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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

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

Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone

Author: Rachel Trousdale

Publisher: Finishing Line Press

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

Young Peggy Plays Taps by Rachel Trousdale
South Dakota, 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Originally published in Literary Imagination)

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

Author website



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

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

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

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Joke

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

(originally published at Two Serious Ladies)

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

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

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

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

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

NCL: What are you working on now?

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