Night Shift,” the McDonald’s poem, work provides one of the central tensions in the poem: the speakers one way or another all discuss the difference between the low-paying, unrewarding work that they are doing (purveying burgers at fifty cents an hour above minimum wage) and the meaningful work they would like to be doing instead (making music, raising their children, learning). There’s definitely an antagonist in that poem, but how you define it (management? poverty? capitalism?) may depend on your politics. The disjunction between paid and chosen work, which is particularly jarring for these speakers, helps define who they can be, not just because spending eight hours a day at a fast food restaurant constrains how you use your time but because it also shapes your body, your relationships, and how you view human nature.

In “Night Shift,” most of the speakers don’t get to do their real work. In “The Pyramid,” the speaker goes too far in the other direction, becoming obsessed with his artistic project. He thinks it’s going to secure him a kind of immortality and a connection to other people, but if that’s what he wants, he’s probably going about it wrong. Once again, there might be different accounts of who the antagonist is here. Death? Or the speaker himself?

“Isabella and Jimenez” is about a much higher-level choice: what kind of ideal we serve in our chosen (rather than our necessary) work. Isabella wants a unified Christian Spain. The poem examines the weird combination of cynicism and idealism it takes to do her work—i.e., launching the Spanish Inquisition. Here the sides are clear: it’s Isabella versus the Jews, the Moors, and (implicitly, since the poem doesn’t address them directly but is mostly set in the year 1492) the Native Americans. Which party counts as the antagonist depends on who you are; in the poem I’m interested in examining what she was thinking and how her actions have echoed in Spain ever since.

In all of those cases, how an individual balances the interplay between chosen and necessary work shows us as much about them as what their chosen work actually is.



NCL: In addition to the motif of work, what are some of the other themes, metaphors, and elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

RT: Craft: I’ve been playing with concrete poetry—kind of a reaction to my early training, which was heavy on traditional form. Though I haven’t walked away from form, either; one of my favorite poems in the book is a villanelle. Themes: Closely related to the theme of work is an examination of consequences--cause and effect--on the large and small scale, like Isabella’s effect on Spain. I’ve also got an alien anthropologist deducing all of human history from the first cave painting and a damaged girl’s life as a Rube Goldberg mousetrap unwittingly set up by the people around her.



NCL: What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (or what is your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be?

RT: “Old Joke,” the penultimate poem in the chapbook, is important to me. It’s built out of a joke my grandfather told us shortly before he died. The idea of using that joke’s setup and punch line as the outer layers of a poem sandwich came to me quite abruptly, and when I sat down to write it I was shocked to find how much filling the sandwich had. The process of editing the poem, which I did with the help of Terrance Hayes’ workshop at Bread Loaf in the summer of 2013, was very much one of removing extraneous material. Here’s the poem:

Old Joke

An old man goes to his doctor and says,
Doctor, how long have I got?
            (This joke is to be told in a descending intonation,
            with echoes behind the voice of the man behind the fish counter
            calling number ninety two, and Mrs. Silber requesting         
            a nice piece of whitefish, and the whirr
            of the coffee grinders, and if it were
            possible for a voice to contain a smell it would have the tinny
            smell of refrigeration holding in check
            the thousands of dollars of imported cheese;
            this joke contains gold-wrapped three-pound bars of chocolate
            and apricot jam from Turkey and rye bread which can be sliced or left whole;
            when it’s done being told, this joke will be getting on the crosstown bus
            and riding with big plastic bags lined with paper bags
            through the park on 79th Street to the east side
            where the old women wear white sneakers
            beneath their long mink coats;
            this joke will walk four blocks north from the bus stop
            through the sliding glass doors, nodding to the doorman
            whom it tips well at Christmas, past the big vase of flowers in the lobby,
            up to the apartment it’s lived in for twenty-seven years,
            alone for the last eight, where it will wrap
            cheese and halvah and chocolate and a flat
            of smoked salmon in yesterday’s Times
            to overnight to a girl in college reading too seriously
            and not cleaning her room and from the look of her starving)
And the doctor says, well, I’m not saying you’re going to die,
but don’t buy any green bananas.


