Sunday, September 27, 2015

An Interview with Poet Karen Paul Holmes

                               Winter trees reveal a drop off
                               inches from the road’s thin shoulder.

                               Some teachings call this universe an illusion:
                               We all share a dream, a nightmare really,
                               where we’re separate beings.

                                         - from "Scenic Bypass, Blue Ridge Mountains" by Karen Paul Holmes

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Karen Paul Holmes is the author of a poetry collection, Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press 2014). Formerly the VP of Communications at a global financial services company, Karen is now a freelance business writer, poet and writing coach. In support of writers and audiences, Karen founded and hosts the Side Door Poets critique group in Atlanta and Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She received an Elizabeth George Foundation emerging writer grant in 2012 and has studied with poets Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, William Wright, Kevin Young, and Carol Ann Duffy, among others. Publishing credits include Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Caesura, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol 5: Georgia, and Stone, River, Sky (Negative Capability Press). She grew up in Michigan and has an MA in musicology from the University of Michigan.

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

Tell us a little about your book Untying the Knot.

KPH: First of all, thank you for this interview, Nancy. I appreciate your interesting questions.

Untying the Knot is a memoir in poetry. Sometimes mad, sad, funny, and/or forgiving, the poems recount the sudden end of my long-time marriage and the healing process.

In Untying the Knot, what is one of more crucial or important poems for you personally? Why?

KPH: I find it extremely difficult to describe nature, and therefore not much of my poetry does this. I workshopped this poem with Dorianne Laux at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Seminar, which gave me the confidence to include it in the book. Lines in the poem came to me on a walk, and I really did get hit on the head by acorns. It was an unusually beautiful day but in the midst of the stunning beauty, I was stunned by sadness. That’s how grief works, doesn’t it? One of the reasons the poem is important for me personally is that it reflects my belief that joy can always be found in the present moment – uncovering it is not always easy but we always have the option of choosing joy, or at least peace.


Despite the wind
poplars hang on to their leaves.
They catch the light and flutter like gilded eyelids,
jiggle like coins on a belly dancer’s hip scarf.
Whitecaps jostle my dock,
lake darker than the sky.
Those distant mountains, dusty-red with autumn,
recall Sedona’s rocks,
but green grass and willows speak
of lush Appalachia.

Joy surges
mixed with the old longing: that need to share.
The cherry tree over there—blooming
and showing orange foliage at the same time—
must be as confused as I am
since the gusty lusty breath of Catherine
blew away the colors of my marriage,
forced the black and white of divorce.

Suddenly, a shower of acorns bounces
off my head, knocking me back
into the windy, sunny present.

When Untying the Knot was published, it being your first full-length book, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

KPH: I guess you never know how you’ll feel when you actually have the book in your hands. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I tried very hard not to second guess myself about what poems should have been deleted and/or edited more, but I did do that a bit and even started to question whether the whole thing was crap.

I didn’t know how strange it would feel going public. I felt bare naked, and I still cringe a little thinking of how much of my personal life I revealed, and also that of my ex and his girlfriend. But people praised me for being so honest with my feelings. Because of that honesty and because most people have gone through some kind of loss, people really related to the book -- poets and non-poets, men and women. That reaction was a pleasant surprise. It was also an affirmation of my intent to write poetry that touches people in some positive way.

I see you have a degree in musicology. If you were a musical instrument, which one would you be? Why?

KPH: Could I be the tune instead? I’d like to be a melody that lingers in the memory… in a good way.

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

KPH: In about 6th grade, I created an illustrated journal of poems I liked for a school assignment. I still have it. Richard Wilbur’s "Boy at the Window" is in it, and I remember being absolutely touched by the poignancy of that poem. Then in 8th grade, I won some sort of poetry contest. That teacher, Miss Darby, and also my inspirational 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, are my friends on Facebook so I’ve happily been able to thank them for their influence on my life.

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

KPH: The angel on my shoulder imagines a sympathetic reader who feels just like I do about things. The devil on the other shoulder thinks about a strict critic who expects perfection. In my first draft, I try to keep that devil out.

Tell us about "Writers’ Night Out". Is it a reading series? What prompted you to start it?

