Learning to Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin / an interview with poet Crystal Ignatowski

Learning To Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin

by Crystal Ignatowski

It was August. Heat rose off the cement in
deep breaths, thick and heavy waves.
We had the windows cranked

down and I could see the skinny
road behind us in the side view mirror.
I couldn’t seem to keep the car straight

and you kept cracking jokes,
saying we sure were lucky Pulaski
only had a population of 45. I gritted

my teeth, ready to make you proud.
Your arm hung out the window,
but all of me was inside: sweating,

trying not to blink, holding my breath
inside my 16-year-old rib cage. I didn’t
know you well. But then,

when we rolled to the only stop sign in town,
I experienced your patience: long, unrestless,
true, and I saw something crack open inside you

like an egg, and all the yellow poured out.
You pulled your arm inside and let the window
frame the landscape: all the wheat, all

the overgrown pasture trying to be
a painting, all the cows with their beady
eyes. You had lived here all your life, fallen

in love, said goodbyes, shot your first deer,
grown your first garden, watched her die,

and for me this was just a stopping-
through, a half-home, a place
to learn to drive.

crystal headshot

Crystal Ignatowski’s poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in Contemporary Haibun Online, One Sentence Poems, Tuck Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, and more. She lives and writes in Oregon.

Crystal describes her style as “free verse, narrative, autobiographical.” She says, “I mostly write about normal, everyday things in my life: my family, driving through town, going to the beach, watching a TV show, etc. I try to write what I know and create a story from it. I draw inspiration from poets like Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Ada Limon. Sometimes I challenge myself by writing a poem in traditional verse (this year I had a poem published in Contemporary Haibun Online, which was exciting) or about an abstract idea, but it isn’t usually what I usually gravitate to. I gravitate towards what I know, what I lived that day.”

Crystal and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Learning To Drive In Pulaski, Wisconsin.” How is it representative of your work? What’s the backstory?

A~If you opened my poetry journal, this is the type of poem you would regularly see: it is drawn from an experience in my life, a very simple experience (learning how to drive), but the poem itself goes deep. This poem is exactly as the title sounds: learning to drive in Pulaski, Wisconsin. My dad’s side of my family lives there, and this poem is about my uncle. We live on the opposite ends of the country, so I don’t feel like I know him as well as I know my family who lives close to me. But, there are times when I visit when I see into him, into a little opening or a crevice, and he makes sense to me, and I feel like I know him better than anyone I’ve ever known. Leaving Wisconsin always makes me sad and that is what this poem is ultimately about.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This poem came very easy for me to write. I workshopped it in my writing group, as well as with another wonderful poet, and the critiques also came easy. When people critique a poem that has come naturally for me, I feel less defensive about it. I feel like the poem just came to me, and therefore, I have to honor what came.

Q~How has workshopping helped your writing? What advice can you share?

A~Two pieces of advice that I have been reminded of lately: “Write for yourself, and you will reach the most people,” and “It really isn’t about the publications.”

I recently tried writing a poem about race. I workshopped it with two women of color and it was a very intense, powerful, yet intimate conversation. One of the women reminded me that I should stick with what I know and write for myself. She could tell I was struggling with this poem, and we talked about how sometimes it is okay to not write about the things that seem big and worldly right now. I have a desire to write about politics, race, gun violence, all these things, but deep down, I just want to write about my everyday life. I just want to write about driving in Pulaski with my uncle. She reminded me to stick with what I want to write because those things are going to resonate with the most people. Write smaller, reach wider.

This year I made a goal to get 100 rejection letters. What I learned is that submitting your work is a full time job! Just the habit of researching publications, workshopping poems, and sending them out into the world has been a wonderful experience. I have gained confidence in myself and my writing. And, with so many rejections, they don’t hurt or sting as bad! But, what I learned most is that it isn’t about the publications. It isn’t about the rejections or the acceptances. It is about the writing. I recently have been giving out a lot of poems to family members for birthdays, Mother’s Day, etc, and seeing a family member cry from receiving a poem about them, wow, that is bigger than any publication.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I don’t set a schedule for my writing. The only “set” part of my writing is that I write every Tuesday and Thursday at Dragonfly Coffee House in Portland before I intern at Tin House. Other days, I just let the writing come. This might get me in trouble some day, but my best writing comes while I am driving. I have a notebook in my car, and I literally write in the car as I’m driving. (So bad, I know!) The writing is all messy and goes all over the page, but sometimes I just have to get the sentences down! Before they leave me!

Q~Oh my. What has interning at Tin House taught you?

This could amount to a novel if I truly answered the question, but since I am a poet, I will try to keep my answer concise. Tin House has taught me how to engage with other like-minded people. Over the last 5 years I have kind of been hermitting with my writing, with my passion of books and literature, and with my excitement to get back into the publishing industry. Interning at Tin House has provided me a platform to break out of my shell. I am eternally grateful for all the feedback I have received, the skills I have learned, and the support I have been given from every person at Tin House. They are the dream team.

Q~You also joined the Poet Bloggers Revival this year, which Dave Bonta digests weekly on Via Negativa. How has this impacted you?

A~I’ve been blogging since 2011. I mostly just blog poems I have been working on and don’t intend to send out to publications. Joining the Poet Bloggers Revival has allowed me to see how diverse poets are (and think) when given something to work toward. I have continued to simply post my “work in progress” poems. Each week, though, I see poets who are doing new things: perhaps it is an interview or maybe it is a deep rumination about their craft or something they have been needing to get off their chest, or maybe they comment on a worldly issue that has recently happened. I’m really impressed to see so many different takes on the week from every individual.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~Poetry is razor sharp; it has the power to engage, inspire, and change someone’s perspective in just a few moments. There are few things in this world that can do that today.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Hands down, Sharon Olds. I will forever be a fan. I also have a big soft spot in my heart for Andrea Gibson because they taught me it is okay to push the envelope with my writing. They also taught me repetition can be the ending to a poem…even if your partner doesn’t think so! I think I’ve seen Andrea live six times, and I love them more and more each time.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Books beside my bed right now include: Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver (re-reading this because it is so incredible), Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Oliva Gatwood’s New American Best Friend.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~I regularly post to my poetry blog on Tumblr. You can also find me on Twitter .