(originally published at Two Serious Ladies)



NCL: When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

RT: When I read poems, I want play and precision and payoff. I’m writing for people who share my priorities. So maybe I imagine myself, but a self who didn’t write the poem and wants to discover something interesting in it. Perhaps that’s why the “I” of my poems is rarely me, or is me only in passing—I couldn’t write to myself about myself and think I was getting somewhere novel.



NCL: I read your essay “Humor Saves Steps: Laughter and Humanity in Marianne Moore” and the poems you link to on your website, some of which have a delightful humor to them. Can you speak a little about the role of humor in your poems? What has been your experience in publishing those poems?

RT: Thank you for reading! I think humor is one of our most complex emotional registers, and one of our most deep-seated. One of the first things a baby learns—long before language, before even sitting up—is to laugh. Humor is really fundamental to what makes us people. And our senses of humor, like our work, shape our understanding of the world. Is it a hostile place where we laugh at other people’s failings? or do we laugh out of glee, or surprise, or fellow-feeling? and what happens when those provocations to laughter are combined? Perhaps most importantly, humor is a wonderful way to discover new ideas and strange juxtapositions, which makes it particularly fruitful for poetry.

I’ve enjoyed looking for places to publish those poems. While I’ve placed some light verse in venues like Light, my more humorous work seems to do best with journals that publish experimental writing. I like that, because it suits my theory of humor, namely that it’s a way to be innovative, to get new places.



NCL: What are you working on now?

RT: Lots of things! I’m writing a critical book on humor in modern poetry. The Moore article is one chapter of it; other chapters are on T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sterling Brown, Elizabeth Bishop, and a big round-up of contemporary poets. I’m also editing a collection of essays on the same topic. I’ve got a book-length poetry manuscript, which is about the ways that our minds and bodies shape each other. (One of the poems in the chapbook, “Five-Paragraph Essay on the Body-Mind Problem,” provides that book’s title.) I’m always writing reviews. My husband and I recently had a baby, so I’m also working on finding ways to write while we care for him—and on making him laugh, of course!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Chatbook Chat: Nandini Dhar Discusses Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nations




Lullabies are Barbed Wire Nations, finalist in the 2014 Two of Cups Press chapbook contest

Author: Nandini Dhar

Publisher: Two of Cups Press

Publication date: 2015











When We’re Free, We’re Free by Nandini Dhar

A moment is an old aluminum bowl, squatting down to eat. A volunteer in a relief-camp. Scooping up a spoonful of khichuri. Consistency like water. Yellow like shit. A fly in the bowl. Dip your fingers. Catch the fly in between them. Toss it out. Now continue to eat whatever is left.

Survival: cutting such moments into two, shoving them under the bed. Arrive at a moment by treading on many more moments. Home is a wall closing on another wall. Home is a disease. Home is a stamped passport. Home is a denied visa. Home is a chronic ailment. Memories of unrecorded famines, a fishbone sucked dry. Broken between old men’s teeth – the last remnants of nourishment. Re-draw the map of a nation. Make a list of its diseases. A historical geography of its ailments, afflictions and non-cures. A human body is an archive. Of stories, memories. And diseases. Re-draw the map of a nation through its diseases.

My sister Tombur and I were born into the knowledge that every bit of our skins preserve the memories of past afflictions, and we start sucking each others’ thumbs. Only if we could spit-erase the maps of past maladies that way. When we wouldn’t stop even when we reached the age of four, our mother began to dip our fingers in bottlefuls of kalmegh. We stopped. Because kalmegh was bitter. More bitter than neem leaves. More bitter than bitter gourd. More bitter than our mother’s wrath. We soon invented other strategies – chewing our own hair, biting nails, throwing water on cats – to try her patience. But we were forever cut off from the legacy of chronic diarrhea which plagues almost everyone else in our family and neighborhood. We are the citizens of a free and brimming nation. One that has bypassed the two and half generations before us.

(first published in [PANK])

*   *   *   *   *


Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook, Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2014). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Potomac Review, [PANK], Los Angeles Review, Whiskey Island, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of the journal, Elsewhere. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and divides her time between her hometown and Miami, Florida, where she works as an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University.

Author bloghttp://nandinidhar.com/

Elsewherewww.elsewherelit.org

*   *   *   *   *

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

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations.

