Tag Archives: revision

Ursula / an interview with poet Andrea Blythe

Ursula
Our Lady of Unrepentant Self Possession

by Andrea Blythe

You are power—
holding a draught to cure in one hand, poison
in the other. You have a talent
for practical magic, for drawing out
the latent capabilities of plants,
giving weight to whispered words.
You melt through the water, body
round and sleek, tentacles
stretching to claim
all the sea you can hold.

You never asked
to become a patron
for unfortunate souls,
those merfolk so full
of  desperation, covetous
for more love, more beauty,
more strength, more and more and more.
They beg for your gifts, then blame
you for the price they have to pay.
What can you do if they fail
to read the contract? Should you worry
for a princess so dumb
she can’t figure out
how to use ink
when she has no tongue?

In another story
a mermaid loves a prince
who has no interest in mute girls,
so she falls apart
into sea foam.

In another ending
you say fuck it
and take your seaweed slick curves
off to another tidepool.
You hang with jelly girls and laugh
with the manatee mamas.
You flirt with the walrus men, fingers stroking
the hardness of the tusk. Your tentacles
are full of caresses and you
have oceans of love to give.

First appeared in Yellow Chair Review 2016.

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Andrea Blythe bides her time waiting for the apocalypse by writing speculative poetry and fiction. She is the author of Your Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch (2018) and coauthor of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press, 2018),  a collaborative chapbook written with Laura Madeline Wiseman. She is a cohost for the New Books in Poetry podcast and serves as an associate editor for Zoetic Press.

Andrea says of her style, “It’s not static. I tend toward free verse, but have worked with prose poems, erasures, and formal poetry (although that one’s rarely successful for me). I shift the style of a poem to suit the tone or voice I’m working with. The shape and voice need to reflect the content or the poem won’t feel right to me. I enjoy the variation, but it can make it hard to assemble them into any kind of cohesive collection at times.”

Andrea and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour and both had poems appear in the same issue of Yellow Chair Review, including the above poem. We wanted to know more about Andrea and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Ursula.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~A few years ago I participated in a 30-day poetry challenge hosted by ELJ Publications (now closed), and I used the opportunity to explore the idea of the sacred or spiritual through the framework of pop culture. I focused each poem on a female character from media I loved and addressed them as though speaking praise or prayer as though they were saints. Some of these poems honored these characters as figures of power, some as figures trapped by their iconic status, some as representations of my own personal struggles.

“Ursula” is one of the poems that came out of this challenge. I wanted to consider this woman and witch of the sea, who is considered the villain of the tale, from another angle — giving her space to be more than how she was drawn, a person enough to have desires beyond mere power.

Altogether, these poems make up a chapbook, called Pantheon, which I’m currently reworking in the hopes of sending it out and finding it a home.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? What are they and why do they resonate with you?

A~I like the idea of liminal spaces, the place in between, when someone or something is not quite one thing or another — and that’s something that comes out in my work quite a bit. For example, I wrote a poem a while back about Annie Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), which focuses on the act of falling, existing in that place after jumping off and touching down. There’s something about the in between, the moment right before when anything can happen that fascinates me.

Another theme that I see coming through more often lately is an expression of underlying loneliness, expressions of longing for companionship and touch. That’s coming directly out of some deep down kernel within me. I enjoy and cultivate solitude sometimes, since it can be comforting, but I have to remember not to wrap myself so tightly within it as to feel disconnected from the world and the people around me.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~I’m a fan of the shitty first draft as proposed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. I’ll ponder an idea for a while and then dump it onto the page, letting it be rough and haphazard and wrong. In the first draft stage, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I won’t fully know the scope of the poem or story until I have words to play with and move around. The drafting process can happen by pen and ink or by computer, but for the revision process I almost always move to hard copy — something I can mark up, cross out, ramble out gibberish in the columns, or cut into strips. The tactile aspect of working with a physical page helps me to work through what’s not working and trace a path to figuring out what will work.

 Q~Your two most recent works are a collaborative book and a collection of erasure poems. How does working with another poet or source material change your writing?

A~Working collaboratively with Laura Madeline Wiseman on our collection Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press) and other projects has strengthened my writing. During our collaboration sessions, I find there’s a tug and pull, in which I am simultaneously offering up space in a piece in order to allow Madeline’s voice into the poem while also claiming room for my own voice. Our poems are written together and then jointly edited, so that our voices become layered over each other to the point that in some completed poems, I can’t tell where her words begin and mine end. Throughout it all, I’m continually surprised by Madeline’s skill in choosing words and editing for clarity. It’s an intimate education in another person’s method of writing, which has provided me with new tools to approach my own writing.

