Tag Archives: loss

Anne Sexton Talks to God / an interview with poet Jen Rouse

Anne Sexton Talks to God

by Jen Rouse

Anne, frantically twisting
her sea-tossed hair through
her fingers: I’m telling you,
you see, I’ve been here
before. I remember
the way you held me
and then pushed me
back into the water.
I remember! Why won’t
you acknowledge
that I’ve been here?!

God, turned towards
the sunset, back to Anne:
I know. I’m certain,
for you, it felt like that.
For me, it was often you
there, not quite within reach
yet, a tiny bird throwing
herself against the pane
of a window. I wanted
so much for you. But you
wanted your misery
just a little bit more.

Anne rises from the beach,
throws sand at God — her usual
tantrum: That’s a horrible fucking
thing for God to say. You’re not
really God are you? This is
not where I was supposed
to have landed. Where is my
boat, goddamnit?! I’m going.

God, softly, like the voice,
of an ocean, like the arms
of a tide: For some of you, I feel
more maternal, and your struggles
cause me something that manifests
in you as a kind of hellish anguish.
I would’ve let you come sooner, but you
were so strong. You had to do
it yourself. Such a constant dervish.
The unsettled rattle of your brain.

Anne: You could’ve saved me.
God: You could’ve saved yourself.
Anne: Why am I here?
God: You decided to row.

First appeared in Glass Poetry 2018.

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Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Gulf Stream, Mississippi Review, Lavender Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Acid and Tender, was published by Headmistress Press in 2016. Riding with Anne Sexton, Rouse’s second book was recently released from Bone & Ink Press in collaboration with dancing girl press. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter.

Jen’s work was brought to our attention by poet Risa Denenberg, whom we interviewed here. We offered Risa the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Jen. Risa says, “Headmistress Press published Jen Rouse’s first book of poetry, Acid and Tender, in 2016. It was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize; the contest judge for that year was Ellen Bass. I was delighted to learn that Jen’s second book of poetry was being published with the fabulous title Riding with Anne Sexton, and I was totally blown away by this poem (“Anne Sexton Talks to God”), which was published online at Glass: A Journal of Poetry. In looking for more of Jen’s work, I learned that she had two poems published in Poetry in 2002. I was jealous! But also intrigued. Why did it take so many years for such an obviously accomplished poet to publish a first book? And, so pleased that Headmistress Press was given that honor.”

So, here is Risa’s interview with Jen.

Risa Denenberg:   That is a very brilliant poem. When did you first read Sexton’s poem, “Rowing” from The Awful Rowing Toward God? Did a particular line catch you in the throat?

Jen Rouse: So much of Sexton’s “Rowing” is about not fitting in and how the gaze of everyone watching the ways we don’t fit can seem to be constant.  Her line “I wore rubies and bought tomatoes” speaks to me of the ridiculousness of living that she really sought to convey in her final work.  The writing in the entire posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God has this frenetic feeling—the desperation of trying to find some foothold anywhere. And nothing takes. In my poem, I get Sexton to that island, and she has her first conversation with God. I rarely spare anyone (including myself) in my poems, and this piece is no different. Anne wants to understand why God would make her suffer, and God basically tells her: These were your choices. Not mine.

Risa: The poem is from your new book, Riding with Anne Sexton. Mazel tov on its publication! I am very much looking forward to reading it. Can you describe it for us? How can people order it?

Jen: Riding with Anne Sexton is an unflinching portrait of my relationship with mental illness. I use the conceit of a journey with Anne Sexton—a poet who committed suicide at age 45—as a way to examine the darkest and, perhaps, most tragic voices in my head. In an absence of connection and care, the confessional voice of the pieces expresses the constant struggle I face in trying to end suffering, even in the face of great beauty and hope, while capturing what it’s like to remain trapped in a cycle of pain, longing, and loss.

Riding with Anne Sexton is collaboratively published by Bone and Ink Press and dancing girl press. Sending $10 for the book plus $2 for shipping to my PayPal address will get you a copy.