KPH: Once I started reading my poems in public (the first time was in front of the then Poet Laureate of N. Carolina, Kathryn Stripling Byer), I became an open mic junkie. I live in Atlanta but spend many weekends in the mountains. Up there, I started attending a Wednesday morning “Coffee with the Poets” with open mic. I decided to start "Writers’ Night Out" to give working folks a chance to come, and also to make it more of a date night on a Friday night. In the small mountain towns, there are a lot of writers and also a lot of tourists looking for interesting things to do. It is a monthly event, open to the public. We feature a poet or prose writer for about 20 minutes and then an open mic. Audience size ranges from 10-35 people—couples and singles—from four counties. We get 5-12 people reading at the open mic, often including really good writers/readers in their 70s and 80s and sometimes college kids. Many of us meet for dinner beforehand. We have featured some pretty well known writers from North and South Carolina and Georgia.

What are you working on now?

KPH:I’m a little scattered. I’m writing miscellaneous new poems as the inspiration hits. But I’ve got two books about 90% complete and can’t seem to say “Okay, done, time to send to a publisher.” One centers on family poems about the melding of my dad’s culture (Macedonian) with my mom’s (Russian/Irish settled in Australia) in the U.S.

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

KPH: Keep at it. Share and get feedback. I wrote for years, but kept everything in a notebook for no one but myself. While that was satisfying, what really made poetry a special part of my life was sharing my work, having it critiqued, and working to make it better. My poet friends are now some of my best friends. There’s nothing better than being in a community of like-minded people. And that’s how I met you, Nancy. Thanks again for wanting to spend this time with me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Nicole Rollender Discusses Bone of My Bone

Bone of My Bone, winner of the Blood Pudding Press 2015 Poetry Chapbook Contest

Author: Nicole Rollender

PublisherBlood Pudding Press

Publication date: Sep. 5, 2015

Bone of My Bone by Nicole Rollender

I am my own land, unmanageable. There’s a cross
           road where my hands and lips intersect

with an illumined city’s windows open to blackbirds
           that promise to come through branches,

incising a woman’s kitchen, the reliquaria of domesticity –
           white-draped ducks’ broken necks rising

on counters. How do I measure the body’s gardens
           from within its bone fences? A woman’s skin

is one world. The birth canal is another – how you lived
           in a bell or an oyster, rocking back and forth

in seaweed for a long time. Who hatches from it, shining
           through rain? In the old world, piss prophets mixed

a woman’s lemon urine with wine to discern what
           was in the womb. A hand held out for a zinnia

if she empties, if a distant horse runs back
           to God, if a boat grows smaller, its cargo

of consecrated pears now rotting. My mother will curl
           into herself, as will I, as did my grandmother, joints

unloosening more than a century after her birth. I put
           the lines that grew on her skin into a bowl, muddy

my fingers in her waxiness and into her dead eye,
           unraveling her, seaming her skin, blanching her

bones back to such a shine, like a giant star’s last open
           into brilliance. The unhurried light is dying, drunken

bees dropping into water, isn’t it? My body is made
           from these flat-footed women – when I step

outside not knowing where I’m headed, one of them wakes
           from her dream of owls calling and hisses,

We created you from what we saved.

(Originally published in The Journal.)

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Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at and

Twitter: @ASI_Stitches,


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

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

NR: I often have a hard time writing about my own work, or trying to encapsulate what a chapbook is trying to do in a few sentences, so I attempted to do that here: Through the half-lit poems in Bone of My Bone runs a troubling line of questioning – what’s beyond this life? – as the narrator contends with death on a very visceral level: “The hip is something/ no longer examined in the light.” In these poems’ rooms, which are like the ruins of a cathedral open to a night sky, the haunted narrator explores the real ways that we take which is ours, both in this life and in the next. There’s a chance to seize at “what is also the divine: There is no saint/without a past.”

One day, I was reading Blackbird and came upon Malachi Black’s poem, “Quarantine,” a crown of sonnets that follow the 10 movements (Lauds, Prime, Terce and so on) in the Christian monastic prayer known as the canonical hours. These movements follow the passage of one day, so Lauds is a predawn prayer, None is the afternoon prayer, Vespers is sundown’s and so forth. Black calls “Quarantine” a poem “to the possibility of God.” My chapbook started with a similar long “book of hours” type poem, parts of which appear in Bone of My Bone – where the narrator struggles to view and classify what God is: “What is the divine, but God-/light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone// shine?”