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Broken Vision / an interview with poet Susan “Spit-Fire” Lively

Broken Vision

by Susan “Spit-Fire” Lively

War is genocide.
++++++++++++++++ Life is murder…

Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, the Holocaust, Uganda, Darfur,
Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Kenya, Afghanistan.
When will the world learn?
How can we change these?
When we cannot even stop the wars in our homes,
the wars in our neighborhood,
the war within.

In this and every election,
they say it is the economy.
But in this and nearly every election,
money’s all the same you see.
We’ll cut aid to the poor.
Kick people from their homes,
kick the mentally ill from shelters,
kick the teachers from the classroom,
kick the homeless off the sidewalk,
before we’ll give up our wars.
The national addiction,
the economic infrastructure,
the empire building.
We admired the wrong selected memories of the victors’ histories,
recruited Nazi master scientists,
modeled ourselves after the great fallen Rome;
embracing racism, classism, sexism, and the destruction of the pro-labor system.
Is this our destiny, our unified syndrome?
How can we fix;
how can we conquer in this
broken vision?

susan

Susan “Spit-Fire” Lively is a poet, spoken word artist, model, producer, photographer, visual artist, educator, and activist from Belleville, IL. Co-organizer of 100,000 Poets & Musicians for Change – St. Louis since its inception in 2011; Susan also produces the series First Bloom (celebrating women’s history month) and Women For Peace (promoting gender violence awareness), and co-produces the Dia de los Muertos Fiesta with Maria Guadalupe Massey. In 2016 she became an Officer of Urb Arts’ Executive Board. In January of 2017 Susan produced the St. Louis leg of the international event Poets & Musicians Against Trump (with co-producer John Blair). Lively’s been featured on Literature For The Halibut, The Arts with Nancy Kranzberg, WESLTV -24 and PBS’ Living St. Louis. She has taught spoken word and creative writing at Confluence Academy, Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, and for the Nine Network and St. Louis Fringe.

Susan says of her style, “People often say that my spoken word delivery or style is very unusual and lyrical; I’m often asked if I’m a singer. Some of my spoken word poetry has bits of song, and I even rap in a few pieces. I also like to cover a wide variety of topics, so I’d say my style is unique.”

Bekah and Susan connected via social media. Susan is active in the poetry community in St. Louis, where Bekah lives. We wanted to know more about Susan, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Can you tell us a little about your poem, “Broken Vision”?

A~The back story for this particular poem is simply that I am anti-war. I think that we should reconsider our priorities as a country far ahead of the next election. The world in general should spend a lot less time wasting money and lives on weapons, war, death and hate, and a lot more time should be spent promoting self-worth, growth, connectivity, equality, justice, and love for all human beings.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This piece came easily to me, but some pieces prove more difficult than others. Some pieces require a lot of research and editing, and others don’t. Sometimes if I get stuck on a piece, it’s best to leave it lie and come back to it later with a fresh perspective.

Q~You are active as a spoken word artist and in publishing poetry. Why does spoken word appeal to you?

A~Spoken word appeals to me as an art form because it’s passionate, intelligent, and vibrant. Spoken word has many different faces and styles and is an art form that’s been around for a while but is continually evolving.

Q~Who were your poetry and slam first loves?

A~My first loves in poetry were a lot of the known greats like Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, and Dylan Thomas. I instantly fell in love with spoken word and slam poetry when I discovered Saul Williams and Sonia Sanchez. I actually heard Williams first in one of my college literature classes. I found his style, content, and presentation electrifying and was instantly hooked. I discovered more of Sonia Sanchez’s work through my time with the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club of East St. Louis (to learn more about club meetings/events, contact Dr. Redmond at ebr@siue.edu). I found her work to be gripping, energetic, and deep. I loved how thought-provoking her poems were and her spoken word style is so fiery and unique.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

A~I believe that the poet’s role in society is the same as every artist’s role: to speak truth to power. But, I also believe that art has many purposes, from the deeply political and social aspects to just the simple enjoyment of a great work of beauty. The artist role is to inspire and to move others in as many ways as possible simply by being the best version of themselves and letting art be the medium for their expression.

Q~Tell us more about the causes you champion with your poetry?

A~I am involved in several different causes in the arts community. Two of the shows I produce are Women for Peace and 100 Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change – St. Louis. Women for Peace was created by my friend Katerina Canyon and I in 2013 to promote Gender Violence Awareness. The show has featured a remarkable group of gifted local women artists who are all leaders in our community. These women and all the artists I work with are a constant inspiration to me. This year we are thrilled to be working with Urb Arts again and will be having our Five Year Anniversary show there on June 4th at 7:00 p.m.100% of the donations from the show will benefit the wonderful and enriching artistic programs and events at Urb Arts

100 Thousand Poets & Musicians for Change – St. Louis is actually an official offshoot of two international umbrella shows created by Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion (100 Thousand Poets for Change and 100 Thousand Musicians for Change). The St. Louis show (Saturday, Sept. 29th) is now in its eighth year and features over fifty local artists. Local NPO’s will also be present to pass out information and accept donations. In the past we’ve had the honor of working with Amnesty International, the Peace Economy Project, and many other great nonprofits. Each year the show is live streamed and recorded for placement in Stanford University’s LOCKSS Historic Preservation System as part of the largest poetry event in history.

Q~How would you describe the St. Louis poetry scene?

