Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Sonja Johanson Discusses Trees in Our Dooryards

Trees in Our Dooryards
Author: Sonja Johanson

PublisherRed Bird Chapbooks
Publication date: 2016

Maple Triptych II, Introduced
by Sonja Johanson

Acer platanoides

Those maroon lollipops, they looked so crass
Lined up along the manicured lawns
In their perfect circles of orange mulch,
Dressing the landscape in middle class uniforms.
They seemed so vain and garish
Wearing button down shirts and ties,
Pinstriped suits of bark, chartreuse nosegays.
Leaving their poor relations to scrape by
In abandoned lots and waste places,
Pock marked with nasty black spots
Scarred carriers of tree measles.

Acer pseudoplatanus

No known maple could ever grow,
Much less thrive, so close to salt spray,
On that moonscape of scree and broken pavement.
The only plausible explanation
For this fat, vigorous trunk
Weaving through the fence like a python
For those broad, rippled leaves
Like the great polydactyl claws of some predator
For the bizarre samaras, not proper pairs
But triplet seeds, strange as a third eye,
Must be that some distant planet exploded
Sending debris hurtling through the galaxy.
Somewhere in the meteorite that smashed into this shoreline
Nestled one alien seed
Which found favor with this new soil,
Forgiving atmosphere, fortunate distance from our sun.

Acer palmatum

At first, I felt sorry for them-
Those kept plants, the geisha trees.
Too thin skinned and delicate to stand a real winter
Without breaking out in frost cracks.
But, over time, my own blood thinning
From this milder latitude
I began to notice the painted patterns
On their long fingers.
Their modest way when leafing out.
I could see how a sponsor
Might shape their development.
Here, cull a reverting limb.
There, place a thinning cut
To open the gracious form.

originally appeared in The Dandelion Farm Review

*   *   *   *   *

Sonja Johanson has work appearing in or forthcoming at BOAAT, Outlook Springs, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is a contributing editor at The Found Poetry Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press, 2015), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press, 2015), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016). Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine.

Author website: http://www.sonjajohanson.net/

Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sonjajohanson10

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sonjajohanson

*   *   *   *   *

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

Please tell us a little bit about Trees in Our Dooryards.

SJ: Dooryards is a selection of poems based in my home state. Underneath the placed based stories, and the desire to connect and write poetry that would be meaningful to people I know, I’m also writing about a sense of loss. Those rural areas, and those lifestyles, are passing us by, and I want to capture them while I still can.

You mentioned that your chapbook is a love letter to your home state of Maine. I imagine aspects of place feature prominently your chapbook. Maxine Kumin wrote “In a poem one can use the sense of place as an anchor for larger concerns, as a link between narrow details and global realities. Location is where we start from” (In Deep: Country Essays). Does this ring true for you? Do the poems in Trees in our Dooryards tend towards the geographical-location and natural-environment aspect of place? Or are they more engaged with the history of the area or its current cultural or political landscape?

SJ: Yes. Yes. Yes. Chuckle. That’s kind of an unfair way to respond, but human ecology teaches us that humans are not separate from the environment, we’re part of it. Our landscape shapes us, geography shapes our culture, history affects our politics, and our politics in turn affect the environment. So the poems touch all of those areas. One poem begins with the history of itinerant painters and ends with the loss of species we are currently experiencing. Another imagines a (quite fanciful) solution to the storm destruction occurring on coast lines everywhere. A childhood spent outdoors plants the seeds of a future environmental ethic; years spent working in the tourist industry ensure a connection to people, as well as place.

I see you’re a Lifetime Master Gardener of the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association. Poet Stanley Kunitz was also a passionate gardener. In The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, his collections of essay on poetry and gardening, he wrote:
I conceived of the garden as a poem in stanzas. Each terrace contributes to the garden as a whole in the same way each stanza in a poem has a life of its own, and yet is part of a progressive whole as well.

The form provides some degree of repose, letting our mind rest in the comparatively manageable unit of the stanza, or terrace. Yet there is also a need to move on, to look beyond teh stanza, into the poem as a whole.