I put poems I already had written together to form the chapbook, which I wanted to be a kind of violent crying out to God – trying to make sense of why some babies are born very premature, women die early, some women can’t have children, women commit suicide, some women think of committing suicide. The poems walk between this life and the next, weaving together the disturbing and the sublime.

NCL: In a Yale Alumni Magazine article "Faith, in poetry" (May/June 2013), which discusses Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine who left to teach at Yale Divinity School, Mark Oppenheimer writes "the relationship between poetics and piety—so obvious from biblical times through the Victorian era—now seems sundered; poets are a very secular bunch..." That isn't the case for Bone of my Bone, in which faith, God, the complexities and incongruities of being an embodied spirit seem to be pivotal. What has been the response to your poems from other poets? Have you found that others try to pigeon-hole you or minimize / make assumptions about you or your work?

NR: Good question. There’s definitely faith-based poetry like church hymns that are simplistic in their view of God – you know, we’re toiling in the vineyards, praising a distant God and longing for paradise. Things that border on or become cliché, what you referred to as the medieval or Victorian-type poems. Many Catholic saints even wrote poetry like this, poetry that doesn’t resonate with me, since it feels very one-note. My poems aren’t in this “church” camp.

What you observed about this small collection, that my poems deal with “the complexities and incongruities of being an embodied spirit,” is quite accurate. My maternal grandmother, who was very religious, also saw the dead. Her ability to “see” skipped over my mother and passed to me, so from a very young age, I recognized that there was a here and a there that co-existed. So from about the age of 3, I had an unnerving sense of the dead’s existence after death, and that someday I would be one of them.

Poet Anne Carson said something that makes sense of this disquiet. I’m paraphrasing here, but Carson described the feeling as walking through your life with an inkling of what’s also running alongside you on the other side, the flame of God, whatever the afterlife is. So that sense of mortality, of an internal straining toward something to take the place of loneliness. I’m a fan of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, where she compares the inner self to a series of mansions one must enter and go deeper within in order to achieve some kind of enlightenment: “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.” There’s also a definite loneliness in that inner self-contending and contemplation. But the reward is what my poems seek, again quoting Teresa of Avila: “Union is as if in a room there were two large windows through which the light streamed in; it enters in different places but it all becomes one.”

I wrote these poems from a fragmented, fragile stance, and feel they’re confessional: The reader sees my falling apart as my water breaks nine weeks early in my second pregnancy. The reader sees that wish for death. The reader uses my kaleidoscopic lens: here’s the world through a religious/spirit-inhabited lens. The narrator is also a seeker, looking for a God that she hasn’t quite found yet, and is trying to determine if he will love her or shun her. But (as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a God who wants our love and is waiting for it), and as Teresa of Avila writes (“This Beloved of ours is merciful and good. Besides, he so deeply longs for our love that he keeps calling us to come close.”), these poems hope to find that God.

You know, I’ve been fortunate in that my poems haven’t been ridiculed or pigeon-holed by other poets and editors. Of course, “God poems” aren’t for everyone. But I think in my poems, alongside God also runs a strain of John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. The despair juxtaposed with the eternal light. There’s sadness in my poems. There’s a music that I make from this chaos.

Also, I’m not so sure that there’s a strong, continuous tradition of Catholic or Christian poets to latch onto if your work centers on faith-type themes. For me, poets writing about God who resonate are: John Donne, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, Rainer Maria Rilke, Czeslaw Miloscz, Kathleen Norris and Anne Carson. Rilke’s and Carson’s poetry especially, because of that seemingly secret understanding of a vulnerable God who is waiting for us to love him.

NCL: In her essay "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer" (Poetry, November 2005), poet Mary Karr writes:
[I]magine my horror when I began to have experiences of joy. ... But nothing can maim a poet’s practice like joy. As Henri de Montherlant says, “Happiness writes white.” What poet—in this century or any other—has founded her work on happiness? We can all drum up a few happy poems here and there, but from Symbolism and the High Moderns forward, poetry has often spread the virus of morbidity. It’s been shared comfort for the dispossessed. Yes, we have Whitman opening his arms to “the blab of the pave.” We have James Wright breaking into blossom, but he has to step out of his body to do so. We have the revelatory moments of Tranströmer and the guilty pleasure and religious striving of Milosz. W.H. Auden captured the ethos when he wrote, “The purpose of poetry is disenchantment.” Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.
Does that observation hold true for you? Why (or why not?) What role has joy or celebration played in your poetry as whole?