ND: I see my chapbook as one hybrid long poem comprising primarily of prose-poems. There are a few line-based poems that provide a kind of contrast to the block paragraphs of the prose-poems. At the center of this long poem are two little girls. They are sisters. Twins, to be more precise. Their names are Toi and Tombur. They are growing up in the Kolkata of 1980s. I see my poem as a poetic reflection on their gradual politicization, on the space where they are beginning to figure out the complex histories that have shaped the world they have inherited. To that end, the poem makes references to crucial elements of Bengal's history – Partition, Naxalbari, the left movement as a whole.



NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

ND: The phrase “Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations” has been torn from one of the lines in a poem that appears in the chapbook. The line is: Lullabies are barbed wire nations whose boundaries no little girl would ever cross. I didn't think too much about the title. This phrase somehow seemed right. What I wanted the title to convey is the fact that this is a book about childhood. And a lullaby is a poetic genre irrevocably associated with childhood. I also wanted to make it clear in the very title that this is not a book about childhood nostalgia per se. This is, in nutshell, a book about how childhood is implicated within structures of systemic social violence. And then there is the little fact that a lot of the lullabies – and this is definitely true in Bengali – deliver a community's understanding of social and historical violences in and under the guise of trivial, in and under the guise of the figure of a child in the middle of the act of falling asleep.



NCL: 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)?

ND: I love chapbooks as a form – the brevity, the compactness, the physical-material appeal of holding a chapbook in hand. But at the same time, I have a chronic condition that Salman Rushdie calls elephantitis. Everything I try to write tends to be epic length. So, I have always wanted to write a chapbook while being aware of the fact that I am not very good in reproducing the brevity that this form needs. But then, this chapbook somehow felt right. I didn't plan consciously on a chapbook. I wrote the first poem in 2011, and I began to submit in 2014. In fact, Two of Cups was the first place where I submitted my work. I am still writing Toi-Tombur poems. So, obviously, the twins need more than a chapbook. But at that time, the poems I had written felt right as a chapbook. And it feels good to have released the twins out in the world before they attain their adulthood in the form of a full-length or something else.



NCL: The poems in chapbook are rooted in the perspective of Bengali girlhood, What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

ND: In terms of forms, the block paragraphs of prose-poems play a unifying role. Often times, these blocks are long. In all practical purposes, a lot of these poems could be broken up into more poems. And that kind of breaking up would have allowed the readers more white space, more breathing space. But that's exactly what I didn't want to do. Instead, I wanted to play with breathlessness. I wanted to engage in an aesthetic of density. I mean, modern Bengali history is dense. In the course of one hundred and fifty years or so, we have experienced colonialism, multiple famines, partition, independence, several political upheavals. It is a society where modern life is interspersed by what is precolonial, premodern. In other words, it is where there is a tangible sense of the existence of the feudal past within the contemporary everyday. “History”, in Bengal, didn't begin in 1492. I wanted to recreate that sense of density in my poems.

In terms of themes, I wanted this book to be about an angry little girl, an overtly intellectual little girl. Her anger is the essence of her intellect. She is looking for an art form, but art forms which cannot accommodate either her anger or her intellect will not suffice. But at the same time, this angry little girl is not narrating her own story. Her story is being narrated by her twin, who is a much quieter version of our angry little girl. Who, then, has the ultimate agency in the book? And why? But also, why is it that the narrator, Toi, is so obsessed with her sister. From my perspective, there are the questions that I would love to have my readers think about.

In a completely different note, this is also a book that attempts to write of a girlhood spent in the middle of post-1960s left political despair.



NCL: On your blog, you wrote:
If anything, I want my book to be read by my activist friends in India and United States and elsewhere. If anything, I want my book to be read by my friends who have never wanted to be anything other than activists, but haven’t been able to, given the constraints that are way too complicated to get into in this post. If anything, I want my book to be read by my disoriented, passionately self-destructive, confused, disillusioned, once-upon-a-time activist, now-complete-failures group of friends. It is a book which has been written for my fellow leftists. And, I am not ashamed of that.
As a writer, I am interested in craft. But, I am more interested in the politics of that craft. I like it when someone says what I have written is a good poem. I like it even better when someone wants to talk to me about the politics of that poem. And, that’s why, this book is written for my fellow content-seekers. Those who are not just concerned with how to write a line, but also about what to write in that line, the layers of history, ideology and emotions that might underlie that one line.
Could you speak a little bit more about those two paragraphs, especially about the politics of craft as separate from the politics lifted up by content. 