In the act of creating erasure poetry presents an interesting restriction. Rather than the infinite possibilities of the blank page, I’m confronted with an existing text (in the case of my collection A Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch, I was working with the product descriptions in Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyers). The puzzle of striking out words to find the poem left behind stretches me into new directions — Can I siphon out a new meaning from these words? Are there enough of them to complete a particular thought? Do I need to modify the direction of the poem because the available words are steering me another way? It’s resulted in some surprising, surreal turns that I might not have taken in a standard free verse poem. It’s a kind of freedom nested within the restrictions, which can in turn empower me to explore more playfully when I approach an empty page.

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

A~Advice I have to remind myself of over and over again — make space for yourself and your work. That includes time and energy for both the writing itself and the things that reinvigorate your writing, like reading, attending poetry events, walking, stretching, meditating, or anything that helps keep words alive for you. It’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day routine of work and chores and TV binge watching and on and on — to the extent that time passes, and the work you love has been forgotten. Often my moods are influenced by how much or how little I’m connecting with my own writing. It doesn’t have to be daily, but regularly creating that space to write, to read, to interact with words is so essential.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I’m currently reading several poetry books at the moment. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar is blowing my mind with its beauty and inventiveness regarding both lyric and form. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is so moving in how it approaches its exploration of race. And, I’m also enjoying Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar, a beautiful chapbook that explores female agency through horror tropes. 

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

A~The poetry scene in the Bay Area, California is amazing. There seems to be readings, slams, open mics, or other events going on just about every week, whether in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, or other towns. It’s fantastic to have this community so close at hand, and I value all the amazing creators around me, who inspire me with their words and generosity. They make me want to work harder and improve my craft.

I’ve gone through periods when I was participating or witnessing in many of these events on a minimum of a monthly basis, but lately I’ve been hermiting, tucked away in the quiet of my own home. I miss this community and camaraderie, and part of me wants to feel guilty about not being more active than I have in the past. But, I’m giving myself space to just be quiet in this way, providing support as much as I can from a distance, with the understanding that there’s no wrong way to poet, and sometimes you just need space for a while. I’ll jump back in when I’m ready.

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

A~A couple of my Pantheon poems have been published online, which can be read here: “Carrie White: Our Lady of Blood” and “Sarah Connor: Our Lady of Self Determination.” I’ve also been working on a series of found poems assembled from words in Stephen King’s The Plant, a number of which can be found at Quail Bell, including: “Morning, Wrapped in Maple and Pine,” “A Fallen Heaven,” “A Wake,” “I Have Tried to Explain,” “A Last Missive,” and “Student of More.”   Some examples of the collaborative poetry I write with Laura Madeline Wiseman can be found here. I can also be reached on Twitter and Instagram, through my email newsletter, or via my website.

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Barista / An interview with poet Caroline Johnson

Barista

by Caroline Johnson

Henry says the Lakota called it black medicine.
I can imagine Black Elk drinking from a gourd,
huddling around a teepee with a peace pipe
sometime in July when the cherries are ripe.

Henry looks at each customer with green eyes
full of gourmet hot chocolate and caramel mochas.
He moves his arms across the espresso machine,
steaming milk, whirling words with a smile.

His eyes sail through you like a windjammer,
as if you’ve been caught by a cool island breeze.
He hums as he scrubs stubborn stains off of soup
kettles, stocks the pantry, or pours steamed milk.

He shakes his head and his braids rustle round him.
I work the register, exchanging money for drinks.
The smell of French Roast perfumes the air.
You can hear the crackle of beans as they grind.

The line is long:  a mother with a stroller, a boy
in a wheelchair, two ladies with Gucci bags.
Two wealthy ladies talk of sconces in their new
living rooms, a young couple orders hot chocolate,

and a lone man with dark black hair stands at the back
of the café wearing a T-shirt, his arms exposed to reveal
a green tattoo:  “I-R-A-Q” neatly printed across his skin.
Henry talks to them all as they huddle around, waiting

for their black medicine. Henry makes everything look easy.
He can do three things at once. Yet Henry’s not easy.
He’s just trying to figure life out before it passes him by.

First appeared as the winner of the February 2015 Poetry Challenge on Wilda Morris’s Poetry Blog.