A~The St. Louis poetry scene is very dynamic. The entire art scene in the greater STL/Metro East region is ablaze with talent! As a spoken word artist and event producer, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and become friends with some amazing, intelligent, creative people. The range of styles here is also incredible. Someday the outside world will see us as we see ourselves: St. Louis is a growing Mecca for the arts.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in more of your work?

A~Here is a video performance link. This is “The Key” at Women for Peace at Urb Arts in STL (Previously published in the St. Louis social justice anthology, Crossing the Divide.)  My work has been published in Static Movement, Postcard Shorts, Head To Hand, The East St. Louis Monitor, The PEN, Chance Operations, Drumvoices Revue 20th Anniversary Edition, SIUE News, Big Bridge, No Vacancy, the She Chronicles, and Some ‘N Unique Magazine. My art exhibits have been featured at Urb Arts, Mokabe’s, Seven, Yeyo Arts, and more and can now be purchased at fineartamerica.com.  You can also connect with me on Facebook and Instagram, or for booking info., you can email me at lostnation2009@gmail.com.

Elk at Tomales Bay / An interview with poet Tess Taylor

Elk at Tomales Bay

by Tess Taylor

Nimble, preserved together,
milkweed-white rears upturned,

female tule elk
bowed into rustling foxtails.

Males muscled over the slopes,
jostling mantles, marking terrain.

Their antlers clambered wide,
steep as the gorges.

As they fed, those branches twitched,
sensory, delicate,

yet when one buck reared
squaring to look at us

his antlers and his gaze
held suddenly motionless.

++++++++Further out, the skeleton.

The tar paper it seemed to lie on
was hide.

++++++++Vertebrae like redwood stumps—
an uneven heart-shaped cavern

++++++++where a coccyx curled to its tip.
Ribs fanned open

hollow, emptied of organs.
In the bushes its skull.

Sockets and sinuses, mandible,
its few small teeth.

All bare now except
that fur the red-brown color

of a young boy’s head and also
of wild iris stalks in winter

still clung to the drying scalp.
Below the eye’s rim sagged

++++++++flat as a bicycle tire.

The form was sinking away.

The skin loosened, becoming other,
shedding the mask that hides

but must also reveal a creature.
Off amid cliffs and hills

some unfleshed force roamed free.
In the wind, I felt

the half-life I watched watch me.
Elk, I said, I see

++++++++you abandon this life, this earth—

I stood for a time with the bones.

First appeared in Poetry Magazine 2011.

tess.jpgTess Taylor is the author of The Forage House and Work & Days. She was a Distinguished Fulbright US Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was most recently Anne Spencer Writer in Residence at Randolph College. She’s the on air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Of her style, Tess says, “I don’t know if I have a ‘style.’ I have fascinations— how to write place? How do we live race in America? How do we attend now? And, I do love the textures of things, including words, and I like to entertain my own ear and hope that in doing so I entertain others.”

Bekah and Tess connected after Poets & Writers published Tess’s article, “The Art of Publicity: How Indie Publicists Work With Writers.” In the article, Tess says, “I’ve had good luck with two books of poems, including Work & Days (Red Hen Press), which magically appeared on the New York Times Best of 2016 list. But even so, my own attempts at publicizing my work have felt a bit haphazard at times—a last-minute scramble of hurried lists and harried galley mailings, carrying packages to the post office—often, it seems, with a baby strapped to my chest.” She gets advice from three publicists on how to be more strategic with publicity. It’s a great article. We wanted to know more about Tess, her poetry and the art of publicity, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “Elk at Tomales Bay.” How is it representative of your work?

A~This poem was finished years ago on a hike in Pt Reyes, the National Seashore near where I live. It will be in my third book, RIFT ZONE, due out in 2020. I think this piece has everything to do with love of place and mystery of artifact, and in the pleasures of attention and attending.

Q~Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~The tule elk used to roam wide over California and now live in a couple tiny little preserves. One of them is this spectacular finger of land called Pierce Point which sticks out into the sea. I love that hike. Anyway, I really did see this elk skeleton, way out on the trail. I was transfixed. My dad and my then boyfriend wanted to leave, and I sort of felt the poem forming. I didn’t have a notebook, so I recited what I was sure was in the poem for the two miles back to the car and then on the way home. The poem still took a long time being born.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~It came at once as an instinct and a feeling and a sense of rhythm, but the actual wording as laid down took some time. That feeling of incantation was always in it.

Q~We loved your article in Poets & Writers about the art of publicity for writers. What is something from that article that you have really taken to heart?

A~I think the thing I said above about beginning by listening holds true. But, what I loved in getting to know these lovely people was that each of the publicists really focused on building human relationships, human conversations— and starting from there.  Start from the urgent conversation, and the need to connect.

Q~Why poetry?

A~Because I caught this morning morning’s minion, dapple dawn drawn falcon in his riding. Because I heard a fly buzz when I died. Because all the work continues on, awful but cheerful. Because crotch and vine. Because what I assume you shall assume. Because I yelled at the sea “dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.” Because small is the worth of beauty from the light retired. Because I lived in a pretty how town. Because I could not see to see. Because between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. And so on.

Q~How did your role as on-air poetry reviewer for All Things Considered come about? What has the experience been like?

A~Gosh! Well, a while back they were having a series called News Poet. This was an assignment to go into the studio and write a poem, and the poem had to be based on the day’s news. I studied journalism in grad school, and I work as a freelance writer, and even though I don’t do daily news, I happen to love a newsroom. So, I sat out there and was fascinated as they built the board and the stories shifted. Also when I came I had half a poem prepared. I was going to be News Poet but I had also decided that whatever the days news was I also weave in the fact that 150 years before Walt Whitman had been walking through the same neighborhood tending the Civil War dead. So, I did a poem that was a mashup with the days’ news and our deeper sad history, even the history of the place. I decided that the ghost of Whitman, the poet and journalist, would be with me. And, that made the poem at once present tense and out of time. Poetry should unsettle us, I think, in this and other ways. It should bring us into our bodies and our lives but also make us feel the strangeness of the present.