Often, when you finish reading a poem, the impulse is to revisit the beginning now that you’ve been all the way through it, and then each subsequent trip through the poem is different and colored by having seen the whole thing.
Does Kunitz’s parallel consideration of poetry and gardening resonate with you? How does your love of gardening impact your writing and your poetry?

SJ: What a lovely way to look at a poem! Classic estates were often set up with garden “rooms”, each distinct, yet connected and contributing to the grounds as a whole. Not only does this metaphor work for a poem, I think it extends perfectly to a set of poems within a book – each discrete, with its own focus and feel, and yet related and falling under a unifying theme.

As to gardening and poetry, there’s no better meditation than weeding, and the quiet time is often when a lot of writing happens in my head.

Oddly, despite being a Master Gardener, it isn’t really gardens that I am passionate about – it’s individual plants. I’m fascinated by their survival and reproductive strategies, and I’m somewhat more drawn to wild plants than domestic ones. It’s anthropomorphizing, of course, but I’m charmed by the oak’s preference for squirrels as a reproductive partner over humans. The apple made a different decision, and threw its lot in with us, but oak trees retain some wildness for not using us as seed dispersers. It’s the same with weeds over our tame garden plants – they choose the hardscrabble, the unwanted liminal places, and the strategies they use to be successful in doing so are varied and amazing. I know weeds and trees much better than the inhabitants of your average perennial garden. This does make me reflect, though, on a particular difficulty I have with my writing; it’s different all the time. My form, my voice, my subjects can be all over the place, which is like my gardening – one summer I’m into growing heirloom watermelons, another it’s peanuts in New England, another summer I decide I just have to have a forest pansy. So my gardens are a patchwork of whatever catches my interest, and my writing can be that way too. It’s fun, no regrets, but it takes me a while to acquire enough cohesive material to pull together a themed book.

You also mentioned that most of the poems in Trees in our Dooryards came out of a 30-poems-in-30-days event sponsored by The Writer’s Digest. What was that experience like for you? How did you come to realize that you might have a chapbook? Tell us a bit about what you did to shape the poems into a cohesive whole.

SJ: That was the first 30-30 I ever did, and I found it to be exhausting! I’m a very slow writer; I’ve been told it’s called “bathtub writing”. I’ll mull something over in my head, work on it while I’m driving, or running, or gardening (apparently some people do this in the bathtub). Then one day I’ll sit down and write the whole thing out, in what is pretty close to its finished form. With the 30-30 I would wake up in the morning, read the prompt first thing, spend the day ruminating on it, and write it come evening. It was a lot less time than I was accustomed to having, and quite a few of the pieces were not really worth saving. The ones that were, though, were in a very plain voice, and tended to be memories and observations.

Writer’s Digest does two Poem-A-Day Challenges every year, and the November one is a chapbook challenge, so that was already the idea. Fifteen of the poems that ended up in the final chapbook were from this project; I could hear that they had a similar tone and related to one another. As time went along and I found others that seemed to fit in as well, they went into the file, and eventually I had enough pieces for a full chapbook.

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?

SJ: My personal favorite in this collection is the closing poem, “Back to You”. Each line takes me to a very specific place and moment, though those are pieced together from disparate years – the top of a mountain on a winter day, that same mountain from below, streets and fields I’ve walked in forgotten farm towns. For me, it’s a love poem to my home, and then simply a love poem that anyone might relate to, and finally it’s about coming back to writing after almost twenty years of thinking that part of my life was over.

Back To You

Days, I smile endlessly out the windshield
looking up, those on the bright
mountain looking down to where
this bridge splits the water

Stone walls stumble along corn-liquor lines
I keep watch for wedding maples – both trees
hardly ever survive the crush of asphalt
or the salted winters, so we plant again

Seeing the land fall away
while the sky opens up
before the road, now I know
my heart does more than beat

In a Feb 2014 essay “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s “The Secret of Light,” James Galvin offers as one reason why a poet would write of specific place: 
[T]he poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as in were, inside out, so that the center of “knowing who you are” becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas (rooms), which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet. To have identity means to be alone. Loneliness is the anxiety that compels us to identify with an other or with otherness. To disappear into a place. To empathize.
Many poets live in one area for years, yet don’t write about the place where they live. What do you think of Galvin’s comments regarding why a poet would write poems rooted in a specific place?

