Tag Archives: free verse

Jeopardy / An interview with poet Chella Courington

Jeopardy

by Chella Courington

My father built biceps working for US Steel
smelting iron in heat that humbled men.

Now I could break his arm
over my knee, brittle as kindling.

My father used to let me walk up his body
balancing my hands on his fingertips

till I flew from his shoulders. They began to sag
after my mother passed. Rising at night, no moon out,

she collapsed in the dark and never woke
as once my father fell when a clot in his head

tossed him down. He speaks of my mother
rubbing his back with eucalyptus oil and saves hair

from her brush, strands he wraps in Kleenex.
At night with his whiskey, facing Jeopardy, my father

drifts off to Kargasok.
In the Russian mountains women live to be 105.

So do their men, eating dried cod with mushroom tea,
making love last forever.

Originally appeared in Avatar Review, Spring 2010

IMG_4572 (1)

Chella Courington is a writer and teacher. With a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and an MFA in Poetry, she is the author of six poetry and three flash fiction chapbooks. Her poetry appears in numerous anthologies and journals. Originally from the Appalachian South, Courington lives in California.

Chella says of her style, “I’m not much of a formalist. I’d describe most of my poetry as free verse with a tendency toward couplets. Why couplets? I write a lot about relationships, often the interaction of two people, and couplets seem to fit the content.”

Bekah and Chella’s work appeared together in July in Chantarelle’s Notebook. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us about your poem,”Jeopardy.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~I write often about the past–friends, lovers, family. I grew up in Appalachian Alabama in the 60s and had a love/hate relationship with both my parents. They reflected many of the social and political views of the rural South then (and unfortunately now). On the other hand, my dad, who grew up poor in a mining town during the Depression, encouraged me in unconventional behavior. He wanted me to be educated and self-sufficient–intellectually and financially. My dad lived to be ninety-three so I had time to know him as one adult to another and time to talk about and mend the rips between us. Looking back I’m more forgiving.

“Jeopardy” is an homage to his loving nature that survived his early years of abuse by a mean stepfather and found safety in the home of his high school coach. Some of the poem’s details like saving my mother’s hair and being felled by a clot are imagined. Other details like working for US Steel and letting me fly from his shoulders are lived. The first draft came easily as Dad still mourned the loss of my mother. But it took about a year for the poem to reach its current form. Thinking about “Jeopardy,” I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”: “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle” (11-12).

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Largely an interior writer, I love the process of writing and really don’t think too much about audience until late revision. I write in the bed, surrounded by my furry boys and books. After putting on earphones, I enter another world. In the morning after waking, I write though late night to about 2 a.m. is my optimum time. I’ve always loved the night and the feeling of isolating myself.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~I feel as if poetry and short flash fiction (less than 500 words) reflects the way my imagination works. I think and feel in terms of words, phrases, and images. I gravitate toward stream-of-consciousness and like to create out of that unedited writing.

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

A~Write from the gut. Go to that dark place you want to avoid. Explore those issues that make you sick to your stomach. That’s where the poem is. I give myself this advice every day.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?

A~I’m a white, privileged, bisexual woman from rural Alabama. As a child I was sexually abused by the Baptist minister’s foster son and have been sexually harassed for much of my professional life. My poetry is largely female-centered about issues that girls and women struggle with. The personal is political. Recently, I’ve worked with Greek myth, looking at those women whose stories weren’t told because women weren’t telling the stories. For instance, I imagine different poetic truths out of the mouths of Medusa, Medea, Leda, Eurydice et al. Much of the #MeToo Movement echoes the silenced history of these Greek archetypes.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

 A~Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” when I was sixteen. My eleventh-grade English teacher handed the class section one and asked us to respond. Like many teenagers, I was a disconsolate kid, always feeling alone and seeking something more. I felt like a lost soul and poetry became my refuge. A couple of years later I read Plath’s “Daddy” and felt confirmed. As Audre Lorde says, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~If Not, Winter Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson; The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald; Tropicalia by Emma Trelles; and Averno by Louise Gluck

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

A~No Fee Calls for Poems Hosted by Trish Hopkinson

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

A~Check out “In My Story,” “Eurydice,” and “The Pond Heron.” Also, “Passage,” “Taking It Home,” and “Snake Skin” in Still. More poetry (& flash fiction) can be found by googling my name. You can also connect with me on my website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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Spinster’s Shroud / an interview with poet Ren Powell

Spinster’s Shroud

by Ren Powell

She has fashioned for herself
a gown
++++++of hollowed egg shells
and white thread.