Anyway, I loved the newsroom. And someone there did me the great honor of inviting me back, and now it’s been about seven years. I am so grateful to get to do it. I love that I get to share some of what I love about poetry with a wider audience. It’s a true joy in my life.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? What are they and why do they resonate with you?

A~The subjects that call me literally do that. I can’t let them go. They find me. I dig to get the poem, but there’s another way in which the poem is digging me, too.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~Fits and starts, notebooks and revision, scraps and wrappers. I have kids now and I teach and have a freelance writing practice and juggle a lot of things as a working writer. I don’t even know HOW— except in fits and starts and also doggedness. What I love though is looking at a new book arriving in the mail and finding that about seven years after I wrote it on a napkin, a phrase has made it into a poem. That’s a reminder to me that the work is going on, messily, perhaps, but going.

Q~Your writing has received a lot of acclaim. What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Acclaim is nice when it comes. A greater part of one’s life is spent in doubt, I think.  And, when one is in doubt the best thing is to turn inward and focus on listening, focus on process, focus on figuring out how to call out of the place that feels most singular and human in your being.  Also, to read the work of others you admire. And go to art exhibits. And to jazz clubs and live music and the symphony. To both center oneself and feel oneself be unsettled by art. To cultivate one’s faith not in success but in the processes of art.

Q~Current bedside table?

A~Terrance Hayes, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, John Donne, Jonathan Lethem, the letters of John Keats, Jenny Xie, the new Tracy K. Smith, and a book of nonfiction called Confederates in the Attic. I just read and read and read and read. I can’t wait till my kids get to bed, so I can get in bed and turn on the bedside lamp. After a day of difficult news this is what sustains me.

Q~Is there any online resource you would like to recommend?

A~I’m so in awe of the work that Kundiman and Canto Mundo are doing right now. The emerging writers coming out of those workshops are just blowing my mind. Community is so important. I think every writer should work to find a group he or she can feel at home with— that helps support the long and solitary work of getting down the bones.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~You can visit my website, read one of the books I have out (The Forage House and Work & Days), or read some of my work online at the Poetry Foundation. You can also connect with me on Twitter or Instagram.

The month after the cruelest month / An interview with poet Anne Barngrover

The month after the cruelest month

by Anne Barngrover

is silk and velvet, redbuds and forsythia,
lace-white pear trees backlit

in a streetlamp’s planetary glow.
A grinning dog chases cars in tall grass’s

gold tassels, and some fool
burns wet green wood in the near

distance, the rising smoke in the trees
with a bad smell that creates no heat,

no clear purpose. How I no longer feel
out-of-love but simply not-loving.

I established this pattern years ago.
For one month I believe

I’m someone’s dream girl. I fall
for someone’s charm like a migrating bird—

the bright flicker of feathers, the rare
trill threading the dogwoods—then gone.

I’m down on my luck again, pissing off
every man around. I’m no one’s

dream; therefore I am everyone’s
foe. Call me jaded—it fits

me like a dress that’s so tight
I can’t properly sit down. Every woman

must come to a crossroads. Oh, charmer,
I have learned your bright alphabet

of night-blooming flowers.
There will always be dirt in your nails

and smoke on your breath.
There will always be smoke in the trees.

First appeared in The Adroit Journal 2015.

Barngrover author photo-color.jpg

Anne Barngrover is the author of two books of poetry, Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press, 2018) and Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013) and co-author with Avni Vyas of the chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank, 2014). She is an assistant professor of English at Saint Leo University and lives in Tampa, Florida.

Anne’s work was brought to our attention by poet Jennifer Maritza McCauley, whom we interviewed here. We offered Jennifer the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Anne. Jennifer says, “I met Anne Barngrover several years ago when she was Contest Editor at the Missouri Review. As I got to know Anne personally, I was blown away by her lovely and fierce spirit and soul-stirring poetry. Her newest collection Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press) is elegant, searing, and beautifully rendered. A must read!”

So, here is Jennifer’s interview with Anne.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~My highest style aspiration is to sound like a Southern/Midwestern Amy Winehouse. I’ve only ever lived in the South or Midwest, or usually a place that’s a blend of both regions like Cincinnati or Missouri, and so I can’t escape the linguistic flair of the South nor the frank “them’s the breaks” attitude of the Midwest. I particularly enjoy using line breaks to hit harder, double-back, or surprise the reader with an unexpected turn of phrase.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “The month after the cruelest month.” How is it representative of your work? 

A~Like a lot of my poems, it is snarky as hell. I am both nodding to and poking fun of T.S. Elliot by positing the question: if April truly is the “cruelest month” and the harbinger of apocalypse for him (read: for men), then what comes after that, for women?

Poems like this one often begin with me feeling angry, hurt, or confused at a very raw, base level. But, then I take a step back and try to examine my feelings and reactions in a logical, almost detached manner. For this poem specifically, I thought about how to be desired as a woman often means playing a role and acting out a script that ultimately does nothing (aka burning the wood that never makes a real fire). And, so I wonder—here is the hardest part—how do I fall prey to these patriarchal notions, how am I complicit in them, and how do I enact them myself?

I am not the hero of my poems; I am the villain. This poem is calling out my own bullshit for whenever I say oh, this time will be different, which of course is a myth that tricks women into performing emotional labor and taking on the thankless and pointless task of “fixing” men. What do we give up when we fashion ourselves to be desired? And, what do we sacrifice when we reject those notions and refuse to be this “dream girl?” Does that subject us to anger? Or, are we called bitter and jaded when we refuse to follow this narrative? These are all of the mental gymnastics I had to perform as I was writing this poem. I ask these questions throughout the book, especially as they play out in the conservative landscapes in Midwestern/Southern places that often rely on women fulfilling traditional roles.

