Tag Archives: mental health

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.

JenRouseHeadshot

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.

book

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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One (In Two Parts) / An interview with Lyd Havens

One (In Two Parts)

by Lyd Havens

they call me rapid. water in the winter. fish stuck under the manic of me, gaping and slowly crimson. i’ve had four hours of sleep and i want to kiss the most typical of mouths—the mouths that don’t understand but are sympathetic. there is more to this. i dream of what i have never experienced with my eyes open. i see myself, and another girl. we are pressed against undressed pillows, hands grabbing at what does not feel real to me. i don’t know if there’s a word for that.

***

my mom says that during an episode, my laugh changes.she won’t explain how. i tell my therapist i don’t know how to distinguish mania from the ‘normal’, hyper-sexuality from the ‘growing up’, and she doesn’t explain how to solve this either. i’m left with too many comparisons for my body: jar full of loose change.guilt. pile of unfinished eulogies. again, the frozen river: trout beneath the becoming and the risks.i fall under the lullaby of the current, and i taste blood. i tap at the ice, and there is no one thereto explain how to get out. i feel my lungs peel back like citrus, and realize there is no such thing as reliable.

First published in Winter Tangerine 2016.

LydJan28Lyd Havens is the author of Survive Like the Water (Rising Phoenix Press, 2017) and the self-published chapbook Eight of Resilience. Their work has been published in Winter Tangerine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. They live and thrive in Boise, Idaho.

Lyd’s work was brought to our attention by poet Marisa Adame, whom we interviewed here. We offered Marisa the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Lyd. Marisa said, “Lyd Havens’ work stood out to me so strongly that I Googled their name to find more of their work before I’d even finished reading Winter Tangerine’s “Reshaping the Bell Jar” issue. Their piece struck me as the perfect balance of simple truth and vivid imagery—that is, the poem had the ornamentation of metaphor while still communicating specific details of the story. I felt I had a lot to learn.”

So, here is Marisa’s interview with Lyd.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~My style is conversational and vivid. Any poem I write is being read aloud as it’s being written, and I’m always trying to write things that work well both being read and being heard. I don’t know whether this is because I first started writing poetry while participating in poetry slams (which I still do), or because so many of my poems are born out of different conversations I have with different people I love, but my poems feel like an extension of my daily speech patterns. I’m just usually a lot more eloquent in my poetry.

Q~Tell me about “One (In Two Parts)” and what drew you to the Winter Tangerine theme, “Reshaping the Bell Jar”?

A~One (In Two Parts) is about having Bipolar I and is one of the only poems that I’ve written about that (still, even two years after it was written and published). It was actually fairly easy to write, all things considered—a lot of the images about a frozen body of water were from a dream I had as I was coming down from a manic episode, and I wrote the whole poem in one sitting (which doesn’t always happen with me). After I finished it, I immediately knew I was going to submit it to the “Reshaping the Bell Jar” issue of Winter Tangerine. I’ve worked with WT a lot over the years (I was an intern for them in 2013, and was a reader for another one of their themed issues, “Fragments of Persephone”), and that particular theme was incredibly important to me. It’s probably one of the most important (to me) poems that I’ve ever written, and finding out it means something to others is always so wonderful, especially considering how infrequently Bipolar Disorder is talked about anywhere.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~Almost every poem of mine starts with a single image or sentence that pops into my head, and then I go from there. As I mentioned earlier, most of my poems aren’t finished in one sitting. It can take anywhere from a few hours in the span of a day to three months for anything I write to be truly “finished.” I also have to read the poem out loud as I go on writing it, so as it’s being written, I’m also usually playing around with diction, tone, volume, speed, and other performance aspects. I can write pretty much anywhere, but I have to finish poems in private and alone.

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

A~Give your poems time, and give yourself time. I feel like poems can be pretty stubborn things, and sometimes the timing just isn’t right getting one out, whether it’s because of the subject matter or your own headspace. I’m a huge advocate for never forcing anything, especially poems. You’ll get there when you get there, and when you do, it’ll be better than anything you would have had to pressure out of yourself.

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

A~I’m very involved in the poetry scene in Boise, and I absolutely love it! There are two poetry slams every month, and they’re always just the most amazing time. There’s also a literary festival every month that’s in association with the Treefort Music Festival, Storyfort. It’s coming up in March, and there are all sorts of readings and panels planned that I’m so, so excited about. It’s definitely a smaller community, but incredibly welcoming and kind and fun. I absolutely love being a part of it.