SJ: Hmmm…my first response is that writing from place is very much “write what you know”, and with our increasing awareness of the problems around cultural appropriation, it’s critical to do that. I may be deeply concerned with Native American rights, or inner city class struggles, but those are not my stories to tell. I get to tell about the loss of culture or environmental connection from where I stand, and if I do it successfully, perhaps it will remind the reader of your place and the changes you are experiencing – maybe you know how that feels even if we’ve never seen each other’s homes. So in that sense we do have death of the author, which I think is what Galvin is talking about.

I do really like the line “to disappear into a place”. I think we all know that feeling, when immersed in the landscape, of being both irrelevant and indescribably large. It is absolutely a moment of deep loneliness, but also one of profound connection. We matter, and we don’t matter in the slightest, and it’s all very wonderful and humbling.

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

SJ: Themes of the environment and class are inescapable for me – that’s my particular set of filters. All these poems are simple free verse, and as a writer I place tremendous importance on accessibility. That’s not to say that all poems, or even all writers, need to be accessible to all readers, but some definitely do if we want poetry to succeed more widely as an art form. One of my most meaningful experiences as a writer actually happened during a reading. I opened my reading with a piece about/not about ice fishing, and a man at the table near the door stood up at the end and said “I been there” in a heavy Maine accent. I wanted to hug him; I was incredibly nervous, but felt instantly reassured by that familiar voice offering support. At the end of the evening, the host told me that he and his friends sometimes came to the reading series to heckle the poets – but instead, I reached him, and he reached me. We have to find a way to do that if poetry is going to connect with an audience outside of ourselves.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

SJ: The editors at Red Bird Chapbooks did ask me if I had preferences regarding my cover, but I don’t happen to know a whole lot of artist, so I let them offer up suggestions. They sent me two, and I have to say that I’m quite in love with this one!

Is there a poem you consider to be a “misfit” in your collection? If so, why is it a misfit?

SJ: That’s such a good question – I really do have a misfit in there. It’s “North Alder River Pond.” I included it because it’s about a pond where my family has a small summer camp, and which also makes an appearance in some other pieces, but the voice and tone are profoundly different from any of the other poems. That piece was probably my first foray into found poetry. I was reading a history of the pond, and used a lot of found language from that little history in the first part of the poem; in particular I would select family names from the area and use them simply as words in the text – Rod, Linwood, Ransom, Reward, Warr. It’s the one poem in the collection from which I, as the narrator, am really absent, and it’s just the place talking.

What are you working on now?

SJ: Well, I’m working on applications for an MFA, which is kind of dry, but I’m also working on a couple of different poem series. The first is a series of poems which personify people in my life as body parts – "My Stomach Gives Me Honey", "Binge-Watching Netflix with My Spine." The second is a series of prose poems about social justice couched as “spells” – "Spell for Giving a Selfish Person Empathy," "Spell for Putting the Shape of a Wife in the Wall," etc. These are a far throw from my place based poems, so I guess I’m still working out what my voice is!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Light into Bodies wins the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry

Overjoyed to report that my first book Light into Bodies has been selected as the winner of the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from University of Tampa Press! More information here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone: Interview

Thanks to Speaking of Marvels for this interview about my chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). Below is an excerpt from the interview. You can read the interview in its entirety here:

"My arrangement of the manuscript was subsequently changed by the editor. She saw the arc in a slightly different—and better—way. (I cannot emphasize enough what a pleasure it is to work with a good editor.) She suggested that the manuscript open with an ekphastic poem titled “Lament for Icarus” that was inspired by an 1898 painting of the same name by Herbert Draper. In that way, Icarus and the associated myth would be the guiding force that propels the reader through the narrative. She also suggested ending with a poem called “Seeking Asylum,” which brings the reader back to Icarus at the end through the image of the falling sparrows that end the poem. She also commented that the ending image of falling sparrows alludes to the sparrows in the Hall of Souls (the Chamber of Guf in Jewish mysticism), which, to her, further enforced another thread that runs through the chapbook, that of the dangers/ pitfalls of human hubris."

