Tag Archives: Bay Area

In Her Famous Fur-Lined Skirt / an interview with poet Colleen McKee

In Her Famous Fur-Lined Skirt

By Colleen McKee

Every girl ought to walk a tightrope. It develops a rare set of muscles
and teaches one how to walk properly on the street.
+++++—Internationally acclaimed aerialist Bird Millman, 
+++++    in a 1913 interview with the Milwaukee News

But why would a girl want to walk
on the street, properly
or otherwise,
when she could promenade
across the sky?

In a pink velvet dress
twirling a crimson parasol,
Bird hops on the sides
of her ballet flats
along a string
between skyscrapers.
The brash Chicago wind
throws itself at her,
licks her hair
like a rowdy puppy.

Most women were hung up on clotheslines
as Miss Millman explored
the umbilical cord
joining
heaven
and earth.

She went through three husbands
before she was fifty. Did men
love her best from afar?—
The gasps, the terrified smiles
were mirrors flashing the sun
up at her, magnifying
its radiance, as the wind
flirted with her skirt and she kicked
her legs and shimmied
her fanny laughing
at death
and earthbound fools.

Photo in TGP (2)
photo by John Reskusich

Colleen McKee is the author of five collections of poetry, memoir, and fiction: The Kingdom of Roly-Polys (Pedestrian Press); Nine Kinds of Wrong (JKPublishing/The Saint Louis Projects); A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money (JKPublishing/The Saint Louis Projects); Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (PenUltimate Press); and My Hot Little Tomato (Cherry Pie Press Midwestern Women Poets Series).

She and Bekah met while Colleen was living in St. Louis.  We wanted to know what she’s been up to lately. So, here is our interview with Colleen.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem we’re including. Is there a back story you want to share?   

A~“In Her Famous Fur-Lined Skirt” is the most recent poem I have written. It came out of research I have been doing for my novel in progress, tentatively titled Shlomo the Strongman and the Uninvited Guests. Bird Millman, who was a real-life aerialist, is the idol of Shlomo’s fictional aerialist girlfriend, Gitl.

I wouldn’t say this poem is representative of my work because most of my poetry is autobiographical. Somehow a few years ago, I got tired of writing about myself (with the exception of some funny writing about my early childhood among hippies in rural Missouri. You can read some of this in The Kingdom of Roly-Polys.)

I probably went through five-ten drafts of “In Her Famous Fur-Lined Dress.” That is normal for me. I don’t expect writing to be easy. I have patience when I write.

Q~Would you like to say a little more about your novel in progress, Shlomo the Strongman and the Uninvited Guests?

A~Shlomo Eisenberg is proud of his life: he’s the star of the Rosenbaum Circus, he loves his gorgeous aerialist girlfriend, and he’s pretty certain he’s the strongest man in Poland, if not the world. But then he has a problem–his body parts start turning into animals. Everyone has a theory about why this is happening, everyone has a suggestion, but answers are hard to find. Shlomo has no desire to be a freak. He wants to prove that Jews are strong, and these mutations test not only his strength but his faith. The tragicomic story follows Shlomo throughout Poland and Austria in the turbulent years following World War I. Along the way we meet Sarah Rosenbaum, circus founder and elegant bearded lady; Gitl the glamorous aerialist; Pietro, a convert to Judaism and devoted circus friend; Benyomin, a lovesick juggler; Borukh, Shlomo’s handsome gay brother; and Miriam, a girl who longs to run away with the circus, away from an arranged marriage. Of course, we also meet a variety of wondrous yet wildly inconvenient animals.

Q~How would you describe your poetry style?

A~When I was working on my MFA, I had to compile a poetry manuscript for my final thesis. I gave my thesis advisor (who was usually very supportive) about 100 pages of poetry. She read around 40 pages of it, gave it back to me, and said, rather miffed, “I can’t read this! Make it sound like one person wrote the whole manuscript.”

I remember thinking, why? (I should have asked her why but was too flummoxed to say anything.) Why is it necessary for a book of poems to be uniform in voice, or for a writer to have a consistency of style? Perhaps for marketability—though poetry is so nonlucrative, marketability seems like an absurd concern.