Q~What drew you to slam poetry? 

A~I first started competing in poetry slams when I was about 15, and at the time I was really shy while simultaneously having a lot to say. Past traumas had left me feeling like I couldn’t ever be heard, but after seeing a flyer for a slam in my hometown, I thought that that might be a good outlet for that. Slams have a very special kind of vulnerability to them—it’s passionate, versatile, and honestly thrilling. Poetry slams helped me learn how to use my voice.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I just finished Whereas by Layli Long Solider, which is an absolutely spectacular collection that challenges the “expectations” of language, and a lot of the documentation (or lack thereof) of how the United States government has treated indigenous peoples. I also recently finished Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. He’s one of my favorite poets, and this collection is probably one of the best things I’ve read in a long time (maybe my whole life). I’m currently reading When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, and a lot of singular poems by my friends or that my friends recommend (one recent example: “Ode to Mennel Ibtissam Singing Hallelujah on The Voice (France), Translated in Arabic” by George Abraham).

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

A~My website is www.lydhavens.com I’m also on Twitter and Instagram 

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

8oREtsy1A~I just self-published a small chapbook full of poems about joy, healing, and gratitude, which is for sale here. It’s probably the most special project I’ve put together, and the covers on the physical copies are all hand-painted! Also, I’m going to be reading poems sort of all over the place in the US this year. There’s a whole list of dates on my website under “Events”—if any reader can go to any of them, I’d love to see them there! Please come say hi 🙂

marisa

Marisa Adame, storyteller/creative from Dallas, Texas, values work that balances as much as it deconstructs. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Red Savina Review, Hold the Line, and St. Sucia zine. You can find her on YouTubeInstagramFacebook, and at marisaadame.com.

seedling story / An interview with Marisa Adame

seedling story

by Marisa Adame

bones of my resentment rest under loose dirt
that cascades when i open my fingertips.

ivory justice,
buried after far too long; the rattling of not good enough
shook my skeleton since i joined ranks with too-skinny girls.

they live there, the bones, under soft soil
aching to metamorphose into self-confidence.
they grew from the teardrops that seeped in every day after school.

the ground gurgles. my feet catch the vibrations.
bones shift–
catch rock // grow roots //
shy shoots shiver in the blowing wind.

at age 18, my first hook-up comments on my wide hips
and the curvature of my shadow. i hear the bones
rattle in the dry dirt of Texas and realize they are still there:
tears well // earth shifts //

curse,
cry,
shiver.

the not good enough rattles my bone structure,
goosebumps stick out of my skin.

i thought i had paid off my dues
but the seedling structures
rupturing the ground
tell me i still have far to go.

some days are harder than others, but
the growing has already begun.

First published in Free Lit Magazine 2018.

marisa 

Marisa Adame is a 22-year-old storyteller/creative from Dallas, Texas.  She has acted internationally and is a two-time KCACTF Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship nominee. Her manuscript butterfly bombs, an examination of Latinidad as a first-generation-college student, was a finalist in Thoughtcrime Press’s 2017 Lorien Prize competition. Her current projects are a stage play exploring the tension between her colonizer/colonized bloodlines and a choreopoem weaving together themes of time, queerness, heritage, and mental health.

As for her style, she says, “I would say that I like surrealism, and I have a bias for narrative. I try to make my work imagery-driven, so the audience has to put themselves in the world of the poem to see how everything connects. I think the work I aim to create could be called bittersweet, since it’s a little more cynical but finds optimism to balance it out.”

Marisa and Bekah’s work–including the above poem–appeared together recently in Free Lit Magazine’s “Bildungsroman” issue. We wanted to know more about Marisa and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “seedling story.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~I went to an all-girls’ high school, and I picked up some distorted thinking surrounding relationships with food/body image. I feel our culture’s tendency to tell women, particularly women of color, that our bodies are somehow inadequate is essential to keep in mind while reading. Another thing to keep in mind is the truth that some experiences aren’t something to get over as much as to navigate and re-navigate over time.

Q~How is the poem representative of your work?

A~“seedling story” is representative of my work as a piece that uses pain to excavate hope. Like much of my work, it moves through heavy moments instead of discarding them, and it tries to hit that balance of sadness and joy. It’s about the strength that comes through trial, which I value and put into my writing.

Q~Why do you write poetry?