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Katie Manning Discusses A Door with a Voice

A Door with a Voice
Author: Katie Manning
PublisherAgape Editions - A Sundress Publications Imprint

Publication date: 2016

The Book of Calm
        all that remains of Malachi

the day is coming
like a furnace
will set
on fire
you will go out and frolic like
on the day
dreadful day
the LORD
will come and strike the land with

originally appeared in the San Diego Reader

*   *   *   *   *

Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman (Point Loma Press, 2013), and her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, is forthcoming in November as the 2016 winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.

Author website: http://www.katiemanningpoet.com/

Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/katiemanningpoet/?fref=ts

Twitter: https://twitter.com/iamkatmann

*   *   *   *   *

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

Please tell us a little bit about A Door with a Voice.

KM: This chapbook is a selection of poems from a larger project, in which I'm taking the last chapter of each book of the Bible as a word bank and creating poems. For this chapbook, I selected the poems that focused on women, especially mothers, and children. The title is from the closing lines of one of my favorite poems in the collection, "The Song of Sons."

[A Door with a Voice is available from the publisher via free download.]

You mentioned that one of the reasons you started working on the poems was because you were tired of people taking language from the Bible out of context and using it as a weapon against other people, so you started taking language from the Bible out of context and using it to create art. Is the Bible a sacred text for you? How does religion/faith factor into your writing?

KM: The Bible is a sacred text for me, which is why I think it is worth spending the time to study it and to consider the larger contexts of the passages and books it contains. Some people selectively read scripture in ways that affirm (or ignore) their own behavior while conveniently condemning whoever it is they want it to condemn. That seems to me a poor way to treat a sacred text.

I don't think I can ever escape my own identities and concerns when I'm writing poetry. Even if I'm not explicitly writing about the Bible, it's part of me. Even if I'm not writing explicitly about myself, I'm writing as a feminist, a mother, a wife, a daughter, and more. All of my experiences and roles have shaped the way I perceive the world.

In a 2012 Kenyon Review article “The Weight of What’s Left [Out]: Six Contemporary Erasurists on Their Craft,” Andrew David King asks the following:
Usually, the literary self seems to be a positive construction, but erasure challenges that notion, expropriating and subtracting in lieu of adding. Do you think it’s still possible to excavate an identifiable self from your erasures? What about your work is distinctly “you,” if anything?
Here are excerpts from the interviewees responses:
  • Janet Holmes (The ms of my kin): “Why does there need to be an “identifiable self” in the poems? … The concerns of the resultant text are my own, and I think are identifiable as such in the context of my other writing, but I did not explicitly seek to create “a self” that could be identified as me, and have the erasure speak its words.”
  • Srikanth Reddy’s (Voyager): “When you erase a text, you’re “unearthing” possibilities of phrasing, voicing, and thinking that are already embedded but somehow buried or hidden within the language. Oddly, though, I did find that as I erased Waldheim’s book, with its ghastly bureaucratic language, I kept finding “my” voice within it.”
  • Travis Macdonald (The O Mission Repo): “[T]he act of erasure leads toward the discovery of otherness. … My own role as poet in this process has more closely resembled that of an archaeologist much more than that of an architect.”
  • Matthea Harvey (Of Lamb): “Erasure is like any other form—it shapes the content and also leads you to say things you wouldn’t have said without its strictures, but I think some very distinct particles of “you-ness” get caught in that sieve.”
  • David Dodd Lee (Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere): “But it also felt possible I might craft something, using Ashbery’s work as source material, that sounded nothing like Ashbery. I mean, I had no idea, at first, what would happen, which was partly the point… But then, after a while, the poems started to seem like they were mostly mine (I just started feeling that they were).”
  • M. NourbeSe Philip (Zong!): “If I were to discern traces of what is “distinctly” me in Zong!, it is to be found less in the writing itself and more in the willingness to risk—to sail in the dark with no compass. With only one’s heartbeat to accompany one.”
Which one(s) of the above, if any, resonate with you and why? How would you answer King’s question?

