Tag Archives: fairy tales

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.

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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.

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We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger / an interview with poet Sarah Kain Gutowski

We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger

by Sarah Kain Gutowski

The woman doesn’t want to eat the bird, or the moth,
or swath her tongue in gnats or fruit flies.

Her tongue will not bend the way her mind dictates, in the way
her arm, sometimes late at night, abdicates the bed’s realm

and travels through the forest on its own. She feels a kind of static
where it used to lie, like a cloud of bees buzzing at her shoulder.

She dreams that her dismembered arm, a white branch stark
against the dark oak leaves, swings between the trees

and then crawls on its fingertips along the ground.
Her nail beds fill with black, wet earth. Her forearm glows

with the nighttime’s condensation: a slick, pale ember
in the moon’s occasional light. Beams push through the forest canopy,

highlight the crook of her elbow bent above a spider’s lattice,
or hooked around a clump of brush. Her arm, absent from sleep,

has great adventures. And then she wakes and shifts her weight,
only to discover something cold and clammy in the sheets beside her,

a lump of flesh she cannot call her own. Her other arm,
the one remaining in her bed, loyal until the end,

investigates by lifting the offending, foreign object
and then, in shock, dropping it.  It slaps against the mattress

and then the pain begins, the necessary hurt that comes
with reattachment. The cloud of bees lengthens and attacks,

a hundred stingers lodged inside her skin, and dissipates
like fog obscured by burning sun. And then she is aware

that her arm was always there, by her side,
and neither part, arm or mind, is happy when she awakes.

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Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast: The Sow (Hyacinth Girl Press) and a Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, where she teaches writing and literature. Her writing has been published most recently in Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism and Painted Bride Quarterly.

She says it’s difficult to describe her style: “I’m certainly not experimental although I’m constantly trying new-for-me things in my work. I write a good deal of free verse, but I’m very interested in forms and what those restrictions can do for me in the act of creation, and how ultimately the form will support any kind of meaning.”

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

Q~Tell us a little about “We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger.” How is it representative of your work?

A~This is from a fairy tale I wrote mostly with Spenserian stanzas but occasionally with these free verse poem “breaks” – kind of like the way a child interrupts a story with her questions as the parent reads to her. I like longer works, series of lyric poems that can tell a narrative. I’m a little in love with narrative.

Q~Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~This poem, the woman mentioned in it, is the protagonist of the fairy tale, a woman with a frog tongue who goes the way most (non-Disney) fairy tale heroines go – transformed through her trials, for better or for worse.

Currently, I’m making a poetry video out of this poem with one of my colleagues, Paul Turano, who’s a film editor and all around fantastic guy. He’s very patient with the fact that I have big ideas but little idea of how to execute them. The video **might** be ready by the end of April.

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

A~It came more easily than the rest of the fairy tale, partially because it was “triggered” by a question from my eldest daughter, to whom I was reading the fairy tale as I was creating it. She asked me, “Mama, couldn’t she eat a fly? Because she has a frog tongue.”

And, this was the weird answer that came out.

Q~What appeals to you about fairy tales?

A~Fairy tales — as a part of traditional literature like fable and myth, intended to explain our world while keeping us entertained by it —  pair the violently weird and inexplicable with attempts at constructing or exemplifying a moral code — and because fairy tales attempt these two things at the same time, they’re always going to fail in one way but succeed in another. I guess that’s what appeals to me — the mixture of failure and success, the way they demonstrate how human we are (while often employing inhuman, magical characters). The weird, violent side of fairy tales has always fascinated me and fascinates many writers. There are so many good fairy tales out there. Have you seen Del Toro’s The Shape of Water? It follows Vladmir Propp’s morphology of the fairy tale exactly — it’s so good. (Maybe not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth — that film is exquisite —  but it’s pretty damn good.)

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Anne Sexton. I still feel like no one writes weird the way Sexton does. I don’t return to her as much as I do my later loves (Bishop, James Wright, Glück, Walcott), but I love the strangeness of her metaphors and images and the way they also make a bodily – visceral – sense to me. The acknowledgment and value of physical sensation that’s present in Sexton’s work – the way it’s as important as emotions and intellect in our very makeup, our personhood – is probably something I’ve always gravitated toward in all poetry. It’s something I strive to include and address with my own writing . . . so I’d say she made a pretty big impression on me.