NR: I do live with a strong sense of mortality, or perhaps the “morbidity” that Karr observed, and that sense often informs my work – so you see that I often contend with heavier topics like death, the spirit realm, God, saints, the afterlife. Of course, I experience joy in my life, and that joy does permeate my work. I also have a strong sense that what I have can just as easily be taken away, so I suppose that when celebration does enter my work it’s with a sense of caution (it casts its own shadow). My poems feel like artifact: They’re my attempt to create something beautiful from the imperfect world we inhabit.

Sadness, joy, both feelings come and go, but weaving their imagery together in a poem does create something indelible that doesn’t fade or lose its sharp prick. Yet, the self who inhabits these poems is already dead. In these poems, I’m celebrating small miracles of joy in the quotidian (“One summer/ you left your paper/dolls on a train in Amiens.”) This necklace of memories is what makes me nostalgic for a time and a self I can never return to – each day closer to the end of this life, and closer to the next. This makes me afraid, unlike the saints who were often miserable being earthbound, wanting to be reunited with the God who granted them small moments of ecstasy down here in the weeds. Frankly, I’m still afraid of death: The thought of leaving my children now makes me shudder. I would need to be dragged into the next world; clearly I haven’t yet achieved the same connection to the saints’ God.

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?

NR: Besides “Bone of My Bone,” which is also the chapbook’s title, another crucial poem that I also happen to like a lot is “Marked” (it first appeared in the December 2014 issue of MiPOesias). I worked through many, many drafts of this poem. I read about certain African tribes that singed the skin of women who didn’t bear children. I thought about people who tattoo iconography on their skin, and what that might mean to them. I thought of those of us who cut into our own skin to make our pain visible. We’re all in some way marked, spiritually, physically or both. And yet, we’re spirits in a body. How do we live these two joined forms? These lines address that concern, can we ever get at the spirit part of ourselves: “This is how // the body seems at first, impenetrable – / yet, a woman still sings ghazals // from between your ribs.”


This is a lie I used to believe: The thief
wasn’t nailed to a tree to enter the saved

city, his palms opening
like mouths, like doors. Only after

his hands were marked did a paradise appear –
I miss your bones, he mouths. This is how

the body seems at first, impenetrable –
yet, a woman still sings ghazals

from between your ribs. Here, these women
squat away from the village, hands

pressed into dirt, the bloody clench
and release of babies crowning near long-

haired cows. Their skin unmarked, the village
says, because otherwise the children

won’t be seen by the gods. Lord, I keep praying
underneath this shadow-drawn tree:

praying from a lion’s yellow belly is how
I understand the way godlight watches me. Bless

the dark. Bless the hole from whence we came.
Teach me to float cities, to salt and unsalt

this ancient hammer before it falls to ink-
arrowed chest. I’m saying make me visible.

If we carve saints who bleed into hagiographies
on our backs, is that enough

for our names to be written in the book
of the dead? They enter and exit my body

as smoke. Migrate the translucencies of seeing
to bone marrow, its shadow ossifying

on my spine, dangling femur, on skull. I watch
the secret face I make into my own flesh,

the way I kissed my dead grandmother’s sunken
chest, the lines of her clavicle like outstretched

arms. The women who don’t bear children
are held down and singed with black lines before

they return to work in the fields, skin a book
of illumination: a flame rises and thins. How

I’ll never see the way my life would move
unmarked, the path in moonlight

already full of stones, already stirring.

NCL: You had another chapbook, Absence of Stars (dancing girl press), that was released within a few months of Bone of My Bone. What draws you to the chapbook form? Specifically for Bone of My Bone: 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)?