KM: Several of these resonate with me, but especially the answers from Janet Holmes and Matthea Harvey. I didn't set out to read myself into the biblical texts that I used as word banks, but my concerns certainly crept into the language that I selected and the ways that I formed my poems from those limited words. This project was a self-assignment that kept me writing after I became a mother, finished my dissertation, and started a full-time job--a chaotic time when it would've been easy to stop writing poetry. Without intending to, I wrote several poems for the larger project that focused on mothers and children, which happily led to this unexpected chapbook. I imagine that these poems would have a different focus if I'd written them at a different time of life.

One of the attractions of chapbooks as a form is that they can be beautiful, limited-edition works of art, poetry-as-artifact. A Door with a Voice is an e-chapbook, which means it’s digital. Why did you choose the e-chapbook as a form for your manuscript? How does the e-chapbook form benefit your work?

KM: Honestly, I was hesitant about publishing an e-chapbook at first, but Fox Frazier-Foley (Editor of Agape Editions) "got" my project and was so excited about these poems, and she wants to publish chapbooks digitally to make the work more widely available to readers. I love getting to share my project with anyone who wants to download it, and it's a relief that I don't have to sell anything!

At the same time, I love the hand-bound and limited edition chapbooks that I had published by Boneset Books and Yellow Flag Press in 2013. They are special. I also love my chapbook The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman, which is perfect-bound and widely available through Wipf & Stock, Amazon, and elsewhere. I'm so glad there is this great variety in chapbook publishing.

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?

KM: As I already mentioned, one of my very favorite poems in this chapbook is "The Song of Sons." It was so fun to work with the language from Song of Songs, which is very familiar to me, and to make the words feel new. I love how the language of lovers in the original book shifts into an unspoken language of love-longing from a nursing infant to his mother in my poem. Since I have two sons, this poems feels especially close to me.

The Song of Sons
         all that remains of Song of Songs

if I found you
I would
the nectar of


place me
over your heart

your arm
strong as death
unyielding as

is a door

let me hear

(first published in Queen Mob's Teahouse)

You shared that you started working on the manuscript because you needed a prescribed project in order to keep writing poems: You’d just finished your dissertation, given birth to your first child, and started a new full-time professor gig. (WOW!) What was it about working on these poems that kept you engaged?

KM: I'm still sick of people causing harm by taking verses from the Bible out of context, so that motivation never left me, but I was also driven to keep writing by the strictures of the project: I always knew what to work on next. The words were right there for me to use, which was especially handy in the throes of new motherhood and sleep deprivation. Getting enthusiastic feedback from writer friends also kept me going, especially when I got partway through the first drafts and wondered if anyone else would ever want to read these weird poems.

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

KM: Yes, I've read them to a variety of audiences: to a small group of friends, at a pop culture conference, and even in my Jesus costume at a Poetry Circus! Since I was so earnest in my writing of these poems, and since I was afraid no one else would want to hear or read them, I was shocked the first time I shared them and people laughed! I was certainly not expecting people to laugh or to be moved by them, but I've gotten really enthusiastic feedback every time I've shared these poems.

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

KM: I've already said a lot about myself and my poems, so let me say that I'm thrilled to have David Adey's art as the cover image for A Door with a Voice. He's one of my very favorite artists, and I think of my Bible word banking project as a kind of "kindred art" to his work with magazine covers and ads. You can check out more of his work at http://www.davidadey.com/

What are you working on now?

KM: I've just completed a full revision of the larger Bible word banking project, which still needs a title. I'm also working on a series of poems that use board games as a starting place to explore relationships and memory, and I'm working on a series of prose poems that are addressed to my late granny (and that also explore relationships and memory... perhaps these sequences will merge). Thanks for asking!