Q~I’d say you accomplished that visceral quality in “We Surrender Our Dreams to Hunger” with the dismembered arm. Who are you reading now?

A~Ashley M. Jone’s debut collection of poems, Magic City Gospel. She’s going to be the featured reader at a creative writing festival we hold at Suffolk in the spring, and her work is a fantastic deconstruction of personal history, the history of the South, and contemporary politics – laying bare the complex connections between all three. I’m also rereading Amy Leach’s book of funny, whimsical, super smart essays, Things That Are, because the collection brings me so much joy. Also also, I’m finishing up J. Marc Harding’s wonderful, dark novel, Drowning in Sand. Also also also, I’m 1/8 into about fifteen different books because I WANT TO READ ALL OF THE THINGS, AND I DON’T HAVE TIME. Ahem.

Q~You’ve been applying for writing residencies. What is the appeal? What do you think it will do for your writing?

A~The appeal is tenfold right now. I teach full-time, I run a couple of different projects at the college, and I have a husband and three children. I’ve built a very full and amazing life with the college and my family, but it often means that quiet time, reflective time – which is very important to me personally and essential to my writing – is scarce. I try to carve it out regularly, in mornings before kids wake up, occasionally at night after everyone’s in bed, but deep work — becoming totally and wholly immersed in creation – doesn’t happen often, and it’s something that’s also necessary (for me) for larger projects, like the play I’ve been working on for ** gulp ** almost seven years. So . . . the appeal is the solace, the quiet, the opportunity for thinking and working. In the end, I hope residencies will allow me to draft. I can revise like a champ with all of the other life-stuff happening around me. But drafting, for me, needs alone-ness. A lot of it.

Q~How has being a college instructor changed your own writing?

A~It’s kept me very engaged with the work of other writers and artists and thinking about craft and how and why I make the choices I make with my writing. I may not have as much time to put pen to paper as I’d like, but because of my teaching I’m constantly thinking about the purpose and function and effects of what we write, and how what we write is part of a larger conversation with the work of our contemporaries, the work of writers in the past, and the work of future writers. These are issues I bring to my students with each class, be it a writing or a literature class. And, then when I do have time to put pen to paper, all of these thoughts shape my writing, or are contained within the writing itself.

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

A~I’m still working on dealing with rejection myself, but a genuine focus on process over product helps. You really cannot help whether or not other people want to invest time and energy in your work. But, you can control the time and energy YOU invest in your work, to an extent; and if you’re putting time and energy into the work, you damn well better derive genuine joy and energy from the act of writing. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with a bitter, small inner life dominated by resentment. (I’ve been near that precipice before – I try to be conscious of staying as far from it as I can.)

Celebrating – again, genuinely – the work of other writers helps, too. It’s a good reminder that shared writing is part of a larger conversation, and that we can’t all speak at the same time, or nothing is heard.

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What are some literary gems you feel deserve more attention? Why will we love them?

A~BOMB magazine is amazing. A quick disclaimer – I am not always in love with their choices when they publish poetry or fiction. But, I absolutely adore their conversations between thinkers and creatives. I began reading BOMB in college, and it blew my little mind. You can be a poet and still find their interviews with architects and sculptors completely and wholly relevant and inspiring.

The Threepenny Review is also phenomenal. It may be “establishment” because it’s one of the oldest literary magazines in the states, and traditional/older lit mags may not print much work that challenges aesthetic norms (and, you know, sometimes that’s what you might be looking for), but it’s unsurpassed in its ability to make connections between ideas and various art forms, bringing together tremendous writers and thinkers and visual artists in each issue. The regular Symposium feature is one of my favorite things ever.

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

A~My web site has links to projects I’m involved with, like an online New Hive collaboration, as well to the journals I’ve been printed in. I’m also on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Readers might also check out the link to my chapbook publisher, Hyacinth Girl Press. I’d love it if they bought copies of Fabulous Beast: The Sow, of course, but there are so many other good authors whose chapbooks have homes there. The press is worth checking out and supporting.

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