Q~Brazen Creature feels alive. It blends the tender and the fearsome, the wild and sweet, the ghostly and the carnal. The speaker seamlessly weaves through heartache, longing and self-assurance, in backwood bars and classrooms, on country roads and Midwestern fields. How did this collection come together? Were there any poems that were harder or easier to write than others?

A~It’s really interesting that you picked up on the physical movement of the poems because that’s how most of them came into being. I “wrote” most of them (in my head, with my muscles and breath) either while running on the MKT Trail or while driving on backcountry roads to teach as an adjunct in the small town of Fayette, Missouri. The images that emerge in my poems, therefore, were not usually ones that I saw once but repeatedly over days, weeks, months, even years. The ironic thing is that I am terrible with directions, but without question I always knew on my drive where I’d see the guy selling pumpkins out of his pickup truck, the herd of goats, the four white horses, the biker bar called The Hog Pen, the weak smoke above the lavender trees. And it became like ritual on my trail runs where I’d find the fencepost with the red-tailed hawk, the Catalpa trees with flowers big as dinner plates, the art installation of a bicycle strung up in branches, the rotting deer ribcage in the creek bed. People sometimes ask me if I need to write these things down, but I often don’t because these images couldn’t shake from me even if I tried.

I don’t know if any of the poems were harder or easier to write than others, but there were definitely times while writing the book when I felt like a fraud, when I didn’t follow my own advice, or when I didn’t write a single poetic word for months, even, at a time. Writing a book while doing a PhD is really hard because you’re working all parts of your brain—teacher, scholar, literary journal editor, reading series co-host, academic job market seeker, etc. etc. etc. So, there were stretches when I simply didn’t have the mental energy to work on my own poems and when I had to carve out the time, like doing two residencies one summer, to get it all out. I fretted about it a lot, but now I realize it’s ok to sometimes go a long time without writing, and I need to be gentler with myself. The poems will always be waiting for me again when I’m ready to return.

Q~I enjoyed the feminist overtones in this collection. In the poem “You apologize to me in passive voice,” the speaker and an unnamed lover switch between active and passive roles, and in poems like “He Hates What I Do,” “The one drag show in town is closing” and “Your Name in My Boot” the speaker’s affirmations of self, awareness of inequality in her immediate world and relationships, and tug of war with the past are portrayed with such empowered complexity.  When writing these poems and/or compiling this collection, were you thinking about how to present feminist concerns? Why or why not? 

A~Thank you for saying all that. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we damage women and perpetuate sexism and misogyny at the word level. Again, I say “we” because I am villainous; I am guilty of doing this, too. We all are. It’s impossible to truly separate ourselves from what our society imprints on us that we’re supposed to want, appear, say, or do. One day I counted and saw that I refer to myself as a “fool” in this book over a dozen times. That’s because I know what and why I’m perpetuating these narratives, yet I still do them because that’s how ingrained they are in our lives.

The passive voice kills me. We receive messages from pop songs, dialogue in movies and TV shows, Hallmark cards, jewelry and makeup ads, biology textbooks, Bible verses, catalogues, sermons, doctors’ offices, investigative journalism, Sex Ed pamphlets, and daily conversations that men act and women are acted upon. This is the story we hear about how sex works, even how reproduction works. It’s all crafted this way for a reason. And, we’ve invented words for women who choose to act on their own volition—slut, bitch, prude, femme fatale, witch, crazy, hysterical, bitter, angry, cynical, frigid, nasty, clingy, desperate. Those last two—“clingy” and “desperate”—I think are having their heyday right now and create an even worse stigma than “slut” or “bitch” (just think of the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme). It’s preferable right now to be “the cool girl,” to go with the flow, to not care, not overthink or pause, to never question. Hmm, wonder why that is?

All that is to say, I don’t set out to write “feminist poems” necessarily, but because I’m always preoccupied and obsessed with these questions, they can’t help but work their way into my poetry, especially the more I read and the more I find I don’t know.

Q~The line “sometimes a ghost is not a ghost” and the imagery of ghosts and hauntings appear more than once in this book. Would you talk a bit about why you included ghost imagery in the collection?

A~Although I’m a scaredy-cat and can’t even handle the previews for horror movies, much less the movies themselves, ghosts still fascinate me because of the stories they tell and the cultural fears and shame that they represent. It’s the second, deeper story underneath the ghost story that’s compelling to me.

In my mind, patriarchy is a ghost. Racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are ghosts, too. The shame and fear that they carry may have originated in the past, but they still haunt us to this day and have present, real-world consequences. These ghosts have become systems. In ghost stories, the person who’s always like “I don’t believe in that” or “That isn’t real” is always the first who’s toast. I think there’s a reason behind that. We might claim not to see or believe in something, but that doesn’t mean shit because it still harms us no matter what. We must first acknowledge the ghost and give it a name, but that can sometimes be the scariest part. In Brazen Creature, I force myself to ask, what if the ghost also lives inside myself? (It does.)

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~They can visit my website. I just go by my name on Facebook and Instagram, and my Twitter handle is @Anne_Barngrover.