A~I gravitated toward poetry because of its visual nature. I’ve always loved writing and finding the strongest words to describe events/feelings, and poetry came as a natural practice; once I started, I couldn’t stop. With poetry, you can guide and influence the audience. You, the author, decide when a line gets space to breathe. Also, poetry is specific to the author’s truth yet still malleable to audience interpretation, but more ambiguity is acceptable in poetry where it may not be acceptable in other writing styles. Also, poetry lends itself easily to unconventional imagery and wordplay, so it gives plenty opportunity to see things in fresh and new ways.  

Q~You are also an actress & filmmaker. How do you balance your creative interests? How do they interplay?

A~Balance between all of my creative interests is something I’m still struggling to find! But I’ve found a pretty good set-up for now. Un/fortunately, I’ve been moving around a good bit recently and haven’t quite found a long-term base, so acting has taken a backseat. I’ve applied to a few agencies that may be open to working with someone semi-nomadic like me, and I’m waiting to hear back from them. Otherwise, I use one of my days off from work as a creative day split in half: mornings for writing projects and afternoons for film projects.

My creative interests definitely interplay! As an actress, I tend to gravitate toward more poetic scripts like References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot by José Rivera. I think my spoken word poetry background makes it easier for me to understand a character who speaks in metaphor. Filmmaking shares a lot with poetry as its power often comes from what is not said or shown, or what is only implied. Again, my poetry aims to be visual, almost like film in a way, and I think that’s because I’m a visual person. I aim to make poetic films someday, and I’m currently working on a screenplay that uses magical realism.

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 find the main themes I return to are mental health and legacy. My first two chapbook manuscripts dissect my mental health diagnosis and my relationship with others with mental health challenges. Because mental health does affect every aspect of life, it’s important to me to speak about it and work against stigma surrounding it. I feel the need to be very vocal about it because of the silence and stigma still surrounding mental disorders in Latinx communities, particularly the one I grew up in. I feel I wasted a lot of time feeling like something was wrong with me, and I find it important to write to let others like me know they’re not alone. Legacy is also interesting to me to explore, particularly definitions from others and from oneself. I feel most satisfied writing about the complexity of my heritage and am currently working on a few projects questioning my relationship to the colonizer/colonized sides of my family tree. I think a lot about when to use language, and when to use stillness, so I often edit and edit until the rhythm of a poem is evident on page. Some images I return to frequently are surrealism and dreams, and water and all of the implications they can have.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~I love poetry that risks something. The poems that resonate most with me are from artists who are honest about who they are, where they’ve been, and how that’s shaped them into who they are now. I love poems that transport you to a new place and make you look at the world in a new way. I love poems that are worlds in and of themselves, that make you forget where you’re sitting as you read them. Some favorites are: “The Survival of What Remains” and “The Law of Halves as Applied to the Blade” by Michael Lee, “From the Desire Field” by Natalie Diaz, “Tell Them”  by Carvens Lissaint, and Said The Manic To The Muse by Jeanann Verlee. I also love: “As of today, I have yet to put my hands on the volcano of my dreams.” by Joe Jiménez. I dislike poems that are obvious, and that prioritize raw feeling over craft. I dislike work that reads like a personal essay but calls itself poetry even when it has no imagery. I dislike poetry that uses trends for quick one-liners then discards them without making a larger statement or observation.

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

A~Practice finishing. Finishing projects, or even just drafts, is a skill, and you get better with practice. Follow an idea through until something is made. Even if you don’t do anything with it, you’ll have made it, and you’ll feel more capable to try again.

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

A~I highly recommend Winter Tangerine’s Reshaping the Bell Jar issue. A one-time occurrence to my knowledge, the issue is centered around “Illuminating Realities of Mental Illness” and features contributions from poets with mental disorders to reform the narratives surrounding various diagnoses. It’s a beautiful, poignant, well-crafted issue full of tremendous work.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I recently read and am still digesting Caitlin Scarano’s debut work, Do Not Bring Him Water from Write Bloody Publishing. The work is a story of haunt, heart, and grit. I was amazed from start to finish. She shares stories of trauma through the use of powerful and breathtaking images, and the result is a gripping book. It’s been receiving well-deserved high praise.

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

 A~ I put direct links to publications, whether online or in-print, on my website at marisaadame.com. One of my earliest acceptances came from Crab Fat Magazine, and my work can be found under my name. You can also find me on YouTube, Instagram, and on my official Facebook page.