Could you tell us about one of the poems in the chapbook that exemplifies or speaks to what you are getting at in those two paragraphs? How did the poem come to be?

ND: I will go back to the issue of density and white page that I have briefly alluded to before. Let me do this with an example of a poem:
Our uncle lost his job. Began to spend the mornings playing ludo with himself. We were ten and Tombur had just begun to feel jealous of Anne Frank. A girl who looked as small as us, yet shared space with men with beards. My sister was searching – for little girls who have ceased to speak in the language of little girls. Anne Frank proved to be exactly what she was looking for.
We never wanted to be white. But within the stickiness of the chewing gum on our teeth, we made Anne Frank speak in Bengali. Frankfurt was a village near Kumilla. Amsterdam was the name of a little town in East Pakistan. Now, Bangladesh. Pizen was the neighborhood between Kashipur and Baranagar. That's why our uncles spent their youth reciting passages from Julius Fucik. And our grandmother cried and cried while watching Kapo. Her tears a river inside our home. Silt accumulated in the crevices of the couch, fish around the bookshelves and green rice-fields overtook our living room. Grandmother was happy: she rowed a canoe from one room to another, catching koi with her empty hands. This was how it was on the other side.
And then, my skin erupted into rashes. Pink like a girl's ribbon. White like papaya milk. This was nothing new. The smell of the paddy-fields – so much green huddling together – always made me itch. So I climbed onto the bed at the edge of the house. From here, one could not always smell the green. And there was nothing else to do. So I read, switching on a flashlight beneath the bedsheet. Tombur wrote stories about dead crows on ceiling fans, dripping blood on a teacher's sari. I explained to her how mimosa leaves closed when touched.
Tombur told me, you're too nice. You're afraid of hurting others' feelings. That's why you'll always be a loser. Afternoons, we spent tearing up pages from composition books, folding them into cranes. Since I would not leave the bed, Tombur would climb the stairs alone to the terrace, left our paper birds for the rains to erase our fingermarks.
And then I threw up for seventeen hours straight. Grandmother's green flees from the sound of my retching. I climbed down from the bed. Tombur and I began to go to school.

If you read this poem, you'll find that it is a dense, crowded poem. A lot of things are happening here at the same time. A lot of names have been dropped. For all practical purposes, this is a poem that could have been broken down into multiple prose-poems. And with a little bit of tweaking, these prose-poems could also have been line-based poems. Possibly. A lot of my readers who read this poem before publication felt that it needed more white space. This is one of the places where I resisted feedback. Precisely because it is the white space – the breathing space – that I didn't want to provide my readers with. Or, for that matter, myself.

If you read the poem, it begins with the uncle losing his job. Then, it goes on to talk about Anne Frank, alludes to the Czech Communist Julius Fucik who was killed by the Fascists, provides a nod to the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo's film Kapo, and refers to the Baranagar-Kashipur massacre in 1971 in the state of West Bengal, India. Other than the Pontecorvo film, which also probably is the most canonical in the list, no footnote or endnote has been provided. In other words, I am not explaining. But at the same time, I am squeezing into this poem, and definitely in this paragraph, a good chunk of global history – the Holocaust, the Partition of India, and Naxalbari.

I have been asked by my readers – American – “Should I know all of this Indian history?” I will use this interview to respond to that question. And my answer is, yes. My answer is, yes, even though I know it is humanly not possible to know the history of every nation in this planet. I don't. Yet, I know, I should have. But then, there is a problem in that very question. It is not at all as innocent as it sounds. That space of not-quite-innocence has a name. Actually, multiple names: Eurocentricism, Americocentrism, First Worldism, imperialism, colonialism, colonial legacies. By that token, the histories of how nations like India and Senegal were implicated within histories of the Second World War, are written out of the First World textbook histories of the world wars. Because that implication is also about the histories of colonial/imperial violence. By the same token, the human sufferings of the Bengal Famine and the Partition of India, which were more or less contemporaneous, are relegated to obscurity within the dominant narratives of global history.