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Risa: You are a poet and a visual artist and also a playwright. How do these arts interact in your life and your work? Do you work on them at the same time or do you work on art or poetry or playwriting at different times?

Jen: When I first start to conceptualize a poem or a play, I often think in images or images pop up while I’m doing research.  Sometimes I draw or paint those images as a way to connect with my subject. Sometimes I draw while I’m writing if I need to approach the poems in a new way.

Risa: How did it feel to have poems published in Poetry in 2002 and then to not have your book, Acid and Tender (which was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize) published until 2016 (by Headmistress Press)? Were you submitting the manuscript and getting rejections during those years? Or, did you take a hiatus from writing poetry?

Jen: Ha! It was the thrill of my life to have a poem next to Maxine Kumin’s in that issue of Poetry. What a trip. And,  it was an even bigger thrill when I got the Headmistress email, saying my first book was accepted.  Such a full heart for Headmistress! I was doing something I hate—clothes shopping—that afternoon, when I checked my phone and the message about my book was there. My sister was with me, and we totally flipped out in the store. The person helping us even gave me an extra discount on my purchase that day.

As for the years in between, I was still writing. I never stop writing. But, I had to do a lot of relationship work during that time. I moved to Iowa with my partner. I finally came out to my mom—because we would be near her in Iowa. I landed my job at Cornell College—where I have been for 15 years now and will go up for full professor this year. I gave birth to my now 13-year- old daughter, Madeline.

Risa: Did you feel that your identity as a poet was marginalized during those years?

Jen: My major mentor, the one who guest edited that issue of Poetry, rejected me when I had our child, basically treating me as though that decision was the one that would end my career as a writer. I’m a very devoted and loyal friend, and the sting of that still lingers. It wasn’t until one of my amazing poet friends—Paulette Beete—from my MFA program at American University asked me to participate in an online writing group that I really started thinking about the trajectory of my writing career, of getting better, of publishing again. A wonderful writing group. I am deeply indebted.

Risa: Who were your gateway poets? Ones who made you feel passionate about reading and writing poetry.

Jen: I only ever wanted boxes filled with poetry books for holidays. When I started struggling with mental illness at 14, I found Plath and Sexton captivating.  Later in high school, I had the biggest aha moment of my life. I only got to see Rich once in person, but on the day of her death I felt like something in me went with her. Later there would be Maureen Seaton, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Louise Glück, and so many more.

Risa:  How do you feel being a lesbian affects your poetry?

Jen: There’s a kind of crazy wonderful courage I’ve developed over the last few years in my writing, especially in publishing poetry, that is very lesbian-centered. I love queering fairytales. I love having heartbreaking muses.  I want everyone to know what a fabulous press Headmistress Press is and how you and Mary Meriam made me excited to be a poet again, excited to have a community. The attention you pay to your authors and their works is truly remarkable.

Risa: Thank you! Is there any advice you want to share with other poets on writing, submitting, dealing with rejection, doing public readings, etc.

Jen: God, I really love every bit of the writing life. I’m too old to think too long about rejection—though when they come with thoughtful criticism I sincerely listen. I am old enough to lift up poets who need a boost in the mix. That’s important to me. I’ve always been a teacher and a learner. As a writer I want to be learning, constantly. When I do readings, I like to think of them as teaching moments. Of connecting with audiences in ways so that we really grapple with the material together.

Risa: How do you balance work life with your writing life? Also with your family/personal life?

Jen: I’m very fortunate to have a stellar community of colleagues at Cornell College. They celebrate my writing successes and promote my work. My last sabbatical really contributed to getting more of my work out into the world. Even though I’m constantly on the run, I believe it’s important to show my daughter that the life of the mind is important. She’s been in the audience for all of my plays. And she even asked if she could give my book, Acid and Tender (Headmistress Press), to two of her favorite teachers. Not that there is anything even close to balance, but I also don’t believe in bemoaning my choices. I live a life of privilege—with rewarding work and healthcare, a brilliant daughter, and supportive friends and family. Even when I struggle with my internal demons, I refuse to take these things for granted.

Risa:  On  lighter note, what are you reading this summer?