She has taken from the clasp and string
her great-grandmother’s pearls
and arranged the four hundred sixty-eight
++++++fawn moonscapes
to hang in their stead.

An undergarment of ivy
++++++woven to lift the dry shells
from her naked collarbones
is interwoven with the wild orchids
that adorn the bodice.

The crinoline is formed of dried bundles
of bugleweed, saved from midsummer picking –
++++++eight times in youth
and twenty-seven times
++++++since.

She has trimmed the hem with holly.
A train of evergreen.

She saves for the last
++++++to tie the knot.

Breaking the thread with her teeth
sliding the needle into the cushion
leaving open the door
++++++to the coop.

(Mercy Island. Phoenicia Publishing: Montreal.  2011)

Ren Powell web 2018 copy (1)Ren Powell was born in California but has settled in Norway. She has six full-length collections of poetry, and more than two dozen books of translations. Her sixth collection The Elephants Have Been Singing All Along was published in 2017. Her poems have been translated and published in six languages.

Ren 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 about “Spinster’s Shroud.” How is it representative of your work?

A~Yeah, so here is a strange woman doing strange things. But more than that, I can see my tendency to focus on whatever little facts fascinate me. This poem was inspired by an article I read about a Swedish midsummer ritual where unmarried women put bugleweed under their pillows, so they will dream of the man they’re going to marry. If I were to write this poem today, I would work harder to add all that information to the poem, rather than play hit and miss that anyone gets the allusion. But that’s a good thing, I think: to know how I want to improve as a writer.

I like numbers. I like precision – it grounds things for me. I also like irony and shadow narratives. In this case: the shroud being a wedding dress, “tie the knot” her marriage with a man at this late stage of her life – or with death itself. There the sexual imagery of the needle and cushion, and the freedom of abandonment – either sexual or spiritual.

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

A~This one flowed. But having said that, it flowed in a series of edits over a couple of months. It began as a four-line poem and grew. Most of the time my editing process is about adding and filling out, not cutting. But the song – the melody – was there from the beginning.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Slow. I try to listen to the dragons. Catch the melody first and then let it grow. I sit down at the desk. Light a candle. Set the chimes to mark a beginning and end, and I listen. I write a lot of crap. I repeat myself a lot. I obsess about how everything in the world is round. I forgive myself for all the crap. I start again.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~In grad school, my mentor once called me a post-modern modernist. I’m not exactly sure that that means, but I do think that I have been more influenced by the Imagists than I would like at this point. I think that sometimes I make the reader work too hard. I grew up thinking that great poetry was academic and necessarily intertextual. I was later hugely influenced by Robert Bly’s book Leaping Poetry, and maybe that combination made some of my writing too inaccessible, for even my own taste these days. It is a fine line to walk, isn’t it: accessible poetry vs. pedestrian verse?

I think my “style” is continually evolving, and I am proud of that. I am often influenced by the music of writers I have translated. I like experimentation: free verse, nonce verse, respectful rip-offs of forms that aren’t directly translatable from other languages. I have a penchant for scientific facts used as metaphors for our internal/emotional lives. I would say that I tend to stick more to themes than styles. I am fascinated by the unreliability of memory, and as another poet once said of my work, I write “poems about strange women doing strange things.”

In contrast with a lot of contemporary poetry, my writing is still primarily for the page (which is odd, since I work in the theater). I like to play with line breaks, indentations and white space. Often, I invite the reader to read both left to right, and down columns, or grouped with indentations to indicate correlations.

Q~Why do you write poetry?