But then, the reverse isn't exactly true. I can't really get away by saying, “Should I really know about those world wars to begin with?” You can insert other things too in place of the world wars. In other words, there is this question of imperial privilege or lack thereof. Then again, the history I am alluding to, isn't really that obscure to everyone in the world. And there are people in this world who would know what I am talking about without any endnotes, footnotes or explanations. So, when I write about the affective hold Holocaust had within the post-independence, post-partition Bengali leftist imagination, I am referring to a world that is internationalist. I am referring to a world that attempted to embrace a form of internationalism in its own flawed way long before transnationalism became a fancy word in American academia. I am also referring to the publishing history of the Bengali leftist world. How certain texts from certain other languages and cultures were translated and circulated amongst activists, intellectuals and artists.

And this history is not reducible to one's national or ethnic identity. In other words, this is not a history automatically recognizable to everyone who identifies as Bengali or Indian. It is a history that would be legible in that deep, intimate kind of a way only to those who belong to a particular political subculture. A political subculture that cannot really find its own complex representations in mainstream Indian literature.

Last but not the least, this history is dense. It is complicated. State violences, famines, political upheavals rarely leave any breathing space, any white space, relief or respite. That's exactly what I was trying to reproduce in this poem: the breathlessness of multi-layered histories. The white space might have made this into a “better” poem, but the density, in my opinion, makes it into a more “political” poem. At this point in my life, I prefer the latter.



NCL: What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems?

ND: How to represent childhood as an adult. I did not want my book to be about “childhood memories” per se. Rather, I wanted to look at childhood politically, aesthetically. I wanted to cast my glance at the seemingly trivial moments of childhood and amplify these moments, read these moments. I was also determined that this would not be a children's book. It was going to be a book for adults about childhood. But the question I had to ask myself again and again was, am I colonizing children and childhood by doing this? How as an adult does one create the visions and imaginations of a decolonized childhood? I kept going back and forth between POVs, for example. I kept writing the story of the twins in a third person voice. I kept going back and forth between Toi and Tombur, trying to decide who should be the narrator. Then, finally, I stuck to Toi, and it felt right. I also had to come to terms with the fact that it is only as an adult that I could have written this book. And there is something to be celebrated about that occurrence.



NCL: Also on your wonderful blog, you wrote a notice to those who would be readers of your chapbook:
I do not have a twin sister. Neither a twin brother. I have never given birth to twins. Everything that I write about in that little book has happened to me. Nothing that I write about in that little book has happened to me. It is a work of pure imagination, except when it is not.
I had to smile when I read it—that idea resonates strongly with me personally. I immediately thought of a 1991 interview in The Paris Review, in which the interviewer asked poet Donald Hall a follow-up question about Hall’s process of discovery through revision: “So there is a sense in which you are touching a deeper Donald Hall in this material.” Hall’s reply was:
I hope so, yes. Not in any boring autobiographical way. In The Happy Man I have a poem in which somebody talks about his time in the detox center. A friend asked me what I was in detox for. Well, I never was. For the poem I made up a character; I talked through a mask I invented, which I do all the time. I love to fool people, even with fake epigraphs—but also I wish they weren’t fooled. Of course my poems use things that have happened to me, but they go beyond the facts. Even when I write about my grandfather, I lie. I don’t believe poets when they say I, and I wish people wouldn’t believe me. Poetic material starts by being personal but the deeper we go inside the more we become everybody.
First, what caused you to write that clarification regarding twins? What are your thoughts about Hall’s response and/or on Hall’s attribution of the qualifier ‘boring’ to autobiographical content? What are thoughts on confessional poetry? on “poetic” truth as function of fact?

ND: I wrote this post kind of playfully. I was asked, quite a few times, in workshops and such, if I am a mother to twins. Or, if I have a twin sister myself. I have no autobiographical writings as such. To be sure, all writings are autobiographical in some way or the other. What I have problems with is the limited notion of what an autobiography is. And the notion that every work a writer produces is autobiographical in a vulgar kind of a way. That's what I was trying to allude to in that post without engaging in a long, theatrical discussion.