Brazen Creature cover

image2 (3)Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and poetry editor at Origins Literary Journal. She has received fellowships from the NEA, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her work appears in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

Every Election Cycle, The Wind From Birmingham To Chicago Smells Like Ashes / and interview with Khalypso The Poet

Every Election Cycle, The Wind From Birmingham To Chicago Smells Like Ashes

by Khalypso

saved! thank silent, merciful God we are saved!

a ghost rises from the parched soil
of a Chicago cemetery.

she drops a piece of paper into a box and suddenly
freedom rings for all brown things that are not
her tongue.

black women saved our asses this election cycle

her son is somehow
next to her & somehow
in Washington D.C. & somehow
at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River,
guiding its currents.

a well-intended hand grips her arm,
a pair of friendly lips kisses her mummified
cheek.

bless you
you have saved us

she is screaming into everyone’s faces.
she is calling for help.

thank you
for rescuing us from the cradle robber

she is pointing to a struck pine—
split down its trunk and weeping streams of
skittles, bullets, ink;

streams that sound like whistles
& roll across silt like jilted tremors.

we owe you so much

she snatches tires from rope, unable to bear
seeing anything swing.
she tosses sheets of steel to the earth.
she traps every match, every lighter in a meat
locker and tears the lights apart.

we should have listened to you

she is still screaming, still pointing

we owe you so much

we owe you so much

if we could go back in time and do this whole
election again, we would—

any black boy’s body has risen to the
surface of any river.
his mother falls, exhausted,
into an abandoned grave, the ivy molded to
accommodate the curve of her soaked cheeks.

if we could go back

there is jubilation in the streets.
every soft, brown thing is now named Mammy,
Messiah, or Most High.

we’d listen to you this time

she has stopped screaming.
she is whistling now—soft and serene.
she is cursing every selective, unyielding ear
& daring someone
anyone
to say something about the noise.

First published in Rigorous Magazine 2017.

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Khalypso is a Sacramento-based activist, actor, and poet. They are fat, black, neurodivergent, queer and badass. Their work can be found in Calamus Journal, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Rigorous Journal, Wusgood Magazine, and Shade Journal, as well as a few others. They are a Leo-Virgo cusp, they want to be your friend, and you can find them on Twitter at KhalypsoThePoet. They are not here for your bullshit.

Of their style, Khalypso says, “I honestly do not know how to describe my style. I’d like to think I’m as vulnerable as Amy Winehouse. I’m honest with my poetry, much more so than in real life. The best thing I can do to describe my style is tell you that my favorite poets are Langston Hughes, Hanif Abdurraqib, Danez Smith, Ntozake Shange, Kaveh Akbar, Aziza Barnes, Julian David Randall, Luther Hughes, torrin a greathouse, George Abraham, Noor Najam, Logan February, Siaara Freeman, and Paige Lewis. I try to write like them, but I mostly just try to write like Amy Winehouse sings—beautifully.”

Bekah and Khalypso connected via social media. After reading “Every Election Cycle, The Wind From Birmingham To Chicago Smells Like Ashes,” we wanted to know more about them. So, here is our interview with Khalypso.

Q~What would you like to share about the backstory to this poem?

A~This poem came from seeing Twitter’s collective reaction to Roy Moore’s defeat and the fact that black women showed up against him the most. We stay doing that. We stay showing up when it’s time to protect the best interests of others. No one does that for us, and I’m fuckin tired. This poem is about the black woman’s mammification and black fatigue and a little bit about politics and a little bit about Emmett Till; how no one but his mama showed up for him. Black bodies are expendable until they’re useful, and, again, I’m tired.

Q~What do you hope to accomplish with this piece?

 A~I want to make people who subscribe to mammification and respectability politics feel really bad about it. I also want them to know they can fuck all the way off.

Q~Did the poem come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~Emotionally, it was very hard to write. But, it came easy. I was, I AM, so angry.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I smoke weed and then write whatever comes to mind. Obviously, I don’t only write when I’m high, but lately I’ve been doing that to see what I produce. I’m generally delighted with the results.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

 A~With writing, I’d say to be vulnerable and honest at all times. Before craft, or precision, or readership, focus on that. I also, though, kind of feel like I’m too new to the game to offer sound advice, so take what I say with as many grains of salt as you want.

Q~Who are you reading now?

 A~Morgan Parker. Hieu MInh Nguyen. Saeed Jones. Luther Hughes.

Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?

 A~I got rejected by a ton of retreats and conferences, which made me feel like a motherless child. My highs were making it into BNV’s semifinals and being published by Glass and Drunk in a Midnight Choir—two dream publications.

Q~Is there any online resource you would like to recommend?

 A~Allpoetry.com is a nice, chill place to get feedback, but it’s mostly old white people on the site, which might turn some folx off.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~I have a ton of publications so I’ll include a few: Shade, Drunk in a Midnight ChoirGlass, Calamus, WusGood, Black Napkin, and yell/shout/scream. You can also connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

 Q~Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

 A~I’m raising money to attend a couple retreats this summer. I do a lot of work in the spaces of activism and writing and most of it goes unpaid. If anyone is interested in helping me go to these retreats so I can improve my writing and hopefully put out a book, I ask that they consider donating to my Paypal, my Venmo: @khalcashbby, or my Square Cash: $khalcashbby. Every little bit of money helps in a big way, and everyone who donates will go in the acknowledgements page of my first full-length collection.

Bimbo, a Deer Story / an interview with poet Risa Denenberg

Bimbo, a Deer Story

by Risa Denenberg

For she had no body odor and lay motionless
beside the dead doe, and so
you took her home and fed her goat’s milk.

This you did: collared and tethered her, named her
Bimbo, a pet wandering a yard strewn with cars
on blocks and old oil tanks.

Your darling: adopted, broken, stroked, chosen.
And who am I, trussed and bound to a fault line,
who shadowed not her own mother, nor knows
how she is meant to be.

originally published in Menacing Hedge 2014.

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Risa Denenberg is a working nurse practitioner and poet with 6 published poetry collections. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, a small independent publisher of poetry by lesbians. Her most recent collection is slight faith, just released from MoonPath Press.