A~Honestly, because I don’t sing very well. When I write poetry, and it flows, I feel a kind of catharsis similar to singing drunk in the bathtub: it’s an emotional and physical release. It’s like orgasm. It’s like running. I wonder if any scientist will ever hook up with a poet and measure their serotonin and oxytocin and all that, just as she finishes the line that pulls it all together. I would volunteer.

Q~On Twitter, you mention that your two passions are writing and running. Do you see a connection between the two?

A~I think running clears the space for me to write. I run in the mornings and then come home and write for fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the workday. Running is about breathing and taking in the smells and sounds of the world. It’s about listening. I had a project a few years ago called Running Metaphors that I’m excited to be starting up again from my blog and on Instagram.

Q~You said you have an “ambivalence and confusion regarding social media and what being part of a poetry ‘community’ means.” Can you explain what you mean?

A~Norway doesn’t have a tradition of academic writing programs in the Universities. My whole goal of getting a PhD and becoming “a poet” (i.e. teaching poetry at a university) and finding a tribe (as they say) went *poof* when I decided to stay here in Norway. I live here, and I write in English. That makes me an outsider. I am lucky to have an amazing translator, but I’ll always be considered an American poet by my colleagues here.

And yet, having been here so long, I no longer write to the American experience, and especially these days, that makes me an outsider in virtual poetry communities.

I don’t go to conferences or residencies. I see Instagram posts with hashtags like #poetshavingfun and get as jealous as a teenager. I guess I still crave the validation and community I’d planned for and imagined.

But then, I get eyes off the computer and go for a run, handwrite a poem in my journal and remember it was all a consumer package that I wanted. This is what I’ve got, and I make it work.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

A~I honestly believe that a poet’s job is to be the antidote to the incorrect belief that we are unique as individuals, as a particular generation, or as specific cultures. I believe that art in general is about communicating the human experience: to alleviate both isolation and narcissism.

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

A~Will I sound like a jerk if I say don’t fetishize “being a poet”? I’ve slipped into that a few times. It made rejection much more painful than it needed to be. The fact that I don’t really belong to poetry community question whether or not I’m really “a poet”. I think it’s especially difficult these days with social media, and with the neo-liberal demand for us all to brand and sell ourselves. I’m not good at that part, not good at networking, and if I focus too much on those aspects of poetry, I stop writing. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I doubt I am the only person who has struggled with this desire for approval, and this need to find a persona of sorts to market. You know that song from Gypsy? “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. When I start getting stressed about publishing and selling books, I hum that song and remind myself not to take any of it too seriously.

Just write.

I am also really terrible at tackling criticism. I read a critique and start cursing and telling my partner what an idiot the person is… then I put everything in a drawer and forget about it for a week. Then I read it again and can actually take it in and learn from it. And even be grateful for it.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?

A~I think I write about outsiders and secrets.

They say that we can work through our personal traumas by working with narratives – changing them, creating perspectives. I think I do that. I am also drawn to other people’s deep experiences, I am curious about them. About the humanness of it all – the good, the bad. The way we hand over our narratives, intentionally or not. I think we all have secrets from ourselves, too. What is stashed in our mitochondria? I am fascinated by the secrets of the non-human world: how we have only recently learned that elephants talk to each other all the time, and we just can’t hear it because it’s subsonic: a secret language – the entire human species as outsider.

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

A~Oh, this year has been extremely difficult for me. Last July, a congenital defect in my pelvis revealed itself (after all these years) by causing life-threatening blood clots. I was rushed to the hospital with blue lights and siren blaring, and I’ve had a difficult time processing it all. I pulled away from poetry (as a genre) and wrote a couple of plays instead. I have only started writing poetry again this summer.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~I think I have eclectic tastes. I don’t like poetry that sounds like platitudes. Or poetry that uses only abstract worlds like love and spirit. I’m drawn to poetry that shows me what I believe is concrete in the world and then dissolves it for me. I’m amazed by poetry that can make me connect a whisker on the muzzle of horse to the memory of a (and my own) first kiss.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Cliché as it sounds, the St. James version of the Bible. Prayers. Then Dr. Seuss. Seriously? Elisabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Actually, I have just picked up Edna St. Vincent Millay again. “Renascence” fascinated me when I was 14.  Reading that poem now, I understand it differently, while carrying with me that 14-year-old’s intuitive response. Being 52, I am excited to read much more of her work in the context of her life – and the context of mine.