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Caroline Johnson has two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork, and more than 100 poems in print.  Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018), was inspired by years of family caregiving.

Caroline says of her style, “I was told I write mostly narrative poems, but I think of myself as a work in progress. I have written lyrical and form poems (sestinas, the occasional sonnet or villanelle), but I do think I like to tell some kind of story.”

Bekah and Caroline’s work, including the poem above, recently appeared together in Highland Park Poetry’s Summer 2018 Muses Gallery: Coffee, Tea and Other Beverages. We wanted to know more about Caroline and her work, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Barista.” The poem won Wilda Morris’s blog challenge. Did you write to the prompt or did it just happen to fit what she was looking for?

A~I did not write to the prompt. In general, I do not like prompts. I did, however, revise the poem to make it better before submitting it. Barista” is a narrative poem that gives a portrait of someone I really worked with when I was a barista at Borders. I was motivated to write the poem because of Henry, who worked so hard and had such a good attitude. Working as a barista is hard work, and you need to be cheerful as well as you constantly work with customers. I wrote the poem 15 years ago, and I actually gave him the poem at that time as a sort of gift when I was leaving. I significantly rewrote the poem two years ago and added the bit about Black Elk as I was reading Black Elk Speaks.

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

A~The first draft came fairly easily as I just thought of Henry…however, when I rewrote it two years later and inserted the part about Black Elk, that was more difficult. I find significantly revising a piece is sometimes more difficult than writing the first draft of the poem, but it is a very important part of the poetic process.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I sit down with an idea. I generally don’t do as well with prompts. Luckily, I usually have no problem coming up with ideas. I write the ideas down when I get them, and return to them when I have the time to write the poem. Luckily, I really have no problem hashing out a first draft. More often than not, I need to revise the poem. Sometimes I do it immediately; sometimes as I type up the poem I edit it; and sometimes when I’m getting ready to send it out I work on seriously revising it.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~LIKES: Fresh imagery; occasionally, unique rhymes; any poem that makes you think profoundly, or feel compassionately; an unexpected turn in a poem. DISLIKES: Trite rhyming or meter; abstract poetry that is unapproachable; poetry written just for shock effect.

Q~A poem from your latest collection was the inspiration for the June blog challenge on caregiving at Wilda Morris’s blog. How did that come about? Also, please tell us more about your collection. 

A~Wilda is a colleague of mine and a terrific poet. I’ve learned a lot through her about how to take my work seriously, how to revise, and how to critique other’s work. She was one of the earlier reviewers of my manuscript, The Caregiver, before it got published. The collection was written over a 15-year span of time when I served as family caregiver to both of my parents, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Encephalitis. The poems are narrative and tell their story, but I believe they speak to anyone who has seen their loved ones age, or suffer from debilitating illnesses.

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

A~YES. I am currently president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, and have been involved with the organization for more than 10 years. We provide critiquing workshops, writing workshops, and two annual international contests. See our website at www.poetsandpatrons.net for more information. In addition, I am a facilitator for a bi-monthly critiquing group as part of the Illinois State Poetry Society. Both of these groups provide wonderful stimulation and motivation to write and submit. I also have my own private weekly poetry writing group that I value immensely. It is very important to find a group that you trust. I think something that has really expanded my work a lot in the last 5 years is staying loyal to a small committed writing group, and reading a vast number of poets who interest me. I also have challenged myself to write in the style of some of these famous poets, and thus their writing rubs off on me. 

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I love Philip Levine, James Wright, William Stafford, Amy Clampitt. I have a book of sonnets written by Terrence Hayes and another book by Tracy Smith on hold at the local library right now. Every week I check out different poetry books. All the librarians know me, lol.

Q~Who was your poetry first love? 

A~I don’t necessarily have a “first poetry love,” except that I will say I fell in love with John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school, and when I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for the first time in the 1990s, I felt transformed. I felt the power of poetry. I tried to emulate that feeling in the last poem of my book, The Caregiver, which is dedicated to Ginsberg and written in the style of “Howl.”

Q~What do you believe is the poet’s role in society?

 A~I believe in Carolyn Forche’s philosophy to be a “poet of witness.” You have to write about what you see, what you witness. We have to be voices for those who can’t speak. It is a vital role, and I am still working on it.

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

A~My new website, www.caroline-johnson.com, has a page with many links to poems I have published online. It also has information about how to order my first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018). You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.

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