Of her style, Risa says, “I write mostly free verse, a combination of lyrical and narrative, with attention to poetic devises such as assonance, alliteration, enjambment, repetition, lists, and anaphora. I have tried my hand at some forms such as sonnets, haiku, and villanelles. I often write poems using equal lined stanzas that hold a shape, but also abstractly-shaped poems with very different line lengths. I also write prose poems. I try to query the poem to see what shape it wants to be.”

Risa and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Bimbo, a Deer Story.” Is there a back story you want to share?

A~It was originally published in Menacing Hedge and is included in slight faith.  It came to me after reading a news item that described an eccentric woman who had found a fawn beside her dead mother and took her into her home, treating her like a child. The details (feeding her goat’s milk, naming her Bimbo, etc.) are directly from the news story. It made me realize that any sentient creature, taken out of her natural environment, would probably never become who she was meant to be. I identified with that concept, not because I was adopted, but because I often wonder who I was meant to be. The poem hints at a troubled relationship between the narrator and her mother, but prefers to leave much to the reader’s imagination. I think the poem is similar to others of my poems in that it has a certain restraint, rather than being “in your face,” it shows (rather than describing) emotions, and hints of darkness without specificity.

Q~How is the poem representative of your new collection?

A~slight faith is a collection of poems that consider ways of creating and finding meaning, ways of seeing the world in all its horror and still wanting to live. The story that my poem, “Bimbo: a Deer Story,” is based on looks to the natural world (a dead doe, the fawn helpless at her corpse) and positions the fawn in an unnatural environment (a woman’s home). The story is simultaneously heartwarming and anomalous. In the poem, the narrator tries to understand who she is under the circumstances she has been dealt. She looks for meaning, which I believe has its core in faith. Many of us who are not drenched in religious life have difficulty talking about concepts like faith, and yet these tropes are found everywhere in art. I’ve learned “god language” through my work in end-of-life care, as a way of connecting with people who speak it. My own experience of faith vacillates between feeling authentic (faithful) and feeling hopeless (faithless). At core, faith says there is meaning. I lose and recover meaning all the time. slight faith is a way of finding peace in that dilemma.

Q~You mentioned your work in end-of-life care, how much does your “day job” influence your writing?

A~There is no doubt that my years as a nurse, witnessing illness, suffering and death, has been a bedrock of my need to write. It has also given me experiences to write about, as I have done in my chapbooks What We Owe Each Other and In My Exam Room (both published by The Lives You Touch Publications). When life seems suffused with sadness, despair and even alienation, poetry carves out a place for these difficult emotions in the world.

Q~How do you balance your work at Headmistress Press with focusing on your own writing?

A~It can be difficult. I not only spend many hours a week running Headmistress Press with Mary Meriam, I also work full time and volunteer with End of Life Washington, the advocacy group for Washington State’s Death With Dignity Law. Being an introvert and living alone helps me to carve out time for writing. I try to write first thing in the morning before other things clamor for my attention. I also go on retreats two or three times a year where I focus exclusively on a writing project.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I write in spurts, sometimes daily, but sometimes not at all for weeks. I typically start with jumbled thoughts/emotions, unformatted, like journaling. I usually let it sit, but if there is a spark of truth there, later I might interrogate the writing by asking: what is it I am trying to say here? My goal in shaping and revising a poem is to strip away any words or codicils that feel false or so private that they are unlikely to speak in any viable way to a reader, and then to locate specificity of language by inviting the lines and stanzas to dialog. I read the work out loud to see if it has rhythm or musicality. Typically, writing poems is my attempt at meaningful conversations with myself, that I deeply hope will communicate meaningfully to someone out there.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

 A~Just write the poems. Let the rest take care of itself. Support other poets; buy their books; attend readings and poetry events. Read as much poetry as you can, and learn how to read your own poems aloud.

Q~When you say, “learn how to read your own poems aloud,” do you mean as part of the writing process or were you talking about poetry readings?

 A~Poetry is about the sounds of words. When I’m reading others’ poems, if a poem excites me, I will often stand up and read it aloud. When I’m writing, I stop and read a stanza or a line aloud many times as I am revising and working on the poem. I don’t enjoy it until it “sounds” right. What I was referring to as advice, however, is that any poet who has the opportunity to read their work for others should, first of all, do it (!), and second, rehearse reading the poems aloud many times. A reading opportunity usually comes with some sort of time limitation, so it’s also very important to time the reading. Misusing the gift of time is very poor manners. Finally, with practice and deep familiarity with the words, I think most poets could give a convincing, strong reading. Personally, although I’m an introvert, I totally love reading my work for an audience.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~When I was nine, I had pneumonia and had to stay home alone for several weeks, since my parents both worked. I had Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse with me in bed, and it was a wonderful comfort to read poems about children that felt like they could have been about me (when I was sick and lay abed, I had two pillows at my head). I also have to credit reading the Hebrew Psalms and connecting with their deep sorrow, lamentation, and longing. In high school, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, started reading the beat poets, and was introduced to Sylvia Plath and the confessional poets. I greatly expanded my reading list after high school, but these introductory poets were very formative in my love of poetry.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I have been gob smacked by so many contemporary poets, and in particular, LGBTQ poets. I have bought so many books of poetry in the past year that I fear I’ll never find time to read them all. Lesbian feminists held sway with me in previous decades (Rich, Lorde, Jordan, Cheryl Clarke, Marilyn Hacker, Pat Parker, so many others), but lately the gay boys have really knocked me off my feet. I only have room here to name a few: Mark Doty; Danez Smith, Philip B Williams, Jericho Brown, Richard Silken, Saeed Jones, Carl Philips, Spencer Reece; Ocean Vuong. I must say that I also adore Natalie Diaz, Sharon Olds, Ilya Kaminsky, and Greg Pardlo.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My books are available on Amazon or at my website. I also have a blog, and you connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Love Can Be a Chokecherry / An interview with poet Juliet Cook

Love Can Be a Chokecherry

by Juliet Cook

It starts with a multi-colored glitter dress lifted up high
to show thighs wrapped with garter belts made out of garter snakes.