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention? Why will we love them?

A~I would say Poetry Internal Web is a great resource for finding new voices. I know that a lot is lost in translation, but a lot is still there – sometimes the translation process opens a poem even wider. I hope it’s okay if I mention Poemeleon? It’s Cati Porter’s baby, and I have been so proud to be associated with it. There will be a new call for poems very soon!

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

A~Most of my books have been published in hardback in Norway. Several are still available from my publisher – or people can email me to help arrange shipping. My selected poems Mercy Island is available in North America from Phoenicia Publishing. I haven’t been good about submitting work these last two years, but I have several poems I am proud of in the online journal Escape into LifeI also have some translations here: https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/26851 I am currently overhauling my website. I am on Instagram and Facebook. I also had a project called This Choice Podcast. It was a way for me to reach out and talk to poets in the states.   I miss it very much.

Of Some Mothers / an interview with poet Naomie Jean-Pierre

Of Some Mothers

by Naomie Jean-Pierre

I have heard it said that / as a bear defends her cubs / so may she maim them / in the process/

how I got here / is no mystery / that I am part miracle and part ecosystem / is truth / wild and sacred / are we / in our natural state / and we are doing life scared / or scarred with seven generations of survival / beneath their / our / my nails

IMG_20180713_182227-01-01-01-01Naomie Jean-Pierre is a MA literature candidate at City College of New York. She hails from Haiti by way of Atlanta. By day, she tutors high schoolers at Countee Cullen library of Central Harlem. By night, she versifies the raw material of daily life.

Naomie’s work was brought to our attention by poet Kay Bell, whom we interviewed here. We offered Kay the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Naomie. Kay says, “I chose Naomie because through her work we connect with themes that are often complex yet relevant. The way she articulates aching is so lovely that we see the thin line between pain and beauty and question if we can even experience one without the other.”

So, here is Kay’s interview with Naomie.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~I think my style is a collection of streams, flowing into one major stream. Sometimes that flow is expressed smoothly like calm waters. Other times, that style is harsh, dangerous waters. The waters of trauma and anger rise, waters of survival and confrontation. My style also speaks from streams like Atlanta (pronounced Ah-lanna), a Haitian-refugee household, Pentecostal pews, and political and social dialectics. So sometimes, my style will be intellectual and other times, it will bleed with the streets that I have walked.

Q~Tell us a little about “Of Some Mothers.” How is it representative of your work?

A~I love to write about generations, about women and about nature. The form of this poem is free and eclipsed at moments by dashes that either disrupt or rush the flow. This is quintessential of my writing in that it attempts to capture something as nuanced as motherhood without casting blame, simply observation. It is like watching a stream flow and noticing the different currents that push the water in this or that direction.

Q~Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~My mother is the bear, and cubs trail not too far behind.

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

A~Most of my poems just come out. If I am writing right, not from a place of intellect, but of dreams and focused feelings, then the poem will write itself. Later, I return with small tweaks here and there to make sense of the raw feeling that is hidden within.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~I hate that almost nobody ever really knows what I am saying. When I write, I have to chip at the raw material of my senses for a long time. I have been guilty of over-doing it and worst, writing to be understood.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

 A~The poet is a prophet, I think. And, some prophets prophesy through intercession, through weeping. Others, by hurling stones or travelling through wildernesses. Some wait on walls and watch for a word. Some prophets sit in wells and feed on very little. They eat from the mouth of ravens. I think overall, though that no matter what kind of prophet, a poet’s role is to be a mouthpiece, an instrument for society to hear again. Poetry is the song of the soul. It’s pain, comfort, lessons, love–all of these aspects of our flesh made word. Those moments that are deeply impossible to articulate, those songs that are muted, resonate and sound on a poet’s tongue. Once they land, we share something that reminds us all that we are more than flesh, even something more than what can even be worded. We can be reconciled to one another. As such, poets remind society and the individual that it is possible to author new agreements between one another.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