Jen: Your magnificent Slight Faith is on my bed, along with Maureen Seaton’s Fisher. I’m also reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

risa (2)Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of LBT poetry. She has published three chapbooks and three full length collections of poetry, including Whirlwind @ Lesbos (Headmistress Press, 2016) and slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018).

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

Love Can Be a Chokecherry

by Juliet Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, have dolls and holes and blood.

Q~Why do you write poetry?

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

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

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

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

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Landing / an interview with poet Jessica Goodfellow

At the Landing

by Jessica Goodfellow

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First published by FIVE:2:ONE Magazine 2018.

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Jessica Goodfellow’s books are Whiteout, Mendeleev’s Mandala, and The Insomniac’s Weather Report. She was a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve. Her work has appeared in Threepenny Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Awl, The Southern Review, Motionpoems, and Best New Poets, and is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2018.

Jessica says of her style, “My educational background is in analytical fields, and I think that shows in my poems—they tend toward the abstract, festooned with logic games and scientific and mathematical vocabulary. I’d like very much to write something with less of an obvious anchor, with more trust in the unconscious tether to the conscious mind. I try to do that—I think it’s important to try to write outside of your comfort zone—but so far, I haven’t succeeded.”

Bekah and Jessica’s work—including the visual poem above—both recently appeared in #thesideshow at FIVE:2:ONE Magazine. We wanted to know more about Jessica and her poetry, so here is our interview with her.

Q~ Tell us a little about “At the Landing.” What was the source material for this piece? What made you choose the stamps?

A~I call each erasure by the title of the short story it came from. I chose Eudora Welty’s short story collection, The Wide Net (Harcourt Brace, 1971), as my source material from the many books on my bookshelf because it has such an evocative vocabulary and also because there was a lot of space between the lines, making it easy to work with on a practical level. I have a box full of international stamps that I’ve been saving for some future project yet unconceived, and one of the erasures I worked on reminded me of a stamp I knew I had. After that I just tried putting them on different erasures, looking for stamps that were thematically relevant. I thought it was pretty unique, but I’ve since seen that Mary Ruefle has used this technique before.

Q~What appeals to you about erasure/visual poetry?

A~This is my first foray into erasure poetry. At the time I erased this piece, my mother-in-law was staying with us for end-of-life care, and I found that though I had vast swaths of free time while she slept, the need to be on-call at all times meant I couldn’t get into the writing space in my head. So, I decided to try erasure instead, and that worked really well for me, possibly because the act of erasing mimicked the experience I was having as I watched my mother-in-law dying, disappearing slowly.

Q~So sorry for your loss. Your new book, Whiteout, is also about loss. I am fascinated to hear more about the book and your experience as writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve. How did that come about?

A~My most recent book is about my uncle who was a mountain climber. He died on Denali in what was, at the time, the worst mountain-climbing accident in US history. I applied to be a writer-in-resident in the park in order to finish that book. I stayed in a one-room cabin out by the Toklat River, with only my sister. We were in the park (Denali National Park and Preserve) for 10 days. Being there gave me an understanding of why my uncle was compelled to do such a dangerous thing as climb Denali. Wandering around the vast park, feeling completely alone in the wild, going places we knew he had been, was profoundly moving. We were there 49 years and one week after he was lost—watching the sun wheel around the sky instead of set in the evening, I knew he had seen that, too. For the park I wrote a series of poems as an artistic donation. They say better than I am doing now what my experience was. Here is one:

The Wandered

My sister’s drawn to clean-edged kettle ponds,
learning how to tell which pools were formed in basins
left behind by glaciers, and which weren’t.

I’m captivated by erratics, empty-house-sized
boulders stranded in a strange land by ice
that melted out from underneath them.

Erratic comes from the Latin errare,
meaning to wander, to stray, to err. We are
not wrong, my sister and I, to feel kindred—

kin and dread—with what remains after
a mammoth force, no longer visible,
has carved out such a tattered landscape.

