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.

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