 A~The youngin’ in me wants to say Langston Hughes. It was because of him that I traveled to South Africa, that I came to Harlem. I would stare at a photograph of him in his youth. In his hands, he held a book but I could not take my eyes off his knuckles. I could sense the struggle despite the smoothness of his skin. The strain between his fingers made his knuckles protrude, an image that reminds me of that iconic photograph image of the enslaved man’s back. You know the one. It look like someone carved a tree onto his back. Well, that is what Langston’s poems did for me, and I would be lying if I said it ended with me at 14 or 21 or 27.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Nowadays I am revisiting Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and Rita Dove.

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

A~I would say to not war with time. Let every rejection and confirmation of your words secure you into something that is unshakable. For me, that unshakable security is in the fact that I write for an audience of one. That one is not even myself, because there have been dozens of times where I wanted to throw my children away. But, no. That one for me is God, who I feel sometimes over my shoulder saying ‘Keep that. That’s good.’ In time, what I keep becomes something that keeps me.

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

 A~A short story and a collection of short essays can be found in Fiction Magazine.  A website is coming soon.

kaybellKay Bell has been published in the book Brown Molasses Sunday: An Anthology of Black Women Writers, Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, The Write Launch, as well as other venues. She considers herself a bibliophile and lives in the Bronx with her sons, Zaire and Morocco, and their tabby cat, Chad. Her website is www.iamkaybell.com

my allergy pills / an interview with poet Marisa Crane

my allergy pills

by Marisa Crane

 

come with a warning label: may

cause depression or severe

mood swings   my head throbs like the grinch’s

holiday heart   there’s snot on the sleeve of my hoodie

i am sick you are sick we are all sick

we practice building artificial hearts with

fumbling hands

we are palm trees stealing the sunlight

from other plants

our roots are tangled by interminable

insecurities      crooked halos sit on our modern skulls

i was once an island staring

at my reflection

in the water

the original Narcissus but with less beauty

i know there’s a riddle in there somewhere

but i’m too lazy to search for it

 

my lineage began                    with a question mark

my uncle tells me we have native american blood

that my great   great    great

grandmother died of fire-

breathed fury

a snake turned stake in her heart

 

several of my ancestors were named

thankful           i’d like to sit down to dinner

with each one of them            wipe the drool from their mouths

find out

where it all went wrong

First appeared in Free Library of the Internet Void 2018.

mcranewebsite

Marisa Crane is a fiction writer, poet, and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Drunk Monkeys, Pidgeonholes, X-R-A-Y Magazine, Riggwelter Press, among others. She is the co-founder and editor of Collective Unrest, an underground resistance magazine featuring poetry, prose, art, photography, and music intended to promote feelings of political unrest, social unity, human rights, and social justice. You can read more of her work at www.marisacrane.org. She currently lives in San Diego with her fiancée.

Marisa says of her style, “As of now, I write all of my poems in free verse. It’s typically hard for me to adhere to any rules within my writing, whether it be poetry or fiction. That being said, I’m also still learning, so maybe in time my style will change. Actually, I hope my style changes. That will mean that I’m growing and experimenting.”

Bekah and Marisa’s work—including the poem above—both recently appeared together in Collection II of Free Library of the Internet Void. We wanted to know more about Marisa and her work, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “my allergy pills.” How is it representative of your work?

A~The poem is confessional and earnest, yet a little playful at the same time. It is also somewhat self-deprecating, which is a bad/good habit of mine.

Q~Is there a backstory to the poem you want to share?

A~This poem was born because I was examining a bottle of allergy pills I had been prescribed after having had bronchitis for three months. I had every intention of taking them until I read the warning label, which listed possible side effects. They were far worse than having allergies. Mood swings, severe depression, suicidal thoughts. I thought, nah, I think I’ll stick with red eyes and a stuffy nose. I wanted to use the poem to explore the side effects of trying to fix ourselves.

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~Absolutely. I think I continue to explore certain themes, because there’s always more to discover and excavate. The subjects I find myself consistently writing about include depression, anxiety, my experience as a lesbian, passivity, and human connection. They all resonate with me because they are all very personal topics.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~It is the human heart on fire.