Monday, July 4, 2016


"The Second Fallacy"

Poetry broadsides are single poems printed on one side of a sheet of paper, sometimes with artwork, sometimes not. I think of them as a cross between written work and artwork because they're usually beautiful and suitable for framing. It's not uncommon for a literary journal or press to publish a broadside from one of their publications, such as the broadside of "Good Bones," by Maggie Smith from her book book Weep Up published by Tupelo Press. It's not uncommon for broadsides to be signed by the poet, for example the letterpress limited-edition prints from the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review Broadside Series and those offered by the Academy of American Poets.

You can make your own broadside. You can use plain paper if you wish. I like to use card stock or paper with a finish, such as linen. While broadsides can be larger, such as poster size, 8.5 x 11 and postcard are more common sizes. You can print them yourself or have them printed at an office store or local printer.  If you're looking for free artwork, trying searching for images in the public domain or the Creative Commons. Wikipedia has a list of public-domain image resources. And the Creative Commons (CC) has created a wonderful portal that will let you search various sites for CC images, e.g., Google, Wikimedia, and Flickr each have a Creative Commons component. Here is the CC portal: http://search.creativecommons.org/

If you're interested in broadside contests and publishers, I've listed some contests and publishers below. And for more information about poetry broadsides in general, see:

* Babcock Books: "What is a Broadside?"
* Kyle Schlesinger: "A Look At Some Contemporary Poetry Broadsides"
* Maureen E. Doallas: "Poetry Broadsides Roundup"

Broadside Contests

Heartwood Broadside Series Contest

  • Prize: $500, plus 25 copies of a letterpress broadside of the poem
  • Contest runs from Apr 1 -  Jun 1
  • Entry fee: $15, includes a mailed copy of the winning broadside
  • Submissions must be previously unpublished and can be one poem or flash prose piece (fiction or nonfiction) of 250 words or less
  • Previously published work allowed: No
  • Winner selected by July 1
  • See website for complete details: http://www.heartwoodlitmag.com/contest/

Hit and Run Press Annual William Dickey Broadside Contest

  • Prize: $1,000, plus the publication of a limited edition of letterpress broadsides
  • Contest runs from Sep 1 -  Nov 31
  • Entry Fee:  $10.  One entry per poet
  • Poems must between 12-30 lines
  • Previously published work allowed? Yes
  • See website for complete details: http://www.mrbebop.com/annual-broadside-contest/

Littoral Press Poetry Prize

  • Prize: 50 letterpress-printed broadsides of the winning poem
  • Contest runs until Aug 12.
  • Entry fee: $10 for the first poem, $5 for each additional poem
  • Poems must be no more than 30 lines (This line count includes lines for stanza breaks.)
  • Previously published work allowed? Yes
  • Winner announced in September
  • See website for complete details: http://littoralpress.com/web/current-events/

Omnidawn Publishing Single Poem Broadside Poetry Prize

  • Prize: $1,000, plus 50 copies of a letterpress broadside of the poem, and publication in OmniVerse, Omnidawn Publishing's online journal.
  • Contest runs from Aug 1 -  Oct 17
  • Entry fee: $10 for the first poem, $5 for each additional poem
  • Poems must be between 8 and 24 lines (This line count includes lines for stanza breaks.)
  • Previously published work allowed? No
  • Winner announced Apr 2017
  • See website for complete details: http://www.omnidawn.com/contest/poetry-contests.htm#broadside-contest

Broadside Publishers

Broadsided Press selects poems to publish. See their website for submission guidelines.

Thrush Press selects poems to publish. See their website for submission guidelines.

Smokey Road Press will print your poem as a broadside. See their website for fees and other information.

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

*   *   *   *   *

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: http://www.kellyfordon.com/

Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kellyfordonAuthor/

LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kelly-fordon-aa095a10

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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 (http://www.snapnetwork.org/) , as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights (http://www.ccrjustice.org/category/project/snap).

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 snapnetwork.org 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,” Cindy Chu, in an interview with 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.