NR: I’m drawn to the chapbook form because they’re tiny little countries that allow a poet to experiment and to also work through a theme or narrative arc in a smaller space. I actually put together Bone of My Bone specifically for the Blood Pudding Press 2015 Chapbook contest last December. I had been thinking about the theme for a little while, and felt that the subject matter was a good match for BPP, since I several of its chapbook titles that embrace the spiritual, the mystical, the ghostly, the macabre, the day’s darker undersides. I know that my poetry isn’t for everyone – my longer book of hours poem was rejected from numerous journals. That’s partly why I used it as a skeleton or starting point for Bone of My Bone. Luckily BPP Publisher Juliet Cook liked the chapbook enough to select it as one of the Blood Pudding Press Chapbook Contest winners.

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

NR: Bone of My Bone is also about carpe diem. Since I was a child of the ’90s, I loved the movie Good Will Hunting where the literature professor played by Robin Williams jumped on a table and gave a spine-tingling monologue about seizing the day. My chapbook is like a long prayer that’s asking for the ability to make the most of time one has on earth. There’s an excitement in being alive, about the possibility of what’s to come, and as Malachi Black said, “the possibility of God.”

NCL: What are you working on now?

NR: My first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming in the late fall from ELJ Publications, so I’m working on the final order and editing and looking for cover art. It’s scary and thrilling at the same time. I didn’t expect to have a full length out this year. Ariana D. Den Bleyker, ELJ’s publisher, had originally accepted a longer chapbook collection, and then earlier this year had solicited a full-length so for a while I’ve been editing, shaping and adding to that original collection. Many of the poems have found homes in journals and I’m excited to release it into the world.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Melissa Eleftherion Discusses Pigtail Duty

Pigtail Duty

Author: Melissa Eleftherion

Publisherdancing girl press

Publication date: 2015

epithelia by Melissa Eleftherion

           The thin connective tissue a wedding song
                      Outside, an organism –
                                  Gregarious leaping from branches
           A dull musical hum

           All coordinates marry distance
                      Measure hostility of an old heart
           Slowly – a meat snap

A stitched wedding dress
           The heart now feathers for plucking

(Originally published in Menacing Hedge.)

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Melissa Eleftherion grew up in Brooklyn. She is the author of huminsect (dancing girl press, 2013), prism maps (dusie kollektiv, 2014), Pigtail Duty (dancing girl press, 2015), and several other chapbooks and fragments. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Delirious Hem, Entropy, Manifesting the Female Epic, Negative Capability, Open Letters Monthly, Poet as Radio, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, So to Speak, Tinderbox, & TRUCK. She works as a librarian with Mendocino County Libraries, and created, developed, and currently manages the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange.

Author blog: A Poet Librarian

Twitter: @apoetlibrarian,



Instagram: everlib ,

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

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

ME: Pigtail Duty began over 8 years ago as an attempt to piece together identity as a feminist suddenly married and mothering. In relearning to define myself, I incorporated found language from my autobiographical dictionary – a source text I’ve compiled of words new to me discovered through reading. Identity being a continuous state of becoming, the work evolves as the dictionary grows. How we take in or retain the memory of learning that new word - even if we had to look it up a hundred times to retain its meaning. How that word impacts the extant vocabulary word cloud, how a single word can help us change.

While writing Pigtail Duty, I occasionally used the autobiographical dictionary as a compass or jumping off point to write the poems - randomly opening it & free-associating from language found in the definitions. I found this incredible synthesis in that my chance experiments usually resonated with something yet to be excavated deep within the grave of my belly. Language began to reshape me in ways I hadn’t yet experienced.

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

ME: The title derives from a line in the title poem that arcs in couplets throughout the book: “When I wear pigtails it is to be pleasing. I want to pleasure your mouth to be smiling.” I wrote that poem in the park one day waiting to pick up my son from playgroup, & all these conflicts arose in relation to the concept of duty and heteronormative “women’s roles” many women including myself were raised to portray. These figures clashed with the woman I felt I was becoming as a wife & mother.

There were all these selves taking shape too, & bumping around one another, beginning to fuse a little bit but hardening around the edges. Growing more assured & solid. At times, I felt inter dimensional & weary from so much time travel - yearned for an escape to a carefree childhood in pigtails. Though, that carefree childhood barely exists for most kids - the four year old pigtail I was watching my father deal coke to a friend’s mother, among other shitty things I witnessed.

