Tag Archives: poetry readings

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

In Her Famous Fur-Lined Skirt

By Colleen McKee

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

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

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

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

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

Photo in TGP (2)
photo by John Reskusich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q~How would you describe your poetry style?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q~Any advice for other writers?

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

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

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

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To contact me: connect via Facebook or email.

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Bimbo, a Deer Story / an interview with poet Risa Denenberg

Bimbo, a Deer Story

by Risa Denenberg

For she had no body odor and lay motionless
beside the dead doe, and so
you took her home and fed her goat’s milk.

This you did: collared and tethered her, named her
Bimbo, a pet wandering a yard strewn with cars
on blocks and old oil tanks.

Your darling: adopted, broken, stroked, chosen.
And who am I, trussed and bound to a fault line,
who shadowed not her own mother, nor knows
how she is meant to be.

originally published in Menacing Hedge 2014.

risa (2)

Risa Denenberg is a working nurse practitioner and poet with 6 published poetry collections. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, a small independent publisher of poetry by lesbians. Her most recent collection is slight faith, just released from MoonPath Press.

Of her style, Risa says, “I write mostly free verse, a combination of lyrical and narrative, with attention to poetic devises such as assonance, alliteration, enjambment, repetition, lists, and anaphora. I have tried my hand at some forms such as sonnets, haiku, and villanelles. I often write poems using equal lined stanzas that hold a shape, but also abstractly-shaped poems with very different line lengths. I also write prose poems. I try to query the poem to see what shape it wants to be.”

Risa 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 a little about the poem, “Bimbo, a Deer Story.” Is there a back story you want to share?

A~It was originally published in Menacing Hedge and is included in slight faith.  It came to me after reading a news item that described an eccentric woman who had found a fawn beside her dead mother and took her into her home, treating her like a child. The details (feeding her goat’s milk, naming her Bimbo, etc.) are directly from the news story. It made me realize that any sentient creature, taken out of her natural environment, would probably never become who she was meant to be. I identified with that concept, not because I was adopted, but because I often wonder who I was meant to be. The poem hints at a troubled relationship between the narrator and her mother, but prefers to leave much to the reader’s imagination. I think the poem is similar to others of my poems in that it has a certain restraint, rather than being “in your face,” it shows (rather than describing) emotions, and hints of darkness without specificity.

Q~How is the poem representative of your new collection?

A~slight faith is a collection of poems that consider ways of creating and finding meaning, ways of seeing the world in all its horror and still wanting to live. The story that my poem, “Bimbo: a Deer Story,” is based on looks to the natural world (a dead doe, the fawn helpless at her corpse) and positions the fawn in an unnatural environment (a woman’s home). The story is simultaneously heartwarming and anomalous. In the poem, the narrator tries to understand who she is under the circumstances she has been dealt. She looks for meaning, which I believe has its core in faith. Many of us who are not drenched in religious life have difficulty talking about concepts like faith, and yet these tropes are found everywhere in art. I’ve learned “god language” through my work in end-of-life care, as a way of connecting with people who speak it. My own experience of faith vacillates between feeling authentic (faithful) and feeling hopeless (faithless). At core, faith says there is meaning. I lose and recover meaning all the time. slight faith is a way of finding peace in that dilemma.

Q~You mentioned your work in end-of-life care, how much does your “day job” influence your writing?

A~There is no doubt that my years as a nurse, witnessing illness, suffering and death, has been a bedrock of my need to write. It has also given me experiences to write about, as I have done in my chapbooks What We Owe Each Other and In My Exam Room (both published by The Lives You Touch Publications). When life seems suffused with sadness, despair and even alienation, poetry carves out a place for these difficult emotions in the world.

Q~How do you balance your work at Headmistress Press with focusing on your own writing?

A~It can be difficult. I not only spend many hours a week running Headmistress Press with Mary Meriam, I also work full time and volunteer with End of Life Washington, the advocacy group for Washington State’s Death With Dignity Law. Being an introvert and living alone helps me to carve out time for writing. I try to write first thing in the morning before other things clamor for my attention. I also go on retreats two or three times a year where I focus exclusively on a writing project.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I write in spurts, sometimes daily, but sometimes not at all for weeks. I typically start with jumbled thoughts/emotions, unformatted, like journaling. I usually let it sit, but if there is a spark of truth there, later I might interrogate the writing by asking: what is it I am trying to say here? My goal in shaping and revising a poem is to strip away any words or codicils that feel false or so private that they are unlikely to speak in any viable way to a reader, and then to locate specificity of language by inviting the lines and stanzas to dialog. I read the work out loud to see if it has rhythm or musicality. Typically, writing poems is my attempt at meaningful conversations with myself, that I deeply hope will communicate meaningfully to someone out there.

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

 A~Just write the poems. Let the rest take care of itself. Support other poets; buy their books; attend readings and poetry events. Read as much poetry as you can, and learn how to read your own poems aloud.

Q~When you say, “learn how to read your own poems aloud,” do you mean as part of the writing process or were you talking about poetry readings?

 A~Poetry is about the sounds of words. When I’m reading others’ poems, if a poem excites me, I will often stand up and read it aloud. When I’m writing, I stop and read a stanza or a line aloud many times as I am revising and working on the poem. I don’t enjoy it until it “sounds” right. What I was referring to as advice, however, is that any poet who has the opportunity to read their work for others should, first of all, do it (!), and second, rehearse reading the poems aloud many times. A reading opportunity usually comes with some sort of time limitation, so it’s also very important to time the reading. Misusing the gift of time is very poor manners. Finally, with practice and deep familiarity with the words, I think most poets could give a convincing, strong reading. Personally, although I’m an introvert, I totally love reading my work for an audience.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~When I was nine, I had pneumonia and had to stay home alone for several weeks, since my parents both worked. I had Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse with me in bed, and it was a wonderful comfort to read poems about children that felt like they could have been about me (when I was sick and lay abed, I had two pillows at my head). I also have to credit reading the Hebrew Psalms and connecting with their deep sorrow, lamentation, and longing. In high school, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, started reading the beat poets, and was introduced to Sylvia Plath and the confessional poets. I greatly expanded my reading list after high school, but these introductory poets were very formative in my love of poetry.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I have been gob smacked by so many contemporary poets, and in particular, LGBTQ poets. I have bought so many books of poetry in the past year that I fear I’ll never find time to read them all. Lesbian feminists held sway with me in previous decades (Rich, Lorde, Jordan, Cheryl Clarke, Marilyn Hacker, Pat Parker, so many others), but lately the gay boys have really knocked me off my feet. I only have room here to name a few: Mark Doty; Danez Smith, Philip B Williams, Jericho Brown, Richard Silken, Saeed Jones, Carl Philips, Spencer Reece; Ocean Vuong. I must say that I also adore Natalie Diaz, Sharon Olds, Ilya Kaminsky, and Greg Pardlo.

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

A~My books are available on Amazon or at my website. I also have a blog, and you connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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