 Q~Tell us more about Collective Unrest. Why did you found it? What do you hope to accomplish?

A~My friend, Mat, and I had this idea for a magazine that is solely focused on social justice, humanity, and unity. We are both anti-Trump and everything that he and his administration stand for, as are hundreds of thousands of artists around the world. But Trump is just one piece of the puzzle. As much as we despise him, there has been injustice in the world ever since human beings came to be. We want to highlight the human experience in the face of discrimination, cruelty, abuse, oppression, or otherwise. We want to humanize the victims of injustice through their art and expression. Our goal is to create a safe space for people who are feeling unsettled, terrified, angry, and powerless.

Q~You have a very large Instagram following. How did you cultivate such a following? What do you enjoy about the medium?

A~I didn’t necessarily mean to cultivate such a large Instagram following. It all happened pretty organically, and I think it helps that I began posting my work right before the boom of Instagram poetry (which is going downhill now, and fast). I can remember sitting on my couch in 2012 reading a poem by Tyler Knott Gregson, which had been typed on a typewriter. He had thousands of likes on a piece that was, in my opinion, pretty basic. Not to say that it wasn’t intriguing or good, but it was short and easily digestible, which made it perfect for people scrolling quickly. I figured I’d take a stab at it, so I began posting some of my shorter poems on my Instagram, which had about 300 followers at the time. I even forgot to put my name under a few of them. For a while, nothing happened, and I didn’t care. I wasn’t posting to become Instagram famous. Then, I think sometime in 2014 some bigger poetry accounts, like Christopher Poindexter, began reposting my work, and it snowballed from there. I don’t particularly enjoy the medium anymore, as I feel that it’s on its way out. Instagram changed their algorithm, and it hurt engagement for a lot of people. I’m basically just riding it out until it becomes null and void.

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

A~I’d like to offer some advice about submitting. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the cycle of writing a piece, loving it, submitting it, then experiencing the come-down if you get rejected or the temporary high if you get accepted. Every rejection is like a demon punching me in the gut then whispering, “You aren’t cut out for this.” Every acceptance is a greedy angel patting me on the back then saying, “But you aren’t there yet. There’s so much more you need to accomplish.”

For me personally, this cycle has bordered on an addiction at times, and it’s unhealthy. I found myself losing sight of why I began to write in the first place. I had to take a step back, stop submitting, and simply write for the enchantment. For the act of creation, rather than the judgment of it. Ultimately, you write because it enriches your life. No matter what your goals are, don’t let someone steal the magic. A rejection letter doesn’t define you.

Q~How can others connect with you and read more of your work?

A~ My website is www.marisacrane.org. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Trying to Return Home / an interview with poet Jennifer Maritza McCauley

When Trying to Return Home

by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

In the morning, I leave a panaderia on SW 137th
and a Miami browngirl sees my face
and says de dónde eres Miami or Not?
And I say Not, because I live in this blue city now
but she means where are your  parents from
and I tell her I have a Daddy who is Lou-born
and coal-dark and looks like me and I have a Mami
who is from Puerto Rico and looks like the trigena
in front of us who is buying piraquas for her yellow children.

The browngirl says eres Latina at least, and I say at least
in English. I look down at my skin, which is black, but
smells blue by the shores of Biscayne. She thinks my skin could
speak Spanish, a los menos. I want to tell the browngirl I was not born
by ocean rims or white-scuffed waves. I was not born
beside browngirls who speak Miami’s itchy Spanish. I was born
where my culture rarely bloomed—amongst Northern steel-dust and
dead skies, where my two-colored parents stuck out at any
Pittsburgh party. I want to tell her, I would love to be the type of girl
that says soy de Somewhere and everyone says, “Girl, I see”
or “you’re una de las nuestras
or “you belong.”

I want to tell her, you are right, in this blue city, I look like everybody
and everybody looks like me, and this is the thing I’ve always wanted:
to be in a crowd where nobody remembers my skin. I’ve wanted
this when I was a child, amongst grey buildings and steel-dust
where they called me unloved and weird-colored but here, mija,
I smell like blue and people who look like Mami can say funny
things like at least, at least.