The perversity of maturity - how one can feel a sense of duty at a young age. So, I was grappling also with the residue of being a responsible child vs. a responsible adult. Vowing somehow to do better for my son.

NCL: Recently, another poet asked about the cover of your chapbook, specifically “how you arrived at the cover and what it symbolizes?” If it’s ok with you, please share your answer with us here and/or say a bit about the cover.

ME: The cover was designed by Kristy Bowen (design maven!) of dancing girl press based on my request for the cover to incorporate pigeon feathers, blood & card catalogs. Ha, I realize that probably sounds insane. As the book is an accretion of fragments (or at least felt that way while writing it in between feedings, playdates, etc.), I thought of the many ways I (and probably many other women) compartmentalize items, textures, objects, emotions - so card catalogs (plus I'm a librarian so that was easy). Plus, I have recurring dreams about a giant, grand bureau with many little drawers for ephemera. The pigeon feathers are symbolic of my Brooklyn hometown - growing up there I knew no other birds besides ravens and crows, birds were just birds then. And blood = obligation, heredity, all that reckoning that women in particular do when starting their own family or at least begin to individuate.

How the body is branches and compartments of pigeon feathers. Pigeon feathers and dust. Vocabulary and wine stains.

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?


The body met with an alter of the image of the body
What we see when we seek reflection

The ever a whisper an incandescent eye droop
Gravity seeking its own breasts cupped so the light can laugh too

How time makes us empathic for women we once reviled
Neglect and its chambers of dropped infants

The insouciance of stubbed cigarettes as woman spooned the creamed peas
Time is making my ankles heavy where I ripped and ripped out my roots

Extirpated that woman in the kitchen smock
Extirpated that idea of seeking permission

This poem was originally published as line/limn in Menacing Hedge, an awesome journal created & produced by Kelly Boyker Guillemette, Craig Wallwork, & Gio Guillemette. While it isn’t my favorite poem, I think it’s a critical piece for the denouement of the voice in Pigtail Duty. Her new sense of becoming emboldens her to have the courage of her convictions, and stop seeking validation in other female figures she either identifies with or resents. She gains a sense of security that only a strong backbone can provide.

NCL: The tag line for your blog is “a portfolio of my fragments” and recent blog posts include shaped poems of rocks and minerals, poems with fragments of lines like mineral shards, e.g. “rhodochrosite,” “azurite,” “cassiterite,” “leucite,” and “abalone.” Please say a bit about the importance of the word ‘fragments’ and what it represents for you.

ME: I return again and again to fragments & feel sometimes like an eroding igneous rock. There’s just so much conscious wearing away of little ignorances & little malnourished egos in these selves (read: identity roles) that have formed around me. All the chipping away leads to just me writhing in a ditch & the poems get more honest.

Fragments are also a way into the poem for me, as a perpetually “busy” working mom. If I can write a line or two on the bus to work or during my lunch break, eventually I can get somewhere close to a poem. When I was writing Pigtail Duty, I participated in & later organized a poetry postcard group. Writing poems on postcards & immediately mailing them off was very liberating for a person who often fusses too much about diction. Receiving poetry postcards or any kind of mail art is also a fantastic way to co-opt & resist the usual dread of junk mail & bills, & possibly share poems with disgruntled postal workers who can’t help reading them. Several poems in Pigtail Duty were begun on postcards during stolen moments (breastfeeding, nap time, on the bus to work, in the middle of the night…)

NCL: What are you working on now?

ME: At present, I’ve just completed a third round of edits on a full-length manuscript titled field guide to autobiography. In this work, I'm exploring the inter-relatedness of various species through accreted fragments toward autobiography.

How does a person begin to enumerate the many fragments & fractals that comprise a life? This book is an attempt at memoir through the lens of various animals & minerals including katydids, wrens, abalone shells, and apple trees.

The first section: auto/ is comprised of poems that incorporate more found text from from my "autobiographical dictionary.” The second section: /bio incorporates language from a variety of field guides, and explores morphological and sociological relationships of various genera, while personifying their unique attributes.

 I’m beginning work on two other projects as well - the first is titled flowers from the gut & deals with gut microbiota & class issues. Another series is titled the ditch poems.

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,



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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.


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.

*   *   *   *   *

[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.


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])

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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.



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[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.