I wouldn't at all say that autobiographical content is “boring”. For me, whether it's boring or not, depends upon the specific autobiography itself. In other words, what I am asking here is a more fundamental question: what makes a life interesting? To me, this is a loaded question. There have been literary schools and writers in our shared global literary history who have placed lots of deliberate emphasis on “experience” and leading an “interesting life.” There are obviously questions of class, race, gender, colonial histories to ponder when when we refer to such categories as “experience” and “interesting.” For example, does E.M. Forster's sojourn to India make him a more interesting writer than the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi, who rarely left the confines of her home in South Calcutta and took to a very meticulous documentation of middle-class Bengali domesticity? I don't think so. To me, an “interesting life” is a life that is committed to self-consciousness, retrospection, criticality and reflection, and last but not the least, a questioning of the power structures within which one is implicated. So, to me, an autobiographical project that aims to think through one's own lived life in critical ways is important. In fact, for the editorial/curatorial work I do for the bi-lingual journal Aainanagar, me and my co-editor are always looking for personal narratives, precisely because we believe in the power of the autobiographical to democratize and radicalize. What, to me, is boring, is an absence of criticality, self-reflection and simplistic attempts to glorify, celebrate and justify oneself through the mode of autobiography.

Personally, I am not committed to the notion of truth as a function of facts. That does not mean I believe in the deliberate distortion of facts. Neither am I blind to the possibilities of the hurt that such distortions can cause, both in an individual and a collective sense. But even in our everyday social lives, I think facts can conceal a lot, even when they are not deliberately distorted. So, obviously, I don't necessarily care about facts in poetry. I prefer to read them as complex texts. I am more interested in representations, figurations and ideologies.

I think, “confessional poetry” has played an important role in democratizing the American poetry sphere. It has led (white) women or even a man as privileged as Robert Lowell to speak of certain forms of social taboos, marginalizations. But even as I acknowledge this, I have to ask, is the face of American confessional poetry still too white? Too upper-class? And why is that? But where I have serious problems with, is the use of the word “confession.” To me, this is a word that reeks of a kind of association with Christianity – the closed box, the priest as the authority figure on the other side. One might even say, during our times, the figure of the priest has been replaced by the shrink. But that's another story. I refuse to give that kind of power and authority to either, for one thing. But for another, the word “confession” invokes a sense of guilt. Am I supposed to feel guilty because I am writing of my own violation? I think not. Consequently, I have nothing to confess. I have a lot to observe, analyze and reflect upon. I have nothing to confess. But I have a lot to tear apart.



NCL: What has been the reader response to your chapbook? Have you encountered anything you were not expecting?

ND: I don't think it has been formally reviewed anywhere. So, I am not sure if informal responses count. Of course, my publisher Leigh Anne Hornfeldt liked it enough to publish it. To me, that counts as a form of reader's response. My friend and co-editor Dena Afrasiabi, who is a gorgeous fiction writer herself, said, how surprised she was to see the similarities in our writing voices, although we are such different people. My workshop buddies at Rooster Moans Poetry Co-operative, where most of these poems have been workshopped, were rigorous in their critique. But, at the same time, it is their overwhelmingly positive feedback that had encouraged me to submit this chapbook manuscript for publication in the first place. But, no, I have not yet come across any response that's unexpected.



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

ND: I think of this chapbook as a text where I have tried to weave in allusions to other writers, artistic traditions, political traditions, and histories. In this book, I am conversing with other writers. For example, one of the reasons why I chose to write about twins in the first place, is because I wanted to nod – in my own feeble way – to the twins in Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things. A book which, in my opinion, pretty much changed the primary political and ideological direction of Indian Anglophone literature. These are the kinds of things I would like my readers to pay attention to, rather than trying to figure out if this book is autobiographical or not. I would also love to have my American readers to question the politics of their own knowledge about India/South Asia/the subcontinent, as they read these poems.



NCL: What are you working on now?

ND: I am still writing about the twins. Which means, I now have a full-length collection on my hands to work on. I am also working on another full-length collection in my native language Bengali and a short story.