Instead, I smile at the browngirl and she does not smile back.
Instead she says, in Spanish: If you are Latina, you should be so,
speak Spanish to me. And I say, in English: Yes, I could
but I am afraid, and she laughs in no language and judges me.

I want to tell her the history of my family-gods. They are rainforest-hot,
cropland-warm, dark with every-colored skin. They have mouths
that sound like all kinds of countries. I want to tell her these gods
live wild and holy in me, in white and blue cities where my skin
is remembered or forgotten, in cities where I am always one thing, or
from anywhere.

I want to tell the browngirl this while she turns and walks off.
I want to tell her that when she came to me, thinking I was hers
in that moment we were together,

at least.

First appeared in Aspasiology 2016.

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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 PleiadesColumbia Journal, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

Jennifer says her style “depends on the subject matter, the genre I’m writing, or the speaker.” She says, “I enjoy free-verse and experimental poetry and I’m drawn to prose poem/lyric essay hybrids. With fiction or non-fiction, I like my narrative voice to fit the environment I’ve created. I generally have an interest in the pop and snap of language, and the intense focus on an image. I love playing around with linguistic mash-ups. My real-life voice code-switches often, and that impulse is reflected in my writing, I’m sure.”

Bekah and Jennifer connected after a review of Jennifer’s new collection, SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. We wanted to know more about this fellow Missouri poet and her writing, so here is our interview with Jennifer.

Q~Tell us a little about “WhenTrying to Return Home.” How is it representative of your work?

A~I’m interested in narrative poetry, how a poem moves, and how color holds literal and metaphorical meaning. In this poem, I wanted to tell multiple stories that explore the intersections of Afro-Latinidad, and issues of belonging, race, and cultural displacement.

Q~Did this poem come easily or was it hard to write? Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~It took some time! I wasn’t sure if I was ready to write about my own cultural disconnections yet. I was reading poetry that forced me out of my comfort zone, namely Nancy Morejon, and Cherrie Moraga, who are fearless. A few months later, I was asked to write a poem for Aspasiology in tribute to the wonderful poet Raquel Salas Rivera. I was inspired by Rivera’s poem  “suprasegmentacionalidades,” which has this terrific line “you are so much more than your translation. My jumping off point was thinking about how we are “more than our translation.” “When Trying to Return Home” (slowly) emerged soon after.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Scattershot! Some pieces come out fast, others take years. I like writing late at night, and during writing sessions I warm up by reading something completely unrelated to my creative leanings. I’m a day-reader, and a night writer, unless I have a deadline. During the day, I’ll usually read work that is related to my research, composition exams, or creative writing. When I have a writing session, and I’m especially stuck, I like to read a short bit of something, but preferably unrelated to my project, sonically or subject-wise. I like my brain clear of direct influences. It might be a weird process, but the tension between me trying to figure out some problem on the page myself versus reading something unrelated to the project, helps me find my voice purely and gets the creative juices flowing. And most literature channels the human experience, so regardless I find access points and inspiration.

Before I started writing my historical novel, for example, which is set in the South during the Reconstruction Era, I spent much of my time reading as much Southern and period lit as I could, while doing on-site research and poring over history texts. During the actual writing sessions, when I hit a wall, I’d read Ezra Pound, Percival Everett or Pynchon. Completely unlike how I write and generally unrelated to the book. Before I write fiction, I often read poetry and vice versa. Many of the poems in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF I wrote at various times over the past few years, but before the actual writing sessions, I remember reading Lao Tzu passages,Octavia Butler interviews and Stanisław Lem, to name a few. I encourage my students to read outside of their interests, and I like doing the same. This isn’t a set rule for me during the writing process, but I find the trick helpful.

Q~In the review of your book in the Post Dispatch, they said you illustrate “with lyrical resonance how deeply intertwined family and social history can be.” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of this to you?