You can read the others here: https://www.nps.gov/dena/getinvolved/air-goodfellow.htm  Only “Nine Views of Denali” is in my book, because I wanted the park to have some original work not from the book. “The Wandered” is the one I most regret not putting in the book. Kettle ponds are formed by retreating glaciers carving out grooves in the landscape, and leaving meltwater. Erratics are giant boulders that were carried along by glaciers and deposited in a location where they seem out of place–they don’t match the surroundings because they didn’t come from there–many of them may have come from a mountain. Denali National Park and Preserve is dotted with both kettle ponds and glaciers.

Q~ Is there any online resource you would recommend for anyone thinking about a project book, like Whiteout?

A~The Cloudy House is a website of interviews with poets who’ve written project books, curated by poets Cynthia Marie Hoffman and Nick Lantz. If you are interested in project books, or want to know what one is; if you are curious about how having a project affects the writing process and later the marketing; if you wonder what kind of topics end up as project books, and whether a poet starts out with a project in mind or notices one is arising later—topics such as these—the interviews here are useful and fun to read.

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

A~Your poetry should surprise you, but it won’t much of the time. That’s okay. Just keep sitting with it until it does. It takes a long, long time to write the words that are the right words. A short poem can take months. Don’t give up, and don’t get impatient and publish something before it is truly surprising to you. Read everything aloud—the part that you want to rush through is the part that you need to keep working on. 

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

 A~Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety is a quirky journal featuring smart, unusual poetry. Even the format of the journal is quirky (see their website for examples http://www.forkliftohio.com/ ), and with a print copy comes random pieces of ephemera, such as an envelope of seeds for planting or an old key fob from a hotel. Fresh writing, a little bit askew—there is nothing like it. This journal knows what it likes and doesn’t apologize for its slightly off-kilter aesthetic. From their guidelines (known as their logistics page) come these two pieces of info (plucked from among many others): 1) “[we] Fetishize the aesthetics of early industrialized society in a distinctly post-industrial fashion;” and 2) “[we] Include, besides poetry, such diversions as recipes, agricultural wisdom, home economics lessons, and other bits of nonsense.” How are you not going to love this journal? 

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Right now, I’m rereading Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium. I love this book—it’s the right amount of cerebral for me. The poems are built around the alphabet and as with all good constraints, the alphabet fetishization inspires a certain meandering that is unexpected and mesmerizing. I’m also reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s dark and disturbing novel, The Sympathizer, for my book club.

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene?

A~I live in Kobe, Japan, and there isn’t much of a poetry scene in English here (I don’t write poetry in Japanese). A couple of times a year there is a reading series event, but it’s any kind of writing in English, and more often than not it isn’t poetry. But, I attend and have been invited to read several times. I also belong to a group of poets around Japan writing in English who do a linked poem project. We each write a single stanza with given parameters and constraints, and pass it to the next poet who uses our stanza for inspiration, and that’s a lot of fun. It tends to be seasonal, in the Japanese tradition. There’s also the annual Japan Writers Conference that I attend about half the time. Mostly though, I’m on my own as a poet here.

Q~How has living abroad changed you as a writer?

A~I get asked this question often, and I have to say that I don’t particularly write about Japanese themes. Local imagery and the occasional Japanese word or phrase will show up in my poems, but I don’t specifically seek to dwell in the experience of living here—I leave that to other writers, while I tend to be interior in my work, and so only the part of Japan that penetrates my interior identity appears in my work. However, living here means a certain amount of isolation—from the poetry scene back home, from native speakers who comprehend my words without effort, from society at large here in this place where my foreignness is the most important aspect of me to nearly everyone I interact with—and that gives me more time and space to write than I imagine I would otherwise have. Also, my sense of being an outsider is heightened and continual, which I think is good for any kind of art even while it may not always be good for the private life of the individual artist.

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

A~I’ve linked to most of my online publications on my website. My erasures aren’t listed there, but here are journals where you can see more erasures: Star 82 Review, Thrush Poetry, Calamus, and decomP. On Facebook, I’m Jessica Goodfellow Ueno, and my Twitter handle is @jessdragonfly.

Whiteout Front Cover