Eventually some of the poems in this thesis manuscript wound up in other collections that were published. I edited my other collections of poetry, memoir, and fiction based on theme and intuition; they were more consistent than the one I gave my advisor back in 2005. I do consistently want my work to be sensual and honest, and for there to be a sense of humility in the narrative voice.  Still, I don’t see the value in consistency, not in a poetry book. I like surprises when I read.

Q~Why do you prioritize going to readings and being involved in your local poetry scene?

A~Part of it is social, part of it is entertainment, and the need to get out of my studio apartment.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are multiple literary circles that overlap. There are so many readings here that I could choose from several almost any night of the week, and it would still take me years to meet all of these writers. So, partly I go out due to curiosity.

I also like to go to readings to be reassured that though I am a little crazy, I’m not any crazier than the rest of the writers in Oakland.

And, it’s not so rare that I hear something that floods me with wonder, that brings me a perspective that’s so rare and spiritually necessary, it makes me feel, if only for a day, that life actually does make sense.

Q~Any advice for other writers?

A~I would remind writers that if you want to be asked to read, you probably have to go to readings and show your face. Let editors and curators know you exist and remind them that you exist.

In St. Louis, when I was young and just starting out as a writer, there were, it seemed, two literary scenes in town: an academic scene and a spoken word/open mic/slam scene. These scenes did not overlap.  People were friendly enough in both milieus, but I had few publications to impress the high-art crowd, and my style of reading was insufficiently dramatic to interest people at the spoken word scene. Still I went to as many readings as I could and listened and introduced myself. And, I wound up organizing a bunch of variety shows with music, drag queens, paintings, photography, performance art, poetry… By the time I enrolled in an MFA program and the Get Born scene rolled into town, I felt very much a part of the live literary world in St Louis. But, it didn’t start that way for me.

If you want people to notice you and your writing, go out! If the kind of events you want to be part of aren’t happening in your town, organize them yourself. Involving other kinds of artists, like painters and musicians, will widen your audience and make your show more interesting. Going to shows or organizing them should not just a means to an end, a way to satisfy the goals of getting published, getting gigs. The writers communities I have belonged to in St Louis and in the Bay Area, and the writers communities in other cities where I’ve been so warmly welcomed—Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles, Florence, Italy; Chicago—have brought me some of my fondest friendships and wildest nights.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

A~As I say, a poet can have a very rewarding role in her literary community. But in our society as a whole—the United States—the poet doesn’t have a role in our society. Mostly, when nations have promoted poets, it is because they support their ideology. Our government has never, in a serious, consistent way, used poets to promote its ideology. This is bad for poets financially but good for their souls. The American poetry tradition is a bunch of impoverished, awkward underdogs saying things most people don’t want to hear and refuse to hear. But, as my teacher David Clewell said, “There are some poems we humanly need.”

I wish I could say I had some noble purpose in mind when I pick up a pen to write poetry. I write because something fascinates or vexes me, and in some instinctual way, I want to get inside it. If I understood why I was writing it, I couldn’t write it.

Perhaps the purpose of poetry is to remind people that they are alive in a living world.

Q~What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention?  

A~I like the Lavender Review. Not only does it fill a need as a lesbian literary review, it is consistently filled with entertaining, luscious writing, often with a subtle sense of humor. It is also easy on the eyes, both in terms of layout and visual art. They publish giants as well as unknowns. (And yes, I will admit my work has been published here a few times.)

Q~You have the distinction of being one of the only poets in this interview series who has met Bekah in person. What’s your favorite Bekah story?

A~That’s hard to choose. I mostly associate Bekah with things you shouldn’t put in your mouth but want to. Like the time she encouraged me to drink too many Pussy Galores (these chocolate martinis at the old Absolootli Goosed in St Louis—they were rimmed with so much whipped cream I was doomed to wear it on my face). All these Pussy Galores led to me going home with a woman who wrote the names of heavy metal legends on my arm with Magic Marker…Or, take the times Bekah slayed me at Scrabble though she was drinking screwdrivers and I was sober (because I wanted to win)! It was years before I got to know the serious poet Bekah. First I knew the sweet yet slightly dangerous Bekah.