A~A through-line in my work, and especially in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is how history, political landscapes, and familial ties influence who we become. I also like using poetry and lyric essays to explore subjects that are intensely personal to me. In this book, I wanted to examine how our ancestors, cultural communities and our connections to them reveal why we have scars, and how we heal them. It was important to me to pick apart my relationship to the collective, the personal, and the familial.

Q~Why did you choose the title, SCAR ON / SCAR OFF?

A~The title is a reference to the Rosa Parks quote: “Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off of it over and over again.” The “you” and the “place” in that quote haunted me. Who the “you” and what the “place” of hurt could be, reflexively, generally and specifically. In Parks’ life, in the lives of my family, friends and communities, and in my life. I thought about why scars show up on our bodies, and when. We can ignore them, but still know they’re there. We can willfully pick at them or let them heal. The process of acknowledging, feeling bound to, or ignoring our pasts is its own kind of strength because we are taking back our agency. And, the scars that haunt our bodies might not be our own.

I was working on an essay about not liking my name and being distantly related to Rosa Parks and when I found that quote, I was inspired. My late friend, Monica A. Hand, wrote brilliantly about how the women we look up to linger forever in our lives in her poem “dear nina.” Her quote “The women I am from are wild; beautiful/This is what I know/When Lucille died, I tell my grand daughter/We are like Lucille trouble in the waters can’t kill us…” addresses scar-sharing and love, and the regenerative, healing power of connecting with our families, heroes, and children. The Parks and Hand quotes are epigraphs in the book. So, the title references ideas I wanted dig into in this collection.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Pablo Neruda, because my mother used to read his poetry to me as a kid, in Spanish and English. Toni Morrison, because her novels are like a tight hug; her prose is poetic.

Q~You’ve had a lot of experience editing literary journals including being a contest editor for the prestigious Missouri Review. What insights can you offer from this perspective?

A~I’ve been fortunate to work for journals with editors who give their staff, writers, and collaborators a great deal of creative space. In the editorial roles I’ve inhabited (The Missouri Review, Origins Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Florida Book Review, Sliver of Stone, and Fjords Review), there has been a genuine interest in developing the journal with the times, while maintaining a cohesive vision.

Working at The Missouri Review has been special. As Contest Editor, I coordinate our two annual contests, and, in the past, I’ve read general submissions and conducted audio interviews. Our editor Speer Morgan has a deep love for literature and enjoys talking to people about their day-to-day lives just as much as he loves reading. The whole staff is excited about what we publish and the submissions we read; it’s a fun, productive place to work.

Every journal has a different process for acceptance, and a unique vision for each issue. The Missouri Review has been around since 1978, and we get about 12,000 submissions per year. Submissions go through several rounds of review with interns and senior staff before they are published, and each contest has its own review procedures. There are many pieces that are almost accepted, but don’t make it for whatever reason. We don’t have room for everything we love, but writers who don’t get into TMR or place in the contest, often get into the journal later. We enjoy publishing unpublished, up-and-coming, and established writers. At the core Speer wants the essay, story, or poem to have an “about-ness” to it, that it can be analyzed from different angles and has something interesting to say about the human condition. At Origins, which is edited by the marvelous Dini Karasik, we like stories, poems, and essays that directly explore how identity and upbringing inform a literary work. I’m happy I worked for every literary journal I have, and I always encourage writers to read submissions for a magazine, literary agency or publishing house, even temporarily. You learn a lot about your own writing from the experience. And submit, submit, submit!

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

The Missouri Review is currently looking for submissions for our 11th annual audio contest, judged by Avery Trufelman. (Deadline, March 15). Origins Literary Journal is looking for submissions in all genres. Some of my other favorite journals are Pleiades, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, LunaLuna, Glass Poetry, Kenyon Review, PANK, Vinyl, Kweli, Chicago Quarterly Review,  The Journal, Sliver of Stone, Fjords Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and TriQuarterly. My amazing friend Ashley M. Jones, is looking for submissions from Southern writers at Southern Humanities Review. These journals take an interest in writers from all backgrounds and styles, and the work they publish is consistently engaging.

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

A~My book is available on Stalking Horse Press’s website, on Amazon.com. Links to my work are on my website. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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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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