She knows they’re not poisonous, but
she finds out they’re not really big enough
for her own magnetized thighs, unless she sits still
in one place forever. It’s a cold place, especially at night.

She knows another nightmare is coming
when the bird sounds turn into dark moans.
Mounds of wings torn, ripped, pitched
until she wonders when did wings even exist?

None of this is real, so why give birth to more?
Somebody will sea the shells, but not the birds
tiny fetuses stuck on concrete, dripping beaks,
ants crawling in and out of the cracked necks.

Now they deserve to be hung from a tree
like rotten chokecherries.  Like broken ornaments
that will fall down hard, finally trash themselves
into oblivion, then be flung into the cesspool.

It starts with a kiss that turns into a rotten apple chokehold.
Being smothered into nothing. A bitten into, spit out core.

First published in diode 2014. Also appeared in Cook’s chapbook, Red Demolition (Shirt Pocket Press, 2014).

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Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in many literary magazines, including DIAGRAM, diode, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Menacing Hedge. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, an individual full-length poetry book, a collaborative full-length poetry book, and has another individual full-length poetry book forthcoming. She sometimes creates semi-abstract painting collage art hybrids.

She describes her style as, “emotional hailstorms (based on and derived from thoughts/feelings/memories) that are redirected and reshaped into poetry, sometimes more direct and other times more abstract. Often on the dark side.”

Juliet was one of the first poets with whom Bekah connected online via Twitter, and they both share an affinity for the number 13 (Bekah is honored to be counted among Juliet’s Thirteen Myna Birds flock). Juliet is a very interesting person who writes striking poetry, so, of course, we wanted to include her in this interview series. Here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem we’re including with your interview. Why did you choose it?

A~It was a bit difficult to choose one particular poem, since I’ve been writing poetry for more than twenty years, and it has explored various different directions, but the poem I chose is “Love Can Be a Chokecherry.”

I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it; maybe close to 5 years ago?

For well over 5 years (probably closer to 7), a lot of my poetry was focused on loss, mental turmoil and sadness, and brokenness, including broken (borderline abusive) relationships, and no longer believing in or trusting in love – and I think this poem represents all of those things. Body parts, insects, and dead birds have made their way into quite a few of my poems too.

So, have dolls and holes and blood.

Q~Why do you write poetry?

A~For  many years, poetry has felt like my brain’s preferred form of creative expression. When I was a kid, it felt creatively fun, even if other people thought it was nerdy. When I was a teen, it felt like a melodramatic, over-the-top angst fest, expressing itself from a shy and quiet girl’s brain, because I wasn’t shy and quiet on the inside.  As an adult, it has undergone various incarnations and creative phases, all of them individualistically expressive. Word choice, word usage, emotional expression, dream interpretation, and sharing parts of my own thoughts/feelings my own way.

Sharing parts of myself and allowing them to continue to exist even after they’ve begun to meld with other parts.

When I was younger, the process of writing a poem sometimes helped me figure out and interpret my true feelings.  That still happens occasionally, but in more recent years, it feels more like poetry is my preferred form of expressing myself in sudden onslaughts or crafted journal-like entities or repetitive coagulations instead of keeping it hidden inside.

For the most part, my poetry/art is a small scale personal interpretation – and even though I like a variety of different styles of poetry, small scale personal is my overall preference.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~I like the poetry itself.  The writing, the revising, the reading, the submitting, the independent non-corporate publishing, the sharing, the interpretation, the connecting to others through the poetry.  Poetry as expression, poetry as art, poetry as emotion, poetry as questioning, poetry as exploring.

I dislike aspects of the poetry scene that feel too close for comfort to some sort of popularity contest involving group attacks or judgment calls. Poetry can be political in many different, powerful ways, but I don’t like the forming of groups outside of the poetry that take a side and lump other sides together and judge them and try to send other poets to jail.

I’m a small scale individual poet, not a large scale judge.

Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?

A~A low point of the last few years involves me getting very excited about having poetry accepted, but then it never ends up being published. This has happened so much more than usual in the last few years that I’m worried it’s slightly toned down my excitement about poetry acceptance and my trust that poetry presses are fairly well organized and caring. Especially in regards to poetry chapbooks, I’ve had one solicited, accepted, then ignored and never published – and I had another chapbook manuscript accepted by a press that suddenly folded and then accepted by another press that suddenly folded.

In the middle ground are my concerns that my poetry of the last few years seems to have mostly remained in a similar plateau, and I wonder of that is too close to stagnation. I can help myself feel better about recurring repetitive content by thinking about the art of Louise Bourgeois, which I love.

A high point is writing more poetry, reading more poetry, and having more poetry chosen for publication. In addition to inside various literary magazines, one of the poetry chapbooks from the low point up there was recently accepted by another small press – so Another Set of Ripped Out Bloody Pig Tails is forthcoming from The Poet’s Haven. Also, my second individual full-length poetry book, Malformed Confetti, is forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press.

 Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Be yourself but don’t be completely full of yourself.  Read other’s poetry, too, consider other writers’ points of view, reconsider some of your own thoughts and feelings, realize that you’re allowed to change your mind and your style, and that your poetic voice and choices and decisions and goals and aims should ultimately be your own, regardless of whether you do or don’t fit in anywhere in particular.

It can be positive to be connected with other poets, as long as you still have a focus on the real and true you – and try your best to allow yourself enough time and space to create your own poetry.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~I try to link to my most recently published poems (as well as other details related to me and my writing) via my Horrific Confection website. The online sources I use most are my personal Facebook page, My Blood Pudding Press Facebook page, my personal blog, my Blood Pudding Press blog, and Twitter.

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