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

A~http://thesighpress.com/ (A Florentine literary magazine in English. Scroll down to the Autumn 2018, Issue 18 for poems and novel excerpts; and to the Ampersand Interview 10.)

http://colleenmckee.blogspot.com/ Mostly information on where to buy my books and on upcoming appearances. However, if you scroll back through older posts, there is also a guest column on editing and a few poems.

http://thepedestrianpress.weebly.com/ If you click on the “Poem of the Week” button and scroll down, you can read my poem “Solace is a Small Gray Stone”—but don’t scroll down too quickly, as the poems by Richard Loranger and Tim Xonnelly above are worth reading, too. If you click on “Store,” you can buy my latest chapbook, The Kingdom of Roly-Polys.

http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Writer%20on%20Writer (An interview by Sarah Shotland on Karen the Small Press Librarian)

To contact me: connect via Facebook or email.

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Ursula / an interview with poet Andrea Blythe

Ursula
Our Lady of Unrepentant Self Possession

by Andrea Blythe

You are power—
holding a draught to cure in one hand, poison
in the other. You have a talent
for practical magic, for drawing out
the latent capabilities of plants,
giving weight to whispered words.
You melt through the water, body
round and sleek, tentacles
stretching to claim
all the sea you can hold.

You never asked
to become a patron
for unfortunate souls,
those merfolk so full
of  desperation, covetous
for more love, more beauty,
more strength, more and more and more.
They beg for your gifts, then blame
you for the price they have to pay.
What can you do if they fail
to read the contract? Should you worry
for a princess so dumb
she can’t figure out
how to use ink
when she has no tongue?

In another story
a mermaid loves a prince
who has no interest in mute girls,
so she falls apart
into sea foam.

In another ending
you say fuck it
and take your seaweed slick curves
off to another tidepool.
You hang with jelly girls and laugh
with the manatee mamas.
You flirt with the walrus men, fingers stroking
the hardness of the tusk. Your tentacles
are full of caresses and you
have oceans of love to give.

First appeared in Yellow Chair Review 2016.

Andrea-Blythe-headshot-768x768

Andrea Blythe bides her time waiting for the apocalypse by writing speculative poetry and fiction. She is the author of Your Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch (2018) and coauthor of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press, 2018),  a collaborative chapbook written with Laura Madeline Wiseman. She is a cohost for the New Books in Poetry podcast and serves as an associate editor for Zoetic Press.

Andrea says of her style, “It’s not static. I tend toward free verse, but have worked with prose poems, erasures, and formal poetry (although that one’s rarely successful for me). I shift the style of a poem to suit the tone or voice I’m working with. The shape and voice need to reflect the content or the poem won’t feel right to me. I enjoy the variation, but it can make it hard to assemble them into any kind of cohesive collection at times.”

Andrea and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour and both had poems appear in the same issue of Yellow Chair Review, including the above poem. We wanted to know more about Andrea and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Ursula.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~A few years ago I participated in a 30-day poetry challenge hosted by ELJ Publications (now closed), and I used the opportunity to explore the idea of the sacred or spiritual through the framework of pop culture. I focused each poem on a female character from media I loved and addressed them as though speaking praise or prayer as though they were saints. Some of these poems honored these characters as figures of power, some as figures trapped by their iconic status, some as representations of my own personal struggles.

“Ursula” is one of the poems that came out of this challenge. I wanted to consider this woman and witch of the sea, who is considered the villain of the tale, from another angle — giving her space to be more than how she was drawn, a person enough to have desires beyond mere power.

Altogether, these poems make up a chapbook, called Pantheon, which I’m currently reworking in the hopes of sending it out and finding it a home.

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~I like the idea of liminal spaces, the place in between, when someone or something is not quite one thing or another — and that’s something that comes out in my work quite a bit. For example, I wrote a poem a while back about Annie Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), which focuses on the act of falling, existing in that place after jumping off and touching down. There’s something about the in between, the moment right before when anything can happen that fascinates me.

Another theme that I see coming through more often lately is an expression of underlying loneliness, expressions of longing for companionship and touch. That’s coming directly out of some deep down kernel within me. I enjoy and cultivate solitude sometimes, since it can be comforting, but I have to remember not to wrap myself so tightly within it as to feel disconnected from the world and the people around me.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~I’m a fan of the shitty first draft as proposed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. I’ll ponder an idea for a while and then dump it onto the page, letting it be rough and haphazard and wrong. In the first draft stage, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I won’t fully know the scope of the poem or story until I have words to play with and move around. The drafting process can happen by pen and ink or by computer, but for the revision process I almost always move to hard copy — something I can mark up, cross out, ramble out gibberish in the columns, or cut into strips. The tactile aspect of working with a physical page helps me to work through what’s not working and trace a path to figuring out what will work.

 Q~Your two most recent works are a collaborative book and a collection of erasure poems. How does working with another poet or source material change your writing?

A~Working collaboratively with Laura Madeline Wiseman on our collection Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press) and other projects has strengthened my writing. During our collaboration sessions, I find there’s a tug and pull, in which I am simultaneously offering up space in a piece in order to allow Madeline’s voice into the poem while also claiming room for my own voice. Our poems are written together and then jointly edited, so that our voices become layered over each other to the point that in some completed poems, I can’t tell where her words begin and mine end. Throughout it all, I’m continually surprised by Madeline’s skill in choosing words and editing for clarity. It’s an intimate education in another person’s method of writing, which has provided me with new tools to approach my own writing.

In the act of creating erasure poetry presents an interesting restriction. Rather than the infinite possibilities of the blank page, I’m confronted with an existing text (in the case of my collection A Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch, I was working with the product descriptions in Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyers). The puzzle of striking out words to find the poem left behind stretches me into new directions — Can I siphon out a new meaning from these words? Are there enough of them to complete a particular thought? Do I need to modify the direction of the poem because the available words are steering me another way? It’s resulted in some surprising, surreal turns that I might not have taken in a standard free verse poem. It’s a kind of freedom nested within the restrictions, which can in turn empower me to explore more playfully when I approach an empty page.

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

A~Advice I have to remind myself of over and over again — make space for yourself and your work. That includes time and energy for both the writing itself and the things that reinvigorate your writing, like reading, attending poetry events, walking, stretching, meditating, or anything that helps keep words alive for you. It’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day routine of work and chores and TV binge watching and on and on — to the extent that time passes, and the work you love has been forgotten. Often my moods are influenced by how much or how little I’m connecting with my own writing. It doesn’t have to be daily, but regularly creating that space to write, to read, to interact with words is so essential.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I’m currently reading several poetry books at the moment. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar is blowing my mind with its beauty and inventiveness regarding both lyric and form. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is so moving in how it approaches its exploration of race. And, I’m also enjoying Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar, a beautiful chapbook that explores female agency through horror tropes. 

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?

A~The poetry scene in the Bay Area, California is amazing. There seems to be readings, slams, open mics, or other events going on just about every week, whether in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, or other towns. It’s fantastic to have this community so close at hand, and I value all the amazing creators around me, who inspire me with their words and generosity. They make me want to work harder and improve my craft.

I’ve gone through periods when I was participating or witnessing in many of these events on a minimum of a monthly basis, but lately I’ve been hermiting, tucked away in the quiet of my own home. I miss this community and camaraderie, and part of me wants to feel guilty about not being more active than I have in the past. But, I’m giving myself space to just be quiet in this way, providing support as much as I can from a distance, with the understanding that there’s no wrong way to poet, and sometimes you just need space for a while. I’ll jump back in when I’m ready.

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

A~A couple of my Pantheon poems have been published online, which can be read here: “Carrie White: Our Lady of Blood” and “Sarah Connor: Our Lady of Self Determination.” I’ve also been working on a series of found poems assembled from words in Stephen King’s The Plant, a number of which can be found at Quail Bell, including: “Morning, Wrapped in Maple and Pine,” “A Fallen Heaven,” “A Wake,” “I Have Tried to Explain,” “A Last Missive,” and “Student of More.”   Some examples of the collaborative poetry I write with Laura Madeline Wiseman can be found here. I can also be reached on Twitter and Instagram, through my email newsletter, or via my website.